is the 20th anniversary of one of the worst "terrorist
attacks" on American forces prior to 9/11. At 6:20 A.M. on
Sunday morning, October 23, 1983, a lone, grinning Muslim drove
a Mercedes truck through a parking lot, past two Marine guard posts,
through an open gate, and into the lobby of the Marine headquarters
building in Beirut, where he detonated the equivalent of six tons
of explosives. The explosion left a 30-foot-deep crater and killed
243 marines. A second truck bomb moments later killed 58 French
destruction of the Marine barracks was perhaps the abyss of Reagan's
first term – the result of navet, righteousness, and boundless
folly. Unfortunately, the Bush administration seems to have learned
nothing from the Reagan debacle and is blundering towards a repeat.
American soldiers in Iraq have thus far done a good job of preventing
suicide bombers from wreaking great devastation among U.S. forces.
(The UN headquarters and the Jordanian embassy have not been so
lucky). But as the US occupation drags on and opposition spreads,
the odds of a debacle rise.
road to the October 1983 suicide bombing began with the Israeli
invasion of Lebanon in June 1982. The Israelis claimed the invasion
was justified in retaliation for PLO attacks on Israelis. But, as
New York Times correspondent Thomas Friedman noted in his book From
Beirut to Jerusalem, "the number of Israeli casualties
the PLO guerillas in Lebanon actually inflicted were minuscule (one
death in the 12 months before the invasion)." Defense Minister
Ariel Sharon told the Israeli cabinet that his "Operation Peace
for Galilee" would extend only 40 kilometers into Lebanon.
As David Martin and John Walcott noted in their 1988 book, Best
Laid Plans: The Inside Story of America's War Against Terrorism,
the U.S. embassy in Beirut "sent cable after cable to Washington,
warning that an Israeli invasion would provoke terrorism and undermine
America's standing in the Arab world, but not a word came back."
Palestinians fought back tenaciously, the Israeli Defense Force
(IDF) responded with indiscriminate bombing. The Palestinian Red
Crescent estimated that fourteen thousand people, mostly civilians,
were killed and wounded in the first month of the Israeli invasion.
(The Israeli government stated that casualties were much lower.)
The IDF bombed the buildings housing the Beirut bureaus of the Los
Angeles Times, United Press International, and Newsweek.
UN brokered a peace deal by which the United States and other multinational
troops briefly entered Beirut to buffer a ceasefire to allow the
PLO to exit to ships to transport them to Tunisia, which had agreed
to provide a safe haven. The U.S. government signed an agreement
with Arafat, pledging that U.S. forces would safeguard civilians
who stayed behind. Once the PLO withdrew from Beirut, the U.S. troops
were pulled out and put back on Navy ships.
after the U.S. troops withdrew, Lebanese president-elect Bashir
Gemayel was assassinated. The IDF promptly invaded Muslim West Beirut,
violating the fragile peace agreement worked out with Muslim forces
and the government of Syria. The Israeli army encircled Palestinian
refugee camps in the area and prohibited anyone from entering or
leaving without its permission. As Thomas Friedman noted, "Although
the Israelis confiscated the arms of all of the Moslem groups in
West Beirut, they made no attempt to disarm the Christian Phalangist
militiamen in East Beirut."
invited Lebanese Phalangist militia units trained and equipped by
Israel to enter the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Sharon and
IDF chief of staff Gen. Rafael Eitan met with Phalangist commanders
before they entered the camp, and, as Sharon later explained, "we
spoke in principle of their dealing with the camps."
militia entered the camps and over the next 48 hours, more than
seven hundred Palestinian women, children, and men were executed;
many corpses were mutilated. Palestinian sources estimated that
the death toll was much higher. Israeli troops launched flares over
the camps to illuminate them throughout the night and provided the
Phalangists with food and water during their respites from the killings.
Palestinian women sought to escape the slaughter but "the Israelis
encircling the area refused to let anyone cross their lines."
