Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah's Thirty-Year Struggle against Israel

  • Published

Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah's Thirty-Year Struggle against Israel by Nicholas Blanford. Random House, 2011, 544 pp.

Correspondent Nicholas Blanford, a recognized expert on Hezbollah (“the party of God” in Arabic), expertly documents the Shia movement in Lebanon over the last three decades. He traces Hezbollah’s meteoric rise in power and influence since the1982 Israeli invasion (First Lebanon War) and ends with the 2011 civil war in neighboring Syria. Certainly significant for US strategy, prior to 9/11, Hezbollah had killed more Americans than any other terrorist organization. Although not intended as a sequel to Thomas Friedman’s seminal work From Beirut to Jerusalem, Blanford’s tale of Lebanon fortunately picks up where Friedman left off. Warriors of God illustrates Hezbollah’s “hybrid war” successes on the battlefield and offers unparalleled insight to the militia’s structure and strategy. Students of airpower will appreciate Blanford’s understanding of military weaponry and a detailed account of the 2006 Israeli invasion (Second Lebanon War).

Blanford explains how the “Shia genie” created in the 1980s with the assistance of the clerical regime in Tehran eventually became an effective militant proxy of Syria and Iran with global reach. His insight to Hezbollah is supported through numerous interviews and frontline reporting. Threading the Hezbollah narrative are discussions with charismatic leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah and Hezbollah fighters and agents such as spy legend Ramzi Nohra. Most compelling, however, are his dialogues with battle-hardened Hezbollah soldiers and Lebanese civilians from across the political and religious spectrum whose stories explain the diverse, complicated Lebanese political landscape.

The book provides a practical illustration of Hezbollah’s hybrid warfare, in which it simultaneously employs guerilla tactics and sophisticated technology to counter the Israeli military. The author details Hezbollah’s 13 points of asymmetrical warfare that eerily echo Sun Tzu and Mao Zedong. Tenants of this strategy include “avoid the strong, attack the weak—attack and withdraw” and “the population is a treasure—nurture it.” Vignettes include the long-range targeting (and possible radar jamming) of the Israeli navy’s most sophisticated missile cruiser, a capability unknown (at the time) by Israeli planners. (A Hezbollah C802 land-to-sea missile hit and almost sunk the Hanit in 2006). He also details the construction of elaborate bunkers, tunnels, and command posts—defensives not unlike Vietnam’s Cu Chi. The book chronicles tactics and techniques Hezbollah perfected to win the hearts and minds of the Lebanese residing in the south, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. Blanford demonstrates that Hezbollah’s objectives were never tactical or shortsighted but all along strategic and holistic throughout their pursuit of “a society of resistance” against Israel.

The book offers plenty of lessons for airpower advocates. In 2006, the well-trained Israeli Air Force (IAF) masterfully targeted Hezbollah’s medium- and long-range missiles, but was unable to eliminate key Hezbollah leaders like Nasrallah. The Israeli goal of making the Lebanese government pay for Hezbollah’s actions through a “shock and awe” air bombing campaign was unsuccessful. At first, much of the Lebanese population enjoyed the bloody nose Hezbollah was receiving from the airpower punch, but when roads, bridges, and other civilian infrastructure were targeted, public sentiment shifted away from the Israelis. Although never designated in the master air attack plan, and a responsibility of the Israel army, the inability to stop the rain of Hezbollah’s short-range missiles into northern Israel produced a misrepresentation of airpower. This, along with poor coordination between ground and air forces, later resulted in the firing of IAF general Dan Halutz. Interestingly Blanford surmises the recent buildup of Israeli antimissile defense systems (Iron Dome, David’s Sling) as “tactical solutions to a strategic problem.” Blanford has lived and worked in Lebanon for decades, and through his extensive contacts with Hezbollah, he certainly humanizes its fighters to his readers, to the point that one might empathize with their struggle. At the same time, however, Israel comes across as more brutal and heavy handed in its tactics, and the IAF does not receive a comprehensive review. (For an in-depth analysis of the air force’s performance read Dr. Ben Lambeth’s authoritative Air Operations in Israel’s War against Hezbollah.)

Warriors of God finishes with two important points. First, Blanford argues that the 2006 Israeli invasion and bombing of Lebanon was a tactical victory but a strategic defeat. The critical question he asks, is for whom? Hezbollah proved that it could go toe-to-toe with Israel, but the cost was more than $6 billion in damage and thousands of lives lost in Lebanon. Hezbollah’s self-defined “Divine Victory” over Israel also brought on unprecedented challenges for the militia. Indeed, Blanford writes, the organization may have become a victim of its own success by entering into the messy Lebanese political process following the war. To wit, Hezbollah’s heavy-handed tactics against other Muslims in Beirut in 2008 and its implication in the 2005 assassination of popular “Mr. Lebanon,” former Lebanese prime minister and head of the state’s Sunni Muslim community, Rafik Hariri, alienated many Lebanese. And the Shiite militia’s shadowy (and at least for now, unconfirmed) support for Syria’s brutal regime in its repression of the largely Sunni popular uprising is sure to further diminish its popularity.

Overall, the book is fascinating and strongly recommended for the military strategist. Blanford’s descriptive writing style expertly combines the contradictions of Lebanese beauty (scenic mountain vistas and citrus-laden air) with the rumble of Israeli Merkava tanks and zing of Hezbollah bullets. Military thinkers must fully comprehend the lessons of the Hezbollah versus Israel case study, as it clearly demonstrates one can win the battle but lose the war. A certain nominee for the CSAF’s reading list, Warriors of God illustrates hybrid warfare and the need for airmen to fight both a counterinsurgency and a conventional war—perhaps both at the same time.

Lt Col S. Edward Boxx, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."