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There are four main military lessons to be drawn from
probrium upon the victims. By implication, the on-scene commanders were pictured as incompetent, the survivors were portrayed as neglectful, and the victims were charged with culpability in their own deaths.
What great purpose was served by hiding the September War? At the time, a debate was raging between the White House and the Congress over the new War Powers Act. If the September War had been disclosed, the clock would have begun ticking, and elected officials would have received an opportunity to debate and vote upon the continued presence of our troops on that foreign shore. In one sense, then, it was political jockeying in Washington—the Executive branch defying an act of Congress—that ripped the Beirut bombing out of its context and has since led, by many and indirect means, to an information vacuum (and resultant shunning of doctrinal lessons) that has overwhelmed the truth for a full decade.
Think about it. Here is a seminal lesson in governance.
By Eric Hammel
Jagged chunks of concrete and twisted steel reinforcing rods were mute evidence of the Powerful blast in Beirut that tore through stunned households across the United States an 23 October 1983, leaving the nation to mourn the loss of 241 servicemen—the largest single-day total since World War II. What true lessons from this disaster can we apply to the messy, ambiguous regional conflicts we "ill face in the future?
It has been nearly a decade since we were jarred from our beds that awful Sunday morning with the terrible news that 241 Marines, sailors, and soldiers had been blown UP in their headquarters at the Beirut International Airport. To date, however, the armed services have not eVen begun to grapple with the implications—much less the lessons— of the events that led to the tragedy.
Too much time has been wasted by loo many people, blinded by too much guilt and denial to carry out their duties to probe and debate and learn. As our nation takes on new responsibilities as the world’s only superpower, and as we start down the murky path toward some new world order, we cannot lose more time evading Beirut’s powerful lessons. .
How are we to master the intricacies of our place in any new world order when we have so utterly failed to come to grips with its disastrous precursor? It is true that the Beirut tragedy was cast in the context of the Cold War, but what happened to the Marines in Beirut could have happened without Soviet connivance. It can happen again today—at any time, in any place, to anyone. It can happen even to a military force more aware of what really happened in Beirut than our military forces have been— and it certainly will happen, to a greater or lesser degree, if at last we do not open Beirut to careful and unembarrassed scrutiny and debate. There are lessons to be learned and doctrines to be established, and the world’s only superpower can no longer afford to ignore that searing experience or its many vital lessons.
Beirut. To appreciate them, however, we first must discuss a lesson that members of a free society never should have to discuss. This is a constantly relearned but apparently never fully learned lesson: the folly of fostering secrecy for the sake of political expediency. The overriding fact about the Beirut bombing is that it knocked so many Americans out of their beds that Sunday morning without anyone realizing that it was the climactic moment of a six-week war—a war the Reagan administration had managed to hide from the media and the world.
Let there be no doubt: a six-week shooting war preceded the bombing. The fighting was between Marines and a number of disparate Moslem factions, chiefly Iranian-backed and Syrian-supported Shiite militia groups. Six Marines were killed and several dozen wounded in this “September War”—all in direct military clashes at or near the Beirut International Airport. During that period, the Marine headquarters compound was a regular target of rocket, mortar, and artillery attacks. All this was kept from the international media, however, causing them to report the 23 October bombing as an event without context. The bombing seemed—and was doggedly made to seem— to have been an isolated act of terrorism, not the act of war it really was.
From the deceit that veiled the September War came a campaign of misdirection that culminated in heaping of op-
What Went Wrong?
The four biggest mistakes the United States made in Beirut in 1983 were these: inadvertently but overtly siding with one faction in a multi-faceted civil war; deploying the wrong kind of military force; overruling or ignoring the advice, and finally the pleas, of the commander on the scene; and not striking back after the bombing.
Taking Sides. The Beirut mission began with a rescue
of U.S. and foreign nationals from the Beirut area in the wake of Israel’s 1982 invasion and drive on Beirut. It went well. Shortly afterward,
U.S. Marines, along with French and Italian troops, were landed to guarantee the safe passage of Palestine Liberation organization fighters from Beirut. A short while later, however—following the massacre of Palestinian civilians by Israeli-backed Lebanese Christian militiamen— the American, French, and Italian troops returned to Beirut to conduct a “presence” mission. A decade later, no one who was then in authority can precisely define that mission. It was an amorphous mission with no stated goals and no ways of measuring success or failure.
