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  • The Lebanese Army: A National Institution in a Divided Society
  • Matthew Hughes (bio)
The Lebanese Army: A National Institution in a Divided Society, by Oren Barak. New York: State University of New York Press, 2009. xv + 202 pages. Notes to p. 247. Bibl. to p. 263. Index to p. 272. $65.

As very little has been written in English on Lebanon's armed forces, a study such as this is to be welcomed. However, if the definitive job of an army is to fight wars then writing a history of Lebanon's armed forces is problematic —at least from a traditional military history perspective of battles won or lost —as, since the creation of the modern, independent state of Lebanon just after World War II, its army has fought no major battles against an external enemy. The exception to this history of military inaction is the short, afternoon-long battle for the Israeli border town of Malikiyya in June 1948 in which one battalion of Lebanese soldiers advanced 700 meters into Israel, losing two men killed in the battle. No amount of post Malikiyya hyperbole can turn a minor skirmish into a major military triumph. There were also a few half-hearted attempts to resist later incursions by Israeli forces into Lebanon, but these met with quick defeat. Of course, Lebanon itself has been the site of two civil wars (1958 and 1975-90) but the army stood aside or collapsed in the face of internal strife between Lebanon's different religious, political, and social communities.

However, a study of a nation's military institutions offers us much more than an account of battles and fighting. It is here that Oren Barak pivots his useful and scholarly examination, using the Lebanese army as a way of opening up a debate about Lebanon's political and social history after 1945. Barak sets up three key themes and intertwines these with a chronology of events: first, the interplay between the army and Lebanon's inter-sectoral relations; second, the army's impact on Lebanese politics; and finally, the role played by the army in state formation in a divided society. In the early phase of Lebanon's history, roughly to 1958, Lebanon's Christian (especially Maronite) community under Maronite commander Fouad Chehab dominated the army. Because of Lebanon's fractured society, it was difficult for the army to act decisively during the country's political crises of the 1950s. After 1958, the army accepted more Muslims, balancing to some extent the force's composition, but the issue of power-sharing in the military was never satisfactorily resolved. When the Arab-Israeli conflict spilled over into Lebanon in the 1960s, the army's position became intolerable. As Barak notes (p. 86), Israel pressured Lebanon to act against the Palestinians, but the more it did so, "the more it weakened the state, undermined its legitimacy, and reduced the likelihood that the army would be able to restrain the Palestinians." Lebanon's leaders could not rely on a powerful and loyal army, something that saved Jordan's King Husayn when fighting with the Palestinian guerrillas of "Black" September 1970. By the 1970s, the militias of Lebanon's local communities were stronger than the Lebanese army, a problem which still bedevils Lebanon as its army tries to face down Hizbullah and Palestinian radicals, most recently in 2007 during the fierce and, for the Lebanese army successful, battle for the Nahr al-Barid refugee camp. Earlier, in the civil war of the 1970s, the army had disintegrated along family, religious, and community lines, but its basic structures remained intact, enabling it to reemerge ("resuscitation" in Barak's words) after the Ta'if Agreement of 1989 ended the civil war. Barak makes a strong, positive case for the role that the army has played in successful state formation after 1990, even within the context of the damaging 2006 Israel-Hizbullah war.

Barak presents the Lebanese army as a [End Page 678] political rather than a military institution. The methodology of the book under review tilts towards political science but, for this reviewer at least, it is best read as a work of history. Barak ties together...


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