bring it back

“Sacrifice is the law of life. It runs through and governs every walk of life. We can do nothing or get nothing without paying a price for it… If we would secure the salvation of the community to which we belong, we must pay for it. That is, sacrifice self.”

– Mahatma Gandhi

Whether you’re stepping into a fraternity’s musty unfinished basement, the packed common room at a small liberal arts college, or the sweaty living room of a college kid whose parents are out of town for the summer, chances are you’ll immediately notice several things. Bass beats thumping deep into your sinuses, girls wearing tops that could pass for bibs, and many of the kids either watching or waiting their turn to play a game that’s been synonymous with the college experience since their parents’ generation.

The game they’re waiting to play is the popular drinking-game known as Beer Pong. For anyone who’s not familiar: it’s played by two teams of two opposing pairs who are lined up across a long table. Each team has a group of plastic cups in front of them arranged in a pyramid with its base at the table’s edge, and every cup is filled with beer to somewhere over about an inch.

Winning is nominally a goal, although the real point of the game is to get drunk.

The “Pong” comes from the fact that ping-pong tables are the playing tables of choice, and two ping-pong balls a requirement. Each partner takes turns lobbing one of the ping-pong balls towards the other pair’s cups and if the ball lands in a cup it’s removed and the beer inside is chugged by one of the partners. The first team to be forced to drink all its cups loses.

It’s a fun and engaging way to get a buzz, and most players take the time to codify a set of house rules applicable to the table the game is being played on. Great pride is imbued into some tables, as students will make a table their own by doing everything from covering all 4,500 square-inches with bottle-caps, to painting on intricate designs, to rigging up neon lighting underneath the table’s surface.

A quick search for “beer pong table” online can provide some choice examples. And there’re rules about bouncing the balls into cups, rules about which team shoots first, rules about puking protocol, rules about when the cups can be realigned. But nationwide one common rule is that if in one turn both partners land their ping-pong balls in the opponents’ cups, then they get to call for both balls to be sent back and each get another turn to toss a ball. Getting to make the other team “bring it back” is the easiest path to victory, since if you’re always doing the shooting your opponents never get a chance to shoot back.

By staying on the offensive, you never lose momentum.

Since you’re not allowed to interfere with an opponent’s balls, the only defense is a good offense – you can’t lose if your enemy never has a chance to get off any shots of his own. The winning team always stays on the table, and the longer their streak runs the harder it becomes for them to remain since they’re going to be drinking at least some of their cups each game and so getting progressively drunker. And as the night goes on, everyone eventually loses accuracy.

Before long balls are landing on furniture, ricocheting off spectators, crashing off the sides of cups and under chairs – haphazardly doing anything but actually splashing-down where they were aimed

Beer Pong is a regional game, with geographically proximate sections of the country generally playing by similar rules. Sometimes colleges at the outskirts of the country have odd twists on things, and college students at Dartmouth typically play not by throwing the ping-pong balls but for some reason whacking them with ping-pong paddles. Students at Dartmouth are weird.

And so depending on where you are in the country, you’ll frequently find beer-pong known by another name. In many colleges of the American northeast it’s called “Beirut,” although you’d be hard pressed to find a participant who’s able to tell you why that is.

As the civil war of the 1970s raged within Lebanon, nearby events in the Middle East would soon indelibly alter the course of Lebanon’s fate. While in Lebanon the Civil War was in the process of displacing over a third of the population and causing over 100,000 deaths, in 1979, just to the east of Lebanon, a force that would soon seed irrepressible violent movements throughout the region was blooming into a phenomenon that presents the most vivid threat to Western interests today.

As with any massive modern social movement, no one’s sure exactly why the Iranian Revolution happened.

It is most simply, and perhaps best, understood as the violent crystallization of a public saturated with discontent, frustration, and enmity around a charismatic and compelling ideology. The angrier and more frustrated the average Iranian grew with a government they saw as corrupt, immoral, and a puppet of the West – the closer they identified with the rhetoric of Islamic nationalism. Rhetoric which sought to return the Muslims of Iran to prominence by restoring the ideals and values of a pure Islamic society and expelling the outside Western influence that put Iran’s current leader in place. Unique to the Iranian Revolution was the fact that the driving rhetoric was for the first time delivered to the people not only on paper but via another medium of the masses – the cassette tape.

