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By William H. Benson
Columnist 

Lebanon's Civil War

 


In the book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, the book’s author Nassim Nicholas Taleb describes the people in Lebanon, his native country. It was, he writes, “an example of coexistence,” “a mosaic of cultures and religions,” a place where “people learned to be tolerant” of others, and where “the terms balance and equilibrium were often used.”

The Lebanese people believed themselves blessed. Their climate was Mediterranean, of course, and their citizens were sophisticated, refined, educated, peace-loving, and “acted as if they were in an old James Bond movie.” Among the people there was a rich diversity of cultures and religions, all who lived beside each other at the Mediterranean Sea’s eastern shore.

There were the several forms of Christians: “Maronites, Armenians, Greco-Syrian Byzantine Orthodox, and Byzantine Catholic, plus a few Roman Catholics left over from the Crusades; Moslems, both Shiite and Sunni; Druzes; and a few Jews.”

Taleb says, “We thus managed to live in peace for more than a millennium, almost devoid of bloodshed; our last true problem was the later troublemaking crusaders, not the Moslem Arabs.”

The “balance and equilibrium” in this “Lebanese paradise suddenly evaporated” on April 13, 1975, when fighting between Christians and Moslems erupted. Taleb writes, “After close to thirteen centuries of remarkable ethnic coexistence, a Black Swan, coming out of nowhere, transformed the place from heaven to hell.”

A Black Swan is Taleb’s metaphor for a highly unpredictable event, one that no one can foresee, such as a tsunami, a comet striking Earth or an unexpected war. When all we have ever seen are white swans, the appearance of a black swan causes us to revise our former beliefs.

The Lebanese Civil War was a vicious war, fought in residential areas in Beirut and other cities. Schools, hotels, parks, homes and office buildings were the battlegrounds, and car bombs were omnipresent. Retribution was the one constant.

Like a vacuum, this war pulled in others. There were the 100,000 Palestinian refugees who had fled Israel in 1948, and now lived in temporary settlements in southern Lebanon. Led by Yasser Arafat’s PLO, the Palestinians sided with the Moslems. Hafez al-Assad, Syria’s ruler, sent in his army to occupy portions of eastern Lebanon, and in early June of 1982, Ariel Sharon, the commander of Israel’s army invaded southern Lebanon in “Operation Peace for the Galilee.”

The Americans sent in the Marines, and the Soviets sided with the Syrians. It was convoluted.

In 1975, most Lebanese believed that their civil war was temporary and that it would end in a few days. However, not until Oct. 13, 1990, after 15 and one half years of bloodshed, did it end. In fact, Syria did not withdraw its military from Lebanon until April 30, 2005, 30 years later. No one predicted a long war.

After a truck bomb blew up a U.S. Marine barracks on Sunday morning, Oct. 23, 1983, in Beirut, and killed 241 American men. Ronald Reagan ordered the U.S. troops to withdraw.

From Taleb’s observation of this civil war in his homeland, he makes some sweeping generalizations. “History is opaque,” he says. “You can see what comes out, but you cannot read the script that produces the events, the generator of history.” He then writes, “Humanity is a great machine for looking backward, because we can only assess matters after the fact.”

Then, he says, “Information is of dubious value.” Although everyone studied the newspapers, no one person knew much. The news of yesterday could not forecast what would happen tomorrow.

From that, Taleb then brings up a major philosophical problem: “How can we logically go from specific instances to reach general conclusions?” In other words, “How do we know anything?” This is called the Problem of Inductive Knowledge.

Taleb mentions the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who wrote, “Domestic animals expect food when they see the person who feeds them. The man who has fed the chicken every day throughout its life at last wrings its neck.” Chickens and turkeys believe that men will provide them food forever. Russell writes, “The mere fact that something has happened a certain number of times causes animals and men to expect that it will happen again.” For the turkey, that assumption proved itself false last week.

The Lebanese people expected that the Christians and Moslems would live side-by-side in peace, as they had for centuries, but then a black swan appeared out of nowhere, people were forced to revise their beliefs, and they grabbed their guns and bombs and went to work killing each other.

Consider another black swan, the Syrian Civil War, that appeared in the spring of 2011. It is now in its fifth year. Over 200,000 people are now dead because of that war. May it end sooner than later.

The Christmas season approaches, and the angels’ words still proclaim the good news, “Peace on earth and goodwill to all men.” May it be so.

 

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