Culture

A rare analysis of the Party of God without polemic

Photo courtesy of Random House

BEIRUT: Large numbers of books and other studies – academic, journalistic, polemical, etc. – purporting to focus on Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement have emerged in recent years, but quality information and analysis about the group remain conspicuous by their near-total absence.

Most of the authors in question have been knee-jerk supporters or committed critics, while those with more detached perspectives have tended to lack intimate knowledge of the organization’s day-to-day activities, and, on occasion, of Arab and Islamic culture in general.Not so Nick Blanford, who has covered the development of Hezbollah’s armed wing, the Islamic Resistance, since 1994 – and done so with a dedication matched only by his objectivity.

Disclosure: I was Blanford’s colleague for several years, riding a desk at The Daily Star while he was in and out of Israel’s occupation zone in south Lebanon, constantly expanding his knowledge of armed conflict in general, and steadily becoming the world’s foremost authority on Hezbollah’s campaign to drive the Israelis off Lebanese land.

The Israelis eventually left most of south Lebanon in 2000, but Hezbollah did not – and neither did Blanford. As the movement busily prepared for what it assumed was the invaders’ return, he branched out to other subjects but remained the unrivaled source for information about the long war in the south, combining unmatched contacts, intimate physical knowledge of the highly fluid battlefield, and a keenly inquisitive mind.

During Israel’s 2006 war against Lebanon, he proved his worth yet again, stepping in to provide some badly needed copy for The Daily Star even though he was no longer in the newspaper’s employ. A mutual friend, returning breathless after a few days in the battle zone with Blanford, was as amazed by his familiarity with the area as she was by his journalistic productivity. “Nick,” she told me, “is a machine.”

“Warriors of God” is a fitting product of that machine, filled with step-by-step observations and explanations of how Hezbollah was born, its growing pains as an adolescent actor negotiating the slippery slopes of Lebanese politics, and its maturation into what is probably the world’s strongest and most sophisticated non-state military force. Blanford is generous with technical detail and historical background but also with personal insights and interpretations, highly valuable for wrapping one’s head around a conflict fought largely in the shadows and occasionally punctuated by “coded messages” understood by the belligerents but largely opaque to most observers.

He has supplemented his on-the-ground contacts with Hezbollah and the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, too, by interviewing several key players from the Israeli side – and most of their comments corroborate his depiction of Hezbollah’s eventual emergence as a highly professional fighting force. There are also moments of levity in which the author’s self-deprecating humor is a welcome departure from the shameless self-promotion in which other journalists commonly indulge in their book-length writings.

Blanford can expect to receive some criticism for this book, particularly in the U.S., where views of Hezbollah are as instinctively negative as they are grotesquely misinformed. He takes care, for instance, to note what is obvious to old Lebanon hands but less so to others: Hezbollah has gone to considerable lengths, since the mid-1990s at least, to avoid inflicting civilian casualties except in situations where Israel’s application of its vaunted firepower against non-combatants have been particularly brazen, disproportionate and/or indiscriminate. Those familiar with the conflict will appreciate his pointing out that, once a monitoring system was established, Israel was far and away the more egregious violator of the two parties to the conflict. Those whose minds are already made up, however, will twist such observations into evidence that the author is an “anti-Semite,” a dupe, or some other manner of nonsense.

“Warriors of God” is not perfect, but its flaws are neither serious nor numerous, and most would be noted only by a pedant. Being such a pedant, this reviewer notes the following, mostly for purposes of countering accusations of bias.

A) There is plenty of information, most of which will be new to the great majority of readers, but there could be more analysis. B) The loaded language of Western media outlets manages to seep into the tome, despite Blanford’s overall success in calling matters down the middle: the word “kidnapping,” for instance, is a synonym for an illegal abduction, and to me it has no business being used to describe the capture of a serving soldier by what many informed observers agree is a legitimate resistance group. C) Similarly, I think the author has bent over backward to avoid accusing Israeli forces of wanton slaughter except when the evidence cannot be denied; this is understandable given the possible repercussions for his career, but the result occasionally feels like an awkward (and unconvincing) attempt to portray them as bunglers rather than war criminals. D) Page 417 contains a reference to an Italian “battleship” being off Lebanon’s coast in support of new peacekeepers joining a beefed-up UNIFIL following the 2006 war, when in fact Italy has not possessed an operational warship of this class since World War II.

The most serious weakness involves Blanford’s less-than-kind analysis of Hezbollah’s give-and-take with its domestic political foes, but that is a matter of opinion and, since it occupies only a small part of the book, it does not detract from what can only be described as a magisterial work.

“Warriors” cannot be compared to other books on Hezbollah per se since these are too narrow in scope, too distant in perspective, or too clotted with political prejudice and/or outright ignorance. There are precious few exceptions, and at just 200 pages, even one of the best of these, Augustus Richard Norton’s “Hezbollah: A Short History” (2007), does not approach Blanford’s work in terms of depth. Amal Saad-Ghorayeb’s “Hizb’ullah: Politics and Religion” is another excellent work, but it too is rather brief (264 pages), and heavily focused on explications of the party’s ideology.

“Warriors” is also a very readable book, with great swathes having been written as a story that draws the reader in and keeps him or her turning pages. Simply put, as “Hezbollah books” go, this one is in a class by itself.

For these and other reasons, particularly the book’s potential to have global impact by opening more than a few eyes to one of the Middle East’s open secrets, the fairer comparison is with broader works such as David Hirst’s masterpiece “The Gun and the Olive Branch” (1977) and Robert Fisk’s memorable “Pity The Nation” (1990).

Blanford is not yet either as thorough an historian as Hirst, or the storyteller Fisk was, but he has followed in their footsteps by penning a tome that figures to become the definitive work on its subject – and, with luck, to educate an entire generation about one of the world’s most poorly understood conflicts.

Like most of those who know something about the subject and the author, this writer was in no doubt that Blanford’s treatment of Hezbollah would be the best so far. I have been proved right.

“Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah’s Thirty-Year Struggle against Israel” is published by Random House. Blanford will be on hand to sign the Arabic-language translation of his work at Beirut’s Arab International Book Fair Thursday, 6-9 p.m., at the Arab Scientific Publishers’ stand at BIEL.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 15, 2011, on page 16.

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