My first and most personal encounter with the Forever War (No not the Iraqi wars) was in December 1967. I had recently arrived in Beirut to attend classes at the American University of Beirut as part of the Foreign Area Specialist Program (Now called the Foreign Area Officer). Classes were not to begin until January so my travel began immediately. I left my wife in Beirut with three small kids. Fortunately she is from the old school of army wives. Knowing no French nor Arabic, she had to find an apartment. It was no easy task. We army folks were not part of the State Department, so basically she was on her own, walking the streets, looking up at the apartments for rent signs. Gradually she learned that lil Ejaar , usually written in latin script signs in windows, meant there was an apartment for rent. If it were written in Arabic script it was probably not suitable to live in. As the Lebanese always told us: “We speak French or English. We speak Arabic to our maids”. The really good apartments had signs in French. The a louver or a similar sign meant they were aiming for upper class Frenchified Lebanese.
Anyway Terry, my wife, rented an apartment on Rue Sadat in west Beirut. It was the Jabbur building.If there are addresses in Lebanon I never used them. It was always a name of a building. The owner Dr.Jibrail Jabbur was a professor of history at the American University of Beirut. He wrote an excellent book on bedouins in Syria entitled The Bedouins and The Desert. He was a wonderful old gentleman from the old school of Orientalism. A Christian from Syria, he was a human encyclopedia of Arab history. He used to invite me down for tea and told me tales of old Damascus.
I am getting off the subject here but just one story he told me is that following WWI, the Turks drove the Armenians out of Turkey, their caravans of people being brutalized by Turkish soldiers, and preyed upon by bands of Kurds and nomadic Arab tribes. It was one of the great genocides of the previous century. He related to me how his family and other Christian families of Damascus took food out to feed the Armenians. He, as a child, witnessed horrible scenes of the exodus. Wild dogs were eating human corpses that the Armenians were too weak to bury. Armenian women were repeatedly raped by the many Turkish, Kurdish, and Arab predators and many other Armenian women were abducted and used as domestic servants and concubines just as the Daesh does today with the Yezidis.
Why didn’t the Muslims of Damascus help I wondered. A few did, but mostly they did not. It was my first lesson in the embedded sectarian fissures that have always characterized the Middle Eastern society. Not your religion? Not your tribe, Not your blood ? Why care? No, this sectarian divide did not begin with the invasion/liberation of Iraq which would probably startle the students in the Edward Sa’id school of Arab history 101 today.
Back to my first trip. I went on a three- country visit with my fellow FAS student Steve T. He was about to graduate from the program and knew Arabic pretty well, We went first to Ethiopia, then Saudi Arabia, and then to Jordan. I remember very little of my first trip to Saudi Arabia, one of many to follow over the years.
Our visit to Ethiopia was fascinating to me. After Addis Ababa, which made no impression on me, we traveled through Tigre, Awash station, visiting Falasha villages, (Ethiopian Jews) and on to Asmara, where there was a huge CIA listening station as part of the open source Foreign Broadcast Information Service ( FBIS). Asmara had been under Italian influence since 1869 and many thousands of Italians were sent there by Mussolini to colonize east Africa. Many remained, and I remember eating an excellent pasta dinner in an Asmara Italian restaurant.
I remember also Gondor near the amazing Blue Nile Falls. It was there that we were met by two American peace corps young ladies who seemed excited to see us. They came up to the lodge where we were staying. After about 20 minutes of conversation I innocently mentioned that we were army officers and within minutes they were back on their bikes and gone. It was like someone at a Bernie Sanders rally mentioning that he is a tea party member. Steve was not happy but I thought it was funny. Remember this was the Vietnam war era and we soldiers were characterized as baby killers.. etc. by the Left, the Bernie Sanders people of that era.
