They’re a lot like the old Italian mafia, in fact: they’ve still got the big government connections, but they don’t have control over the streets any more. But Hezbollah does, for two familiar reasons, the same ones traditional military types don’t like to mention: demographics and civilian aid.
Demographics first: like I’ve said before, the Shia suddenly found themselves as the only ghetto boyz in a rich, spoiled neighborhood. While all the other “Cedar Revolution” (aka “Crock of Shit”) Lebanese were partying on the “fashionable” beach, the Shia were living in slums, pumping out lots of kids, hearing about martyrdom and finding out up close and personal what it feels like to get shelled, bombed and sniped. They raised a whole lot of kids who were natural soldier material, with your classic Shia martyr complex and a don’t-give-a-fuck slum attitude that was straight outta Karbala. All they needed was a movement they could actually believe in, and they’d slice through the rich-boy gangs like a scimitar through hummus.
Hezbollah provided the Shia with the cause they were looking for. You can say what you want about the Hezzies, but unlike most other Lebanese movements, including Amal, the other big Shia party, Hezbollah is NOT in it just for the money. They actually believe the stuff they say, and they prove it by getting their hands dirty rebuilding blasted slum neighborhoods, handing out food to the hungry, and trying to bring water and electricity to Shia dumps that never had them before. That kind of actual concern for the poor is just about unheard-of in these places, and it inspires fanatical loyalty when people see it happening for the first time in their lives. Sadr’s people are the only ones who manage to get food, water and electricity to the huge stinking Shia slums in Iraq, and Hezbollah has an even longer record of putting in the money and time, like Mao said a guerrilla army should, on civilian projects. So for example, after the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah campaign, there was a lot of grumbling, even among Shiites in Lebanon, that Hezbollah’s glorious fight against the Israelis had left a lot of ordinary Lebanese with bombed-out houses as souvenirs of that divine victory. Instead of dealing with these subversive complainers the usual Arab way—making a gross, gory example of the loudest naysayers and continuing to pocket all that Iranian aid money—Hezbollah actually went out and rented the heavy equipment, cleared the rubble, and put up new apartments.
So it’s not that much of an oversimplification to say that Hezbollah built a movement and an army from the bottom up, and then took it into battle last week against a bunch of traditional top-down gangs whose “gunmen” were in it only for the money. You don’t have to ask who won a fight like that. Just imagine Valmy, where French troops who really believed in the republican revolution went into battle against old-style degenerate European troops. A wipeout. The hired guns who were supposed to protect West Beirut just fled, while the Hezzies popped up all over that expensive beachfront like Bugs Bunny’s instant Martians popping up out of every manhole.
And where was the Lebanese Army that we’re funding, you ask? Keeping very, very quiet. Maybe waving a nervous “Hi!” to the Hezbollah fighters as they got out of their cars and started walking toward the Mediterranean. The Hezzies had no armored vehicles, but they had RPGs which they actually know how to use, and against the Lebanese Army’s Thrift-Store mix of light armored vehicles, RPGs work all too well.
It’s kind of an exciting time, militarily, when a bunch of weekend soldiers can carry a weapon in the trunks of their cars, weapons that will actually intimidate troops in APCs. Morale trumps light armor every time. (Air power and MBTs are another story.)
The Army only intervened when it was time to give Hezbollah everything it wanted: the right to a separate comm network, and the rehiring of their Airport Security dude. As for the latter demand, I’m not saying smuggling was involved or anything but somebody’s got to get those West-Beirut party kids their E and coke, and having your man in charge of airport security sure would make it easier to bring in da stuff, whether it’s Semtex or pure Bolivian. If the guy was worth going to war for, he must be doing something pretty darned important.
Once their demands were met, Hezbollah packed the weapons in the trunks and headed home for supper. That was another very smart move. One thing you can sort of figure out without being Einstein is that this is not a good era for military occupations of other tribes’ territory. What you want is to impose your will militarily, then get out before you become the occupier. That’s exactly what the Hezzies did—wish we could learn a thing or two from them.
So Lebanon right now has a simple box score: Hezzies everything, Old Bosses nothing. Now, let’s zip to the other side of the Middle East and see how the Iraqi game is going. About the same, actually. Weirdly the same. What just happened in Lebanon happened six weeks ago in Iraq: weak central government tries to “assert itself” against rising Shia militia, gets smacked down, then after the smackdown, the Shia militia hands back territory. In the case of Iraq, it was a Shia government, so this was all Shia-on-Shia violence, Maliki’s army vs. Sadr’s militia.
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