After the first day's carnage, a Phalange leader reported to the
IDF that "until now 300 civilians and terrorists have been
killed," according to the Jerusalem Post. After the
Phalangists finished, they brought in bulldozers to create mass
graves. More Palestinians may have been killed at the two camps
than the total number of Israelis killed by the PLO in the previous
slaughter provoked outrage around the world. The government of Menachem
Begin initially blocked proposals in the Knesset for a formal inquiry
into the massacre; Ariel Sharon declared that his critics were guilty
of a "blood libel." An Israeli government commission concluded
a few months later that "Minister of Defense [Sharon] bears
personal responsibility" for the debacle. Sharon resigned as
defense minister as a result of the commission report.
carnage at Sabra and Shatila threatened to plunge Lebanon back into
total chaos, and Reagan quickly agreed to a Lebanese request to
send US troops back into Beirut. Reagan repeatedly called for Israeli
withdrawal from Beirut and declared: "Israel must have learned
that there is no way it can impose its own solutions on hatreds
as deep and bitter as those that produced this tragedy."
massacres of the Palestinian refugees catapulted the U.S. much deeper
into the Lebanese quagmire. As clashes continued between Israelis
and Muslims, the situation became increasingly polarized in the
following months. On April 18, 1983 a delivery van pulled up to
the front door of the U.S. embassy in Beirut and detonated, collapsing
the building and killing 46 people (including 16
Americans) and wounding over a hundred others. The embassy was poorly
defended, despite earlier similar suicide attacks on the Iraqi and
April 23, 1983, Reagan announced to the press: "The tragic
and brutal attack on our embassy in Beirut has shocked us all and
filled us with grief. Yet, because of this latest crime we are more
resolved than ever to help achieve the urgent and total withdrawal
of all American forces from Lebanon, or I should say, all foreign
forces. I'm sorry. Mistake." But the actual mistake was a U.S.
that would cost hundreds of Americans their lives.
fighting between Christians and Muslims in Lebanon escalated, the
original U.S. peacekeeping mission became a farce. The U.S. forces
were training and equipping the Lebanese army, which was increasingly
perceived in Lebanon as a pro-Christian, anti-Muslim force. By late
summer, the Marines were being targeted by Muslim snipers and mortar
fire. On September 13 Reagan authorized Marine commanders in Lebanon
to call in air strikes and other attacks against the Muslims to
help the Christian Lebanese army. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger
vigorously opposed the new policy, fearing it would make American
troops far more vulnerable. Navy ships repeatedly bombarded the
Muslims over the next few weeks.
suicide truck attack on October 23 stunned the world. Yet, as Colin
Powell, who was then a major general, later observed in his autobiography:
"Since [the Muslims] could not reach the battleship, they found
a more vulnerable target, the exposed Marines at the airport."
Reagan administration sought to deflect blame for the attack with
smokescreens of false statements and misrepresentations. In a televised
speech four days after the bombing, Reagan portrayed the attack
as unstoppable, declaring that the truck "crashed through a
series of barriers, including a chain-link fence and barbed-wire
entanglements. The guards opened fire, but it was too late."
Reagan claimed the attack proved the U.S. mission was succeeding:
"Would the terrorists have launched their suicide attacks against
the multinational force if it were not doing its job? . . . It is
accomplishing its mission." Reagan also said the United States
was involved in the Middle East in part to secure a "solution
to the Palestinian problem."
sent Marine Corps commander Paul X. Kelley to Beirut. Kelley quickly
announced that he was "totally satisfied" with the security
around the barracks at the time of the bombing. Upon returning to
Washington, Kelley was summoned to Capitol Hill; Kelley inaccurately
testified that the Marine guards had loaded weapons and that two
of them had been killed in the attack. In 1983, as now, the issue
of the security and survival of American troops was overshadowed
by the flaunting of the feelings of high-ranking government officials.
When congressmen persisted questioning, Kelley became enraged and
shouted: "We're talking about clips in weapons, but we're not
talking about the people who did it. I want to find the perpetrators.
I want to bring them to justice! You have to allow me this one moment
though there had already been numerous major car bombings in Beirut
that year and scores of other suicide attacks, Kelley told Congress
that the truck bombing "represents a new and unique terrorist
threat, one that could not have been anticipated by any commander."
Kelley denied the Marines received any warning of an impending attack.
However, on the morning of Kelley's second day of testimony, the
New York Times reported that the CIA specifically warned
the Marines three days ahead of time that an Iranian-linked group
was planning an attack against them.
military officials brazenly denied that the U.S. government deserved
any culpability in the deaths of hundreds of American soldiers.
