THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
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The human face of Hezbollah

By David M. Shribman
October 11, 2010

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We know Hezbollah from television news, from the headlines, from magazine stories. We know it is a substantial power in the Middle East. We know it is pledged to endless war against Israel. We know it is shrewdly organized and its warriors are brave and determined. But we do not know Hezbollah.

Now Thanassis Cambanis, himself shrewd, brave, and determined, has produced “A Privilege to Die,’’ which shows us a Hezbollah with a human face — a Hezbollah that nonetheless is a grave threat both to Israel and Western interests in the Middle East.

Cambanis is a former Middle East correspondent and Iraq bureau chief for the Globe — I worked for the Globe for a decade but do not believe I ever met him and surely would not recognize him in Starbucks or over the fish counter at the grocery store — who trained his eyes on this most elusive and yet perhaps the most unavoidable factor in the Middle East. What emerges is a personal portrait of a complex group — part army, part welfare agency, as entrepreneurial as it is violent — allied with America’s greatest rival in the region (Iran) and dedicated to the destruction of America’s greatest ally in the region (Israel).

“Hezbollah has broken the crusty traditions of Arab politics to craft a big-tent party platform that speaks to people’s mundane aspirations: economic reform, affordable health care, round-the-clock electricity, efficient courts, and community policing,’’ he writes. “Most importantly of all, however, Hezbollah has shifted the norms of Middle East politics with its fast-spreading ideology of perpetual war.’’

Where some writers talk about the Arab streets, Cambanis has walked them. Along the way he encountered warriors and hospital workers, polished intellectuals and women who sell nuts by the curb, ideologues and theologians, those who engage in small acts of resistance and those who prosecute total war of the most brutal sort.

Some of the people he met on these wanderings were unforgiving but unforgettable. He introduces us to a Hezbollah fighter who “humanized a worldview that until I met him felt robotic, monolithic, inhumane’’ and then, in one of his most poignant passages, to his widow. “She had loved her husband and she loved her children, but — incomprehensibly to me — she was willing to lose them to a cause that seemed to me hopeless, impersonal and at times fanatical.’’ And countless others, men and women, young and old, secular and religious.

What becomes clear is that the key to Hezbollah is its ability to spread virtue along with the violence. It promises, for example, to restore communities — homes and businesses — to their original conditions after each episode of conflict. “Hezbollah needed to keep [its] soft supporters happy,’’ Cambanis writes, “and to do so it needed to deliver bricks and mortar along with its ideology.’’

The money for these efforts — both the virtue and the violence — comes in large measure from Iran, which sometimes provides cash in the form of huge bricks of American dollars. Iran bankrolls the group’s attacks against Israel as well as its road construction efforts, with somewhere between $25 million and $200 million a year pouring through porous borders.

But Hezbollah is a Middle East group with a difference. It has a think tank, for example, producing reports on subjects such as water rights and telecommunications policy. It is capable of geopolitical campaigns and street campaigns. It marches to martial music (which Cambanis said reminded him of the “songs of the Communist partisans during the Greek civil war in the 1940s’’) and to the quiet murmuring of dissent and rebellion.

Cambanis concludes that Hezbollah is efficient — and effective. “More successfully than any Islamist movement, and more effectively than most Middle Eastern governments, it has provided for its community’s needs,’’ he writes. It is nation-building without a nation — proof that job counseling and trash collection can help fight a war.

David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, was for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief. He can be reached at dshribman@post-gazette.com.

A PRIVILEGE TO DIE: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel

By Thanassis Cambanis

Free Press, 336 pp., $27