The thin green line between Israel and Hizbullah
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.
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.”