This very day, 40 years ago, I found myself at the foot of the Golan Heights, and very steep and forbidding the terrain looked too. I had come from the Sinai desert and had spent the previous night on a floor in nearby Kibbutz Gadot, where Syrian shelling from the Golan had interrupted sleep. Now leaving my rented car, white and rather too conspicuous, by the side of a dirt lane, I came across a column of half-tracks, whose soldiers happened to be observant Jews, very pale-faced and intense, fully armed but praying. Ahead of us, and already climbing up the Golan, were two civilian engineers unrolling telephone cable as though this was all in a day’s work. Theirs was the bravest action I have ever witnessed. Suddenly the whole mountain was alive as men began running and shooting. I realized that I was observing what is called Fire and Movement, and in my days in the British army I had practiced this very maneuver.
After a while, shells began dropping close, and I thought that I did not want to lay down my life for the Daily Telegraph. So I took shelter in an Israeli signal truck that seemed tucked safely into a ravine. Inside was a major who had served in the Red Army during the Second World War, and was of course familiar with Russian procedure. Fire orders were being given in the clear by Soviet officers to the artillery on the Golan, and this major was on their wavelength, taking down what they saying and relaying it to the air force. From the coordinates it was possible to work out where the guns were, and within minutes a couple of aircraft would roar overhead to take them out. This artillery was not directed at the oncoming Israelis, as you would have supposed. The guns were shelling villages and kibbutzim miles away in the countryside. I have never heard an explanation for this. My conclusion is that the Soviets realized that they had lost this round of warfare and wanted to create maximum hatred in preparation for the next round.
I hitched a lift on one of the half-tracks. The Syrians had dug in at the top of the Golan in a position with a magnificent field of fire from which the British army – I told myself – could never have been dislodged. They had fought. The trenches were full of their dead, an unforgettable and pitiful scene. And there on the ground I saw a book, it was Père Goriot, Balzac’s great novel in a Russian translation. An educated Soviet officer must have sat reading in these conditions, and left in a hurry. I couldn’t resist, but took his book.
At the end of the day, I was in Kuneitra, the one and only town on the Golan. Almost all the inhabitants had fled. One old man with a wise and wizened face stood in a street, and he explained to me that as the fighting began that morning the Syrian officers had fled to Damascus, not because they were cowards but to protect their careers in the Ministry of Defense. That was the Baath party for you. In Kuneitra too, I came on a brand new Soviet T-55 tank, abandoned, with its canvas cap still on the gun barrel. I climbed in. The tank was not yet run in, with less than a dozen miles on the clock. And there on a seat was a beautiful scarf, a cotton square with a colorful Paisley pattern, of a kind widely sold in Soviet tourist shops. I added it to the novel. That day I had seen what crime and folly the Soviet Union was capable of, and it seemed only right to pick up these souvenirs.