Tribute to peace, or plain tank sandwich?

BEIRUT DAYS; The guns that sprout from the top of the pyramid look like archaic television aerials
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The Lebanese soldier was adamant. "No photographs are allowed," he said. "This is a military area." But all I want to do, I said, is take a picture of that monument behind you, the one with all the tanks embedded inside it. The soldier gave me a penetrating look. "It's beautiful," he said without smiling. "It represents peace, Yes?"

It seemed a good idea to agree and when his lieutenant gave me cheerful permission to take photographs of the monstrosity for the Independent, I didn't launch into artistic criticism. Very interesting, I muttered. Very original.

What else could I say? Armand Fernandez's 5,000-ton pyramid of war, to be officially unveiled today outside the Lebanese ministry of defence, at Yarze, above Beirut, is about as weird as war memorials go, even if "memorial" is the right word to use.

For it is packed with military hardware - real tanks, artillery pieces, mortars and armoured vehicles - that your average Lebanese militia leader would have fondled his wallet for only six or seven years ago. Gun barrels poke out of concrete, Soviet T-55 tanks lie sandwiched inside cement graves, entombed into the most grotesque monument erected in Lebanon, let along anywhere else in the world.

The artist's explanation, distributed by his public relations agency in New York, is as follows: "What embedding objects in something else does is to change the time of the object. Instead of a present object, you have a fossil of the object, as you might find an organic fossil in a rock formation ... Objects are by their nature rather impermanent, and I like that, and I also like fossils."

Not everyone, apparently, shares Mr Fernandez's views. He originally offered his armoured monument to the city of Strasbourg during D-Day celebrations in the early 1970s. Unsuccessful, Mr Fernandez then offered his work to the Israelis in 1983, a year after Israel's disastrous invasion of Lebanon, which killed about 17,500 people - most of them civilians, more than 500 of them Israeli soldiers - but the offer apparently fell on stony ground once more .

In Lebanon, however, it was accepted, its very unveiling being timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the birth of the Lebanese army.

The end of the 15-year Lebanese civil war in 1990 meant that the national army found itself the largely unhappy recipient of more clapped-out armour and useless field guns than any other military force in the region; it willingly gathered together the detritus of a hundred militia battles - tanks and artillery which had helped to level the centre of Beirut, some of whose ruins still stand in the baking heat below Yarze - and hoisted them into Mr Fernandez's 10-storey concrete pyramid. Each gun and tank and mobile artillery piece was welded to the interior structure amid sandbags and concrete, the still-visible armour painted in fresh camouflage paint once the concrete had set.

The effect is very odd indeed. The guns sprouting from the top of the pyramid look like archaic television aerials. The tanks sandwiched into the concrete look like toys for overgrown schoolchildren, which I suppose is what they were, in their more active, lethal days.

Mr Fernandez was working on the repair of Beirut's war-damaged classical museum last year when he discovered that the Lebanese - always prone to sign up an international artist --were looking for a monument that would express "a hope for peace". So began his work, constructed, if Mr Fernandez's public relations men are to be believed, "in the tradition of the great cathedrals and pyramids".

According to Mr Fernandez, he knows the equipment from personal experience, as a French marine who served briefly in Vietnam.

"Right now, Lebanon reminds me of Europe after World War Two. Everyone is building, making money, restoring. At this moment, around the world, there are about 20 'small' wars, some of which receive no attention, as in Sri Lanka. I don't say war is necessary, but peace is necessary. And to have peace, must we first have war?"

Such statements might carry more weight if one could be sure that Mr Fernandez's public relations company, Livet Reichard of New York, really understood the Middle East.

In their announcement of the monument's unveiling, they refer to Lebanon as "partially occupied by the Syrian army", discreetly omitting the fact that it is also partially occupied by the Israeli army.

Hitherto, the only proposed monuments to the folly of the Lebanese civil war, in which about 150,000 died, were the bullet-holed statues originally set up to commemorate the Lebanese patriots hanged for demanding independence from the Ottoman Turks in 1916. The angel surrounded by dying men still stands amid the rubble of Martyrs' Square in central Beirut. Sieved by bullets in the 1975-90 war, the same statues, it was believed, would commemorate the fratricidal conflict that engulfed the country in the second half of the century.

Mr Fernandez's pyramid has changed that. Instead of making do with the battered, noble monument in Martyrs' Square, Beirutis have a war museum in concrete, 5,000 tons of it, depicting not the spirit of human resilience but the monsters that haunted their lives. "A society that is well equipped with art," Mr Fernandez has said, "is in a better position to survive and flourish than one that is not."

Well, we shall see.