We were wrong simply in being there—literally. Our Christian-majority nation interposed itself in a civil war between a minority of Christians who had power and a majority of Moslems who did not. Moreover, the United States was (and is) perceived in the Third World as being an “imperialist” nation, as were our allies in Lebanon: France, Italy, and the United Kingdom. So we got off on ‘ the wrong foot simply because of who we are.
The problems of commission—and there were many-' began when the commander of a newly arrived Marine amphibious unit began making changes in the composi' tion of his landing force, shortly after his unit relieved and replaced the original landing force. He brought his artillery and other heavy weapons ashore, and he began digging
^“ in. He did these things only to train his troops and keep them occupied—not to make a political statement. But the Lebanese did not know that his actions had nothing to do with them; they saw what they saw. Later, as incidents of fraternization between Marines and Moslem women spi' raled higher, the Marine commander dispatched volunteers to train a rag' tag Lebanese Army unit at a cantonment adjacent to the Marine position- This act was innocent, as well; idle Marines were merely put to work doing something Marines do well—but, once again, the wrong message was sent. In a country destroying itself in a civil war—in which 80% of the people were up in arms against the government—U.S. Marines were upgrading what Lebanon’s Moslem and Druse populations saw as being their government’s hitherto-inefficient instrument of repression. Within a few months, the casual training regime became formalized by the deployment of a U.S. Army training mission! In addition, the United
States undertook to arm many Lebanese Army units with U-S. equipment. And finally, in an apparent ad-lib addi- h°n to a policy speech, President Ronald Reagan told a w°rld audience that Marines were in Lebanon to bolster the “legitimate government.”
As if openly—though at first accidentally—siding With the government of Lebanon was not enough, the Marines were also seen as enhancing the Israeli occupation. Of the four multinational contingents in Beirut, only ht-S. Marines were physically tied in with the Israelis. It looked to the Lebanese as if the Marines were securing the Israeli lines of supply and communication around the a'rPort. Although in fact there was a great deal of friction between Americans and Israelis, the United States was perceived by Lebanese—and Syrians—as being generally supportive of Israel. The United States did support Israel, but not its invasion. This position however, was not made clear. When the Israelis withdrew from Beirut on 28 August 1983, Marines continued to occupy a portion of their former zone. It was an innocent, passive event— but it did not look good.
If not actually taking sides, these factors and others added up to a terrible and deadly policy gaffe. The lesson is twofold: Define the mission in absolute terms (i.e., don’t let it become defined by the agendas or even the misperceptions of opposing parties), and take care that local sensibilities are not challenged inadvertently.
The Wrong Force. From the day their training begins,
The Target: A Matter of Time
The building selected for the Marine battalion landing team’s headquarters more than a year before the 23 October 1983 bombing Was considered the safest structure in 'southern Beirut. As a Syrian brigade headquarters, it had not been breached by Israeli bombs during the 1982 battles for Beirut, and it subsequently had served as an Israeli field hospital. More to the point, it was the building made available for the headquarters ashore by the host government, before 23 October, no American ever protested its suitability.
The government of Lebanon Was solely responsible for security at the Beirut International Airport, the site of the Marine compound. Marine sentries were posted no farther than 50-150 meters from the doomed building. Access roads that daily carried hundreds of civilian vehicles to within 50 meters of the building were the realm °f Lebanese Security Police.
The explosives-laden truck did indeed manage to breach the line of Marine sentries.
Marines were at the time involved in a weeks-long shooting War at the periphery of the airport, but, at the insistence of superiors far from the scene, they were hobbled by grimly outdated, safety- driven rules of engagement. Also, Peace talks between various
Lebanese factions were about to begin directly across from the wire fence fronting the Marine battalion landing team headquarters. The weapons of the two sentries manning the gate (and only those two sentries) were unloaded to prevent accidental discharges in the direction of the peace negotiators. Unfortunately, the two sentries manning the gate were unable to prevent the multi-ton truck from running at high speed into the headquarters building, where its detonation caused maximum damage and loss of life.
