THE news from Lebanon comes in daily scraps and pieces. Fighting has been almost continuous in Lebanon ever since the Israeli invasion of 1982.
It seemed to make some sense -- the Israelis coming in and trying to set up a pro-Israel government built on Maronite Christian elements. The Americans were in for a while supporting that effort. But Americans and French got out in February a year ago and the Israelis began to pull back in February this year. As outsiders have moved away, the fighting among the natives has been constant and fragmented.
It is baffling -- until you get out the history books and learn that we have here a case example of what much warfare down through the ages is all about.
Lebanon has been overrun by outsiders many times. Each invasion has left its mark on the people and their relations with each other. Christians have been there since the Crusades. Muslims have been there since the days of Muhammad. The Turks came in shortly after Columbus sighted his first islands in the Caribbean.
Modern Lebanese history began then. The Turks favored a small minority Muslim sect called the Druze. They were set up as an elite. They gained political and economic position disproportionate to their small numbers.
Then came the French after World War I. They favored the Maronite Christians, who were once nearly a majority of the whole population. Under French rule from 1929 to World War II the Maronite families gained control of the banks, and main industries, the big importing and exporting companies. They were also allowed to name both the president and the commander of the Army.
The Maronites shared their favored political and economic position to some extent with the upper-class Sunni Muslim community. The Sunnis named the prime minister. Sunnis and Maronites worked fairly well together.
The Israelis picked up where the French left off. They backed the Maronites as their favored element in Lebanon. They subsidized, armed, and trained the Maronite militia.
But meanwhile the Shiites, like the poor in most countries, had been outbreeding the economic upper classes. By the time of the Israeli invasion in 1982, the Shiites had become the largest single community and, with Syrian help, had developed a militia of their own. They made common cause with the Druze. When the United States Marines were in Lebanon they were in fact, although not by intent, getting in the way of a Shiite Druze campaign to wrest from the Maronite/Sunni upper classes the political and economic position which their numbers now justify.
And the Maronites and the Sunnis are fighting back defensively to try to protect what is left of their own superior political and economic position.
Men fight for improved economic opportunity for their families and their tribes. Men also fight who enjoy a privileged political and economic position. They fight to hang on to their existing standard of living.
The same basic factors are behind the rioting and the killing in South Africa. The white minority in South Africa has enjoyed absolute political power and almost total ownership of wealth for some 300 years. It gives the whites a standard of living on a level with Western Europe and North America.
But if South Africa were to end apartheid and grant full political rights and economic opportunity to the black majority, then the average standard of living would be dragged down, gradually of course, to about a seventh of the standards which prevail in Western Europe and North America. Men do not give up a high standard of living willingly, either in South Africa or in Lebanon or, for that matter, in Northern Ireland.
President Reagan is sometimes criticized these days for keeping out of matters in Lebanon. It's just as well. Lebanon will be ready for a mediator if and when the Shiites and the Druze have gained in battle a share in the wealth of the country proportionate to their numbers.