Beirut Nostalgia

Haim Watzman

Beirut is an evocative city even when you’ve only seen it in its worse moments. In yesterday’s New York Times, Roger Cohen waxes nostalgic about Beirut of a quarter-century ago, and in today’s Ha’aretz, Yehuda Ben-Meir praises Israel’s restraint in not invading the city back in the first Lebanon War. I was probably in Beirut at the same time Cohen was, so I’d like to join the party.

I was two days into Hell Week, the first chapter of my infantry NCO course, when helicopters appeared out of nowhere. We had barely slept for two nights, had eaten little, and were caked with the mud stirred up by a persistent late-winter downpour. Within a few minutes we threw our gear together and lugged it into the choppers that flew us to Tyre.

Israel had been in Lebanon for six and half months then and the quick victory and new Middle East that Defense Minister Ariel Sharon had promised had not materialized. The IDF had begun a long and intractable occupation of all of southern Lebanon–including the southern neighborhoods of Beirut. Ben-Meir, who as a parliamentarian for the National Religious Party, was a member of the governing coalition at the time, is not accurate in his description of events. Israeli forces entered the Lebanese capital at the beginning of the war. The restraint he speaks of was not pressing further into the northern and western sectors of the city, where Cohen was, where Arafat and the PLO leadership had been until they were, as Ben-Meir describes, forced to leave.

In Tyre we were installed for the night in a huge port-side warehouse. Since we were on high alert, we had no duties assigned to us other than a half-hour’s guard duty per soldier during the night. Traumatized by the previous two days, we barely cared that we’d been sent into a war zone. The warehouse was warm and dry and we had hours upon hours to sleep. That’s all that mattered.

The next day buses took us up the coastal road to Beirut. We got shot at a few times, emptied the bus, took up positions, but never saw our attackers. I don’t remember the name of the Beirut neighborhood that was our final stop, but it was one where Christians and Druze and Shiites had been feuding by trading small-arms fire and an occasional RPG missile, and we were there to stop that. My platoon was ordered to commandeer the empty shell of a half-built mansion. We had beds and mattresses but no showers or plumbing. We smelled pretty bad when we got there and I’m sure the whole neighborhood smelled worse after a couple days. We patrolled narrow streets inhabited by people who hadn’t lived a normal day since the previous June. Many of them, presumably, were out of work and out of money. Although we saw some kids going to school, many others were on the streets all day. We’d heard stories of children firing RPGs at soldiers. My own RPG, along with three two-part rockets, was securely fastened on a pack on my back–securely so that it could not be grabbed, so securely that it would take me many long minutes to set it up should I need it. In my thoughts, I pretended it was a bassoon (which it vaguely resembled), an instrument I had played for a couple years in high school.

Cohen drank Black Label, stood in line for the telex machine, and got invited to a young woman’s home. He collected stories. We did our best to keep from getting killed and waited eagerly for the long-promised but repeatedly-delayed field shower.

I didn’t much like Ben-Meir at the time, because he supported the government that had gotten us into that useless and megalomaniac war. But in recent years he has been a vocal advocate of moderation against militarism. His advocacy of diplomacy over military action is welcome at this tense time–he learned a lesson in the 1980s. Cohen got some good stories. My platoon and I left the city a week later, without having suffered, or caused, any casualties. That was the greatest accomplishment we could hope for a quarter-century ago in Beirut.