War machines are polymorphous; diffuse organizations characterized by their capacity for metamorphosis. They are made up of small groups that split up or merge with one another, depending on contingency and circumstances.
Eyal Weizman 1.
Axiom 1: The war machine is exterior to the State apparatus.
*Proposition 1: This exteriority is first attested to in mythology, epic, drama and games.
Deleuze and Guattari 2.
In June of the year 2000, a few weeks after the Israeli army withdrew from southern Lebanon, I flew into Beirut airport with my friend Anthony. We had been invited by a mutual acquaintance, K., an Irish army officer who was stationed there as part of the United Nations peacekeeping force. We arrived in Beirut at night and K. immediately drove us to a club in Achrafieh, a formerly well-to-do Christian part of the city. The nightclub was in a deconsecrated church but inside it differed little from similarly slick establishments in less troubled European capitals. The crowd was young, stylish and well-heeled, dancing enthusiastically to a mixture of European techno and Arab beats, and knocking back drinks from the fully-stocked bar. When we finally stumbled outside at 4AM I remarked that so far Beirut didn’t seem to be the desolate war-torn ruin we had been expecting. K. smirked and pointed across the street towards a huge dark hulking building. As our eyes gradually adjusted to the lack of light we saw that it was a bombed out shell. Entire floors had collapsed and what remained of the walls were splattered with bullet holes. As we drove back to our hotel in West Beirut we saw that the whole city seemed to randomly pockmarked with these wrecks, with no discernible pattern or sense to their distribution.
We didn’t have any particular plan for our stay but K. quickly took charge. He seemed to have lots of time off and the use of a UN car so he drove us around the city, and also took us on more extensive outings to different parts of the country. We drove across the country to the Bekaa valley and visited the Roman ruins at Baalbek. On the way back we stopped in on the Ksara wine-makers, who never failed to produce a vintage for every year of the 1975-1990 civil war. As we left the vineyard a swirling spiral of dust suddenly materialised, a mini-tornado that shot quickly down the road and then disappeared. We went north of Beirut to Tripoli, where the crusaders established a state in the 12th Century, and we visited the imposing citadel they built to overlook the city. K. got permission for us to visit the military zone in the south, and showed us the vast fields of marijuana that the locals had taken to growing to survive. This was the area in which the Iranian-backed Hezbollah staged their long standoff with the recently departed Israeli army. We drove under a giant roadside banner with a picture of Khomeni and the slogan: “The blood of our victims is our voice to the world”. We visited the Shia city of Tyre, used as a base by the PLO during the war, and sat in the Roman Hippodrome where the famous Ben Hur chariot race was filmed. It was deserted that day, except for ourselves and a lone athlete in training, running laps around the stadium.
We became fascinated by the baffling mishmash of identities that made up the Lebanese population. There were Maronite Christians and both Shia and Sunni Muslims. There were Palestinians, Armenians and Kurds: displaced nationals from past and future countries. There were secular leftists and friends of foreign powers such as Syria, Iran and Israel. Most of these groups were the same ones that had constituted the shifting factions of the civil war, forming militias and alliances with each other that fell apart as quickly as they were established. Rather than any kind of conventional war, Lebanon seemed to have been host to something more like a medieval-style religious conflict between warring cults, all of whom boasted suitably exotic names: Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, At-tanzim, Fatah, the Alawites, the Baathists, the Phalange. Most intriguing of all were the Druze, a monotheistic religious sect that split from Shia Islam in the 11th Century and that believes in both the immanence and the transcendence of God. The Druze had no natural allies at the beginning of the war, but quickly formed a powerful private army to fight the Christian militias, under the unlikely banner of a political organisation dedicated to secular socialism. They were still easy to spot walking around Beirut, as the men sported a traditional form of dress: baggy skirt-like trousers tied tight at the ankles and white turbans. K. said the Druze believed that one day the son of God would return but that this time would be born to a man. The baggy pants were worn to facilitate the possibility of such a sudden and unexpected birth 3.
