Thrilling account from Lebanon front line
Blood, Sweat and Tears: An Irish Soldier's Story of Love and Loss. Tom Clonan Liberties Press, €12.74
It is often wondered why Ireland has a particularly engaged and even fraught relationship with Israel and the Middle East, given its distance and lack of an ethnic connection to that troubled zone. But one reason is that we are continually involved in the Lebanon, where Irish troops have been peacekeepers since 1978.
In fact, Ireland has the unusual position of being a small country which has been out-front on this issue diplomatically, and certainly in an EU context, while at the same time actually dealing physically with the Israeli military on the ground. Specifically in south Lebanon, where Israel has been engaged in a bitter, long-running conflict with both armed Palestinians and now Islamic militants, Hezbollah.
Some observers might think the Irish soldiers are on some vigorous sun holiday, keeping watch from their bunkers.
Far from it, and this excellent account describes all too vividly and dramatically the tension and brutality of the conflict and the heroic work done by the Irish and other peacekeepers in helping the civilian population caught up in the middle of this deadly war of wits.
Meanwhile, the peacekeepers have to deal with the crossfire and intimidation themselves, and with weaponry far less sophisticated than that of the principal actors.
At a time when so many new Irish books seem bland or repetitive (history, politics), this is a most exciting and unusual read, almost unique indeed in describing the experience it does.
Irish troops have served over 40,000 individual tours of duty in Lebanon since 1978. That's a lot of families connected to a foreign war zone, in which almost 50 Irish soldiers have been killed, many more injured and thousands more traumatised, or in fairness, enriched and emboldened by the experience.
And yet despite this intense connection, there is little public understanding of our military involvement in Lebanon.
Part of the reason is that the soldiers are strongly encouraged not to talk about it afterwards, and generally they don't – until now.
But Clonan is no 'kiss-and -tell' merchant. He has tremendous affection for the army and for its discipline and service, but also for its chaos and black humour, and he gives us a series of Irish characters with memorable nicknames, and salty tongues, to bring us through his absorbing story. There are hilarious trips to Damascus and Tel Aviv.
It helps that Clonan is a fine writer, and his descriptions of the near nightly exchanges between Hezbollah fighters and the Israelis in their isolated armed fortresses – an apparently almost pointless warfare, incidentally – were, for this reader, some of the most vivid I've read anywhere on this conflict, and that's saying something.
Clonan has an impressive familiarity with military technology, but he is not anorak about it, and describes it in a way that is compelling and haunting.
He also combines his story with an account of his personal development while in the army and after, including his relationship with his parents, both of whom pass away during the course of the book.
His Lebanese tour of duty was in 1996, but little has changed and the account could have been about last summer.
Many books have been written by outsiders on the politics of the region, but very few have been written by those who were on the ground, dealing with the conflict as a peacekeeper, and the fact that he describes it on behalf of himself and his Irish comrades, makes for a very valuable account indeed. And an absorbing read.