Paintballing with Hezbollah

Is the Path Straight to Their Hearts

By Mitchell Prothero

The Hezbollah paintball team, looking a wee bit more intimidating than the team of journalists.

With me out of the game, another teammate eliminated, and a third being held hostage, that leaves only one remaining member of Team Sahafi (Arabic for “journalists”): Andrew Exum, a former Army Ranger captain who retired after three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and has since become a noted counterinsurgency expert. When he’s not playing paintball in the basement of a Beirut strip mall, Exum is flying to Kabul to advise the US military or writing papers with phrases like “population-centric” in their titles. He also heads up, a blog revered by War on Terror geeks. The main thrust of Exum’s strategy is to separate insurgents from the broader population. Tonight, however, as two Hezbollah fighters drag and push his comrade-turned-hostage toward him, Ranger Exum makes little effort to separate good guy from bad and shoots all three of them repeatedly. This delights our opponents, who appear to appreciate the lack of emotion shown by the American warrior. Finally, they relent—no one can doubt they have been “killed”—and forfeit the game.

We all convene back in the arena’s cantina, where there are snacks and weird murals suggesting that paintball is the best way to deal with one’s inner aggression. If the initial introductions between the two sides had been slightly tense—the fighters seemed nervous about being identified, and we were anxious about them backing out—the realization that they had just attempted to use a hostage as a human shield during a paintball fight loosened things up. The Hezbollah guys all laugh when Exum jokes that he killed Ben to keep him off some Al Jazeera reel. And they respond—pointing at me—that after the next game “the Germans will have to negotiate for this one.” It’s a somewhat sick inside joke: German diplomats are usually tasked with negotiating Hezbollah-Israeli prisoner and body swaps.

Soha—my Lebanese girlfriend, who agreed to serve as a translator/liaison—decides that Team Hezbollah’s use of actual military hardware, their hostage-taking tactics, and, most of all, their refusal to leave the game when hit means that the rules need clarifying. She has a few words with the arena’s confused manager, who five seconds into the first match quickly realized he was hosting a very peculiar party tonight and who, for the first two games, was too intimidated to remind the four guerrillas to adhere to the posted rules. So it’s up to Soha to badger both him and the Hezbollah boys so that they quit it with the cheating. In setting up the ground rules for the game, the Hezbollah team members sent word that “no Lebanese” could be present, concerned that someone would recognize them and tell their bosses they were breaking some serious rules. But Soha charmed them within a few minutes, and her presence slowly became welcome.

Quickly, Soha brokers a deal: Everyone agrees that, for the rest of the game, only head shots will count as kills. Also, “outside equipment” is officially banned. During the first two games, it was clear that Team Hezbollah had little fear of nonlethal paintball fire; they’d all been hit multiple times and stubbornly stayed in the game. But they seem to respect the notion that when someone is shot in the head, he’s done. Plus, it’ll be more fun if everyone’s harder to kill. We decide to call the first two games down the middle: one win for them, the other for us.

This gets Coco’s attention. “Really?” he asks. “But Hezbollah always wins.”

While setting up the game, it occurred to me that such an arrangement may fall afoul of US sanctions. (Attn: Treasury Department readers in the Office of Financial Asset Control: No money changed hands.) No matter how I justified my intentions, something about enjoying some faux-street-combat fun with members of an organization described by some as the “cat’s paw” of Iran—a group responsible for decades of attacks on Israel, countless kidnappings, and the 1983 bombing of an American military barracks in Beirut that killed 241 soldiers—just seemed plain wrong.

One of Hezbollah’s main goals is the annihilation of Israel. While that stance has softened somewhat since the radical days of the 1980s, partially due to Israel’s pulling the majority of its troops out of Lebanese lands in 2000, the border has remained as tense as ever. And every once in a while, it still explodes into all-out war (as it did in 2006). But for all the attacks targeting Israelis, it bears mention that their sometimes brutal occupation of South Lebanon helped create the monster that came to be known as Hezbollah. In just a few short years of occupation, many Lebanese Shiites went from supporting Israel’s removal of the Palestinian militants from Lebanon to joining Hezbollah in droves.