Saturday, August 19, 2006

Saving Corporal Shalit and Other Episodes of Sheer Madness

Two Sundays ago, taking refuge from the lethal craziness in Lebanon on the front page and in the Week in Review section of the Times, I turned to the Book Review for relief and came upon an essay by Nick Tosches on yet another try at translating the Iliad. With all its darkness and bloodshed, Tosches wrote, its insistence upon remarking "dismal death" and "vile destiny," Homer's epic is "more knowing in its awareness of humanity's distinguishing trait--its inhumanity--than literature of later ages."

Boy, you can say that again, I thought. Not in a long time has irrational fury in all its forms and guises been so spectacularly on display as it has in the last six weeks or so in the Middle East, and all these fireworks of human viciousness, this epic of collosal folly, presented on so compressed and visible a stage, too! It's only about 160 miles from Gaza to Beirut, about the distance from San Diego to Thousand Oaks on the Ventura freeway, about a three-hour drive including a coffee stop at Denny's. The Israeli Air Force flew 9,000 missions into Lebanon between July 12 and the cease-fire, and dropped who knows how many tons of ordnance. Hezbollah fired 8,000 Katyushas into the Galilee in the same period, burning up 16,000 acres of forest and grazing lands. Whoopee, Destruction Derby time! All mad, quite, quite mad.

Begin with Corporal Gilad Shalit, captured by Hamas gunmen who tunneled from Gaza into Israel and snatched the unfortunate youth on June 25. Israel is well known for prizing the life of every young man and woman who serves in the IDF, an admirable national trait. How to get the corporal out? His father pleaded for a prisoner exchange, showing he simply didn't have the right sabra stuff. Instead of betraying weakness, Ehud Olmert launched "Operation Summer Rain," a military rampage through Gaza which so far has killed at least 165 Gazans, most civilians, and shows no sign of abating even today.

I was oddly reminded by this of a book I read in high school, James Michener's "Tales of the South Pacific." The "tale" I remembered was, I believe, the last, of a downed carrier pilot in a one-man inflatable, sitting out there somewhere in the vast Pacific. The Navy commenced a search operation to recover the pilot. A carrier battle group was diverted. An enormous grid of ten thousand square miles, or some such number, was created, and planes flew back and forth day after day, coursing the entire grid, until one day an Avenger or a PBY spotted this human speck floating on the blue ocean, and he was rescued. Michener counted up how many man-hours had been devoted to the search, how much aviation fuel. The point of the story, which deeply impressed me (well, it must have: I was 17 then and I'm 70 now, and it still sticks with me) was this: never before in history had there been a military force so committed to saving a single human life, or a nation so wealthy as to afford to indulge such a value.

Compare the rescue of that pilot to the attempted "rescue" of Corporal Shalit. Yossi Klein Halevi of the Jerusalem Post and the New Republic writes movingly of the plight of Shalit, "An Israeli soldier held hostage is a taunt against the Zionist promise of self-defense, an unbearable reminder of Jewish helplessness." (TNR Online, 6/26/06). To which one must say Oh please. Jews are not helpless in Gaza, Palestinians are. The lesson of Israel's response to Shalit's capture is not that he is precious to Israel, but that the lives of Palestinians are as nothing to Israel. They are dirt. Human detritus.

(A Reuters dispatch of yesterday reports that Qatar has stepped in to arrange a prisoner exchange, and that a senior Palestinian official said that "Israel has made new offers to Hamas via the Qataris in return for Shalit." Stay tuned.)

Hezbollah's Glorious Victory.

On Monday, August 14, the day the truce went into effect, tens of thousands of Lebanese refugees from Israel's pitiless bombing streamed south across the Litani River, to discover what was left of their towns, villages, and homes, if anything, and were greeted by Hezbollah fighters who, as Ivan Watson of NPR reported, handed out pink leaflets congratulating them on their glorious, strategic, historic victory over the Israelis. Everyone, including most Israelis, it seems, agrees that this was a debacle for the IDF, that the "myth of Israeli invincibility" has been shattered, and on the Arab side that Hezbollah has at long last restored "the nation's" honor. The Hezbollah fighters now join the Minutemen at Lexington and the Spartans at Thermopylae standing off the Persian hordes in the glorious annals of battle. "We won, we won!"

