The idea that you can solve social and political
problems militarily from the air is, on the face of it, ludicrous. The historical
record is filled with the dead
dreams of air power solutions to ground-based problems. But that stops no
Just yesterday, for instance, as part of the new American operation to – somehow
– seize control of the situation in civil-war
wracked Baghdad, American forces launched an attack on Moqtada al-Sadr's
Mahdi militia in the capital's heavily populated Shi'ite slum, Sadr City. As
News Service headlined its piece: "Iraq, U.S. Forces Raid Sadr City to Calm
Baghdad." Aha. "Calm," it seems, was to be imposed not just by ground troops
but from the air by helicopter assault (though even the
best accounts of the operation offer few details on just what those helicopters
did). We do know that this calming raid managed to kill three people, including
a woman and a child, wound others, and destroy three homes. It also left
the Iraqi prime minister a good deal less than calm. Simply firing into
urban areas this way should be considered inconceivable rather than, as now,
a problem-solving approach to the disaster that is Baghdad.
In Lebanon, here's what "precision" bombing seems to mean. "On
Saturday, an Israeli offense consisting of more than 250 air attacks dropped
4,000 bombs within seven hours. … The total death toll from the attacks is approaching
1,000. One third of those deaths are from children under 12." I don't know who
is counting all this or whether such figures are accurate, but there can be
no question that parts of Lebanon are being turned into little more than rubble;
that with main highways and bridges destroyed, unmanned
aerial drones and F-16s overhead, airports shut down, and the coastline
blockaded, supplies are not arriving; that hospitals are at the edge of closing,
and that a staggering percentage of the country of only 3.8 million are now
refugees – abroad, in Syria, or simply on the move and homeless in their own
areas of Lebanon are now being bombed – for this, see a vivid, and horrifying
Juan Cole – and the bombing campaign is widening with, for instance, ever
more central areas of Beirut being hit. It seems that even some Israeli pilots
qualms about the targets being offered. The message is, I suppose, precise
enough, even if the bombs and missiles aren't: Nowhere is safe; there will be
no refuge. In Baghdad as in Lebanon, this, it seems, is where the Bush "crusade"
has indeed left us all. It's a place without pity or, evidently, a shred of
mercy. It is no place for diplomacy,
nor even for words (so much more precise and yet frustrating than bombs). Hezbollah's
"words" are, of course, its rockets, which land
indiscriminately across northern Israel.
And our president? He's evidently unfazed by the spreading chaos in the Middle
East (and perhaps sooner or later in our wider world). Recently, Steve
Holland, a Reuters correspondent, took a more than vigorous bike ride with
Bush around his Crawford vacation home. ("'Riding helps clear my head, helps
me deal with the stresses of the job,' a sweat-soaked Bush said after an hour-and-20-minute
ride that shot his heart rate up to 177 beats per minute at the top of one climb.")
Holland reports that the occasion for the ride was the President's sense that
"a UN resolution on southern Lebanon was essentially complete." George Bush,
it turns out, does not bike in silence. Here's an example of his bike-riding
exclamations. Think of it as well as a presidential Rorschach test: "'Air assault!'
he yelled as he started one of two major climbs, up Calichi Hill, which he named
for the white limestone rock from which it is formed."
Dahr Jamail, who has in the past covered the American war in Iraq for TomDispatch,
gives us a sense of what the view from Damascus (and Lebanon) looks like at
the moment – of what it actually means to shout "Air assault!" in the Middle
Eastern equivalent of a crowded room. Tom
Destruction, Death, and Drastic Measures
by Dahr Jamail
Damascus, Syria – "I care about my people, my
country, and defending them from the Zionist aggression," said a Hezbollah fighter
after I'd asked him why he joined the group. I found myself in downtown Beirut
sitting in the back seat of his car in the liquid heat of a Lebanese summer.
Sweat rolled down my nose and dripped on my notepad as I jotted furiously.
"My home in Dahaya is now pulverized," he said while the concussions of Israeli
bombs landing in his nearby neighborhood echoed across the buildings around
us. "Everything in my life is destroyed now, so I will fight them. I am a shaheed
He asked to remain anonymous, and that I refer to him only as Ahmed.
The late afternoon sun was behind him as he told me just how hard his life
had been. When he was 11 years old, he and his youngest brother had been taken
from their home by Israeli soldiers and put in prison for two years. I asked
him what happened to him there, but that was a subject he wouldn't discuss.
