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Iftach Spector was an Israeli Top Gun - one of the country's leading fighter pilots - and some would claim the best of the best. As a pilot he shot down more enemy aircraft (15) than any other Israeli pilot save for one. He has flown on more than 330 combat missions. He commanded squadrons, air force bases, and planning divisions. He initiated new training and combat doctrine, pioneered helicopter warfare, and founded the Israeli Air Force's sole infantry unit. Spector participated in three wars and has flown on some of Israel's most spectacular missions, including the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981.
With a reputation for challenging authority - but typically getting away with it because he was that good - Spector went against the grain one more time in 2003 by being the highest ranking officer to sign the following letter to the Commander of the Israeli Air Force:
We, veterans and active-duty pilot alike, who served and still serve Israel every day, are opposed to carrying out attack orders that are illegal and immoral of the type the State of Israel has been conducting in the Occupied Territories...
We, for whom the IDF and the Air Force are an inalienable part of ourselves, refuse to continue to harm innocent civilians...
These actions are illegal and immoral, and are a direct result of an ongoing occupation which is corrupting all of Israeli society...
We hereby declare that we shall continue to serve in the IDF and the Air Force on every mission for the defense of Israel.
This letter, which led to the suspension or dismissal of the officers who signed, was controversial not only because of the political sparks and emotional flames it was sure (perhaps designed) to ignite, but because the dedication and devotion of the men who signed it - particularly Iftach Spector - had always been beyond reproach. By agreeing to sign this letter Spector must have known that his involvement could tarnish a career that afforded him almost celebrity status. While most in Israel disagreed with the contents of the letter and the actions of the pilots who signed it, most people saw Iftach's participation as classic Spector. If nothing else, he has always been someone willing to take on the powers-that-be to advance ideas and actions he felt were in Israel's best interest.
Iftach Spector was born into service to Israel. His mother, with whom he had a distant and complex relationship, was one of the highest ranking women in the pre-State Haganah. His father was one of Israel's earliest war heroes, lost at sea and presumed dead while commanding a sea bound Palmach raid into Lebanon. Iftach completed pilot training just prior to the Six Day War.
The balancing act of any autobiography is maintaining humility while writing about a life that many deem worthy of telling. Iftach does not resort to boasting, but does not attempt to disguise his many achievements as anything other than the results of hard work, determination, conviction, intelligence, and numerous dashes of very good luck.
The stories shared are personal.
Although we learn about his wife and children and are given some insight into the challenges of managing a military career and keeping a family closely connected, the true focus is on the men and the bond formed between men as they prepare for and then engage in battle.
The stories shared are dramatic.
There is the chase above the skies of Egypt with a gas gauge approaching empty. Spector needed to engage in evasive maneuvers while trying to minimize the amount of fuel he used while doing so. He finally executed an emergency landing right over the Israeli line.
There is also the dogfight above Syria with a capable Syrian pilot who challenged Spector's skills and training, only to finally lose to the better man.
The reader can tell Spector relives these stories as he writes them. He shares almost every turn of the plane, every thought rushing through his head. The urgency, the tension, the blend of confidence and fear, all come off the page, affording us, for those brief minutes a deep understanding of what it must feel like to carry a fighter jet into battle.
The stories shared are heartfelt.
Iftach Spector fought in three wars. He served alongside his best friends and watched as some of them took flight into battle never to return. He witnessed the sorrow of families who lost husbands, fathers, sons. And he bore the pressure of a commanding officer who must decide who to send into battle, and the sadness that comes with notifying the families of the fallen. These memories are communicated with respect for the fallen, sprinkled with the occasional glimpse of nostalgia and fondness, particularly for those he was closest to.
Some stories are surprising.
There was a critical mission over Syria that Spector, as its leader, had to abort because of poor visibility. In his description of the flight one can sense his frustration, both because a parallel squadron on a similar mission was successful in executing, and because he felt he was betraying the "mission at all cost" mantra. It was one of very few failures in a career of glorious victories, but it is told as yet another side of the events of war.
