The thin green line between Israel and Hizbullah

Sat, Jan 19, 2013, 00:00

MEMOIR: Blood, Sweat and Tears, By Tom Clonan, Liberties Press, 239pp, €14.99

Picture five of those British army forts in south Armagh, but much more heavily fortified. In the desert land around the hills, small white villages of simple houses. It’s hot by day, often very hot, and at night it’s freezing. On the air, most days, the smell of burning, of corpses rotting in the sun.

The hilltop forts are occupied by the IDF, the Israel defence forces, armed with heavy machine guns, mortars and artillery, bristling with signals equipment. In the wings, in permanent readiness, tanks, Apache gunships, F16 multirole fighter planes.

Then, in the surrounding countryside, in parts of the villages, on the sunken roads and in the wadis, Hizbullah fighters, armed with rockets and small arms, implacably committed to what often prove suicidal attacks on the Israelis. Day and night, the rattle of gunfire, the booming explosions of rockets, artillery rounds, the battering noise of attack helicopters, the inward and outward roar of jets.

And between these warring factions, under a blue flag and pitifully few, exposed to fire from both sides, often despised by both sides, an Irish Army contingent struggling to keep the peace.

This is south Lebanon in 1995, when newly commissioned Capt Tom Clonan arrives in Al Yatun, to a wire-fenced compound where 120 Irish soldiers live and work in a series of flimsy Portakabins. Al Yatun lies in the middle of what is in effect a free-fire zone, a 22km stretch of the Israel-Lebanon border hotly contested by the Israelis and their South Lebanon Army proxies on the one hand, Lebanese Hizbullah on the other. In a kind of grotesque even-handedness, each side will contribute equally to Irish casualties.

Clonan gives a remarkably convincing, moving and thought-provoking account of what it is like to serve with the Irish Army in a war zone. We think of our Army, when we think of it at all, as essentially a peacetime force, but the author reminds us that Irish troops have served some 40,000 individual tours of duty over several decades in Lebanon, in one of the world’s more bitter war zones, and he brings home with considerable power just how appalling the conditions of service can be – 47 men did not come home alive.

He is admirably observant in his depiction of the soldiers with whom he serves, and whom he commands. Like many a savvy young officer before him, he comes to depend almost entirely on his sergeants, realising from the outset that all armies, no matter what anyone in authority may like to think, are run by sergeants.

Many of these soldiers are extraordinary characters: rough, tough and driven, hard drinkers and anything but soft, yet in almost all cases they are phenomenally kind-hearted.

Time and again, Clonan describes them sharing everything they have – food, water and money – with the desperately poor and terrified local civilian population. Time and again, as they drive out to gather up yet more bodies, we see these men on the verge of weeping, not just out of spontaneous identification with helpless victims but also in impotence, driven to the verge of madness by their inability to do anything but stand by as the rockets and shells and mortars rain down.

Clonan’s political analysis is even-handed, astute and considered, especially when he reflects on the essential absurdity of a peacekeeping force that has no power to intervene to establish so much as a ceasefire. All the UN Interim Force in Lebanon can do is monitor and report on armed engagements, gather up the dead and do what they can to comfort the afflicted. Yet he also makes the point that, at the very least, they are witnesses to what happens, and to that extent by their very presence act as a force for inhibition.

Qana massacre

Clonan frames his story with autobiography. He’s often very funny in his recounting of growing up, as, for example, when he describes being accosted by a local tough guy and forced as the price of safe passage to play the accordion he is, perhaps unwisely, carrying home through hostile territory. (In a lovely twist, that one-time bully turns up in Al Yatun as a superbly capable sergeant and a brusque good friend to the green young captain.)

Clonan is very good on the increasing irreality of his life in Al Yatun juxtaposed with the “normal life” of home – as when we witness him reassuring his mother that, yes, he’s dressing up warmly at night, and yes he’s eating properly – while shells are falling from the hills all around the camp.

The dark heart of the book is the unspeakable massacre in the village of Qana, biblical Cana. Clonan’s account of this IDF atrocity, when 118 innocent children, women and men died in terrible circumstances, is all the more powerful for the restraint (hard-won, I’d imagine) with which he describes it.

His recurrent focus on the child victims of this terrible war finds an almost unbearable echo towards the end of the book when he and his young wife make the lonely trek to Glasnevin Cemetery to bury their own stillborn baby.

Here is a considerable achievement, thought-provoking, humane and beautifully written – but for all its precise, movingly rendered picture of the Irish Army at war, what shines through in the end is the old, bitter truth: most of the dying, as ever, is done by the civilians.

What still haunts the author, as it will haunt the reader, is the unassuageable grief summed up in Clonan’s closing words: “Not everyone comes home. And nobody comes home the same.”

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