Recorded from his exile in Paris, the Ayatollah Khomeini’s taped sermons kept his physical distance from separating him from the thickening saturation of civil discontent in Iran. The literal translation of Khomeini’s title, Eye of God, provokes the sinister image of the malevolent all-seeing eyeball Sauron from the Lord of the Rings film trilogy.

And although this meshes nicely with the prevalent Western stereotype of demonic blood-chugging baby-eating Islamic clerics, it doesn’t really do anything to explain the nature of a title that, unlike any Christian equivalent, isn’t bestowed by an entrenched bureaucratic religious hierarchy but only by communal consent. Nor does it reflect the piety of a man who retired to a small and spartan Tehran apartment after willingly ceding authority to an – albeit highly controlled and explicitly limited – democratic regime.

The implications and history behind Khomeini’s moniker will be examined later, but for now what’s most telling is the fact he was able to incite only the third mass social revolution of the 20th century using only the power of his word, made virulent and pervasive by the rudimentary technology of the cassette tape. It wasn’t the first time and it wouldn’t be the last that emergent technology would play a vital role in a massive social uprising.

A step beyond the written tract, which brought the fervor of an early religious revolution to Europe, the cassette tape took revolutionary rhetoric into the modern era. No massive Hilteresque rallies to demagogically rally the masses were needed. The Iranian Revolution was able to reach its Tipping Point and spread across the entirety of Iran because of a lowly bit of plastic ribbon, which acted as the channel through which the social epidemic of revolution spread first across Iran and then into the rest of the Middle East.

This precedent, inciting proactive political action without making any in-person appearances, is a portent of Islamic fundamentalism’s most potent threat a generation later. Now, with the internet’s increased muscle of multi- added to mass-media, an ideology’s potential virulence is far greater still, and the next Tipping Point may be reached even more suddenly.

And in the generations to come it would, as Facebook, Twitter, and the rest of the 21st century’s social media provided the connections that conducted the shared feelings of discontent and dissension which sparked the Arab Sprint into its socially transformative but fleeting existence.

A year after their triumph, leaders of the Iranian Revolution ordered the seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran. This would lead to a botched rescue operation by a too-hastily planned mission of Special Forces soldiers, a failure that catalyzed the creation of a full-time and fully-funded Special Operations Command in the American military. And it would be these Special Forces who would later be at the front of the battle to suppress the machinations of Islamic extremism – with both groups tracing their origins back to the Iranian Revolution.

The crumbling of the old Iranian monarchy into the sea of Islamic activism created a tsunami of extremism that rushed over every Middle Eastern border. All of the nations carved into being with the end of World War I harbored populations of Arab-Islamic nationalists who ranged from the latent to the constantly-making-assassination-attempts. The fall of Iran’s monarchial Shah “transcended Shiite Iran… and encompassed the ummah as a whole,”1 serving as a model for Sunni and Shiite activists alike.

It would encourage the Blind Sheikh to inspire Sadat’s assassination, drive the formation of the terrorist groups who still torment Israel with suicide bombings, provide an example to the Taliban of the potency of determined nationalist Islamic will, and reassure Osama bin Ladin that the West could be defied. Nowhere was this more apparent than Lebanon, where the Civil War there intersected with the Iranian Revolution, and “Khomeini’s ideas and slogans spread with particular speed among the young and poor Shiites living in southern Lebanon.”2

The embattled and unsettled nature of Lebanon in 1979, four years into a brutal Civil War, created a nation that was less a state and more a loose configuration of State Shells, each warring for increased power and control. From this unstable mixture, in which “a primitive form of tribalism displaced civilization” and where people “seized upon their communal identity in a desperate effort at self-preservation,”3 an explosion would be expertly hand-crafted and lovingly placed against the WWII-era pylons of the Western imperialist meddling that many in the region believed carried the original blame for the region’s legacies of disintegration and death.