Neither of us had known K. very well before accepting his invitation to come and visit, and as he regaled us with his views on life and war in Lebanon, he became more and more puzzling. One day, while driving south out of Beirut, he pointed out the site of the infamous Sabra refugee camp. In 1982, in exchange for guarantees that their people would be protected, the PLO agreed to leave Lebanon, packing up onto ships and heading for Tunisia. Days later, the Israeli army stood by while the Phalangists walked into Sabra and massacred thousands of unarmed Palestinians. K. was deeply sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, yet he seemed to, if not approve of, at least be able to justify what had happened in Sabra. He saw civilian murder as simply another military tactic and one that in this case, it had made sense to employ. He had little truck with liberal notions of universal human rights, at one point pretending to have forgotten the name of Amnesty International, an organisation that he regarded with scorn. He was however a generous host, always insisting on paying for everything, and going out of his way to make sure we saw as much as possible during our short time in Lebanon.
K. would occasionally be called away on some army business and we would take these opportunities to explore Beirut by ourselves. We would pick a point on the map at random and then set off walking there from our hotel. We often got lost and would have to hail a taxi to bring us back. K. did not approve of this activity, claiming that even though the war was over, Beirut was no place for foreigners to be wandering around. In truth, he didn’t seem to enjoy walking anyway, and was always eager to be in the car. He would insist on using it even for short journeys and would hurriedly hustle us back into it if we lingered too long on the street. In spite of the chaotic traffic jams and poor state of the roads, he seemed to like driving around the city. We however relished the opportunity to get out and explore it on foot, and we scoffed at his concerns until, on one such outing, Anthony inadvertently photographed a building in which a military tribunal was being held. It was an innocent act, but we quickly found ourselves surrounded by soldiers who wanted to know who we were and what we were doing. It transpired that members of the South Lebanon Army (SLA), a Christian army who had collaborated with the occupying Israeli forces, and fought both the PLO and Hezbollah on their behalf, were being tried inside. Passports, smiles, cigarettes, and an English-speaking superior officer eventually defused the situation, but we were less blasé from that point on.
It was while returning from one of these excursions that I came upon Guerre Civile. We had wandered into a grubby old shop in West Beirut and struck up a conversation with the owner. He pointed to the rows of magazines and newspapers and apologised for the poor selection. He told us that at one time he was able to stock such dubious delights as Playboy and Penthouse but then, as he put it, “the Syrians came”. The Syrians were a largely unseen but nonetheless ubiquitous and controlling presence in Lebanon. A few days prior to this K. had brought us to Qana, where in April 1996, an Israeli warplane had bombed a UN refugee centre. We visited the shrine to the children who had died, and as we were leaving, we were engaged in friendly conversation by a man in sunglasses and a Hawaiian shirt. He claimed to be Australian and was interested in what we were doing there and who we were with. K. quickly ushered us into the car and drove off, explaining that he was mukhabarat, Syrian secret police.
I wandered on into the back of the shop and saw that it was stocked with tourist items, most of which had obviously been there for a long time. Before the civil war started in 1975, Beirut was a magnet for wealthy visitors; a cosmopolitan Mediterranean port with sandy beaches, fine wines and a liberal atmosphere. That time was long gone though and the souvenir junk piled on the shelves was covered in dust. I pulled out a faded and dirty box with the words “Guerre Civile” on the side. It looked like a board game, and sure enough when I examined it more closely I saw that it was described as an “economic and military game”. I opened it up to find a Monopoly style board, together with playing pieces and cards, and on reading some of the instruction booklet, realised that its setting was the Lebanese civil war itself. I don’t recall how much the shopkeeper wanted for it but after some cursory haggling I paid him and we left. When we went outside I realised that we were on the same street from where the Irish writer Brian Keenan was kidnapped by Islamic Jihad on the 11th of April 1986. Keenan was held in captivity for four and a half years, with his release eventually being negotiated with the help of the Iranian government. He suffered terrible abuse during his imprisonment and didn’t return to Beirut for seventeen years, but when he did he professed himself to be in love with the city.
