BEIRUT -- In a region embroiled in violence, where a country’s army may brutally attack its own citizens, Lebanon stands out as an exception. Mostly.
Though not perfect, the Lebanese Army appears to try hard to connect with civilian society, as illustrated by a popular biannual event that has become the staging ground for official Lebanon’s uncommon attempt at comity.
The event, which takes place once in the summer and again in the winter, begins with an overnight bivouac at an army barracks followed the next day by an exhausting 40K (25-mile) mountainous trail run. Hosted by the Lebanese Army elite unit of “maghawir” (or commandos) and dubbed “Be a Commando for a Day,” the run is in its fifth year and participation is open to anyone.
I attended the most recent iteration of this somewhat odd gathering. Where else in the Middle East would you see hundreds of Lebanese civilians, some with children, queueing up in the early evening to clear security for the privilege of spending the night at a military camp? But there we were in the hills of Laqlouq, waiting for the maghawir to distribute cots that we'd set up in army tents, each with room for a dozen or so people.
While we chatted amiably with the highly trained (and in other situations, dangerous) soldiers, preparing for the night and day we would spend with them, the incongruity was lost on no one. It’s impossible to ignore for even a moment that in nearby Syria days earlier, chemical weapons allegedly launched by the Syrian military killed upward of 1,000 people – yet another horrible incident in a civil war that has claimed the lives of more than 100,000 Syrians, including thousands who serve in the army. And in Egypt, the death toll from military attacks on civilians in the protests following the army’s coup that ousted democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi topped 500 in one day last week.
In Laqlouq, as we looked around at our overnight digs, one American newcomer to Lebanon said the camp setup reminded her of “MASH,” the popular American TV show of the 1970s about a mobile medical unit of the U.S. military during the Korean conflict two decades before. Her friends broke into simultaneous humming of the show’s theme song.
Most everything else in Laqlouq had a distinctly Lebanese flavor. Some people brought their own darbuka, a hand-carried Arabic drum, and played a little percussion, perhaps a bit too late into the night. Others came with their own hubbly-bubbly, or hookah, smoking into the wee hours while cracking roasted sunflower seeds between their teeth. It was, in short, fairly late before the camp was quiet enough for sleep, and after a rough night of tossing and turning in sleeping bags, trying to stay warm, a commando entered our tent at precisely 4 a.m.
“Bonjour,” he bellowed. “Yalla guys and gals. Wake up.” Many Lebanese use French greetings in everyday language, which gives the military personnel who do so a genteel air that sets them apart from their more gruff and frightening, Russian-trained Syrian counterparts. Such cultural differences inspire much amusement, and reminded me of the story of two Syrian activists who recently spent a few days in Lebanese detention for filming in public without a license -- an offense that can land you in a torture chamber in Syria. “But here in Lebanon, our jailer even asked us what sandwich we would like for lunch,” one of the activists, Mohammad, told me. “So I said anything but Bologna, because I ate it for a year straight while in Syrian prison. I asked him for cheese and he was like: ‘Of course. Sure thing.’ And then he got up and brought cheese and rolled our sandwiches for us! We were shocked.”
Despite such anecdotes and the camaraderie we felt in Laqlouq, a few recent incidents involving the Lebanese military give pause. A controversial video surfaced in June of Lebanese soldiers kicking and slapping a man they had just interrogated. The incident came on the heels of fierce clashes between the Lebanese Army and supporters of Salafist Sunni Muslim sheikh Ahmad Al Asir, resulting in 10 dead Lebanese commandos. Al Asir is still in hiding.
Immigration patrol officers have also grown repressive at the Lebanese border in recent months as they process increasingly high numbers of fleeing Syrians. Uniformed Lebanese officials have been seen verbally insulting and physically assaulting civilians at the crossing, and corrupt Lebanese customs officials routinely fleece artists who try to escape Syria with personal artwork. Lebanese customs claims an “art tax” that in fact doesn't apply.
The Lebanese Army also faces a major challenge from domestic militia groups like Hezbollah, which acts as its own nation within a state and takes orders directly from Iran. The group recently involved itself in Syria’s civil war, sending highly trained militias to fight alongside Syrian government troops against the rebels, which created major political ripples inside Lebanon and contributed to a rise in sectarian tensions. Hezbollah, meanwhile, has no qualms about mocking the Lebanese Army: In a recent speech, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah suggested to the Army that he could “hook them up with some really good weapons from Iran” if they wanted to become as strong as Hezbollah.
In the predawn hours of "Be a Commando for a Day," when a commando awakened us, we could only hope such incidents are fleeting and will wane once a resolution is found to the Syrian conflict. One friendly commando posed for photos and let us hold his unloaded M-4 -- the newer, lighter version of the famous M-16 machine gun. Lebanese Commandos routinely train with U.S. and French military forces, and carry U.S.-made military hardware.
At precisely 5:30 a.m., at the break of dawn and shortly before a flare would announce the start of the race, commandos fired up their hallmark air balloon, which was anchored at several hundred feet high, causing the crowd to break into applause.
“Ya Watan!!” one woman shouted -- Arabic for “Hey Nation,” which is how many Lebanese address their soldiers.
Later, an Army helicopter stunt took place near the 10-kilometer rest stop on the trail. The helicopter rose slowly from the valley below to greet the civilians standing still on the hilltop, prompting everyone to cheer and snap photos.
It was an odd tableau considering what’s happening elsewhere in the region, particularly in Syria, where when a helicopter hovers near you, it's likely preparing to fire.