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Book review: The Attack on the Liberty by James Scott

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Subtitled The Untold Story of Israel's Deadly 1967 Assault on a U.S. Spy Ship, and written by Charleston-based journalist James Scott, The Attack On The Liberty is a gripping, true story about an outrageous international event that remains unresolved to this day.

It happened during the Six-Day War in June 1967, during which Israel's surprise attacks and quickness devastated the military forces of surrounding Arab countries. On the fourth day of the war, a U.S. Navy spy ship, the Liberty, was monitoring the war off the coast of Gaza, well within international waters, when, around 2 p.m., fighter jets from our "loyal ally," Israel, began strafing the ship with rockets and napalm. They followed up by bombing the Liberty and when that didn't satisfy them, an Israeli patrol boat tore a 40-foot-wide hole in the ship, flooding the lower compartments.

As Scott's muscular prose describes the attack in crisp combat scenes, "Shells smashed portholes, ripped gashes in sealed metal doors ... Dead and injured sailors, many of whom had been chipping paint seconds earlier, littered the decks."

The attacks on the Liberty lasted a full hour, resulting in 34 Americans killed and 171 wounded, out of a crew of 294. It would be almost 17 hours before help of any sort from other American Navy ships arrived; meanwhile, the surviving crew members did all they could to help the wounded and keep the ship afloat.

The Israelis claimed that they had mistaken the ship for an Egyptian troop carrier -- a type of ship that was about half the size of the Liberty. Their explanation has been widely dismissed by survivors and by some American officials, including the Secretary of State at the time, Dean Rusk. After all, Israeli reconnaissance planes buzzed the Liberty over and over again during the hours preceding the attack, and the ship had prominent U.S. Navy markings, not to mention an American flag and a slew of spy antennae. To add insult to injury, the Israeli torpedo boat gunners had attacked the Liberty with 40-mm tracer rounds made in the United States.

One of the people onboard the Liberty that day was a Charlottean, damage control officer Ensign John Scott, the author's father. Scott senior grew up in the Cotswold area, graduated from East Meck and UNC-Charlotte, and after his time in the Navy, ran a development business in Charlotte; these days, he's a board member with the Bank of Commerce on Queens Road. A series of letters Ensign Scott wrote to his parents at the time of the attacks, found preserved in an attic a few years ago, became an invaluable aid to James Scott as he wrote this book. You can read a great blog post he wrote about this aspect of his research, at http://www.strothmanagency.com/articles/2009/june/book-backstory-how-family-letters-helped-james-scott-write-attack-Liberty.

Back to the story: When Washington found out about the attack, all hell broke loose, particularly at the Pentagon, which demanded that Israel be held accountable for such a deadly attack in international waters. Congressmen huffed and puffed, as they will do, and the Johnson administration, at first, threatened Israel. But two things happened. First of all, Israel won the war, garnering lavishly great press coverage for its feats, while LBJ needed American Jewish support for his increasingly unpopular Vietnam folly. Secondly, the administration hesitated to follow through on its threats lest it draw too much attention to the scope of its intelligence gathering worldwide. After awhile, the official protests dwindled, and newspapers started saving their front pages for that year's horrific Vietnam battles. The Liberty and its dead and wounded sailors were shunted to the back pages and gradually forgotten.

In late 1967, one Congressman, H.R. Gross of Iowa, tried to delay an aid bill for Israel until that government paid full reparations for the attack, but his efforts failed, and no reparations have been forthcoming.

Scott's writing is dramatic and very compelling, bringing readers into the action, including the frenzied work of the crew under attack and, later, when they tried to save the ship. His descriptions of White House meetings, where the highest officials in the land wound up creating a plan to protect Israel's reputation in the United States, are mesmerizing (quite a writing feat, considering that what he's describing are, after all, guys sitting around a table, talking). Scott keeps an even tone -- which couldn't have been easy to do considering his father's experiences -- and doesn't place blame. And he doesn't need to, as the facts of the incident, which Scott thoroughly document, are damning enough and offer undeniable proof that the Israelis deliberately attacked the U.S. ship, and that our own government helped cover it up. This is not only great journalism, it's a splendid example of how compelling well-written nonfiction can be.

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