BEIRUT: “Stop pissing in the Litani.” That was the reprimand Lt. Tom Clonan recalls receiving, alongside his troops, within hours of arriving on Lebanese soil.
At the start of his seven-month tour of duty in south Lebanon with the Irish army’s 78th Battalion, Clonan struggled to acclimatize and gain the respect of his unit.
By the time he returned home, Dublin airport looked surreal.
Clonan was deployed in this country between 1995 and 1996, a tour that ended just after the Israeli bombing of a U.N. compound sheltering civilians in Qana, leaving 106 people dead and 116 more injured. “
Blood, Sweat and Tears – an Irish soldier’s story of love and loss” is his memoir of that period.
Written over the course of just seven weeks last summer, Clonan’s short volume is an intimate account of a brief but increasingly violent period in the country’s history, which challenged his moral assumptions.
Clonan was based at Al-Yatun – a football pitch-sized base known by its inhabitants as “Al-Ya-Gloom.” Al-Yatun was on the front line of the conflict between Israeli occupation forces and Hezbollah.
Clonan’s role, aside from regular patrols, was to lead the Battalion Mobile Reserve, the “911 of the battalion,” as he puts it, for the Irish area of operations.
Boarding a plane for “The Leb,” Clonan writes of his pride and excitement at this assignment. “When the shit hits the fan, we are ‘operational.’ I love it.” His father was less enthused. “Couldn’t they find some other fuckin’ eejit to do that job?”
The remark sets a humorously self-effacing tone that persists throughout his account.
Much of Clonan’s time was spent tensely sitting out Israeli shelling and bombing, or, in their aftermath, retrieving bodies – usually of youths from the region’s wadis and the rubble of bombed buildings.
With characters nicknamed “Psycho,” “Mad Bastard” and “Sergeant Fuckin’ Fuck,” almost every chapter contains laugh-out-loud anecdote.
“No-holds-barred bingo” is a popular pastime. “The Lion King” becomes a favorite and oft-quoted movie among tattooed and hardened infantrymen. A vet is deployed to perform a medical inspection, including anal examinations. A fire safety demonstration goes hilariously, but effectively, wrong. The base’s trash cans are commandeered to hold vast quantities of an unidentifiable but suitably strong brew.
Even on this Fawlty Towers-esque army base – replete with a “Manuel”-like cook whose menu items include “chicken with thing,” “not chicken,” “green thing” and “red thing” – the gravity of Clonan’s situation resonates.
Tough soldiers slowly fall apart as bodies pile up and tensions mount. In one scene, Clonan’s unit sees the body of a youth taken from a bombed building. Earlier they confiscated an RPG from him.
“The butchering in south Lebanon,” Clonan told The Daily Star by telephone, “it tears up the rule book in your head.”
Growing up in Ireland, he explains, “every narrative had a happy ending.” In the simple moral code of right and wrong, good prevailed. However, amid “the squalor of war” that code was obliterated.
The violence complicated the usual culture shock of being in a foreign country with unfamiliar customs and climate. “Violence and the threat of violence were part of the culture shock.” he says. “It seemed another dimension to it.”
Clonan left the army in 2000 and he’d never anticipated writing about his experiences. He embarked on the project following an off-hand suggestion that he might write a book. Now he feels the book serves as a sort of personal “exorcism.”
The book depicts how Israel’s Grapes of Wrath campaign drove civilians from their homes in search of safety. One woman, seeing opportunity in a moment’s break in the young soldier’s attention, tossed her infant child into his arms.
“It is an experience,” he writes, “that will return to haunt me in years to come.” It is among many with which Clonan did not connect or understand for a long time. Years later, he tells The Daily Star, when he lost his own parents and a child, he “connected with the experience for the first time.”
The personal tragedies he shares in the book somehow create a space for shared human experience, despite the cultural differences between himself and families trapped in the crossfire of south Lebanon.
Since 1978, some 40,000 Irish troops have served in Lebanon. Forty-seven of them died there. Of the ones who survived, Clonan says, none came home the same.
In recognition of the fact that his fellow soldiers’ stories are not his to tell, Clonan’s characters in “Blood, Sweat and Tears” are not based on the individual men or women but composites.
The book also includes an account of a soldier’s suicide and – though Clonan notes some Irish soldiers have died by suicide in Lebanon – the foreword clearly states that none of the suicides he experienced during his time in the Irish army took place while he was deployed with the 78th Battalion.
Clonan does take some liberties to discuss this often a taboo topic, but other events in the book are true. The timeline progresses month by month, with each section opening with the official summary of the battalion’s history for that month.
This element of historical accuracy, combined with the liberties Clonan has taken to relate deeply personal and sincere narrative, makes “Blood, Sweat and Tears” an appealing read.
The book offers no academic analysis, no tit-for-tat debate to break down who is right and who is wrong, no condemnation. It is one man’s surprisingly entertaining and harrowing account is of a short spell in a long conflict.
Clonan recalls that, in the mid-1990s, his comrades used to refer to “Pity the Nation,” Robert Fisk’s 700-page-long account of Lebanon’s wars, as “Pity the Reader.”
“Blood, Sweat and Tears” is unlikely to inspire a similar moniker. It is a unique and welcome addition to Lebanon’s war literature.
The book may have been penned as a personal catharsis, but its insight and humanity ensure its value to a much wider readership.
Tom Clonan’s “Blood, Sweat and Tears – an Irish soldier’s story of love and loss,” 2012, is published by Liberties Press.