Wanting to see as much as we could before leaving, we began planning a trip to Damascus. K. would be unable to accompany us as the Syrians would not let anyone into the country whose passport betrayed evidence of previous visits to Israel. We were told we would need a visa but that the border guards would more than likely let us through if provided with enough cash. We were also told that Damascus was only a few hours away by car and that the Commodore Hotel was a good place to find someone to bring us. The Commodore was famous as a hangout for foreign journalists during the war. Robert Fisk describes how there was a parrot in the lobby that learned to whistle in imitation of incoming rockets 4. In the bar we were introduced to a taxi-driver who agreed to bring us to Damascus the next day. He was an abrasive but affable character with an expensive Mercedes, and he wasn’t shy to tell us about his experiences during the bad times. As we drove by the Green Line he pointed out the ruined Holiday Inn where the militias would bring people and toss them from the roof. He laughed and joked with the Syrian border police before handing them our money, at which point they waved us through, and we drove on towards Damascus. When we got there he brought us to the museum and then suggested we visit the Grand Mosque. Like K., he was not fond of walking, so he drove us through the narrow pedestrian thoroughfares of the souk, scattering people and animals that were in our way, while we cowered in the back, embarrassed. He was unconcerned with the sensitivities around non-believers visiting a Mosque and simply brought us straight in, not only saying that we could go wherever we liked inside, but encouraging us to take photographs of the kneeling worshippers if we so wished. After taking us for lunch he drove us speedily back to Beirut explaining that he had to bring someone else on the same trip later that day.
One night we went to dinner with K. and some of his army colleagues, and the conversation fell to religion. K. turned out to be of a conservative Catholic disposition. He was an admirer of John McQuaid, former archbishop of Dublin, and said positive things about the semi-secretive Opus Dei organisation. We suspected he was a member but it didn’t seem appropriate to ask outright if this was the case or not. Later that night we were driven to a bar by an acquaintance of K.’s who was on leave from his job working for the UN weapons inspection team in Baghdad. He shared K.’s interest in cars, hurtling us around the darkened and deserted streets in a high-powered BMW. They also had a shared interest in girls: one of K.’s favourite subjects was the sexual habits of Lebanese women. He would leer at them from the window of the car and constantly try and direct our attention towards those he deemed the most attractive. We put this down to the fact that K. had lived most of his life in a regimented all-male environment. He had joined the Army as a young man and his secondary school education was as a boarder at Blackrock college in south Dublin. Blackrock was founded by the Holy Ghost Fathers and McQuaid himself had been a pupil there for a time, later joining the teaching staff, before eventually being appointed president of the school in the 1930s 5. Towards the end of that evening K. asked us what we would like to be doing if we knew that tomorrow was the end of the world. I said that I would take the opportunity to do something daring and dangerous, like sky-diving. Anthony said he would ring around all his friends and say goodbye. K. claimed that he would like to be doing precisely what he was doing at that exact moment, having this conversation and drinking with the two of us.
On our last night in Lebanon I sat in the hotel bar with Anthony. He talked about Michel Foucault, remarking that the recently vacated network of hilltop Israeli army positions we had seen in the south were like a distributed version of the panopticon, designed to keep the local population under potential surveillance at all times. The UN force of which K. was a part were also largely concerned with observation, the rationale being that the behaviour of the warring parties, Israel included, could be controlled if they also were aware that they were being watched. Foucault had a deep engagement with the Arab world, spending several years teaching in Tunisia during the earlier part of his career and making repeated visits to pre and post-revolutionary Iran in the years just before his death. He was an unapologetic supporter of the Iranian revolution, seeing in it the potential for a genuinely transformative political force, despite the fact that the reign of the Ayatollahs quickly became as repressive as that of the Shah they had replaced.