You wouldn’t expect that a man with a lisp that could give Elmer Fudd the oratory confidence of Morgan Freeman would be able to inspire the most active and notorious terrorist organization ever to emerge in the Middle East.

But that’s exactly what occurred as Hezbollah consolidated itself as the most powerful State Shell within Lebanon’s borders, under the divinely slurred guidance of Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah. The group was unmistakably Islamic, as Hezbollah translates to “The Party of God.” Under Fadlallah’s leadership the group was given the final momentum it needed by a heavy-handed Israeli invasion that aimed to root out the PLO.

Fadlallah and Hezbollah were able to fill the gap left when the only other man vying for the hearts and minds of Lebanese Shiites, Musa al Sadr, disappeared in Libya while on his way to meet with the Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution of Libya, Muammar Gaddafi. This suspicious and sudden disappearance left Sadr’s party, AMAL – an anagram that spells out the Arabic word for “hope” – foundering in the waves of revolution-stirred violence that was crashing against every Lebanese village, city, and institution.

Without its charismatic founding leader, AMAL lost most of its constituency to Hezbollah, as it was unable to match the funding and support provided to Hezbollah by the Iranian clerics who saw Hezbollah as the best means of continuing their Islamic Revolution in the region.

It’s almost impossible to give one date as Hezbollah’s birthday – it started off as only a handful of members in the summer of 1982 but soon grew in a few short years to an umbrella organization that encompassed nearly 7,000 Lebanese who’d originally belonged to various other political, resistance, and social groups who all had one thing in common: a shared and strengthening sense of Muslim identity.

But what cemented Hezbollah’s place in Lebanon was the Israeli invasion. It was meant to stop attacks from the refugees who’d congealed into the PLO, and who’d been displaced by the war which was, in some eyes, preordained by the same political dissection which caused the cancers of militarism and authoritarianism to metastasize throughout the region. The PLO set up shop as a State Shell in the southern valleys of Lebanon. As its Secretary General explained, Hezbollah “had the conditions for its formation before the Israeli invasion, but the invasion accelerated its existence.”

When Gideon’s great-great-great-great grandchildren again tired of incessant raids from the north, they invaded Lebanon in June of 1982 in an attempt to push the PLO and Hezbollah back from their borders and end its attacks on Israel.

Fighting with guerrilla forces in the region, Israeli forces beat the militants back to the outskirts of West Beirut. They begun a daily routine of shelling the capital, and when Beirut had been softened enough, Israeli forces, under the generalship of Ariel Sharon, entered West Beirut under the justification of mopping up the remaining elements of the PLO and protecting the defenseless refugees who weren’t part of that terrorist organization.

Unbeknownst to nearly every modern college student who plays the game, it was this West Beirut shelling – added to the chorus of mortars, gunfire, and explosions that’d been racking Beirut since that opening act of the Civil War against the bus-bound Palestinian refugees – which led to “Beirut” being coined as a less politically correct name for Beer Pong. The lazy arc of mortar fire mimics ping-pong balls in flight, as do the haphazard and messy results of both – albeit on much different scales.

Although it wasn’t for their mortar-fire that the Israelis are remembered, except inadvertently by drunk college kids.

It’s said that it was while watching the destruction of Beirut’s high-rises by munitions bought from the West that Osama bin Ladin decided he would one day bring the same destruction to America. That it was while watching Arab towers in Lebanon fall to shelling that bin Ladin became determined to bring our Towers down as well.

The irregularity and haphazardness of the lines traced across the Beirut sky by mortars became comically apparent as the Israeli army was gratefully escorted through West Beirut by war-weary Christian militiamen. As the Jewish troops advanced the local Christians greeted them with coffee, soft drinks, and candy. After one Christian woman handed a cold can of 7-Up to a grizzled thirsty solider he turned to her with a grin and asked with feigned incredulity, “You don’t have a Pepsi?”

