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A War Without a Winning Side : PITY THE NATION; The Abduction of Lebanon By Robert Fisk (Atheneum/Maxwell Macmillan International: $24.95; 662 pp.)

December 09, 1990|Augustus Richard Norton | Norton's "Amal and the Shi'a: Struggle for the Soul of Lebanon" was published in 1987

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.

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