Here's my review of A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel — by Thanassis Cambanis (Free Press).
Most books on Hezbollah tend to focus, in one way or another, on the Lebanese Shia group’s fundamentalist politics. That’s in contrast to what strikes you as a journalist when you travel to southern Lebanon, one of the Hezbollah heartlands. There the greatest impressions are visceral. The earthquake of an Israeli artillery shell, which appears to have landed on top of you until you discover that it struck two kilometers away. The stark and lonely valleys, so distant from the typical snapshot of fist-pumping Shia masses. Most of all, it is the quiet readiness of the Hezbollah fighters for death.
In his groundbreaking book, Thanassis Cambanis has all the politics — he’s excellent in explaining how Hezbollah turned apparent defeat in its 2006 war with Israel into de facto control of Lebanon within three years. But he goes beyond the typical Hezbollah tome to give you the feel of war, writing of gunfire that came from “so close that it felt like someone ripping a sheaf of paper in my ear while tickling the inside of my gut with a feather” and the “incongruously whimsical” high-pitched raspberry that is the sound of a rocket in flight. He adds revealing insights into the lives of normally secretive Hezbollah fighters.<!--more-->
The essence of Hezbollah’s success, as Cambanis sees it, is its ability to carve out clear answers to the vital national questions. That’s a big advantage for Hezbollah over the cloudy mass of Lebanon’s vicious sectarian parties. (One Hezbollah voter tells Cambanis his choice was based on the fact that he was “sick of all these other assholes.”)
Hezbollah’s head since 1992, Hassan Nasrallah, enforces a strict fundamentalist discipline within the party. But other supporters are allowed to enjoy broader freedom. By eschewing the hard line of Hezbollah’s earlier days, Nasrallah has brought Hezbollah’s appeal to Muslims who don’t want to live as if Lebanon were Tehran, but who wish for the pride that comes with resistance to Israel. “In a landscape of nihilism,” Cambanis writes, “Hezbollah understood the intrinsic appeal of spiritual clarity.”
That clarity is based on a set of principles Cambanis describes as “rapture, resistance, revolution.” To illustrate the first of these, he takes his title from a comment by a Lebanese man who spoke to him while he was reporting on the 2006 war: “‘It would be a privilege to die for Sayyed Hassan [Nasrallah].’”
Cambanis is a former Mideast bureau chief for The Boston Globe and has reported on the region in the last few years for The New York Times. (He has also contributed to GlobalPost.) He lays out his book around vignettes of ordinary people in the Hezbollah army: a nurse, a soldier, a broadcaster.
He was, perhaps, forced to take this fruitful approach by Hezbollah itself. Read the rest of this review on Global Post, where I'll be doing monthly reviews of international fiction and nonfiction. It's at http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/lebanon/101001/inside-hezbollah-book-review www.mattbeynonrees.com