Friday, April 14, 2006

April 13, 1975: Lebanon's War and Memory

As iconic a date as September 11 is for America, April 13 is for Lebanon. It was on this day thirty-one years ago that the civil war began there, on a Sunday morning, neither cold nor hot as I remember it, but balmy enough for a family trip to the mountains, where we spent the day as oblivious to the crag unfolding in Beirut as we were about the shatters, happening that very day also, of a half-century’s colonial order half a world away. April 13, it turned out, wasn’t just the end of the road for Lebanon’s brief experiment with peace and the semblance of unity. It was also very near the end of the road for America’s experiment in hubris in Vietnam, and for Cambodia’s days without terror.

It’s all there on The New York Times’ front page for April 14, 1975. The lead story is by Sydney Schanberg, who’d eventually win a Pulitzer for it and others like it, reporting the exodus out of Phnom Penh as the Khmer Rouge approached (Schanberg was the last American reporter there). Over three columns and below a four-column picture of jubilant South Vietnamese soldiers waving communist flags they’d allegedly seized, Fox Butterfield reports North Vietnam’s capture of Xuan Loc (“a key provincial capital east of Saigon”). And there, above the fold, fifth column from the right, this two-deck headline: “22 Palestinians Killed in Beirut,” followed by the sub-head: “Are Reported Shot on Bus by Lebanese Rightists—Arafat Protests.” The story, datelined Beirut, is by Juan de Onis. Like Proust’s muffin, any one word evokes that whole world of strife indistinguishable from personal memories verging, inexplicably, on the nostalgic (I imagine because anything spilling out of one’s childhood, even the traumatic and unforgivable, inevitably flirts with the nostalgic). Read the rest...