Vice Admiral Edward Martin, the commander of the Sixth Fleet, declared:
"The only person I can see who was responsible was the driver
of that truck." Martin stressed absurdly in an interview: "You
have to remember that prior to Oct. 23, there hadn't been any real
Reagan administration sought to distract attention from the military's
appalling incompetence. For instance, the Marines failed to defend
all approaches to the barracks. Thomas Friedman reported in the
New York Times shortly after the bombing: "The Marines
almost never used the entry from the parking lot south of their
headquarters, where the suicide bomber drove in. The area was blocked
off to civilian traffic and was used only as a helicopter landing
pad. Judging from conversations with marines and Lebanese Army officers,
it is clear they thought that because they did not use that entrance
no one else would think of it." The Marines also neglected
to install the type of speed bumps and metal spikes around their
barracks that the British used in Northern Ireland.
after the bombing, Reagan appointed a Pentagon commission headed
by retired Admiral Robert Long to investigate. The commission concluded
that military commanders in Lebanon and all the way back to Washington
failed to take obvious steps to protect the soldiers. The commission
suggested that many fatalities might have been prevented if guards
had carried loaded weapons. The report stated that the only barrier
the truck overcame was some barbed wire that it easily drove over.
The commission also noted that the "prevalent view" among
U.S. commanders was that there was a direct link between the Navy
shelling of the Muslims and the truck bomb attack.
Reagan administration launched a preemptive attack to blunt the
report's impact before it was released. The Washington Post reported
that the White House "delayed release of the report for several
days, allowing Reagan to respond to its criticism before it became
public, and then attempted to play down its impact by vetoing a
Pentagon news conference on the document." The New York
Times noted, "A White House official said Mr. Reagan wanted
his own statement about the report to come out first to deflect
any criticism of the Marines. Mr. Reagan's announcement apparently
caught senior officers by surprise as they were meeting to consider
possible disciplinary action."
December 27 Reagan revealed that "we have never before faced
a situation in which others routinely sponsor and facilitate acts
of violence against us." (Perhaps Reagan blanked out regarding
all previous American wars). Reagan sought to make the report "old
news" by declaring: "Nearly all the measures that were
identified by the distinguished members of the Commission have already
implemented and those that have not will be very quickly."
Reagan announced that the Marine commanders in Beirut "have
already suffered enough" and should not "be punished for
not fully comprehending the nature of today's terrorist threat."
Reagan then effectively declared that no one would be held accountable:
"If there is to be blame, it properly rests here in this office
and with this president," he announced, just before leaving
Washington for a vacation in Palm Springs, California. Reagan may
have acted to prevent the possibility of an embarrassing military
court martial occurring while he was campaigning for reelection.
few months later, U.S. troops were quietly removed from Beirut.
But the U.S. continued an aggressive posture in the area – as well
as providing massive arms and aid to the Israeli army that was seeking
to suppress and rule much of southern Lebanon. In September 1984,
another suicide bomber devastated the new American embassy in East
Beirut debacles turned the U.S. role in Lebanon into a flash point
in the 1984 presidential campaign. Since the evidence of US negligence
and bungling was overwhelming, preemptive smears were the tactic
of choice. In the vice presidential candidate debate on October
11, George H. W. Bush denounced Democratic candidate Walter Mondale
and his vice presidential pick, Geraldine Ferraro: "For somebody
to suggest, as our opponents have, that these men died in shame,
they had better not tell the parents of those young marines."
Neither Mondale nor Ferraro had said that the Marines "died
in shame." Bush denounced Mondale for running a "mean-spirited
campaign": "We've seen Walter Mondale take a human tragedy
in the Middle East and try to turn it to personal political advantage."
But Mondale's criticisms of the Reagan administration's failures
in Lebanon were less strident than Reagan's criticisms of Jimmy
Carter for the Iran hostage crisis during the 1980 presidential
and Bush Sr. were able to play the u2018patriotism card' against the
Democrats. The Beirut debacles did nothing to deter Reagan's chroniclers
from canonizing him. The U.S. intervention into Beirut did nothing
to stabilize or pacify the region.
20 years later, the main lesson that Bush seems to draw from Beirut
is the need to "be tough." Bush declared on September
7: “In the past, the terrorists have cited the examples of Beirut
and Somalia, claiming that if you inflict harm on Americans, we
will run from a challenge. In this, they are mistaken." The
issue is not whether the US runs from a challenge: but whether political
leaders have any incentive to learn from the deaths of American
soldiers. And judging from Bush's challenge to those who are killing
Americans in Iraq – "Bring 'em on!" – there
is scant hope for the learning curve of the current Oval Office
Bovard [send him mail] is the
author of Terrorism
& Tyranny: Trampling Freedom, Justice, and Peace to Rid the
World of Evil (Palgrave MacMillan).