As a child my grandmother took me to the coast of Normandy so I could learn about the Second World War and see for myself the landscape and bunkers fought over at the cost of so many lives. Across the world, war is memorialized. Victories are celebrated and defeats bitterly remembered, and often even the most humiliating of losses are distorted into triumphs with tales of heroism and resistance in the face of pure tyranny.
We erect monuments and recite poetry—In Flanders fields the poppies blow, between the crosses row on row—in memory of wars waged and to souls lost. Often, in our efforts to pay tribute and to never forget, we sanitize the infamy of warfare into something aesthetically sterile but incredibly moving nonetheless. Those who have laid eyes upon the identical rows of white crosses that populate the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer cannot help but be stirred by their sheer number. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington D.C. is equally poignant because of its seemingly endless list of names.
In our concerted effort to remember we often also try to absolve ourselves of our wrongdoings. Those accused of committing massacres point to others who have equaled or outdone their own. Those whose crimes are too monumental for the national psyche to absorb without precipitating an identity crisis often choose not to recall at all and to move on. Thus no genocide was committed against the Armenians at the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the massacres at the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila were no worse than others committed during Lebanon’s protracted civil war.
In Damascus, I stop to take-in the monument depicting Saladin on horseback guarding the entrance to the Old City. The revered Muslim leader who fought the West’s Crusader armies and recaptured Palestine is buried nearby in the Umayyad mosque.
Not far away, the October War Panorama, built with the help of North Korea, celebrates the 1973 war with Israel and focuses on Israel’s methodical destruction of the town of Quneitra.
However, north of Damascus in the peaceful town of Hama, with the Orontes River flowing through its city center and riverbanks lined with trees and gardens, I can find no clue of the bloodletting which took place in 1982 when then President Hafez al-Assad sent in troops to suppress a rebellion against his iron-fisted rule by the Muslim Brotherhood. The three weeks of fighting that ensued left the city center razed and between 10,000 and 30,000 of Assad’s fellow Syrians and coreligionists dead. No memorial here.
In the Middle East the dregs of war are everywhere and open to anyone’s interpretation. In Kiryat Arba, a colony adjacent to Hebron, there is a shrine to Baruch Goldstein, the Israeli settler and army reservist who entered the Ibrahimi mosque with his automatic weapon in 1994 and killed 29 Muslims during prayer, injuring over a hundred more. So fundamentalist Jewish colonists pay tribute to a man who is unequivocally considered a terrorist by the surrounding Arab population.
In Beirut, I climb what is left of the Holiday Inn tower. From its roof, I can survey the bombed out and derelict buildings jutting out awkwardly amongst the city’s booming reconstruction efforts. These pock-marked skeletons are unsavory reminders of civil war, invasions and occupation.
I obtain permission from the Lebanese authorities to travel to the South of the country where the ruins of the Beaufort castle overlook the region from one of its highest ridges. Because of the castle’s strategic location it has been fought over by invading army after invading army during the past 1,000 years. It was used by Palestinian guerrillas in the 1970’s, attacked by Israeli jets in 1982 and then occupied by Israel until its retreat in 2000. Despite pleas by the Lebanese government to preserve what was left of the site’s historic integrity, Israel blew out parts of the castle as it withdrew. The Israelis may have understood that the vestiges of war left by one army can quickly become the memorials of its enemy.
It is then not untypical of the kind of irony found so readily in the Middle East that a memorial to one war should become a military target of another. Such is the case of the al-Khiam Detention Camp located not far from Beaufort. This prison was run by Israel’s proxy militia, the South Lebanon Army (SLA), during its occupation of Southern Lebanon. The SLA held prisoners there without charges, in appalling conditions, in an attempt to keep the surrounding—largely Shiite—villagers acquiescent. After Israel withdrew and the SLA guards fled, the villagers ran to the prison to free those still trapped inside.
Hezbollah turned the notorious camp into a museum displaying the occupation’s brutality, and in tribute to the prisoners who did not make it out alive. But the museum was bombed and all but completely destroyed by Israel when it faced off with Hezbollah during the summer of 2006. The wreckage, with Hezbollah flags protruding out of the piles of stone and wire, now houses two mock missiles aimed, as one can guess, at the prison’s destroyer.
In Syria, during the war of 1967, the town of Quneitra, situated in the Golan Heights, was captured by the Israeli army. They occupied the city for six years until it was briefly recaptured during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The Israelis repulsed the Syrians in a counteroffensive and held onto it until 1974 when a disengagement agreement was signed. However, before withdrawing, in what amounted to a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention, the Israelis systematically stripped the town of any valuable goods or materials which were sold to Israeli contractors. Bulldozers and tractors subsequently went to work. Every building, shop, bank, restaurant and the town’s hospital was destroyed.
Today Quneitra is a ghost town of rubble bordered on its western side by rolls of barbwire delimiting where one would be unwise to venture since the area is heavily landmined. There is a UN post and a few Syrian police officers scattered amongst the ruins. In the distance to the West are the rollicking green fields cultivated by Israeli colonists. A Syrian intelligence officer “accompanies” you while you visit and you must obtain permission from the Syrian authorities to do so. He is, of course, all too happy to point out the extent of the damage wrought by Israel’s occupation.
How we are so alike! We cannot bear our dead to remain nameless or the pain of loved ones lost in vain. We cannot accept defeat so death, through a desperate metamorphic process, becomes righteous. We attempt to make of war a dignified affair. We swear vengeance in the face of injustice but justify injustice if done on to others by our own hands. And it is a charade we never tire of.
So we treasure our vestiges. For when the guns fall mute and the lark’s song is heard once more we hasten to make meaning of our use of force for fear that we may look in the proverbial mirror and see we are, after all, not so dissimilar from Beirut’s unsightly, concrete carcasses.