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War gods roar again, appear unstoppable


President Clinton has never been to war. Like many other politicians, he spent the Vietnam era enjoying an idyllic university lifestyle far from Southeast Asia’s killing fields. If Clinton had experienced war, he would be less eager to involve the United States, a handful of reluctant allies and the long-suffering Iraqi people in the dangerous conflict now brewing in the Gulf.

The president, like most Americans, knows war primarily from movies that ooze self-righteous machismo and present war as a football match pitting good guys against bad. The daily misery of war as lived experience does not make the final cut. On screen, the decisive battle comes and goes in a flash, the hero emerges triumphant, no innocents are scarred or damaged and everyone goes home happy and proud. This is war fought and won by the gods: Particularly since the collapse of the Soviet Union, we are the Superpower, the Sole Leader. What we say goes.

After living in Israel and Lebanon for most of the last six years, I am continually taken aback by this American hubris. Even those earnest war protesters waving placards and shouting slogans before the White House seem supremely self-confident to my eyes, eyes that have seen war. I envy the protesters’ easy assumption that the values, beliefs and principles they hold dear can possibly halt the gears of war already set in motion, now virtually unstoppable.

Two years ago while living in Lebanon, I had my first taste of war. It is a metallic taste of repressed sorrow, rage and fear that can neither be swallowed nor vomited. These corrosive emotions stick in your throat day after endless day. And I saw only 16 days of war: the Israeli assault on Lebanon code-named “Grapes of Wrath.”

That was enough for me to learn how war disrupts your digestion, your schedule and your relationships. Tempers flare, sleep evaporates and concentration disintegrates. War also upsets your assumptions and expectations. I learned what it meant to be powerless, at the mercy of the merciless. I saw that innocents could be slaughtered with impunity while the outside world yawned with indifference.

I learned how cheap was the life of anyone within range of the Israeli Air Force whose jets shrieked and whined over our heads threatening death and destruction every moment of every day. My brief experience of war left me awed by the strength of people in Lebanon who had survived 16 years of unrelenting terror, helplessness and chaos with their sense of humor and joie de vivre intact.

When I first moved to Lebanon in 1993, I mistakenly assumed I wouldn’t be seeing any military action. Curious, I often talked with a friend about how she experienced the Lebanese war as a child. Hanady, a journalist, was only 7 years old when the war began. At its end, she was 26, but looked older. “Was there a moment when you knew, as a small child, that the war had begun?” I asked one evening as the sun set over the Mediterranean.

“Yes,” she answered with a pensive look in her green eyes. I expected a dramatic tale to pour forth: soldiers fighting in the streets, tanks at her window, bombs falling in her garden. But instead, Hanady said, “I knew something awful was happening when I came home one afternoon and found my father standing in the middle of the street talking to some men, and he was wearing his bathrobe and bedroom slippers.”

This small disruption of normality initiated her awareness of war. It seemed so surreal.

My most enduring memory of “Grapes of Wrath” is not the day I sat typing at my computer in West Beirut and wondered why my teeth and feet were vibrating, only to find myself suddenly shouting as the earth-splitting rumble of an explosion a mile and a half away shook my body. Nor was it the knowing look in the eyes of my Palestinian colleague as she lit a cigarette with trembling hands and said, “You see? It’s like the explosion is coming from within your stomach, isn’t it?”

It wasn’t scene after scene of carnage on the evening news: decapitated school girls, crushed babies, burnt refugees and wailing mothers. Nor was it the maggots that started to turn up in our fruits and vegetables, the natural result of a dramatic increase in Lebanon’s fly population due to the many carcasses of sheep, goats, horses, donkeys and even people that lay rotting in the fertile fields of south Lebanon.

It wasn’t even my father’s voice over the telephone, shaking with fear and rage as he begged my husband and me to come back to America: “Sweet Jesus! There are burnt babies in the arms of dead mothers! The Israelis have gone insane.” And it wasn’t the Israeli Mirage jet that streaked past my kitchen window, so close I could see the pilot. Later I cried as I realized that the jet had been on its way to bomb people into smithereens in Baalbak, and there was nothing I could possibly do to stop this or any of the other daily murders.

No, my most vivid memory of the short war I witnessed in Lebanon is as surreal as Hanady’s memory of the earlier, much longer war.

There was a song popular on the radio that April, a haunting song by Joan Osborne titled “What if God was One of Us?” It first caught my attention the day my husband and I were trapped in a massive traffic jam as everyone tried to escape Beirut after the first Israeli air assault on the city in 14 years. It was a hot day for early April, and the song wafted from one car radio to the next through countless open windows like the sardonic background music of our predicament, a mocking indictment of how very un-Godlike we all were at that moment, scurrying like cockroaches fearful of being crushed by a large foot coming down from the sky.

Three days later, we opened the windows at my office. From a nearby dorm music blasted, filling the eerily empty streets with that song again: “What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us? Just a stranger on the bus, trying to make his way home?”

And it occurred to me that the problem was that some of us did indeed think God was one of us, or, more precisely, that some of us were gods: God’s Chosen People were smashing the Party of God in a very godless manner.

Today I played my Joan Osborne tape and listened to that song again. As music so mysteriously does, it brought back memories and feelings with surprising intensity. I began to tremble and cry as the lyrics asked their plaintive question about our likeness to God or lack thereof. I cried not from sorrow but because I recalled my powerlessness then, in 1996, and my powerlessness now in 1998. I cried because I am helpless before what may be coming, not only in Iraq but also throughout the entire Middle East. I trembled because so many people may die while Bill and Saddam play God with others’ lives. And because it seems that none of us can stop it: The gods of war have decided.

Laurie King-Irani is a cultural anthropologist and freelance writer now living in Washington.

National Catholic Reporter, February 27, 1998