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Pity the Nation

By Robert Fisk Atheneum, 1990. 678 pp.

List: $24.95; AET: $19.95.

Reviewed by Samuel Hazo

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 1991, Page 73

Even before the publication of Robert Fisk's Pity the Nation, first in England, now in the US, there were several good books on the war in Lebanon. Among those in print and available in the US are Thomas Friedman's From Beirut to Jerusalem, Jonathan C. Randal's Going All the Way, George W. Ball's Error and Betrayal in Lebanon, Ze'ev Schiff's and Ehud Ya'ari's Israel's Lebanon War and Michael Jansen's The Battle of Beirut. Fisk's definitive book ' written later and containing more information than any of those cited, further confirms and elaborates their basic themes and conclusions.

All of the authors agree on the following:

1) Israel's invasion of Lebanon was de to demoralize the Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza by eradicating the PLO; 2) Israel wanted to establish a Pax Israelica by cantonizing the Levant (as it hoped eventually to do to the entire Arab world) and developing a Greater Israel through the installation of a client government in Beirut; 3) the Maronite Phalangists participated in this betrayal until the 11th hour; and 4) during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon the Arab states revealed their impotence by doing nothing, while the death toll in Lebanon climbed past 23,000 (predominantly Lebanese) at the cost of more than 600 Israeli lives, almost 500 Americans, 100 French and assorted others in the multinational and UNIFIL forces. Fisk then goes on to note that the ransom kidnappings (he was a close friend and colleague of Terry Anderson) began after the pointless bombardment of Lebanon by the USS New Jersey (its shells were the size of Volkswagens)-another legacy of the war in Lebanon and further evidence of our diplomatic ineptitude in the whole area.

Fisk, born in Ireland and a correspondent first for the Times and now for the Independent, is still based in Beirut-one of the last Western journalists to remain there. Having twice avoided abduction and being determined to cover the agony of Lebanon personally, he has compiled enough first-hand evidence to convince even the most partisan skeptic of his veracity and impartiality. There is enough dirt to spatter everyone.

The PLO detachments are condemned for their treatment of the Shi'i in the south of Lebanon and for their internecine rivalries in Tripoli. The Maronite Phalangists are condemned for their collusion with their country's invaders and their suicidal sectarian chauvinism. The Syrians are blamed for their manipulation of their proxies in Lebanon and the resultant damage to genuine Lebanese nationalism.

It is the Israelis, however, who receive the deepest criticism. Fisk charges them with total adventurism in Lebanon. The villain of the piece is Israel's then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, with ancillary help from former Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan. It was Sharon (with the tacit encouragement of Alexander Haig) who bamboozled the invasion plan through the Knesset. It was Sharon who, according to Israeli soldiers interviewed by Fisk, colluded with the Phalangists in the massacres in Sabra and Shatila.

It was Sharon who ordered the two-week around-the-clock bombardment, from the air, land and sea, of Beirut, after he had already cut off electricity and water from the capital. It was Sharon who permitted the use of phosphorus and cluster bombs on civilian targets in so-called "surgical strikes." In one of the book's most indelible images, a Lebanese mother is unable to bury her children for two days because the phosphorus-covered bodies would not stop burning. Even when she put them in their graves, the bodies again burst into flame.

This book is not for the timid. It castigates the naivete of political amateurs like Us President Ronald Reagan and his national security adviser, Colonel Robert McFarlane, that cost the lives of hundreds of Marines. Reagan administration culpability in this matter has become part of the political amnesia of our time. The book exposes the Hegelian arrogance of Bashir Gemayel before his assassination, then reveals the political weakness of his brother (and successor as president of Lebanon), Amin, and the chauvinism of General Michel Aoun.

Fisk strips Israel of what he calls its moral immunity" in the West by reporting what its government and its soldiers actually did in Lebanon, and the record is not a pretty one. Fisk's sympathies are with the Lebanese people and with those who understood them and were also victimized, i.e., the kidnapped, the tortured, the betrayed, the separated, the homeless.

Fisk's book should be required reading for any American who sees the Middle East as a part of America's future, not in an economic or military sense but in a human one. The book vindicates a writer for the Financial Times who said that Fisk as "a war correspondent is ... unrivaled. "

His credibility as a witness is matched only by his insight into the Lebanese psyche. This is evidenced by this passage from Kahlil Gibran's The Garden of the Prophet, published in 1934, which Fisk found contemporary enough to provide the title of his book. "Pity the nation that welcomes its new ruler with trumpetings, and farewells him with hootings, only to welcome another with trumpetings again. Pity the nation whose sages are dumb with years and whose strong men are yet in the cradle. Pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation."

Dr. Samuel Hazo is director of the International Poetry Forum and a professor of literature at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. His most recent books are Stills (fiction, available from the AET Book Club) and Silence Spoken Here, a volume of poetry.


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