She responded deadpan, “No. You bombed the Pepsi plant last week.”4

But what followed the Israeli seizure of West Beirut would secure Ariel Sharon’s place in the Arab pantheon of Zionist demons and serve as a rallying cry for the dozens of uprisings that would occur over the next two decades, all crowing their intent to preserve the camps and shantytowns of the Occupied Territories in and around Israel from the same terrible fate. Under cover of night, Israeli troops allowed the local Christian militia to enter the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila and slaughter the men, women, and children inside. Nearly 700 unarmed civilians died in this mini-Crusade, which would set a precedent of suspicion for every incursion Israeli forces would make into any Arab encampment in the decades to come.

Since then, whenever an Arab has been killed by Israeli forces the first thought in every Arab’s mind is Sabra and Shatila, no matter how justified an incursion might be, or how much in self-defense Israeli troops might’ve been acting.

The scope of the atrocity was enough to compel President Reagan to send American Marines into Lebanon alongside French and Italian allies in an attempt to secure the peace in 1983. Instead, in one of the rounds of the lethal irony that has so often beset the region, the troops merely served as more fodder for Hezbollah’s manifestation of Islamic fundamentalism.

Hezbollah was bolstered by direct support from the new Iranian leaders, who offered their eagerly accepted funding, training, and troops to Fadlallah and the other Shiite clerics meeting in Iran at the time of the Israeli incursion for strategic talks. And so $150 million dollars of Iranian money sealed the deaths of hundreds who were living in Lebanon for one reason or another, including 241 American Marines barracked just outside Beirut’s International Airport.

Henry Linkila had practiced swinging his unloaded M-16 rifle from its position at rest, butt cupped in his left-hand and barrel light on his left-shoulder, to its shooting position literally tens of thousands of times. He could, and had thousands upon thousands of times, then slam a magazine into place from its home on his left hip in the dark. All in less than two seconds – rain, snow, sleet, shine, or hangover.

From his first days of riflery training on Parris Island he’d learned, just as in Full Metal Jacket, that there was in fact a difference between his rifle and his gun. And although he could and had stripped and cleaned both of them expertly in the dark, the Marine Corps insisted on provable expertise only in the former on his way to gaining the rank of Lance Corporal. Linkila was confident he’d have no trouble performing in combat when the time came, which it did as part of the 1,500 man Marine Amphibious Unit sent to Lebanon to somehow establish some semblance of peace.

And he was right, although in the end it didn’t matter.

Swinging your M-16 into the ready position, slapping a magazine in, chambering a bullet, and firing on the parade grounds or on the shooting range is always easier then doing it a true combat situation. After all, no Drill Sergeant can make as much noise or roil as much fear in your gut as a canary-yellow nineteen-ton Mercedes flatbed truck you’ve seen roll harmlessly by the building on a regular basis taking an apparent wrong-turn, screeching around cemented pipe obstacles, and bearing down on your sand-bagged guard post at 0600 hours.

Linkila had no way of knowing the regular delivery truck had been hijacked and the one accelerating towards the barracks that day was a near-exact replica of the trucks regularly passing by his barracks and the nearby Beirut International Airport. It was loaded with explosives by Hezbollah operatives and was being driven by one of their men who was high on, of all things – a hallucinogenic cookie.4

Oddly enough, Linkila might’ve been less surprised by a pack of bomb-strapped mutts racing at his post – intelligence had been murmuring for weeks about the possibility of a bomb attack and one of the possible modes of attack mentioned was dog-bomb. As a result, the joke in the barracks was that the unit’s sharpshooters had significantly lowered the local pound’s population by honing their skills whacking every mutt that skulked across their scopes.5 Despite the fact that a bomb placed in a black GMC van had killed 68 Americans, including the cream of intelligence crop stationed in Beirut a few months earlier, the specter of a truck-bomb wasn’t something they trained you for in the Marines, back then.

Packed into the truck was 660 pounds of Pentaerythritol TetraNitrate, a high explosive which explodes with the force of twenty-times its weight in TNT, and which had been shipped to Lebanon from Bulgaria via Damascus.6 Linkila managed only to chamber a round before the Mercedes truck sliced through his post and into the lobby of the Marine barracks, exploding in the signature roaring mushroom-cloud of high-explosives.

