20 Years Later: Nothing Learned, So More American Soldiers Will Die

Today 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 soldiers.

The 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.

The 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."

When 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.

The 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.

Shortly 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."

Sharon 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."

The 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 decade.

The 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.

The 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."

The 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 French embassies.

On 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. policy that would cost hundreds of Americans their lives.

As 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.

The 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."

The 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."

Reagan 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 of anger."

Even 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.

Top 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 terrorism threat."

The 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.

Shortly 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.

The 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."

On 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 been 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.

A 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.

The 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 campaign.

Reagan 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.

Now, 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 occupant.

October 23, 2003

James Bovard [send him mail] is the author of Terrorism & Tyranny: Trampling Freedom, Justice, and Peace to Rid the World of Evil (Palgrave MacMillan).