Distance, Decisions and Destruction

As the New York Press’s Matt Taibbi pointed out with some disdain for peers, any story shows its true weakness that could have been written in one room with a television, a Rolodex and a telephone. So, it is with sorrow that I admit I could not make it up to the Homestead resort to catch Sen. Allen’s first debate with the competition. After winning the June 13 primary against Harris Miller, Democratic challenger Jim Webb is to face off against Republican incumbent George Allen this November. According to yesterday’s Rasmussen poll, Allen and Webb are squared away with 500 random likely Virginia voters at 47 percent and 42 percent respectively. By the June 22, the Israeli-Lebanese conflict had already escalated 10 days. Any mainstream cable news network was flooded with coverage.
At the American Bar Association event, George Allen was a firm supporter of Hezbollah’s status as “terrorists.” He boasts, “[Connecticut Senator] Joe Lieberman was my Democrat partner on having the Europeans list Hezbollah as a terrorist organization to interdict any financing of Hezbollah.” Syria and Iran are behind financing the group, he adds.
Amid serious unrest in southern Lebanon, President Bush expressed his confidence that our atypical allies could be brought around to ending violence. “You see, the thing is,” he explained to U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair, “what they need to do is to get Syria, to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit and it’s all over.” Hezbollah, literally translated as “Party of God,” is a civilian and military group formed in the early 1980’s to fight Israel.
Jim Webb says, “Hezbollah is a direct result of the empowerment of Iran, so now we have a larger problem to deal with.” At the same time, Webb says he seeks cooperation from countries in the Iraq region.
C-SPAN ran a fascinating yet extremely awkward interview with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, courtesy of CBS. Mike Wallace keeps trying to get him to address the widespread concern that his military forces were supplying Hezbollah with rockets, and Iraqis with Improvised Explosive Devices that kill American soldiers. Invariably, Ahmadinejad changes the subject, firing back cryptic questions such as “Why are Americans killing . . . Iraqis on a daily basis?” and “Are you the representative of the Zionist regime or a journalist?” Ahmadinejad clearly sees himself as justified because the United States has not secured Iraq, and provides Israel billions of dollars in aid and military equipment every year.
Even having visited Iraq on several occasions, Sen. Allen’s retrospective about the Iraqi infrastructural overthrow stays positive. “It’s a country that is very grateful,” says Allen. “The people, regardless if they’re Shiite, Sunni or Kurd, are grateful for America liberating their country.” Jim Webb, on the other hand, reiterates that the Iraqi War has been a strategic failure.
By all of the most recent accounts of Iraq opinion, that nation’s people are not grateful. An ABC poll last December reported that half of 1,722 “randomly” selected Iraqis say that it was wrong for the United States to have invaded, up 11 percentage points from the previous year. The London Sunday Telegraph reported the results of a British Ministry of Defence poll. Conducted conspicuously by the British, it appeared last August that “65 per cent of Iraqi citizens support attacks [on Allies] and fewer than one per cent think Allied military involvement is helping to improve security in their country.”
Facebook.com provides a good way to track down people in the United States as exasperated with one another as they are with war in general. One American alumnus of New York University, identifying himself only as “Judah the Maccabi” started an online group based on the “top 10 reasons” he supports Israel. Throughout the course of the battle and resulting Aug. 14 cease-fire, 8,931 Facebookers joined in what I can only presume is agreement. In a message to me, he says, “We support [military campaigns] when they have to do with hunting down the terrorists that kill our innocent civilians (including women and children), which involves going to war with the bastards.”
I also got in contact with City University of New York (Baruch) student, Dardan Beselica, an Albanian man. He supports Hezbollah along with others in a significantly smaller Facebook group. In contrast to the current administration, he does not see Hezbollah as terrorists. As he says, “I acknowledge and condemn resistances that sometimes apply terrorism as part of their struggle.” Whether your definition of “terrorism” includes the oblique aiming of Katyusha rockets into populated areas, or accepting massive “collateral damage” for the sake of deterrence, is upon a grave stake.
