War Is Coming: Between Past and Future Violence in Lebanon

cover image

By: Sami Hermez

Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017. 280 pp. $50.22, ISBN-13: 978-0812248869

Volume: 6 Issue: 1

January 2018

Review by:

Josef Olmert, PhD

University Of South Carolina

Columbia, SC

The political eruption engulfing the Middle East since late 2010, known (though erroneously) as the Arab Spring spared, to a large part, and up to now (December 2017), a country whose history, stretching for centuries, has been characterized by frequent bloodshed, large scale violence, in fact, terrible civil wars. This is Lebanon. It is arguably the case, that predictions of many pundits and experts, including lots of Lebanese, were that the eruption would strike Lebanon like an unstoppable hurricane, but that did not happen, and the analysis of why it did not, is out of the scope of this review. What is not out of the review, is the fact, that the prospect of Lebanon being engulfed in, yet another round of mayhem is still very tangible, and this is, in fact, the underlying assumption of the book, that such a scenario is nearly inevitable.

This book is an important and valuable contribution to our understanding of this turbulent country. Most importantly, it is so, because unlike a lot of the literature about Lebanon, it does not attempt to beautify, even romanticize the Lebanese situation, by portraying a picture much rosier and more optimistic than what the actual situation is. The central thesis is simple, and it is, that the Lebanese themselves are living in the shadow of the grim realization, that “something” is imminent, and “something” means bad news. It does not mean a political misunderstanding between different factions, it means war, because political differences in Lebanon usually are being contested and resolved through bloodshed. The book covers three years of research, 2006-2009, but the writer, being connected to Lebanon, tells us, that “every year since [2009], however, I have returned for several months in summer and again in winter. Invariably, with every return there have been conversations about the coming war and, by extension, memories of past political violence” [p.193]. Indeed, a very sad state of affairs—It is so also because, if not almost entirely due to the memories of the past, not just the waiting for the troubles of the future.  As Hermez so artfully tells us, what happened in Lebanon since the end of the great civil war of 1975-1990, “was a power struggle between different players in society over how to interpret the war and who had the rights to a process of history making” [p.192]. In fact, in a way, Lebanon has healed in an impressive way from the horrors of the 15-years civil war, and it reconstructed its political institutions, though their level and quality of functioning is so far off what we expect to have in a real functioning democracy. Yet, rebuilding political institutions, even with differences from the past, is one thing, but rebuilding society, rebuilding the human aspect, the relationships which were destroyed, the life shattered, is something else altogether. So, with that in mind, Hermez leaves us with the inevitable conclusion, that as civil society “being unable to deal with the war’s causes, [it] facilitated war’s anticipation into the future” [p.192].

What makes this book a really-memorable contribution to the research of the question which is in the basis of the discussion, is the fact that the writer focuses his thesis on the experience of talking to ordinary Lebanese, and clearly such discussions are about everyday life, and it is here where the conclusions of the book as mentioned above are so valid and significant. They reflect the overriding sense of people, not the polished, political-oriented, points-scoring statements and testimonies of leaders. Hermez deals a lot with the question of political amnesty for crimes committed during the war, and we all know how horrific this war was. In 1991, the Lebanese government passed an amnesty law, and  in itself was not a novelty in the war -torn country, and Hermez refers to this somewhat cynically, when observing, that “rather than write a history of war, it is useful to recount the history of amnesties” [p.174]. Clearly, writing one history of the war is impossible, because then, the question is whose history? The famous Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury, is quoted by Hermez with his answer to this question. “We make a choice what to remember and what to forget but the unsaid in history must be said” [p.173]. So, time and again, we are confronted with Hermez basic assumption-War is on the minds of the Lebanese because the problems which beset their society and polity continue to be open and big wounds. With that in mind, it is important to explain, why this review does not get into the details of political events which occurred in Lebanon in the period researched by Hermez, for example, the list of actual and attempted political assassinations [p.40], as this data can be found elsewhere. The explanation and context of all that, is what makes Hermez book so important. It is however my sense, that what is missing in the book, is a description and analysis of the impact of the civil war in neighboring Syria over the Lebanese situation. Not a long chapter, but an insightful reference to the role of Hizballah in this war, and how and why, it has been a deterrent for a full-scale Lebanese civil war.

I wholly recommend this book. There is no way to fully grasp the complicated realities of Lebanon without reading it.

Reviews By Year

Reviews By Category