Throughout West Beirut, sleeping Lebanese were awakened by the awesome blast.

It wouldn’t have mattered if Lance Corporal Linkila had miraculously managed to snipe the truck’s driver, Martyr Chubtarasha, and stop him quite dead as soon as he turned off from the airport road 100 yards from the building. The FBI later determined that even had the truck-bomb detonated on the main roadway, its bomb – equivalent to 12,000 pounds of dynamite and causing the largest conventional blast since WWII – still would’ve caused significant casualties to the Marines asleep in their barracks.

One of the luckier Marines, Adam Webb, was stationed on the roof that early morning of October 23rd, 1983 and surfed down on the debris created by the blast into a hellish scene of destruction. Pieces of his comrades were pasted together with pieces of their barracks. All in all 241 Marines died from the precedent-setting blast which collapsed every floor of the barracks. Just down the road the French position suffered a similar fate, and France lost 58 men to a smaller truck-bomb.

A few weeks later, President Reagan announced the withdrawal of US forces from Lebanon. Public opinion had turned against the deployment, their pressure demanded that he “bring it back,” and he complied. What enabled Hezbollah to pull an attack together that caused so much damaged in so little time?

The answer to this question lies in the same place as the explanation for why Ramzi Yousef’s fifteen-hundred pound bomb accomplished so little tactically in New York.

In an international game for Lebanon’s fate, this was Hezbollah’s “two-cupper.” By dropping two consecutive bombs onto the forces arrayed against them, Hezbollah prevented the US and French forces from establishing any sort of initiative and soundly beat back their hesitant attempt at foreign intervention. Although it’s classically referred to simply as an act of “terrorism,” this is both inaccurate and incomplete. The attack was an act of Tactical Terror, in that it used asymmetric, novel means to defeat a numerically superior enemy via the most effective means possible and aimed not to create a theatrical spectacle but a tactical victory.

Hezbollah didn’t strike when the media were around. They struck early in the morning when anyone who could see their attack would likely be asleep. It was also the one time that corresponded to a regular truck passing when they figured the guards would be the groggiest – just after 6AM.

The truck-bombing was also a commando-led act of war in the sense that the men who executed it were trained by a form of state and were attacking men designated as troops. Although American troops do symbolize our nation, there isn’t much behind the argument that this was more an act of Symbolic Terror because the target that was attacked was the only target available and wasn’t meant to be witnessed by the media or anyone else. Hezbollah set precedents by proving the West was beatable and could be defied under the right circumstances, and by making the suicide-bomb the weapon of choice for terrorist organizations around the globe.

But what’s most important about the attack are the brevity of its planning, the thoroughness of its implementation, and the efficacy of its tactics.

These characteristics of the attack were possible because Hezbollah was a well-funded State Shell and was highly integrated into society. More than that, they devoted “considerable efforts to social services for the communities as a whole.”7 Some of these efforts were manifested as “cultural centers, orphanages, clinics, and welfare centers” and “two major hospitals” which serviced the poor and needy of the country. In addition to these concrete contributions, as early as 1982 Hezbollah founded a Financial Assistance Committee, an organization that granted 130,000 scholarships and provided aid for 135,000 needy families with interest-free loans over the next few years.8

Hezbollah didn’t need the theatre of Symbolic Terror to establish itself as a group because its members were already firmly implanted within Lebanese society and it had all the financial and logistical assistance it could ever want from Iran. Through these humanitarian interactions Iran was able to use the men who would become Hezbollah to maintain a sensitive finger on the pulse of Lebanese will and measure where they stood. This allowed them to accurately measure how the attack would be perceived by the society in which they dwelled.

As a State Shell, Hezbollah was enabled to provide organizational support and training for the attack that is comparable to the support a professional military provides to its troops. In fact there was direct aid from the militaries of both Iran and Syria in the planning and training for the attack. Another example of military-supported suicide training is the Japanese Kamikaze pilots who also believed that their self-sacrifice would enable their country to avoid American occupation. The Kamikaze pilots were “generally graduates of special training programs,” and were “macabre, effective, and supremely practical under the circumstances.”8 The idea for using suicide attacks against the invading Western forces was further developed by the Iranian army’s recruitment of young men during the war against Iraq that claimed an estimated one-million lives from 1980 to 1988.