Beselica’s specific responses to my questions happen to highlight major ideological differences between the two Facebookers. For your consideration, the following dialogue is constructed from my correspondences.
“Judah” expressed his support for Israel first and foremost “because Israel is a liberal democracy, the only one in the Middle East. It provides a model for future democracies in the region.” However, Beselica says to the contrary, “It claims democracy, yet it illegally occupies land and treats the inhabitants therein as 2nd class citizens.”
“Judah” says, “Jews should have sovereignty over their eternal homeland (ever hear of the Bible?), no matter what anyone says. After living in exile for 2000 years, we deserve it.” Beselica alleges views of an Orthodox Jewish acquaintance accounting for 70 different Torahnic interpretations. “[His account] perplexed me and made me realize Zionism truly lacks a sound argument.” Those interpretations also seem to inform Beselica that exiled Jews must not return until the Messiah’s return.
“Judah” notes, “Israel preserves and has made accessible the holiest sites of my religion, regardless of my faith or religious background.” (“Judah” himself professes Judaism.) Beselica says Israel merely claims to uphold secularism if, again, its theological interpretations branch 70 disparate ways.
“Israel has one of the most moral armies in the world,” says “Judah”. “In order to limit the loss of human life, Israel frequently puts its soldiers at risk through house-to-house combat instead of more secure air strikes against hostile threats. Additionally, the Israeli Defence Forces, or IDF, drops leaflets telling civilians to leave an area (which consequentially gives away the element of surprise to belligerents), all in the interest of preserving the sanctity of human life. In both cases, this minimizes the loss of civilian casualties.”
Note the costs of this terrible war. Lebanon grieves 1,300 dead and 3,600 wounded civilians. Israel suffers the loss of 43 dead and 1,350 wounded civilians. Its military honors 117 dead and 400 wounded. Hezbollah itself claims only 85 fighters lost, but the Israeli Defense Force claims more than 500 dead. Five hundred thousand Israelis are displaced, along with 1 million Lebanese.
“Israel has thousands of prisoners in its jails,” says Beselica. “In fact some of them are democratically elected members of Palestine and/or Lebanon’s parliament. Others have been in jail for perhaps dozens of years. Unfortunately, Israel has in the past been known to practice torture as well.”
The two strangers bemoan histories racked with pride and blame for entire ethnic and religious groups. “For over 3,300 years, Jerusalem has been the Jewish capital of the world,” says “Judah”. “I feel that Jews before the creation of Israel and local Arabs had gotten along fine,” says Besilica. “To this day, refugees in neighboring countries hold their original keys to the houses that were demolished within Israel,” he adds.
The Israeli military campaign, contends “Judah,” was conducting exactly the same thing the United States is doing in Iraq and Afghanistan, “except these terrorists have a different name for their group – Hezbollah”.
Last month in a Honoluluan bar I ran into a young Army man, Sam, who seemed barely my senior, if at all. Even during transit through the idyllic Oahu, his thoughts opened up back in Baghdad, undistracted by the nearby stranger lurching back from our concrete stoop to puke into the wet sand.
Sam’s appraisal of the help-to-hurt ratio of U.S. occupation today? “I’d say it’s about half [good] and half [bad].”
Sam reported that some Iraqis would indeed walk up to him in the streets and ask to shake his hand, to thank him for his work. “Still,” he said, his eyes far off on the urban strip-lit Pacific, “I can’t help but scan the sides of these roads for people sitting down, acting funny.” On the way back to the airport, I tried to imagine getting anywhere near under that much scrutiny, having to examine the imminent possibility of an Improvised Explosive Device. I shuddered.
Gearing up for the November 7 ballot from their podiums – even with millions of dollars in business interests in contest – Allen and Webb lightheartedly sought catharsis for the defeat one of the men will find. “We’re going to have a beer November 8th, one way or the other,” says Webb. “All right,” says Allen.