Flashbacks August 2006

Shedding Light on Lebanon

A 1984 piece by John Keegan offered an in-depth look at a complex and troubled nation

After weeks of intense fighting between Israeli soldiers and Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon, a tenuous cease-fire has taken hold. Though all-out fighting has stopped (at least for now), the issues at stake in the conflict—Hezbollah's Iran-sponsored terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians, Israel's ongoing military presence within Lebanon's borders, and the powerlessness of Lebanon's nascent democratic government to diminish Hezbollah's influence—are far from resolved.

The current struggle strikingly echoes the conflict of the summer of 1982, when Israeli forces entered Lebanon to expel the Palestinian Liberation Organization. That operation—like this one—led to an Israeli occupation, and it had equally powerful regional reverberations.

In his 1984 Atlantic cover story, "Shedding Light on Lebanon," military historian John Keegan delved into the historical roots of that conflict, exploring the deep-seated tensions among the nation's many factions and their opposing ideologies. These divisions, Keegan explained, can be difficult to understand—especially for Americans:

The supreme triumph of the American people is to have produced the largest homogeneous cultural unit on earth ... An American might suppose that in a territory 135 miles long and fewer than 40 broad, with a total area smaller than Connecticut's, and with a civilization dating back 6,000 years, cultural differences would have mellowed if they had not altogether disappeared. Such a supposition would be entirely wrong. There has been no Lebanese melting pot. The Lebanese have been at daggers drawn for centuries, and in recent times the differences among them have sharpened rather than blunted.

Keegan's descriptions of a prewar versus postwar Beirut now have a new resonance. "For a once fleetingly happy land," he wrote, "the Lebanon of yesterday has now passed into the realm of illusions." Sadly, his words are as apt today as they were in 1984.

—Ryder Kessler

Ryder Kessler is an intern for The Atlantic Online.
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