A War Without a Winning Side : PITY THE NATION; The Abduction of Lebanon <i> By Robert Fisk (Atheneum/Maxwell Macmillan International: $24.95; 662 pp.) </i>
With the world transfixed by the Gulf crisis, wretched and wrecked Lebanon is enjoying a small taste of peace. For the first time since 1975, Beirut’s streets are empty of sectarian militias, and the central government--with heavy Syrian support--is finding its feet.
Robert Fisk’s timely book is a compendium of the calamities which have been inflicted upon the Lebanese by others, and by themselves. The book imparts a healthy skepticism about the future of Lebanon, where primordial loyalties run deep and half of the population is so young that it has no memory of a functioning central government. “Pity the nation divided into fragments,” runs the Khalil Gibran poem, “each fragment deeming itself a nation.”
Fisk refers cynically to “The Plot,” the characteristically Lebanese idea that every defeat reflects the complicity of outsiders, foreigners, externally directed agents provocateurs. The Lebanese chronically try to decipher the plot in order to explain minute events in terms of the designs of outside manipulators.
Of course, Lebanon is porous to manipulation and sometimes--but not always--a not-so-hidden hand can be found, pushing here, pulling there. Yet, violence in Lebanon often is its own explanation, the work of people working in a war system, where government is a fantasy and brute, ugly force takes the place of debate--a system where base motives hide behind religious labels. “Pity the nation that is full of beliefs and empty of religion,” Gibran’s poem opens.
Based in Beirut since 1976, initially for the Times of London, more recently for the Independent, Fisk has been a indefatigable chronicler of what the Lebanese euphemistically call “the events.” Long after many observers came to view Lebanon as a hopeless case, Fisk hung on in West Beirut. He has witnessed Syria ascending, declining and rebounding, the rise and fall of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) statelet, two Israeli invasions and a humbling scramble to escape, as well as America’s disappointments.
Lebanon stalked the Reagan administration, tearing at the fiber of its foreign policy and fomenting one crisis after another. The Israeli invasion of 1982, seized upon by President Reagan as a strategic opportunity, instead unchained a phalanx of disasters. The United States plunged its prestige and its Marines into the fray only to find that it had become merely one of the combatants.
The legacy of America’s involvement includes the decimation of the Marine barracks and the U.S. Embassy in 1983, the hasty “redeployment” of U.S. forces from Lebanon in 1984, the 1985 hijacking of a TWA plane and an epidemic of hostage-taking which continues to this day. The arms-for-hostages Iran-Contra affair was, of course, launched to win the freedom of Americans kidnaped in Lebanon.
The American experience in Lebanon was hardly unique. Foreign armies never have stood much of a chance in Lebanon. Romans, Greeks, Assyrians, Egyptians, French, British and Israeli soldiers have come and gone, all much the worse for wear. One suspects that Syrian and Iranian soldiers will, eventually, face the same fate. Fisk’s pungent observation is to the point:
“Lebanon’s revenge was to welcome all her invaders and then kiss them to death. The longer they stayed, the longer they needed to stay; and each day, every hour, their presence would be imperceptibly debased and perverted and poisoned.”
An Israeli colonel, a self-styled liberator of Lebanon, exclaims with joy “see how they welcome us . . . they have been waiting for us.” Waiting, indeed. Tributes of rose water and rice intoxicate invading armies, and Lebanon’s hospitality enraptures them. “Pity the nation that welcomes its new ruler with trumpetings, and farewells him with hootings, only to welcome another with trumpetings again.”
Israel’s 1982 foray into Lebanon was a momentous blunder, and Fisk devotes 400 pages to the invasion and its still continuing aftermath. Intended to remove the PLO as a political force and win a peace with Lebanon, Ariel Sharon’s vainglorious scheme instead gave life to a formidable adversary, the Shiite militants who inflicted an impressive defeat upon the Israeli Defense Forces. By 1985, the IDF was forced to withdraw to an enclave in southern Lebanon, the self-declared “security zone,” where, to this day, Israeli soldiers and proxy militiamen face regular attacks from Palestinian guerrillas and the Lebanese Shiites.