One of his brothers was later killed by Israeli soldiers. After his release
from an Israeli prison, Ahmed was spending his teenage years in southern Lebanon
when he was caught in crossfire between Hezbollah fighters and Israeli soldiers
near his home. He was shot three times. Many years before, his father had been
killed by an Israeli air strike on a refugee camp in south Beirut.
"What are we left with?" he asked, while the angle of the sun through the windshield
highlighted tears welling in his eyes. "I know I will die fighting them, then
I will go to my God. But I will go to my God fighting like a lion. I will not
be slaughtered like a lamb."
A Widely Misunderstood Group
Leaving on this trip to Syria, I never intended to go to Lebanon.
When my plane took off from San Francisco, Lebanon was still a peaceful land;
by the time my plane touched down in Damascus, however, everything had changed.
That very day, I learned on landing, Hezbollah had taken two Israeli soldiers
captive and killed eight others. While the mainstream media have taken it
as fact that the Hezbollah raid occurred inside Israel, many Arab outlets
claim the Israelis actually entered Lebanon before being attacked. The exact
location of the clash remains in dispute.
Clearer, however, are the effects of the subsequent Israeli attack
on Lebanon. Physically, Lebanon has been bombed if not yet back to the Stone
Age, then at least to a point where much of the country now looks as it did
in the worst periods of its brutal civil war, which lasted from 1975 until
According to statistics provided by the Lebanese government on July 24, there
had already been well over $2.1 billion of damage to the civilian infrastructure
of Lebanon – all three of its airports and all four of its seaports had by then
been bombed, and in the weeks to follow it was only to get worse.
By estimates that go quickly out of date as the brutal bombing campaign
continues, there has already been nearly $1 billion of damage done to civilian
residences and businesses, with over 22 gas stations as well as fuel depots
bombed and the major highways along which fuel resupply would take place badly
damaged. Scores of factories, worth over $180 million, have also been damaged
Red Cross ambulances, governmental emergency centers, UN peacekeeping forces
and observers, media outlets, and mobile phone towers have all been bombed,
each a violation of international law. Mosques and churches have been hit; illegal
weapons such as cluster bombs and white phosphorus used; and, as far as can
be told at this early point, over 90 percent of the victims killed have been
As of this writing, the Lebanese government had already announced
at least 900 deaths, and that number is now certainly well over 1,000. At
least 60 Israelis are also dead from Hezbollah rocket attacks on Israel and
fierce fighting inside Lebanon.
"As air wars go, the one in Lebanon may seem strikingly directed against
the civilian infrastructure and against society; in that, however, it is historically
anything but unique. It might even be said that war from the air, since first
launched in Europe's colonies early in the last century, has always been essentially
directed against civilians. As in World War II, air power – no matter its stated
targets – almost invariably turns out to be worst for civilians and, in the
end, to be aimed at society itself. In that way, its damage is anything but
'collateral,' never truly 'surgical,' and never in its overall effect 'precise.'
Even when it doesn't start that way, the frustration of not working as planned,
of not breaking the 'will,' invariably leads, as with the Israelis, to ever
wider, ever fiercer versions of the same, which, if allowed to proceed to their
logical conclusion, will bring down not society's will, but society itself."
The government of Israel stated at the outset that the goal of their
massive air campaign, leveled directly at the infrastructure of Lebanese society
and at its economy, was essentially psychological – meant to increase popular
pressure against Hezbollah; but, as might easily have been predicted,
exactly the opposite has occurred.
"I never supported Hezbollah before," a young student at the American
University of Beirut told me shortly after I arrived in the capital city.
"But now they are defending us against Israel." His view of Hezbollah is quickly
becoming the norm for hundreds of thousands of previously unsympathetic Lebanese
as American-made Israeli bombs and missiles continue to rain down on the country.
During my time in Lebanon I drove to Qana. On the way there, I passed one small
hilltop village after another, all of them resembling bombed-out ghost towns.
Chunks of buildings littered the roads, which our car had to carefully negotiate.
Powdered rock from shattered homes seemed to cover everything like a thin film.
No one was walking the deserted streets, even in the middle of the day. The
few who remained, mostly the elderly and children, hid in basements. For whole
stretches, only occasional stray cats and dogs were seen, along with a flock
of goats whose herder had long since fled.
The villages looked like ghost towns as the irregular thumping of bomb explosions
continued in the distance. The roar of Israeli F-16s overhead was a constant
reminder that no place in the south of this country was safe. After witnessing
this level of destruction, the literal tearing apart of a society, it was clear
to me so many more people were supporting Hezbollah.
