Thugs and Gangs of Lebanon’s Civil War: Reconsidering Conflict through Microhistory

Sunday, January 4, 2015
2nd Floor Promenade (New York Hilton)
Dylan Baun, University of Arizona
In historical studies on the Lebanese Civil War of 1975-1990, “popular organizations” (the composite of social clubs, paramilitary groups and political parties) are often framed as the culprits of collective violence.  They are characterized as ‘pawns,’ playing out regional struggles on the streets, and ‘wild militias,’ composed of ‘mad’ young men embroiled in ‘sectarian conflict.’  These claims are substantiated through a focus on elite power politics, and the structures, ideologies and leaders of popular organizations.  While this approach locates the importance of external pressures and belief systems in conflict onset, it overlooks individuals within popular organizations that participated in the war.

This poster depicts the lives of fighters from popular organizations during the first years of the war in order to reconsider conflict in Lebanon.  Under the approach of microhistory, it situates the local context in which conflict unfolded.  Moreover, through presenting the beliefs, values and practices of these individuals, this poster seeks to think beyond characterizations of ‘thugs’ and ‘gangs’ that were ‘pawns’ of elites.  At the same time, this poster highlights that the dissemination of biographical information on fighters by popular organizations during conflict represented group attempts to accumulate cultural capital through selling martyrs and recruiting future fighters. 

The poster displays seven individuals from four organizations through different types of “martyr productions.”  First, are martyr posters, hung on streets and buildings occupied by specific organizations.  These were created to glorify fighters, but also to claim group control of a physical space.  Second are funeral ceremonies, which highlight communal practices of grief, anger and collective identity pivotal to conflict perpetuation.  Third are reports of war operations, which showed what individuals gave up for “the cause,” and the messages they left for future martyrs.  Finally, are poetry and letters, designed to remember characteristics of fighters and give the living a written space to construct the importance of their martyrs and organization. 

On one level, analyzing these sources of visual culture provide necessary biographical information to locate ordinary fighters of Lebanon’s Civil War.  This allows for a nuanced understanding of conflict participants beyond normative assessments.  Indeed, these individuals were not merely thugs, but students, industrial workers, revolutionaries and refugees, all motivated through competing understandings of nation and struggle, and similar notions of masculine honor.  On another level, employing Bourdieu’s cultural capital uncovers group strategies to deploy martyrs for the sake of in-group solidarity and to win the popular classes for future battles.  This insight demonstrates that these groups were not merely pawns in a regional struggle, but had productive capacities as well, creating a context in which they could justify their continued presence. 

Collectively, this project brings the ordinary, cultural and visual into the study of conflict.  Furthermore, by pairing a methodology grounded in cultural history with a theoretical framework inspired by social theory, this project balances from below and above approaches to history.  This balance, mediated through the ordinary fighters central to this project, is both crucial to the approach of microhistory and reconsidering conflict in Lebanon and beyond.

See more of: Poster Session #1
See more of: AHA Sessions