On October 23, 1983, a truck drove into a Beirut high-rise full of US Marines and blew up. The building collapsed. 241 Marines died in a few seconds. Most of them didn't even know why they were there. So it pays to know a little history if you're going to mess with Lebanon.
Last column I started wading through the bloody Lebanese story from independence through the Civil War of the 70s. This time I'm going to talk about the 1982 Israeli invasion and the monster that came out of it: Hezbollah.
Lebanon is like West Africa: there's not a series of separate wars but one long, slow tribal war that flares up and cools off from time to time, but never goes away- like athlete's foot.
War is just demographics in a hurry. And Lebanon's demographics are as wobbly as the San Andreas Fault. A hundred years ago, the majority in Lebanon was a bunch of diehard Christian Arabs who called themselves "Maronites." But their majority was shrinking fast. A lot of Maronite families had emigrated (to run cheap menswear stores in the US, mostly), and a lot of Muslims had moved in.
The Muslims didn't emigrate as much; they just didn't have the money. So they did what poor folks do: stayed home and had babies. Pretty soon the Muslims were the majority.
Nobody knows exactly how big a majority, because nobody's taken a census in Lebanon for fifty years. For one thing it's too dangerous-you wouldn't want to go knocking on doors in Beirut, asking total strangers touchy ethnic and religious questions for minimum wage, would you?
For another, the Christians don't want anybody counting noses because they know most of those noses would be Muslim.
The best guess-timate, made by the CIA in 1986, says the Muslims (Shi'ite, Sunni and Druze) are about 75% of the Lebanese population. The Maronite Christians are only about 16%, with another 8% Christian "Other." I don't know what these "Other" 8% are; I just hope they're not Jehovah's Witnesses, because they have some stupid rule against blood transfusions, and in Lebanon you never know when you may need a pint or two of O-positive.
The biggest, fastest-growing group in Lebanon is the Shi'a. They'll have an absolute majority soon, if they don't already have it. And they're pro-Syrian. Keep that little demographic timebomb in mind before you get all enthused about this "Arab Spring" crap on TV these days. The people demonstrating in Beirut on TV, waving those tree flags, are Maronites. They're richer, more media-savvy and photogenic than the Shi'ites in the slums, but remember, Maronites are only 16% of the population. And their tribe is shrinking every year, while the Shi'ites are growing.
When there's a weak group like the Maronites on top and a strong, growing one like the Shi'ites underneath, everything can seem calm and stable-till something breaks up the status quo. The first big disruption in Lebanon was the flood of Palestinian refugees and PLO guerrillas fleeing Israel in 1948. The second came when the Israelis got tired of being shelled and raided by the PLO and decided to invade Lebanon.
Israel's first big raid into Lebanon to root out the PLO was in 1978. Militarily, it was a cakewalk. The PLO was never a really dangerous guerrilla army. They had a few great soldiers, like the guy who singlehandedly flew a hang glider into an Israeli camp and shot a half dozen IDF guys before being killed. But good soldiers don't make a good army. You need good units, and the PLO was always better at collecting money than fighting.
Israel cut through their camps in South Lebanon and set up a ten-mile buffer zone, putting Northern Israel out of mortar range. The UN came on as comedy relief-their usual role. They huffed and puffed and inserted a 5,000-man force called UNIFIL, with troops from great military powers like Ireland and Fiji proudly wearing the blue helmet and shouting the UN battle-cry, "Don't shoot, I'm neutered!" For the next twenty-five years, these guys hunkered down in the hills, getting shelled and shot by everyone in the game, doing no good at all, making complete asses of themselves. I swear they'd make a great sitcom-it'd make MASH look like warmongering.
The 1978 IDF incursion went so well that the Israelis started thinking about bigger plans. An easy victory can be dangerous-it can teach you the wrong lesson. Like the one the Israelis learned: "If a medium-sized incursion was good, a big giant invasion will be even better!"
They went for it in June 1982: 100,000 IDF troops blasted right into Lebanon. In command was my fellow fat man, Ariel Sharon. Sharon's a tricky guy; he promised the Israeli cabinet he was only going to sweep the PLO out of South Lebanon, but he planned to go all the way to Beirut. He figured nobody argues with a winner. And he did win-at first.
The Israelis' performance was flat-out spectacular, especially in the air. The Syrian AF sent everything it had against the Israeli attackers. And lost everything. The Israelis had learned to use RPVs, unmanned recon drones, from the USAF. The USAF had invested billions of dollars in these cool little gadgets, but wouldn't use them. They weren't sexy enough-nobody climbs to three-star rank by managing little kiddie planes like the ones you see nerds flying in the park on weekends. And they didn't cost enough-the USAF likes stuff that costs billions. These things you could get at a hobby store, damn it!