Perhaps the most startling revelation in the book, certainly for Israelis who know so much about the spectacular career of this ace, was the admission that during the daring 1981 raid on the Iraqi nuclear reactor he failed to drop his payload, suffering from a type of vertigo pilots are trained to avoid. Coming at the end of his career, one sense his own disappointment in his error and the relief he feels in "coming clean" about it. The failure does little to detract from his otherwise valorous service, but it shows - and is told in order to show - that the degree of expertise and the amount of experience a pilot has can never completely protect him from the known and unknown dangers of aircraft warfare.
Iftach Spector is a complex individual. He does not pretend to be otherwise. Written as he approached his seventies, this book does not serve as anything other than a chronicle by a man who realizes he has been unconventional. He knows as a cadet he sought to test the boundaries of the rules and question the way some standard Air Force procedures were constructed. As a commander - making decisions, changing procedures, making hard choices - he strived to be conscientious and efficient, while establishing new protocol for the things he felt needed adjustment. As a senior officer he tried his best to command with authority, developing the command infrastructure, nurturing next-generation commanders, and setting up combat protocol for threats real and imagined. As an air force leader he conceived and pushed through the formation of an Air Force controlled infantry unit to be used for Air Force specific special operations. He also pioneered - some would say revolutionized - helicopter warfare by being the first person to envision the placement of jet fighter standard navigation, avoidance, and targeting equipment on helicopters. As a businessman, he found great success pioneering new equipment that would enable helicopters to serve as the warhorse for most modern air forces today.
Perhaps the most telling insight into Iftach Spector's character comes not from his book, but from The Attack on the Liberty by James Scott (whose father, John, was a Liberty sailor). Spector was one of the Israeli pilots that attacked the American spy ship off the coast of Egypt on June 8, 1967, killing 34 Americans and wounding another 171. Scott ends his book with the following:
"My father found an unlikely sense of closure when he traveled with me to Israel in the fall of 2007. Iftach Spector, one of the Israeli pilots who had attacked the Liberty, declined my request for an interview but invited me to his home in the suburbs of Tel Aviv for coffee. Spector, who also participated in Israel's attack on an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, more recently had drawn criticism for signing a petition, along with other pilots, refusing to conduct airstrikes against militants hiding in densely populated Palestinian areas. I left my father behind and took a cab to Spector's home that afternoon. I arrived to find the sixty-six year old brigadier general covered in sweat from building a playground for his grandchildren in his backyard. Over coffee in his kitchen he asked why I was interested in the Liberty. For decades has passed, he said, and it was an old story. I told him my father was one of the officers. Why had I not brought him along for coffee, Spector asked, remembering my earlier comment that my father had accompanied me to Israel. I told him that I thought it might be awkward. "Nonsense" he said, "I must meet him. Call him". I phoned my father and relayed Spector's request to see him. Within half an hour a taxi pulled alongside the curb in front of Spector's home, and my father came face-to-face with one of the pilots who attacked his ship that sunny afternoon of June 8, 1967. The two men, both young and confident so many years earlier, were now gray and wrinkled. Spector stuck out his hand for my father to shake. "We came within 300 meters of one another," he told my father. "I'm sorry." Those were the words my father and many of his shipmates had wanted to hear for decades, the words no one in the Navy, the White House, or Congress had ever been publicly willing to say.....Spector had no way of knowing how my father might react when he invited him to his home, but he chose to do it anyway. Even though my father had long ago packed up his memories of the Liberty and moved on with his life, I know how much Spector's apology meant to him. A burden had been lifted. My father reached out and took Spector's hand and said: "thank you."
One need not agree with Iftach Spector to appreciate him. In fact, the odds are good that somewhere along the line everyone who knows him disagreed with him about something. His journey - as a man, as a warrior, as a public figure, as an Israeli - shed light not only on his adventure, but on the global lessons the Israeli experience has to share.
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