But this is madness. Much of Lebanon has been destroyed. The cost of re-building is reckoned to be $5 billion, I hear, and where is it to come from? Iran, it seems. Hezbollah is handing out $1,500 American, fistsfull of bills, to householders, courtesy of their Iranian benefactors, to cover start up costs. That's not going to go very far. Blocks and blocks of highrise apartment buildings in Beirut are rubble. Highways and bridges everywhere smashed. Two weeks into the war I heard Neal Conan of NPR's Talk of the Nation solemnly announce, "Israel and Lebanon are burning." (This was to maintain the American media pretense that "the suffering" was about equal on both sides.) "Wrong," I thought, "Lebanon has been destroyed, and Israel got its hair mussed." Hezbollah's victory is wholly symbolic; the destruction of Lebanon is real.

The "root cause" of this gulf between symbol and reality is Hezbollah's main weapon, the Katyusha rocket, which is itself all symbol (symbol of defiance, of boldness, of endurance---why, on Sunday, the last day before the cease-fire, Hezbollah fired off more Katyushas than during any previous day--how's that for endurance!). The trouble is that the Katyusha, this symbol of Hezbollah, is of no military value whatsoever. It's useless as a defensive weapon, obviously. It served the Red Army well on the Eastern Front, racks and racks of them mounted on flatbed trucks, fired in massive salvos at Wehrmacht infantry three or four miles in front, short on accuracy, maybe, but with a fifty-pound explosive charge in each they packed a hell of a punch when they landed on a column, or infantry spread out in defensive formation. But Hezbollah is not the Red Army, and this isn't 1944.

No, the Katyusha is good for one thing only: driving Israelis nuts. Hezbollah has been using them for that for years. Kiryat Shemona, that Israeli town about three miles from Lebanon, was finally evacuated last week--again. For twenty years Kiryat Shemona has been to Katyushas what Buffalo is to blizzards. Israel and the United States bellow that Hezbollah "deliberately targets civilians," but you can't deliberately target a Katyusha at anything. Where it falls depends on propellant, trajectory, and windage. Obviously, the Hezbollah sought to kill as many Israelis as they could, and whether the dead or wounded were military or civilian was of no consequence. The point is that they were able to kill so few. Eight thousand rockets fired, and what was it, 40 civilians killed? The Israelis killed almost as many Lebanese civilians with one 3,000 lb. bomb dropped on a house in Qana.

Tom Friedman usually has more than one screw loose, but he is capable of writing a trenchant paragraph on rare occasions, and I think he got it right on August 11 when he said the Lebanese, including Shiites, must ask themselves, "What was this war all about? What did we get from this and at what price? Israel has some roofs to repair and some dead to bury. But its economy and state are fully intact, and it will recover quickly. We Lebanese have been set back by a decade. Our economy and our democracy lie in ruins, like our homes. For what? For a one-week boost in 'Arab honor'?"

What will Hezbollah do now? Almost certainly get more rockets, as fast as they become available from Iran, and since Hezbollah already has a few capable of reaching Haifa, and soon if not now some able to strike Tel Aviv, if we are to believe Nasrallah's boasts, they'll acquire those too. They'll be really awesome symbols. But these will be suicide weapons. Even one hitting Tel Aviv is bound to bring destruction on Lebanon again. So there sits southern Lebanon, in the hands of the Party of God, whose head-of-state, prophet and leader answers only to his God (rather like George W. Bush of the other party of God, the Republican Party) and to hell, as Nasrallah as a Shia visionary must literally say, with the notion of a "multi-confessional" Lebanese nation. More, much more, fanaticism and unreason to come.

Apologies, but to be continued....