The Israelis, with a limited budget and a real war to fight, didn't worry about any of that crap and used the little remote-control planes for recon and as decoys to distract the Syrian AD radars. In a few days they shot down 82 Syrian aircraft without losing a single one of their own.
On the ground things were going nearly as good. The IDF surrounded Palestinian camps and bases, bombarded them, captured and processed the civilians and sent anybody suspicious to internment camps-little mobile Gitmo's.
It wasn't as clean and pretty as the air war. The Israelis wanted the Palestinians out of the area for good, so they pretty much bombed first and asked questions later. They'd leave garrisons to watch the displaced Palestinians, but the main force was pushing north to Beirut as fast as Sharon could whip'em.
When the IDF reached Beirut in the summer of '82, they had a tactical problem: go in and grab Arafat and the PLO leadership at the risk of taking casualties in urban fighting, or try to force them to give up by shelling the PLO districts? The IDF has always been careful to avoid casualties-Israeli casualties I mean-so they opted for Plan B: shell the city till Arafat was smoked out. It got ugly; big, crowded city full of civilian refugees, massed bombardment with phosphorus and cluster bombs. Nobody's sure how many casualties there were, but estimates run from 20,000-50,000.
It worked, though: Arafat and his officers settled for a deal that had them transferred to Tunisia, out of the Middle East. And the PLO was broken in Lebanon.
Just as the Israelis were celebrating (the war had great ratings at home: 80% approval), everything went bad. Like us in Iraq, Israel had a man they planned to put in place: Bashir Gemayel, a very scary, double-tough Maronite warlord. He was just getting used to being called "Mister President" when he was blown to bits in his HQ. That was it; no more plan.
The Maronite militias mourned in their own way: by killing people. Two days after Bashir was killed, the IDF sent his militiamen into a couple of Palestinian refugee camps. They killed everyone they found-about a thousand refugees, most of them women and children. Worse yet, all the TV cameras in the world were in Beirut, so everybody saw it. Not good for PR.
The real trouble was just getting started: the Shi'ite reaction. Sharon and the IDF barely even noticed the Shi'ites in their drive to Beirut. It was the PLO they were after. That was a big mistake-like chasing a cockroach around the kitchen without noticing the rabid pit bull in the corner. After a few years of fighting crazy Shi'ites, Sharon must've been outright nostalgic for the days when he had a nice harmless enemy like the PLO. The Shi'ites didn't like these infidel invaders any more than the PLO did-and they were way, waaaaaaaaay better fighters than the Palestinians.
Hezbollah, "the Party of God," was started by Lebanese Shia under Iranian command-and it started hitting its enemies hard, using the classic Shia suicide bombing technique. (Back then, suicide bombs were still a shock.) From there on, it's just boom, boom, boom.
Boom #1, April 1983: Hezbollah suicide bomber destroys US Embassy in Beirut. 63 people killed.
Boom #2, October 1983: Hezbollah suicide bombers bring down highrise housing US Marines in Beirut. 241 Marines killed. Exactly 20 seconds after that blast, Hezbollah suicide bombers hit French barracks, killing 58 French paratroopers.
Boom #3, November 1983: Hezbollah truck bombers destroy Israeli HQ in Southern Lebanon, killing 60 people.
It took the Israelis a while to realize what a disaster the invasion really was. Like us in Iraq, the first stage was such an easy victory that they thought they could do anything. Turned out that by booting the PLO out of Lebanon, they'd tilted the gang-bang balance in favor of the Shia, the newest, most ready-to-die gangbangers on the block. And the Shia didn't stop hitting the IDF until it abandoned its last "buffer zone" in South Lebanon in 2000.
When the Israelis started getting hit by Shia bombers in South Lebanon, they tried the oldest trick in the book: hire some local mercenaries to take the heat off your troops. That's how this very weird little mercenary force, the South Lebanon Army, got created. It was an IDF proxy force doing the dirty work in South Lebanon: manning the outposts most likely to get bombed, running the prison/interrogation centers-fun, people-oriented work like that. Good pay, must have own life insurance.
The SLA's officer corps was Maronite but most of its soldiers were Muslim-guys who were sick of living at home and wanted a steady income. They were not too popular with the locals, as you can imagine.
When Israel decided to evacuate the region in 2000, they had to make special arrangements to find someplace for all 2500 SLA soldiers, either in Israel or overseas-as far overseas as possible. Because like I've said before, Shi'ites never, never forget a grudge.
If this story makes you kind of nervous about Iraq-well, you're right. Hezbollah is stronger than ever now, still tight with the Iranians and Syria. We may be able to kindle a couple demonstrations in downtown Beirut, but don't be fooled. Out there in the slums of the cities and the little villages down in South Lebanon, there's an endless supply of martyrs waiting for their chance. They may not be telegenic, but they make a kind of lasting impression.