PITY THE NATION

The Abduction of Lebanon

By Robert Fisk

Atheneum. 678 pp. $24.95

THE GUNMEN picked up the American journalist Terry Anderson by the Ein Mreisse Mosque in West Beirut, Robert Fisk recalls. Anderson was then taken by his kidnappers to Wadi Abu Jamil, the old Jewish quarter of the city. By then the Jews were gone and Hezbollah, the Party of God, ruled the ruins. "I drove to the AP {Associated Press} in another world. The Mediterranean breakers, the palm trees flicking by the windscreen, the strollers already drinking coffee on the corniche. Terry had been kidnapped. Big, strong, unstoppable, reliable Terry who had the habit of flicking his hand to the right side of his face to show that you should stop worrying, the man who knew how to stay alive."

After Anderson was kidnapped it was the prudent thing for Fisk, his British friend and neighbor, to quit the city. He had been there for a decade. But he stayed on as a correspondent for The Times of London, and then for The Independent. And one warm evening in 1986 Fisk conceived a way he could enjoy the view of the sea and the corniche beneath his balcony without being seen by the gunmen who cruised the coast road. He propped a large mirror beside the balcony to watch the life of Beirut below.

"But in the mirror the cars drove in the opposite direction, the trees were on the wrong side of the road I had watched over the years. The sea lay to the east. Lebanon was in the west. The tide swept in from the Orient, not from Europe. I took the mirror to the back window and the miracle repeated itself. Hold up a mirror and there were two realities, two countries, two governments, each complementing the other, fragmenting and fracturing along the fault line of the Beirut ruins under our alien gaze."

It was in good measure an illusion all along, the charm of that city where the mountains descended to the sea. It lived a lie. And the illusion was of old vintage. Fisk writes of David Roberts, the lithographer and romantic explorer who toured the Levant in the 1830s. In the lithographs that have survived to the present there were "no wars, no political disputes, no dangers." Beirut comes to us as a delicate town with red tile roofs and narrow streets. But the reality was different. Fisk finds a Beirut dispatch of The Standard, 29 July, 1840. Anarchy, the dispatch noted, was the "order of the day" and crimes are "committed with impunity."

Skip the politics of Pity the Nation. There are accounts to be settled -- old accounts about the Lebanon war of 1982, feuds about the coverage of that war and about the culprits and victims of the place. Read this book for the vivid details, for the penetrating eye of its author. Fisk brings us all the fragments of which wars consist -- the hallucinations, the routine and boredom, the great cruelties, the bravado of the roosters strutting among the ruins, the small acts of humanity.

Illusion and tragedy are present in equal measure in the world Fisk depicts for us. A militiaman steps forth to eulogize Bashir Gemayyel, the merciless leader who had risen to great power only to be assassinated in 1982, before he could claim the presidency which he sought. But the militiaman does not address the mourners; he speaks to his dead leader. "Nobody can believe that your absence implies your death or that your death is final. We await your return each morning and evening." Grief and reincarnation side by side -- the leader as a "living God."

Here are some other fragments of this place at war: A dispatch from the Christian town of Damour which was demolished by the Palestinians. The people of Damour -- civilians, women, children -- were slaughtered. But two Palestinian gunmen acting as guides inform the visiting reporter that an old Christian lady still lives in her own home. "She keeps birds. Lots and lots of birds, some in cages. Some are tame and come to her home for food." One of the gunmen laughs. "What was funny, I asked. The man laughed more loudly, guiltily but uncontrollably. 'The woman,' he said. 'The woman with the birds. She went mad.' "

Throughout, there are the characters. They are rendered with great precision and artistry. This is Yasser Arafat: "A slightly plump, beady, tough little man whose Kuffiah curled round the back of his head and the right side of his neck in a self-conscious way. I am Yasser Arafat, it declared . . . Arafat had a face both charming and yet somehow scandalous. He had large expressive eyes and a rough moustache. There was a slight -- the very faintest -- trace of Jean-Paul Belmondo, but the three-day growth of beard was disturbing. It spoke of laxity and failure."

And here is an encounter with Gen. Michel Aoun, the rebel commander who ruled the Christian enclave. "Then, a short man in American combat fatigues moved towards me . . . His smile was drawn, tired. There were dark bags under his eyes. He had been directing his artillery all night. His face was white and unhealthy -- he had already been living in his bunker for six weeks -- and he had the appearance of a mole emerging from a long sleep, his eyes bloodshoot and blinking . . . The Napoleon of Lebanon was about to speak from his underground garage."

And of Terry Anderson once again: "Anderson, his wife and daughter moved into a seafront flat in the same block as myself, bringing with them a massive South African ridgeback dog, and two diminutive, gentle cats. Anderson was among the toughest journalists I knew . . . Physically he resembled his dog -- big, bullish, outwardly aggressive and outrageously energetic." There was one difference though: when the bombs fell, the dog would hide in the bath. "Anderson would go onto the streets."

Where does guilt begin and end in the tale of Lebanon? A Lebanese army intelligence officer provides an answer. A "perfect crime" had been committed in October of 1989. A newly elected president, Rene Moawad was killed by an enormous bomb which tore Moawad's car apart. Within hours of the bombing the bulldozers were ploughing over the rubble. It was pointless to ask who killed the president. The army officer "raised his right hand and then turned a finger 360 degrees in the air. Everyone was a culprit. Who killed the president? Lebanon killed him."

Fouad Ajami is the Majid Khadduri Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He is the author of "Beirut: City of Regrets."