Sunday, March 05, 2006

Book Review: Pity the Nation

Genre: Recent Middle Eastern History
Author: Robert Fisk
643 pages

I just finished Pity the Nation, and it's as comprehensive a history of the Lebanese Civil War as you'll be able to find anywhere. I've been interested in it for years, ever since I saw the Chuck Norris movie The Delta Force as a pre-teen back in the 80s. For those who didn't have the pleasure to watch it, an American airliner (I don't think they identified it as TWA, but they may have) is taken by terrorists who land in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War and proceed to get their butts handed to them by Chuck Norris and company. I wanted to know what was happening there, why was Beirut a hub of terrorism, and what can I do to get my hands on Chuck Norris' magic motorcycle.
This didn't lead anywhere for a while, but movies like Navy SEALS and Spy Game kept my interest in Lebanon and Beirut alive. I finally did something about it other than looking up stuff on the internet, and Fisk's book is excellent in every regard. It's well written, clear, and personal. Fisk was a correspondant for The Times and The Independent and spent the entire war in Lebanon. I think the most enlightening thing about the book was being able to see the separate phases of the war. It started with Christians killing Palestinians and Muslims, then both groups striking back, and so on until the Syrians intervened and invaded the country to stop it from tearing itself apart. This lasted for a time until the Palestine Liberation Organization attacked Israel enough to cause the Israelis to invade Lebanon, setting off another round of fighting even more destructive than before. After some embarassments, the Israelis withdrew to the south of the country from Beirut and a multinational force of US, Italian, French, and British moved in. They were driven out by the rise of Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad in Lebanon in the early 1980s and that led to the final phase of the war where once again Christian and Muslim elements attacked each other.
These phases were interspersed with ceasefires that led to rebuilding of war-torn areas, followed by the next phase of fighting. Fisk chronicled the rise of Hezbollah and IJ as a result of a couple of factors - the Israeli invasion and the Iranian revolution that overthrew the Shah. This radicalized the Muslim population of Lebanon and led to the most famous images of the Lebanon Civil War - the hijacking of a TWA jet and the kidnapping of Terry Anderson.

I could go on, but there's over 600 pages of information in the book, and I don't have time or space to go into that kind of detail. My nitpicks with the book are mainly that Fisk tends to put more of the blame on Western powers than with the PLO. Sure, they were the victims of some brutal massacres (Chatila and Sabra being the most notable), but they were constantly the ones that destabilized the situation. They did the same thing in Jordan before they were booted out to Beirut in the 1970s. He wears his political affiliations on his sleeve and he's not afraid to say that he disagrees with everything that Israeli PM Begin and Ronald Reagan did in Lebanon. I think that we made some mistakes (notably underestimating the opposition), but it was well-intentioned and not strong enough. The Marine Barracks bombing of 1983 was the kicker that got the US out, but it also was the first step in a long road towards September 11.
Ultimately this book was a great read and it really helped me to understand more about this relatively unrecognized war (at least in this day and age) that laid the foundations for everything that came thereafter in the Middle East. Highly recommended.

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