To grasp the unfolding events in Lebanon, you have to begin with an uncomfortable
fact. Hezbollah, widely known throughout much of the West as a "terrorist organization,"
is seen as anything but in Lebanon. This was obviously true of most Shi'ites,
especially in southern Lebanon, before this round of war began. Now, even many
in the conservative Christian population in parts of northern Lebanon and West
Beirut have come to hold its leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, in high regard.
With seats in the Lebanese parliament, Hezbollah is seen as a legitimate political
Hezbollah first came into existence as a result of the Israeli invasion
and occupation of Lebanon, which began on June 6, 1982. The group draws most
of its popular support from southern Beirut and south Lebanon, where the majority
of the country's Shia population live. Downtrodden, impoverished, and largely
overlooked by a government in Beirut in which they had inadequate representation,
the Shia were primed for a leader who would promise them a better future.
The group was officially founded on Feb. 16, 1985, when Sheik Ibrahim al-Amin
proclaimed its manifesto. Hassan Nasrallah would only come to power after the
Israeli military assassinated al-Amin. A charismatic leader, he promptly solidified
his base and swelled Hezbollah's ranks by working to satisfy the most essential
needs of his followers. Hezbollah soon started providing the basic social-service
infrastructure in the neglected Shia areas of southern Beirut and southern Lebanon
– hospitals, schools, construction projects, welfare programs, and, above all,
a well-trained, highly disciplined militia for protection.
After years of brutal guerrilla war against the Israeli military, which had
occupied part of southern Lebanon, Hezbollah succeeded in doing what neither
the Lebanese government nor its impotent army could possibly have done. Its
fighters wore down the Israeli military and finally forced it out of the country
in 2000. This, not surprisingly, lent it even greater popularity.
While the coming years also brought it more significant political
representation and respect, the Druze and Christian populations, continued
to distance themselves from or oppose the group.
Now, the staggeringly disproportionate Israeli response to the detention
of two of its soldiers and the killing of others in mid-July has changed even
this. In a sense, the Israelis are accomplishing the previously inconceivable
– uniting the otherwise hostile power centers of the country behind Hezbollah.
Last week, the Israelis actually began bombing key bridges in the Christian
part of the country for the first time – a clear statement that no Lebanese
are to be spared their attentions. Most of the Druze and Christian leadership
have by now condemned the Israeli response. Many have even gone so far as
to state that they believe Hezbollah is working to defend the country's sovereignty.
Thus, the Israeli response has played a huge role in strengthening
the already strong hand of Hassan Nasrallah.
The View From Damascus
Hezbollah enjoys massive popular and political support in Syria. Everywhere
in the ancient city of Damascus the yellow and green flags of the group hang
from storefronts, flutter in the wind from television antennae, and fly from
the radio antennae of cars. Portraits and photos of Nasrallah are taped to the
back windows of Mercedes and BMWs. Key chains of his bearded, smiling face,
along with iconic T-shirts in which he is portrayed between the Syrian flag
and that of Hezbollah are now selling like hotcakes.
"We know the Americans are trying to smash our dignity," a man named
Faez told me in the coastal Syrian city of Latakia. Inside a heavily air-conditioned
European-style coffee shop, while sipping espresso, the businessman did what
so many Syrians do nowadays – he used "America" and "Israel" interchangeably.
The head of the Syrian Union of Engineers, Hassan Majid, was no
less frank as we sat in his plush office in downtown Damascus. "Hezbollah
has our greatest respect now," he said softly.
Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese refugees have flooded the capital.
You can see them inhabiting schools and crowded into various offices for Middle
East Airlines, Lebanon's air carrier. They are always to be found at Syrian
Red Crescent shelters hoping to acquire lodging, food, or other assistance.
The support they receive here is of a far better kind than is available to
the tens of thousands of internal refugees who have fled no farther than Beirut,
where they sleep in the dirt in city parks or, if they are lucky, on thin
foam mats in still empty schools; yet their accounts of suffering and loss
are no less heart-wrenching. These stories ripple across Syria daily, broadcast
far and wide by state television.
At the headquarters of the Syrian Red Crescent, you can still see
a plaque from the Red Cross thanking them for their efforts assisting Hurricane
Katrina victims. When I asked about it, one of the volunteers told me Syria
had donated medical supplies to aid the desperate residents of New Orleans.