When the Iranians saw their defensive lines beginning to crack, they organized young volunteers into squads of suicide-soldiers who were sent in massive unarmed waves against the Iraqi frontline. These waves, filled with boys often as young as thirteen, were armed only with a bandana and ordered to rush across the battlefield in the thousands and swarm hardened Iraqi positions on their way to martyrdom. More often than not, their boyhood was sacrificed to the task of minesweeping en masse. Tens of thousands of young Iranians joined the ranks of these basij recruits, believing they would be rewarded with a certain place in Paradise for their sacrifice.

But in the case of the 1983 Hezbollah attack, only two suicide soldiers were available, and so they were given a considerable amount of training.

Well in advance of the attack, the drivers of the two truck-bombs were provided with “advanced professional training such as Beirut-style driving, avoiding obstacles, how to crash their vehicles into the buildings,”9 and further instruction at commando and sabotage training camp. This contrasts starkly with the fact that Yousef waited until the evening before the attack to even find the driver of his bomb, and comically with one abortive attack in Southeast Asia by another rag-tag group who stuck their pre-picked driver in his explosive-laden truck on the morning of their planned attack – only to be informed by him that there was a problem.

The truck had a manual transmission, and the prospective terrorist had no clue how to drive stick.

The temporal aspect of the attack also indicates the speed with which an established and dynamic State Shell, much like a well-run state, can formulate and execute attacks. On September 26, 1983 Iran ordered Hezbollah to carry out a massive attack against the amassed foreign troops. Then, without the passing of even a month, the attack had been conceived, formulated, planned, and executed.

In just under a month the drivers were thoroughly trained, the highly-potent bomb built, the doppelganger trucks assembled. This efficiency is the hallmark of State Shell-sponsored terrorism and can only be achieved when the terrorists executing the attack are in a society they’re comfortable living and operating within. Contrast this with Yousef, who had no previous experience with American society and made no effort to understand America and, through this understanding, find our pressure-points.

The attacks of both Ramzi Yousef and Hezbollah were intended to be Tactical Terror, however the latter succeeded where the former failed because Hezbollah was a well-established and supplied part of a society that it understood intimately, while Yousef lacked funding, training, and discipline and was uncomfortable with the society he was operating within. When terrorists are uncomfortable or unfamiliar with the society they’re attacking, either the attack will achieve much less than its tactical potential or an inordinate amount of time will be spent planning attacks that still have obvious tactical flaws.

No one functions well, on any level, within a society and culture they don’t understand. Not as a businessman, not as a diplomat, and not as a terrorist. The tactical shortcomings of attacks that are planned in a society that is alien to a terrorist was already demonstrated by Yousef, and their temporal shortcomings are exemplified by several of the most notorious acts of Islamic extremism in the 20th century carried out in al-Qaeda’s name.

Although its high level of efficacy links the 1983 Hezbollah bombing of the US Marine barracks to the terrorism of the future, what ties the Hezbollah truck-bombing to the past is the fact the men who died driving each vehicle are memorialized by posters, propaganda tapes, monuments, and street names throughout Lebanon.

They died as many hundreds would in the decades to come would die, as martyrs. They died defending their faith, Islam. Which makes sense since “Islamic fundamentalism is associated with about half of the suicide terrorist attacks that have occurred from 1980 to 2003.”10 Everyone who dies in a suicide attack in the name of Islam believes they’ll be remembered by their community as a martyr. Martyrdom as an ideal has become inextricably tied to modern Islam, as the suicide bombers of Iraq are considered “martyred” the same as the Palestinian terrorists killed by Israeli air-strikes.

And so today martyrdom has become a concept peculiar to modern Islam, and it holds its prime importance within the religion of Islam. Martyrdom, then, is a concept that provides more illumination into the early development of that particular faith than any other, and plays its most important role in the birth and history of Islam.

Doesn’t it?

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