In Israel’s earlier wars, most serious reporting was done from the Israeli side of the battle lines. But, in 1982, with no government in Beirut capable of regulating their movements, reporters were free to see the war from the opposite direction. Fisk provides reliable, on-the-spot reportage from the war.
Fisk’s experience in Lebanon, where the charge of “terrorism” has proven a marvelous epithet with which to bludgeon one’s enemies in the battle for world opinion, has taught him to be militantly critical of selective usage of the term. He argues that “To adopt the word means that we have taken a side in the Middle East, not between right and wrong, good and evil, David and Goliath, but with one set of combatants against another.”
As Israel tightened its stranglehold on Beirut in June and July of 1982, the PLO prepared for its Leningrad, arrogating to itself the right to sacrifice Lebanon’s capital to its struggle. Fisk is no fan of the PLO. He is contemptuous of the PLO for its arrogance, its capacity for rationalizing defeat, its utter inefficiency and its callous disregard for the lives of civilians, but he is hardest on Israel.
The opening chapter is a moving account of Fisk’s 1986 visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the most infamous extermination camp of the Holocaust. The author is trying to understand how a people who have suffered so dreadfully are able to rationalize the suffering they have inflicted subsequently upon others. He never resolves his dilemma.
It is not that Israel is any worse than its enemies but that, in Fisk’s view, it is simply no better. This is a lesson that he underlines with detailed, precise examples, ranging from the repeated bombings, in 1982, of hospitals; the wholesale targeting of civilians, and Israeli complicity in the truly sick massacres in the Sabra and Shatila camps. As Fisk concludes, “The Israelis acted brutally; they mistreated prisoners, killed thousands of civilians, lied about their activities and then watched their militia allies slaughter the occupants of a refugee camp. In fact, they behaved very much like the ‘uncivilised’ Arab armies whom they had so consistently denigrated over the preceding 30 years.”
One of those armies laid waste to the Syrian city of Hama, in February of 1982, killing as many as 20,000 people. Fisk offers his eyewitness account from Hama, but it is only a snapshot, a glimpse of an awful massacre. Fisk’s reporting on Syria usually has been tough, even foolhardy at times, given Syria’s skewed attitudes toward freedom of the press, and he deserves credit for writing some courageous copy while living under the Syrian gun. It was his 1986 Times report, for instance, which provided details of Syrian complicity in the Rome and Vienna airport terrorist attacks in December, 1985.
Terry Anderson, the Associated Press bureau chief who has suffered five years of imprisonment, is a colleague and friend of Fisk’s. Fisk describes how the veteran volcanologists failed to read the rumbling and venting anger of the Shi’a; how they convinced themselves that they were safe from danger.
Anderson, Fisk surmises, paid too much attention to the affairs of the Shiites; he asked too many questions, and he was an American, in itself proof of all manner of skulduggery in the contorted minds of the extremists. Fisk writes lovingly about Anderson, but, perhaps understandably, he is holding a lot back from the reader. He is following the “unwritten laws” which all journalists in Lebanon understand. “In a land where there was no active police force, no law, no right of appeal, no claim to friendship or journalistic integrity that was sufficient to free our friend, what else could we do? Terry Anderson was the man who proved this, who paid the price for staying on the story.”
No one will read “Pity the Nation” without disagreeing with one or another of Fisk’s conclusions. He is an argumentative writer with no qualms about picking fights with his readers.
Nonetheless, “Pity the Nation” is a remarkable chronicle of death and disorder in and around Lebanon, but it could have been a better book. It is too long, too redundant, and too much the master reporter’s notebook. It is as though Fisk has cleaned out his drawers, dumping all of his notes in piles before the reader. Fisk’s admirable ethic seems to be that it’s not true unless he has seen it, but still, a little less of the intrepid reporter, driving at breakneck speed, chasing the brass ring--the scoop--would have been nice. A tighter, shorter, less self-indulgent book would have been more appealing.
Perhaps Robert Fisk’s greatest accomplishment is that he has survived all of his years in Beirut with his passion and his moral bearings intact. Fisk has made himself an ombudsman for the victims of violence in Lebanon.
One finished “Pity the Nation” feeling pummelled emotionally by a ceaseless parade of maimed, broken, decomposing victims; people with names, faces, hopes, fear, and suffering pain, dreadful pain. Pity the victims.