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Also coming off of Netflix this week, Above and Beyond, a documentary about the foreign pilots (mostly the Americans) who aided the Israelis in their 1948 War of Independence.

Technically, the movie is well done. It was produced by Nancy Spielberg, the youngest sister of Steven Spielberg, and benefits from access to Spielberg’s Industrial Light & Magic. Historical footage (and an impressive array thereof) is combined with computer generated combat footage and live re-enactments to tell the various stories. Interviews with a number of still-living pilots and relatives rounds out the narrative. This includes commentary from Pee Wee Herman, whose father flew for Israel in the war.

The depth of the story fills in a lot of blanks from when I was reading about the war earlier this year. In particular, when I played with the Arab Israeli Wars solitaire rules, I was always struck by the huge superiority of the Palivar card relative to the Egyptian air force, knowing as I did equipment procurement problems that the Israeli’s faced. The Egyptians had British-supplied aircraft totaling dozens of planes. The Israelis scrounged together what they could.

The core of their air power, shortly after the declaration of Independence, were what one of the pilots in the documentary describe as Messer-shits. The planes mostly came through Czechoslovakia, which was just about the only country desperate enough for dollars to defy the American arms embargo. Even what planes were smuggled out of the United States* often wound up in Czechoslovakia as a staging point. Czechoslovakia had, as a result of the Nazi occupation, a Messerschmidt manufacturing facility, where they continued to produce Me-109s post war. The problem was, they didn’t have all the pieces of the supply chain, and the fighters produced were of low quality overall and were cobbled together from what parts were available.

Despite the disparity, Israel (if I’m following the narrative correctly) halted both the Egyptian invasion and the Iraqi invasion using four Me-109s. The effect was primarily psychological. It was known by all that Egypt’s air force would be unopposed, so when Israeli began flying actual fighter aircraft, it had to be assumed that there were any number more where they came from. Thus, the Israeli air force, such as it was, had a decisive impact on the outcome of the war whereas the Egyptian Air Force simply did not.

The fact that American World War II veterans were flying those planes seemed to more than make up for the deficiency in equipment.

In probably goes without saying, but the movie tells the story of the war from the Israeli perspective. Whether this provides an accurate picture or not would surely be a subject for hot debate, within the right crowd. What is clear from the movie is that those involved – both the Israelis themselves and the Americans fighting with them – genuinely believed that failure in that war could mean another Holocaust. Nearly seven decades down the road we might dismiss much of the Arab rhetoric as bluster. At the time, particularly to those who had just survived the German death camps, it would have been prudent to take such threats at face value.

This, again, was a movie that had been in my queue for some time. I guess I have to thank Netflix for yanking it, as it was worth the time to watch.

*Apparently, to reduce the post-World War II surplus, war veterans were given the opportunity to purchase aircraft for mere thousands of dollars – far below there actual cost. A good chunk of the Israeli Air Force was acquired this way. Although legal to buy, the planes were illegal to export.