Multiethnic Armies and National Unity

Multiethnic armies like the Lebanese, Iraqi, and Afghan national forces face enormous challenges as they attempt to become viable forces. Historically, successes in unifying a military force often have a huge impact on a nation’s larger society.

August 22, 2006 1:07 pm (EST)

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Throughout history, armies composed of varied nationalities and religions have faced special challenges in dealing with ethnic diversity and keeping a lid on the political frictions inherent when rival groups comingle. A number of authoritarian regimes have used the army to enforce ethnic dominance rather than dilute it: the Russian-dominated Red Army of the Soviet Union, Saddam’s Sunni-dominated military in Iraq, and the Arab army of multiethnic Sudan. As Omer Bartov writes in the Times Literary Supplement, Lenin and Stalin’s use of the Red Army alternatively to promote the "molding and destruction of ethnic groups was part of a complex, and often brutal, process of trying to create a Soviet nation from a conglomerate of peoples under their control." Lebanon, of course, operates on a much smaller scale, but the degree to which its multiethnic army is able to function and establish order is crucial for efforts at reviving the Lebanese state.

Mitigating ethnic chauvinism

Maronite Christians originally dominated the officer corps in Lebanon. Today, however, with hopes for stabilizing the Lebanese-Israeli border at least partly dependent on the army’s ability to act as a national, rather than tribal force, issues of ethnic superiority warrant new examination. As with recent efforts to build national armies in multiethnic Afghanistan and Iraq, the effort is fraught with difficulty. Previous attempts—in Yugoslavia, for instance—ultimately came to grief.

Yet nations which have had success in ethnically integrating a national army often have translated such success to a broader scale, with examples ranging from the polyglot armies of Alexander the Great, the Roman and Ottoman Empires, the Indonesian military, and, in a slightly different sense, the immigrant-fed armed forces of the United States. Even in cultures regarded as relatively homogenous today, national armies played a major role in cohesion. Historian Eugene Weber, in his seminal book, Peasants Into Frenchmen, notes an 1863 survey found "French was a foreign language for a substantial number of Frenchmen, including almost half the children who would reach adulthood in the last quarter of the century." Common military service, culminating in national mobilization during World War I, helped tie together France and contributed to a sense of national identity.

Old issue, new examples

This same process could be playing out today in a variety of nations, most notably in Iraq and Afghanistan, where major U.S.-led efforts to create national armies truly representative of the population are underway. A similar effort, little noticed outside military circles, has been in progress in Lebanon since 1989. During the 1990s, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) went through a major structural reform and intensive training program, much of it funded and conducted by the United States. The Lebanese military is primarily a ground force, aside from some small naval patrol craft and some donated American helicopters. From the beginning, however, the United States and France, which agreed to train and supply the reformed force, viewed the establishment of a national army that could claim to represent all of Lebanon’s factions as the most important contribution they could make to Lebanon’s stability.

Since the Taif Accords officially ended the Lebanese civil war in 1989, the United States has spent about $235 million on the effort, with the European Union adding some funds, and Jordan donating a battalion’s worth of outdated U.S.-made M-48 medium tanks. U.S. officials appear split over how deeply to commit to helping to supporting Lebanon’s current deployment south of the Litani River, however. A State Department briefing in early August suggested both U.S. trainers and military aid would be forthcoming, but Pentagon officials insist no U.S. troops would be involved.

A rough legacy

Lebanon’s military remains relatively weak but has come a long way since 1989. Like so many armies in the region, it grew out of the colonial experience—in this case, the Legion d’Orient France raised locally to rally the Lebanese against Ottoman rule during World War I. After independence in 1943, Lebanon’s army structured itself along ethnic lines, with separate corps drawn from the dominant groups—Sunni, Shiite, Druze, and Maronite Christian. In part because the French relied on them as colonial administrators, the Maronites dominated the officer corps, as well as the Lebanese government up to the 1975 civil war.

