If the pessimists are right, and another war between Israel and the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah is imminent, then Thanassis Cambanis’s A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel could not have come at a more opportune moment. But even if war does not soon cast its pall over the Middle East, this book is an indispensable guide to understanding the region’s most formidable extra-state actor. Cambanis, who has reported on Lebanon for The New York Times and The Boston Globe, skillfully pinpoints the reasons for Hezbollah’s political success, and only toward the end of the book does his sober analysis detour slightly toward sensationalism.
Hezbollah, which means “Party of God” in Arabic, was created by Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Lebanese Shiites in 1982 in response to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. But today, a decade after compelling the Israeli army to withdraw from Lebanon, the party shows no sign of moderating. In fact, supported by Iran (and Syria), it may be at the peak of its power. How did this happen? According to Cambanis, “[t]hree things distinguish Hezbollah from other Islamist movements in the region: its clearly articulated ideology; the fervor of its followers; and its success at expanding membership and inflicting military harm against its enemies.”
Hezbollah’s ideology, Cambanis explains, is a mix of self-empowerment and religio-political rage; the former is popular among Lebanese Shiites because of their historically marginalized status, while the latter is fueled by their repeated mistreatment at the hands of Israel and other enemies. Cambanis attributes the zeal of Hezbollah’s followers to their identification with the core elements of the party’s ideology as well as their gratitude for the widespread social services it provides. Finally, the author shows how the party indoctrinates the young through their youth movement, the Mahdi Scouts, as a means to secure its future membership and to pressure entire families into becoming supporters.
The linchpin in this equation – at least for the time being – would appear to be Hassan Nasrallah, who has led Hezbollah since 1992. It isn’t just the man’s charisma, sense of humor, or the fact that his son died fighting the Israeli occupation that draws people to him, but his flexibility regarding social mores. For example, when he took power, Nasrallah wisely pulled back the reins on Hezbollah’s unpopular public enforcement of Islamic morality. “Like a smart CEO determined to regain market share,” explains Cambanis of Nasrallah, “he scaled back Hezbollah’s activities to focus on its most popular product: armed resistance.”
In 2006, Hezbollah launched an unprovoked attack on Israel, which retaliated massively. This war and its aftermath set the stage for the author’s searching probe into the hearts and minds of Hezbollah’s rank and file. In prose that is often eloquent yet earthy, indicative of scholarly erudition as well as a storyteller’s flair for capturing the complexities of human psychology, Cambanis describes the seemingly contradictory impulses he discovers. Consider the case of 20-something Aya Haidar, who longs for martyrdom – preferably in the throes of the soon-to-return Mahdi’s (Messiah’s) war against infidels – but simultaneously wants to marry the man she loves and start a family. Observes Cambanis: “She was a Mahdist, a Hezbollah cadre, a schoolteacher fresh out of college, and a young girl in love, rolled into one bristling ball of energy.”
The only major weakness in this otherwise excellent book is the alarmist tone that creeps into the final two chapters. Because he underestimates Shiite dissatisfaction with Hezbollah’s adventurism in July 2006 – a phenomenon that won’t be so muted in the event of another Hezbollah-provoked conflict with Israel – and Sunni fury following Hezbollah’s brief but violent takeover of western Beirut in May 2008, Cambanis fails to gauge the size of the domestic chink in the party’s armor. He predicts that Hezbollah will grow stronger with time, and that, because “without fighting it loses its identity,” the party will continue launching attacks against its southern neighbor. Cambanis even goes so far as to imply that Hezbollah poses an existential threat to Israel.
In reality, Hezbollah probably has only one war left in it, if not simply because any future Israeli military campaign against the party, whether offensive or defensive, would be devastating. Hezbollah might survive such an outcome and, with characteristic bluster, even claim victory. But having incurred extensive human and material losses, trying to fend off Lebanese political opponents determined to capitalize on its vulnerability, and scrambling to contain frustration among its Shiite support base, the much-vaunted Party of God would most likely emerge from such a crucible an eviscerated and spent force.