7th May 19:12
20 Years Later: Nothing Learned, So More American Soldiers Will Die
20 Years Later: Nothing Learned, So More American Soldiers
by James Bovard
October 23, 2003
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 naïveté,
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 four****
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
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
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
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
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
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 do***ent." 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 'patriotism 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
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.