The war in Lebanon will be nine years old in the spring of 1984. Over the years, the carnage in that country has received varying amounts of coverage in the press, radio, and television on all continents, the volume of words committed to newsprint or the airwaves depending on the impact of competing catastrophes elsewhere and on the degree of foreign intervention and therefore of international political interest. Public awareness of the war has tended to be shaped by a number of propositions that have been repeated so often that they have come to be regarded as self-evident: the Palestinian problem lies at the root of the war; the war is but a part of a broader socio-political conflict in the Middle East, and its solution must await settlement of the issues of that conflict; the fight is not between Christian and Muslim, but between rich and poor, have and have-not; the root of the problem is Muslim opposition to the domination of the country by the Christian minority; the warring parties in Lebanon are mere cat’s-paws in an international, or at least inter-Arab, struggle for supremacy.
Some of these statements undoubtedly contain a modicum of truth; others are almost completely false. But in the spate of geopolitical commentaries, two themes have been widely neglected throughout most of the war: the ideology and popular sentiment that have produced what is, after all, a Lebanese civil war, with the emphasis on the two adjectives; and the thoroughly despicable behaviour of all parties to the conflict.
In the autumn of 1982 the massacre of defenceless Palestinians in the camps of Sabra and Chatila by Phalangist fanatics (while the Israeli army, having loosed the assassins in the first place, sat quietly by) received massive international publicity – and quite rightly so. But as many were quick to point out (often out of dubious motives), that massacre was merely the latest in a long sequence. Earlier, equally brutal slaughters were ignored, as were yet other subsequent ones. The conflict in Lebanon – to paraphrase Joan Didion’s comment about El Salvador – resists heroic interpretation. In fact, from its very outset, this war has been marked by a savagery born of a most deadly combination: abundant sophisticated military equipment and deeply rooted, religiously based ideologies whose most salient feature is their view of ‘the enemy’, ‘the others’, as less than fully human.
The armies of the Israeli and Syrian states, of course, have felt at home with such an admixture, and have made their own contributions to it. But all the ingredients were at hand well before their arrival.
The two articles in this section – written by different authors and nearly seven years apart in time – share common concerns. Both seek, though in divergent styles, to call attention to the Lebanese, as opposed to international or inter-Arab, components of the crisis and the war, and both refuse to endorse any of the warring sides, or to countenance their behaviour.
‘In the Maelstrom of Confessionalism’, written by a Lebanese militant who was one of the founders of Khamsin, appeared in Khamsin 3. It was written in spring 1976, during a lull in the fighting, which had erupted, as the article explains, in April 1975. (The ‘confessionalism’ of the title refers to the institutionalized system whereby the posts of the Lebanese state apparatus are divided among the various religious sects, or confessions, and more broadly, to the schism that cleaves the entire society along the lines of identification with religious communities.)
In early 1976 the Syrian army invaded Lebanon (and has remained there ever since), ostensibly to impose an end to the conflict and to re-establish order. A cease-fire was announced, followed by the first of many declarations of reconciliation and national reconstruction. The level of fighting abated for several months. During the summer, however, there was a fresh explosion. The pessimistic undertone of ‘In the Maelstrom of Confessionalism’ was more than confirmed by subsequent events; the few optimistic notes of the conclusion were not.
‘The Lebanese Communities and Their Little Wars’, by Magida Salman, also Lebanese and a member of the Khamsin editorial board, was written in early spring 1983 and published in Khamsin 10. It, too, was drafted during a period of relative calm. In the late winter of 1982-83 and the spring of 1983, expectations of peace were higher in Lebanon than they had been in years. The country was beginning to recover from the shock and devastation of the Israeli invasion and the siege of Beirut; multinational ‘peace-keeping’ forces were on the scene, with the apparent support of all parties (although for varying reasons); the Palestinian armed organizations. whose presence was widely alleged to have been one of the main causes of the war, had been forced out of Beirut. Amin Gemayel had succeeded his brother Bashir as president with considerable Muslim support, and the Lebanese population, Christian and Muslim alike, thirsted for an end to the torture of unceasing warfare.
Once again, however, the guarded pessimism of the author proved sadly accurate, even understated. The eruption of fighting in the autumn of 1983, some of the fiercest and bloodiest in the war’s history, not only occurred even before the withdrawal of ‘peace-keeping’ troops from Beirut, but soon turned these troops into combatants instead of arbiters.
The ultimate causes of the Lebanese civil war have never been fully explained. Nor has the war’s gruesome conduct ever been fully recounted. But both these articles were and remain important contributions to guiding the search for answers.