An old man named Hassan Hamdan has just arrived from southern Lebanon
and is waiting for volunteers to find him somewhere to sleep. He catches the
spirit of the moment when he takes my very first open-ended questions as an
opportunity to vent his rage.
In a sense, it never feels as if he's talking to me at all. As he begins, he
promptly stands up. His voice rises instantly into the shouting range and he
quite literally yells, "The Israelis are attacking and killing everything which
moves!" I involuntarily take a step back, fearing he's so angry he might actually
assault me. "It's total destruction! They just shredded our city!" For a moment
he calms slightly and explains that he's just left his village near the southern
Lebanese city of Bint Jbail. Immediately, his voice rises and he's off again:
"Everyone is now with Hezbollah! Even Jesus is with Hezbollah! Insha'Allah
[God willing], Hezbollah will smash the Israelis and kick them from Lebanon
once and for all!"
I've seen similar rantings broadcast on Syrian state television as people crowd
around to watch inside sweaty falafel restaurants, and I automatically dismissed
it as so much state propaganda. But here that "propaganda" is alive and unbelievably
vociferous, with not a screen in sight.
In fact, it hardly matters any more what anyone says or does. Sometimes
you can feel a tidal pull in events – in this case, a strong one flowing
in but a single powerful direction. When one Israeli general recently aimed
some pointed barbs at Syria for supporting Hezbollah, and President Bashar
Assad promptly put the Syrian military on high alert, popular support for
Hezbollah, further galvanized, only grew accordingly. It's no longer hard
to imagine a whole region in which the shouting might reach previously inconceivable
decibels and nobody will be listening.
After visiting a hospital in Beirut where I saw dozens of horribly
wounded children, women, and the elderly, their skin burnt, often from the
flames of their own devastated homes, their bodies shredded, possibly by the
cluster bombs the Israelis have reportedly been using, I walked outside and
Shortly after, I met with Ahmed again and briefly described the
experience while, once again, tearing up. "This is what I've been seeing my
entire life," he replied, staring into my eyes. "Nothing but pain and suffering."
Now, this is also what so many Lebanese, sheltered these last years of reconstruction
from life experiences like Ahmed's, are seeing firsthand, and this is why Hezbollah
is viewed by almost all Lebanese as a legitimate resistance movement, not a
"terrorist organization." This is what the Israelis have actually done to the
Lebanese, other than dismantling their society and turning them into refugees
in their own land.
When you are in Syria or, I suspect, in most other Arab states today, and utter
the words "terrorist organization," it doesn't even occur to people that Hezbollah
might be the topic of conversation. They take it for granted that you're referring
either to Israel or the United States.
As Israeli pilots continue to drop American-made precision-guided bombs from
F-16s and Hezbollah launches barrages of rockets ever deeper into Israel, the
radicalization of both populations – and of the region – only intensifies amid
the spreading devastation.
When this war finally ends, the societal, economic, and environmental destruction
will undoubtedly be staggering – it already is – as well as long-lasting; but
it will pale in comparison to the psychological damage that has already been
done. Rather than sowing the seeds of a future peace, it's painfully clear to
an observer that the seeds of everlasting bloodshed, resentment, and resistance
are now sprouting amid the ruins.
Arab leaders continue to earn the scorn of their populations for not putting
their all into stopping the Israeli campaign against Lebanon. Meanwhile, Hezbollah
appears committed to doing so until the very end – and, based on what I saw
in my days in Lebanon, that "end" of mutual destruction seems all that is left
on the minds of those involved. The Israelis, overvaluing the technology of
war and, in particular, of air power (as so many have done before them), began
their campaign against Lebanon by using perfectly real bombs and missiles to
achieve largely psychological ends – the humiliation of Hezbollah in the eyes
of the Lebanese population. As it turns out, they have indeed changed the psychology
of Lebanon – and possibly of the region. Just not in ways they ever imagined.
As Tarad Hamadé, the Lebanese minister of labor and official representative
of Hezbollah, told me in Beirut recently, "We might not be as powerful as the
Israeli army, but we will fight until we die."
Dahr Jamail is an independent journalist from Anchorage, Alaska, who spent
eight months reporting from occupied Iraq. He regularly reports for Inter Press
Service, and contributes to the Independent, the Sunday Herald,
and Asia Times as well as TomDispatch.com. He maintains a Web site at:
Copyright 2006 Dahr Jamail