In the years leading up to the civil war, strong, separate militias representing each faction emerged, and an outside force—the Palestine Liberation Organization, which had been banished from Jordan after 1970—began to set down roots in the south of the country. The Lebanese army hit a low point in 1984 when religious factional fighting, exacerbated by the presence of the PLO, plus the cumulative effects of Israeli and Syrian interventions, caused it to implode into rival, armed, and bitter militias. The rump remnants of the Lebanese Army in those years became, in effect, a part of the larger Maronite Christian militia system, which also included the Phalangist Christian militia and the Israeli-armed and allied South Lebanon Army.

Pieter Koekenbier, author of a study of Lebanon’s reformed military for the British Defense Ministry’s Conflict Studies Research Center, argues the most crucial element in the success of any multiethnic army is its ability to be perceived as a true national institution. In 1984, he notes, Lebanon’s military had lost any claim to such status. He writes, "The sixth brigade of the LAF, mainly composed of Shiites, deserted to Amal. The overwhelmingly Druze fourth brigade disintegrated, with many of its personnel joining the Druze militias." And the civil war raged on for years as a result.

When the Taif Accords ended the fighting, the reconstruction of Lebanon’s armed forces on national lines began, with Sunni, Shiites, Maronites and others required to serve in the same units. The experience has been partially credited for the long period of peace enjoyed by the country since. But, of course, the army’s major failure was its inability to grapple in the south with Hezbollah, the most powerful of all the militia forces, whose provocative abduction of two Israeli soldiers in July 2006 sparked an escalation which proved disastrous for Lebanon.

Lessons of Lebanon’s military

While the Lebanese Army tried to stay clear of the recent fighting, its subsequent deployment in southern Lebanon—and questions over whether it would be the agent of disarmament with regard to Hezbollah—will pose still more tests of its cohesion in the near future. Meanwhile, experts see lessons for the Iraqi and Afghan training missions in the Lebanese Army’s shortcomings.

Gen. Frank Kearney, who leads special operations for U.S. Central Command, recently spoke of the difficulties applying these lessons in Afghanistan and Iraq. "We’re constantly fighting between this balance: Do we want the army to be multiethnic and nationally centric, or do we want to quickly get units stood up and in place to secure dangerous parts of Iraq, and then move over time in the direction of a multiethnic army?"

Compromises that work

Other armies, albeit in places where tension is considerably less, have tried to find compromises when faced with some of these ethnic and linguistic dilemmas. According to the Geneva-based Center for Democratic Control of the Armed Forces, Switzerland has special provisions to aid its polyglot armed forces. Other examples include Belgium and Canada, which have established dual military structures in response to the preference of Belgian Flemish and French Canadians that they be commanded in their own language.

Some nations have sought to defuse tensions after a peace treaty by integrating rebel groups into the country’s military. This worked relatively successfully in South Africa after apartheid, when the African National Congress joined the ranks of its former foes, a process spelled out by this paper in African Security Review. Much of East Germany’s military was absorbed into the forces of the united Germany after 1990.

Many armies, including the British and U.S. armies, addressed these issues with subtle internal reforms. In each country, the military functioned as an agent of social change, providing a route to success for ethnic and religious groups (whether Celts and Catholics in Britain, or blacks and immigrants in the United States). Armed forces integration also created personal friendships between people who might otherwise never stray beyond their "own kind."

After World War II, when the Army and other services dropped racial segregation, the military drew African-Americans who saw it as a more level playing field than mid-century American society. One of them, Colin Powell, a Jamaican immigrant, would become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and eventually Secretary of State. Studies of race, recruitment and promotions in the U.S. military suggest the impression of increased opportunity within the military is true, though the number of African-Americans as a percent of all recruits has fallen off since 9/11.

Whether the army of Lebanon can ever be an instrument for promoting social change, of course, may be out of the government’s control. Syrian, Israeli, Iranian, French, and American interests all overlay a complex web of problems. Foremost among them, of course, is Hezbollah, which is a more effective, better-armed force with superior financial backing. Like Afghanistan and Iraq, Lebanon’s fate as a nation may hinge on its army’s success or failure in establishing law and order in even the most lawless corner of the country.

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