I told Anthony that I had once spent a few days at a Buddhist retreat in Scotland where I met a monk who had previously been an English teacher in Iran during the Shah’s time. One night, while drinking in a bar, he got chatting to a policeman who claimed to work for the SAVAK secret service. This policeman proceeded to reveal that a few years previously the Shah’s nose had been blown off in an assassination attempt and that it had subsequently been reconstructed through plastic surgery. Few people outside the inner circle knew about this, and everyone who did know was under pain of death not to reveal it. The policeman got up to leave but before doing so reminded my monk friend that he too should be circumspect with this information. The Shah had ears everywhere and there would be dire consequences for him were he to attract attention with loose talk. From that moment on his days in Iran were numbered as he was terrified that he would blurt out the story when in the wrong company. He became increasingly paranoid that in a moment of weakness or drunkenness, he would reveal the story to a SAVAK informer, or that he would simply shout it out in his sleep. Every time he spoke to someone, he wondered if they knew about it too, and feared that if they did, he would somehow reveal his complicity with some inadvertent gesture. Within weeks he quit his teaching job and fled Iran. He returned to England and, after several years adrift, signed up for the monastic life.
It was only after returning home from Lebanon that I got a chance to examine the Guerre Civile game more closely. It was produced in 1982 by Educational Games Lebanon, an outfit about whom no amount of research uncovers any information. The instruction booklet explains that in a civil war any preconceived ideas about rules of warfare or agreed modes of engagement are suspended. It declares that “civil war, has its own rules, which have nothing to do with the international conventions, with the military rules of conduct, or with what is commonly known as human rights. In fact, the rules of civil war are nothing but the absence of any rule … SO, ENJOY YOURSELVES AND MAY THE BEST MAN WIN!”. Each player takes control of a nameless militia and the objective is to earn as much cash as possible. This is done by accumulating assets such as media outlets, petroleum, food, arms, soldiers, transport and hostages. Advantage is gained by forming strategic alliances with foreign powers, other militias, or whatever currently passes for the national government. Contrary to what we had believed from our time in Lebanon, religious or ideological divisions seemed to be of little consequence, merely serving as convenient means by which to mobilize support. The game revealed the war to not be an outburst of medieval factionalism, but rather something more quintessentially modern – war as a business, an entrepreneurial activity that paid no heed to international conventions but instead obeyed the logic of the market.
One night I got some friends over to play it. We dressed up to look the part, opened some bottles of wine, and started in on it. We thought it would take an hour or two before a victor emerged but the longer we played the further we seemed to be from the end of the game. As soon as one player’s militia started gaining too much power, some calamity would befall them – a loss of personnel in a battle, a drop in the price of a commodity they had been hoarding, a peace agreement that removed their territorial advantage – and they would be forced to start again from square one. The game continued in this manner for hours but we stuck at it: the longer we played the more important it seemed to be to continue. We started arguing about how the rules were to be interpreted, negotiating off-board side-deals, and bartering for advantage in whatever way we could. None of this helped bring the game to a conclusion and it was late into the night when someone – tired, bored and frustrated – drunkenly knocked the board off the table altogether, spilling everything onto the floor. There seemed no point in trying to resume and everyone simply got up and went home.
1. Weizman, Eyal. “Lethal theory.” Roundtable: Research Architecture (2006).↩
2. Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. Burns and Oates, 1987, p.387↩
3. Subsequent research showed this story to have no basis in fact at all. Since the Druze believe that God is the whole of everything, the very idea of him (or his son) having to return is absurd anyway.↩
4. Fisk, Robert. Pity the nation: Lebanon at war. Oxford University Press, 2001..↩
5. It was through Blackrock that McQuaid came to know Eamon de Valera, another past pupil, and thereby allegedly exerted influence on the drafting of the 1937 Irish constitution, particularly with respect to its acknowledgement of the Catholic Church as the Nation’s `guardian of the faith’. ↩