As part of the Festival of Books and Culture, author Thanassis Cambanis will be at the Boulder JCC this Thursday, November 4 at 7:00 pm to discuss his book “A Privilege to Die.” Tickets are $10 at the door.
A Review of Thanassis Cambanis’ “A Privilege To Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions And Their Endless War Against Israel“
It is a well-worn but worthwhile cliche that journalists write the first draft of history. Thanassis Cambanis is a journalist rather than a scholar who sortied into the heart of Hezbollah and sought to reflect on the politics, philosophy and religious impulse of this Islamist organization.
A journalist could have interviewed only Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the titular head of it, and some have, but then Nasrallah would certainly control the flow of information and therefore the image projected. Cambanis, interviewing an assortment of personages inside the organization would go this at least one plane higher. It would create an image that is not so controlled and therefore more real. Thus, Cambanis’ book, “A Privilege To Die,” is not scholarship and it is not strictly journalism–it is somewhere in between. And that is a good place to be because scholars will inevitably use such books to write the academics’ version later.
In short, as the publishers like to point out, Cambanis tries to accomplish in his book what Thomas Friedman was able to do in his seminal book in the 1980s, “From Beirut to Jerusalem;” i.e., explicate the dynamic forces of directly competing politics (Israel, Iran and Hezbollah) in an understandable, rigorous and reasonable way. Whereas other journalists are busy agitating, he is merely reflecting. For those who want to be reasonable and not overly alarmist, to be realistic about properly responding effectively to the Islamist challenge, such a book points us in the right direction.
But there are contentions to question as well, as we shall see.
In summary, Cambanis makes the case that Hezbollah is different from Al Qaeda. It is seen as successful and as long as the West cannot destroy it, then it continues to be successful. (p. 12) Thus it wins more support and greater images of success which breeds still more support. This is a vicious cycle for us, but a virtuous cycle for them. We in the West want to see a moderation of Muslims as a practical and principled matter of diversification and democracy. Many Muslims want to see Islam dominate, but not necessarily as a result of death and destruction, just as a matter of practice of shariah law for example. Hezbollah largely accomplishes this without suicide bombings, even if with its nasty tone, so it is still a role model for many “moderate” Muslims. Thus, unlike Al Qaeda, Hezbollah’s populist basis is reason enough to earn it ever more support.
But, Cambanis argues, the secret to its popularity is not its social safety net, it is its ideology. In the context of Lebanese self-serving politics, “…with sectarian loyalty dominating everyone’s identity, Hezbollah’s comparatively simple and ecumenical message propelled its dizzying rise.” (p. 38) It was a resistance movement. “Their enemies, they said, were those who hated justice and loved material comfort.” (p. 54) They were Shia, but they were inclusive of all other sectarian groupings such as the Christian Maronites, at least on the surface. But not Israel at all.
Cambanis observes that Nasrallah could suspend the harsh Islamism for the Lebanese, allowing gambling, smoking, skimpy clothing in public beaches, but he would remain an implacable foe of Israel. Though the Lebanese opposition to Nasrallah and Hezbollah could mount bigger public rallies against them, a large number of Lebanese supported Nasrallah because of his stance against Israel. The Lebanese opposition wanted Hezbollah to disarm and become a strictly political party in the Lebanese government, but Hezbollah always found ways to keep its army. Neither did it shirk using terror against the Lebanese population to keep people in line with its goals and methods.
But not all is well and good because certain important mistakes are made. Cambanis, for instance, makes the claim that Hezbollah won the two wars in 1995 and 2006, and that the IDF killing of 28 civilians in a Qana residential building during the 2006 Second Lebanon War is unjustifiable (“proving its desperation…and that the Jewish State wasn’t as strong and moral as it purported to be.” p. 82) and that the schooling of Israeli children to hate “Arab terrorists” was equivalent to the schooling of the Islamist children to hate “Jewish terrorist aggressors.” (p. 83)
Cambanis fails to note that numerous authorities on the question of defense and war would dispute his assertion that Israel lost and Hezbollah won the wars. On the Qana bombing, he fails to provide the IDF side of the story, namely that the target at Qana was a rocket launcher placed next to an apartment building and the IDF regretted the misdirected outcome. It should also be pointed out that Israel, under international law, has the right to strike at military targets even when near civilians if they must do so to stop rocket launches. Israeli regret is moral, but so is the attempt to stop rocket launchers from targeting Israeli civilians. And it is just plain WRONG to make as equivalent the fiendish use of propaganda against Jews and Israel by Hezbollah with any government inspired and encouraged anti-Arab programs of the Israeli government. As far as I know such programs do not exist and certainly do not encourage Jewish children to become Jewish martyrs. However, Hezbollah’s youth organization, the Mahdi Scouts, does precisely this. (pp. 212-217)
On another plane of thought on the matter, Cambanis is sometimes didactic, rather than reflective. For instance, he writes, “the logic of total warfare rarely works as intended.” (p. 83) This is meant as a reminder that the world will not allow Israel to use its military muscle even if the Islamists such as Hezbollah can. Maybe yes and maybe no, but it is the assertion of a journalist and not a military expert.
Still, there is much to learn from his experience. Cambanis was in the thick of the fighting in Lebanon during the 2006 battles between Hezbollah and Israel, on the Hezbollah side of the fight. His description of that experience is enlightening and worthwhile as it illuminates just what Israeli forces faced. He confirms, for instance, that “carloads of bearded Hezbollah operatives,” crisscrossed “the South in beat-up Volvos similarly (as he) marked ‘TV.'” (p.94) In other words, Hezbollah was using TV crews as human shields against attack by Israel.
The saying goes, nothing succeeds like success. And Cambanis would argue that Hezbollah is unique because it has been, so far, glaringly successful in comparison to the political failures of other groups in the Middle East. Firstly, it has survived two wars against Israel. Second, it commands loyalty from a large swath of Lebanon. Third, it has built a structure that largely keeps the loyalty of that swath of Lebanese humanity. Thus, it provides a successful model of armed resistance that can be copied.
At the same time, he notes its flaws. It is dependent on Iran. It has no long term economic foundation that stands on its own. It does not easily dovetail with the rest of Lebanon and depends on armed force. Even within its own ranks, it must ultimately utilize a heavy hand rather than allow an opposition to become independent.
To understand Hezbollah and its context in the Middle East, read this book. At least come out to hear Cambanis at the Boulder JCC.