Historical research leads to some unsettling assertions about a violent incident shrouded in secrecy for over 50 years.
The attack on the USS Liberty on June 8, 1967, during the Six-Day War, left 34 dead and 174 wounded, along with myriad unresolved questions even after Israel admitted responsibility, claiming it had acted in error. This book represents a massive undertaking, whereby Mellen (English Emerita/Temple Univ.; Faustian Bargains, 2016, etc.) systematically and persuasively dismantles the narratives espoused for decades by reviewing official documents, evaluating publications, and conducting personal interviews. Disturbingly, the author’s solid research indicates that the United States and Israel collaborated in planning, executing, and covering up this operation in order to implicate Egypt, bomb Cairo, and precipitate Gamal Abdel Nasser’s downfall. The author astutely points out that it wouldn’t be the first time the American government resorted to such tactics, citing the Maine in 1898 and the Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin during the Vietnam War. She also contextualizes the Liberty incident amid “the hothouse of 1967,” signaling the Cold War’s paranoia and brinkmanship together with the Vietnam War escalation and oil supply concerns. To Mellen’s credit, her clear writing style and organizational abilities allow even readers unfamiliar with the events of the time to become engrossed in technical details, political intrigue, the military chain of command, and personal stories. Against all odds, through many sailors’ concerted effort, the Liberty managed to stay afloat despite a torpedo hit and send an SOS signal. The author darkly claims: “The survival of the ship was unanticipated by those in highest authority.”
The details of the attack are both gruesome and necessary, underscoring the sacrifice by the Liberty crew. The heroes include Dr. Richard Kiepfer, himself severely injured, who “remained on his feet for the next twenty-eight hours” and “performed surgeries and blood transfusions through the night,” and electronics technician Terence Halbardier, who was wounded while scrambling under fire across the deck to connect a cable that allowed the SOS call to go out. Indeed, one of the more sobering scenarios is that American planes “equipped with nuclear warheads” were seven minutes away from bombing Cairo, perhaps escalating the conflict to the brink of World War III, but were called off when the ship’s distress signal was heard. Extensive endnotes contain many intriguing tidbits, such as the moment when Mellen wonders whether military personnel would be more forthcoming with a different interviewer. Referring to a key witness who read communication transcripts in real time during the incident, she admits: “Still, he was uncomfortable with sharing his experience with a civilian author (female) of an unknown political persuasion.” Finally, she deftly examines questionable decisions made by authorities in the immediate aftermath of the attack and in the present day as survivors struggle with mistreatment at the hands of the military bureaucracy and American government. At the end of this impressive work, the author boldly lists those she holds responsible for the strike, including familiar names like Lyndon B. Johnson, Robert McNamara, Cyrus Vance, John S. McCain, and Moshe Dayan.
Gripping from start to finish, with reflections on the price that soldiers pay for their commanders’ war agendas.
Pub Date: Dec. 11th, 2018
Page count: 446pp
Publisher: Prometheus Books
Program: Kirkus Indie
Review Posted Online: June 5th, 2019