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Iraq heads for Lebanon, minus Christ on the M-16's butt

Baghdad Does as Beirut Did
The Makings of a Civil War

One of my sharpest memories of growing up during the Lebanese civil war is of the daily concurrence of horror and normalcy—of playing Monopoly at a friend’s while rumors of beheadings were serrating the neighborhood, of shooting marbles in the driveway while the town across the valley got its five o’clock shelling. So it was around the country: Feasting in one sector while another burned, sometimes because another burned; a sector thronged with shoppers and typically wild drivers in the morning (road rage being a Lebanese talent going back to the Phoenicians, who must have invented seafaring rage) only to be deserted by afternoon as snipers or fugitive checkpoints drenched the place in terror. Florida has its thunderstorms. Lebanon had its militias. Weather reports on the radio were about the “hot” and “cold” sectors—where it was safe to drive and play, and where corpses marked the end of the road, where “armed elements” (éléments armés, in the dearly departed French of the time) ruled your fate.

Dichotomies flow through Lebanese culture. Just as the Lebanese are fond of saying to this day that you could take to the mountain slopes in your skis in the morning and bikini around the beach in the afternoon, they’re fond of remembering, in that forgivably immodest way of the surviving storyteller, how life even in the worst of times, between 1975 and 1990, went on, sometimes raucously so, sometimes perversely so. There’d be days of total peace when every part of the country seemed ready to call off the battle and shake hands, when bulldozers reopened roads through the latest debris and headlines announced another corner turned. Then there’d be days of total war, of apocalyptic nights when the sky was ablaze and our hearts seemed war zones of their own, ready to burst from fear. Despite it all life went on, not because the Lebanese have a special knack for life (150,000 of them were killed during those years), but because as anyone in any war zone will tell you: what choice do they have but to go on?

In Lebanon life went on at a more pronounced clip partly because Mediterranean culture has that effect on you. Come hell or katyushas, there’s always time for that arak, a twelve-course meal and a barrage of arguments about la situation. But life went on mostly because the projection of normalcy in the middle of bedlam isn’t an anomaly of civil wars. It’s one of the essential make-ups of civil war: The country isn’t mobilized for war against a common enemy. Nothing is that organized, that predictable. The country is in fragments—in fragments of militias, of agendas, of chaos, of random bombings and mass kidnappings and routine beheadings, and also in fragments of normalcy, of schooldays and weddings and ridiculously busy bazaars and children playing all over the place and acting as if nothing ever happened, as if that crater in the middle of the road and that collapsed façade in your own apartment block has been there all along, like some public works backlog or some intended demolition for intended improvements. They don’t call it a civil war for nothing: For all their concentrated rituals of discipline and allegiance, their uniforms, their synchronized swimming abilities on the parade ground, militias are just glamorized gangs whose rules and objectives are as unpredictable as the territory they control. They can be sunning themselves one day and acting like their whole world is Omaha Beach the next. Civilians make do with the unpredictability.

To the outside observer parachuting in for a day or even a week, the scene might look utterly normal or utterly devastating, depending on the day and place of the visit. Normalcy is the luck of the draw, mayhem its flip-side. In Lebanon during those years the only certainty to those who’d listen to their war-toned sixth sense was that whatever peace they were witnessing at any given time was an illusion. The setting, the players, the meddlers, the pent-up resentments of three generations, the puppeteering of Syrian and Israel, the Lebanese’s famous incapacity for compromise and that always-reliable assassin of solutions—religious conceit—ensured against peace, making civil war the country’s default setting no matter how many time it rebooted, or booted out one faction or another. Lebanon in those years is where Iraq is today.

What ended it in Lebanon wasn’t peace exactly, but a truce, as on the 38 th parallel between North and South Korea: an agreement to stop shooting, an agreement to segregate resentments, for now. But peace, real, honest peace brokered of reconciliation conferences and truth conferences and a genuine national embrace of compromise — well, that sort of peace is still dangling out there like a Platonic ideal, somewhere above Malta or Sicily or some Greek memory of functional democracy. Wherever it is, Peace isn’t in Lebanon regardless of the recent gains. The “Cedar Revolution” made for excellent pictures. But even the demonstrations developed a tenor of protest and counter-protest. Syria may be gone, a huge conquest for the Lebanese. Its intelligence services aren’t. And it still won’t open an embassy in Beirut, making its broader intentions clear. A government is functioning, but its authority is suspect, its reach limited. The country’s religious venom is spent. But Lebanon is still an amalgam of fiefdoms.

The South is the province of Hezbollah, the Shiites’ equivalent of Hamas — a regressive version of Islam with an invisible face: veiled women, hooded men and a culture asphyxiated by the presumptions of religious austerity in one fist and that debilitating fixation on death to all things Israeli in the other. The north is the province of Sunnis whose latent animus risks sharpening along the grain of the region’s radicalization, even though the restraint evident throughout the Muhammad cartoon controversy was a good sign: for all the immediate images of a burning Danish Embassy building in the Christian sector of Beirut, and a more meager attack on a church, it was pretty much settled that the violence was the work, once again, of bused in agitators, perhaps some of them from the North, certainly many of them from Syria — veterans of the burning of the Danish embassy in Damascus a day or two before. And in the middle of Lebanon? Maronites and the Druze, two sects whose compulsion for independence is at once their historic strength and their Achille’s heel. It’s the same compulsion that holds the necessity of compromise hostage to the instinct of self-preservation. Given the climate of sectarianism on edge, given the surroundings that make them about as much of an endangered specie as those hundred-odd cedar trees still clinging to the country’s higher elevations, you can’t blame them for that instinct.

But here we are, a country fractured along sectarian lines, still, and perpetually grazing a fuse that any one of a stack of factions could light. Democracy is no buffer. Lebanon has a democratically elected parliament, a relatively solid army, a relatively free press, and mostly the memory of a too-recent war as the convincing DMZ between this uncertain peace and a return to civil war. What happens when those memories begin to fade in the absence of a permanent, democratically satisfying arrangement is the question to which only the Lebanese have an absolute answer: they ridicule the notion of another war, assuming themselves above that sort of thing. But it’s those absolutes that leave you uneasy, like the country’s de facto segregations along those invisible sectarian boundaries everyone there feels in their bones.

Iraq is Lebanon on a scale ten times bigger. Its memories are all war: Iran in the 1980s, the United States and its allies in 1991 and again since 2003. The irony is that at no time in those wars have Iraqis fought for their own fate. They were in training for that day, maybe unwittingly, but in training nevertheless. Twenty-five years of fighting someone else’s wars. They’re done. Their civil war began a little less than three years ago. The only veil left is the American army and its allies, and the misunderstanding in the West of what makes a civil war. The veil is threading. Beirut has moved to Baghdad.

[This is the first of two parts. Read the second part here]

Pierre Tristam is an editorial writer and columnist at the Daytona Beach, Fla., News-Journal, and editor of Candide's Notebooks. Reach him at


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