Steve at the Falls near Gondor Ethiopia with our guide
Steve at the Falls near Gondor Ethiopia with our guide
Arriving In Saudi Arabia I remember only the very professional American officers trying their best to create some sort of military proficiency among the Saudi troops. Our officers were good but in doing what they were doing, they had no future in our military. Their jobs were important but as the assignment officers would always tell me;”You were out of the mainstream”. Dealing with the Saudis, with some exceptions, was no picnic. The Saudis are so dour and the scenery so drab that I immediately missed the animation and exuberance of the tribal people of northern Ethiopia. Steve was particularly taken by the scantily clad Nubian ladies washing clothes in the rivers, with their bright inviting smiles and as he imagined, “their cool Nubian skins”
In Jordan, we got a car from the Embassy and began traveling around Jordan. After a few days we were in the al Ghor valley traveling along the Jordan River when suddenly we heard a series of explosions and heavy small arms fire. Then Israeli French made Mystere aircraft passed overhead, at about 50 foot altitude, the pilots would turn half way over to check us out. We took refuge in huge concrete culverts that being used for al Ghor valley irrigation. After the firing died down we turned around and retraced our route back to the Embassy. On the way we passed an American M-88 tank retriever burned out, with no Jordanian soldiers in sight. Were there charred soldiers inside? We didn’t look.
Further down the road we noticed a Jordanian soldier lying in the field by the side of the road. He was one of the group of Jordanian soldiers walking down the road, apparently coming home on leave, without their weapons, that we had passed earlier. Smoke was coming from wounds smoldering in his heavy overcoat, apparently made from tracer 50 caliber rounds. He was dead, face down in the field. He was a nice looking young man , with features more Caucasian than Arab. As I remember I commented to Steve that he seemed to have had the tip of his nose shot off but there was no blood. Thinking about him all these years, I wonder who he was, who was his family?
We called out to find other Jordanian soldiers who were walking with him. There were none in sight and none answered our calls. How strange that his fellow soldiers had scattered, and after the shooting had ceased, not returned to pick up their fellow soldier. As an American that seemed so unfeeling to me. Even after all these years we are still searching for the bodies of missing Americans in Vietnam, and Korea. Second lesson learned.
The Arab armies are rent apart by the same sectarian blood relation problems just as the rest of the society. Looking back on it after all these years, and knowing what I have learned, I can only surmise, this dead soldier had no relatives in the group of soldiers, maybe he was not from the same village, the same tribe, as the others.
We put the soldier in the trunk of the car and drove to a police station in a small village. As we pulled the body out of the trunk a crowd quickly gathered around, screaming, and yelling that American planes were the culprit. We got scared because the police seemed unable to have any control. Steve began yelling that the planes were “Tayyara Fransawi,. Mish America”( French planes, not American). The crowd knew we were Americans and after a while quieted down a bit. As soon as possible we departed, very quietly.
Lesson three: what we might consider a good deed ( picking up the soldier) was not appreciated by the crowd, a different culture and different values.
For almost a hundred years, the forever war has gone on, sometimes abating, sometimes heating up. In fact one could make the point that it dates back to the early wars of the Prophet as his troops drove the Arab Jews from their homeland in what is now Saudi Arabia.
When I returned to Beirut, Terry had found an apartment and we moved in. All was set for some of the best years of our lives in a Beirut that was a glittering city of lights and life and music and great food. But alas, the outside world would not allow such tranquility to last. The great powers rivaled each other on the Lebanese playground, disaffected and bitter Palestinians tried to pull Lebanon into war with Israel, and every Arab country fought each other with Lebanese surrogates. The Palestinians, unable to destroy Israel turned on their host Lebanon, a not very hospitable host to be sure, and later, as I shall write about, they did the same in Jordan.
Anyway the Arab/Palestinian -Israeli war goes on. The Arabs and Palestinians keep trying to reverse history, they tried conventional war three times, It did not work, they tried guerrilla war. It did not work. They tried suicide bombers, it did not work. Recently they tried stabbings and now that seems to be easing off as well. So what next? The irony is that while the Palestinian cause is lionized everywhere in the Arab world, the Palestinians are used, abused by Arab leaders, and viewed with distain by their Arab brothers.
Beirut by night vs. Palestinian camps in Lebanon