Forensic studies conducted within days of the bombing by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and military explosives experts revealed that the truck bomb— which could be command-detonated from a safe distance—could have demolished a large portion of the building from virtually any point along the two roads beside and in front of the Marine headquarters compound. The Marine security line, which the truck did not need to penetrate, was inside the perimeter formed by the two roads. Lebanese Security Police were responsible for the roads themselves. Moreover, the truck was one of many identical yellow Mercedes trucks that conducted daily commerce throughout the open airport, including the public parking lot right in front of the headquarters building. Absent a specific intelligence report, the Marines had not a prayer of pinpointing and stopping a single truck among scores of those ubiquitous vehicles.
The bad guys did their homework; they built the best bomb for any eventuality, and then they fooled everyone. Yes, the perpetrators got in their very best shot, but any number of lesser shots would have closely approximated the disaster. The only two steps that could have mitigated the outcome were withdrawal from the beach or hardening the command compound. Both alternatives were consistently overruled by superiors far from the scene.
Finally, the perpetrators required no fixed timetable for the bombing. If it had never come off, no news of the failure would have embarrassed them. We know that the bombing was attempted unsuccessfully an hour before it actually occurred. How many other attempts were made? How many more could have been made?
Above all, time was on the side of the perpetrators. In the end, there was nothing the Marines themselves could have done to stop them—except not be there.
U.S. Marines are taught to attack. Assaulting a hostile objective is central to the nature of the organization, and the spirit of the offensive lies deep in th soul of every true Marine. When the shooting started right after the Israeli withdrawal, and especially after two Marines were killed by Moslem fire on 29 August, young Marines took every opportunity presented to them to win some “payback”— whether or not this was authorized by higher authority. This led the Marines deeper and deeper into an all-out war with Moslem fighters and created a blood feud that intensified whenever Marines killed Moslems. It also gave Syrian and Iranian agitators fertile fields in which to harvest support for their agenda, which was to drive foreign troops and foreign influence out of Lebanon.
With the ability to land and support themselves from the sea,
U.S. Marines were the right troops to send to Beirut initially, without question. Temperamentally, however, they were not the right Americans to keep there over long, slow months, or maintaining a static “presence” under fire. It is difficult, in fact, to imagine a military force less capable of sitting still—just “taking it”—than our Marines. We only can wonder now about the good we might have accomplished and the tragedy we might have averted if we had deployed medical personnel and engineers rather than armed, attack-trained Marines. We do know this: There was ample good will in the hearts of thankful Beirutis when the mission was new and the first round of rebuilding in seven brutal years had just begun. Instead of sending them builders and healers, however, we filled the city’s ruined streets with yet more armed men, of dubious (to the natives) intent.
Even in the shadow of post-Cold War cutbacks, the United States—going beyond the armed forces—has an immensely diverse base of people to send abroad to further its policies. If it’s right to send in the Marines, we have them for that. But if it’s better to send in builders and healers, we have them, too. Our means for fulfilling policy options are limitless.
Ignoring the Man on the Scene. We spent 23 years training Colonel Timothy Geraghty to command a Marine amphibious unit. We even selected him for this particular mission because he had served in the Middle East a few years earlier while seconded to the Central Intelligence Agency; he had particular knowledge of local intrigues. And he had an unblemished record going into Beirut. What we did not know about Geraghty’s mission, when we sent him and his Marines, was that everything was about to change. It was no longer to be the benign “presence” mission of three previous Marine amphibious units. Things turned ugly right away, when gunmen showed up on the streets of Shiite slums adjacent to the Marine-held airport. It turned bloody when the Israelis withdrew, and then h turned deadly. From 28 August until the 23 October bombing, Geraghty and the Marines were almost continuously under fire and embroiled in actual battles in which Marines—and many Moslems—were killed and wounded. Geraghty’s unit might have been forgiven any of the naive transgressions of the Marines who had preceded them, but they could never be forgiven after taking Moslem lives- And so, along with Syria’s and Iran’s larger stake if Lebanon, there was the settling of scores by local Shiites that also went to the heart of the bombing.
Colonel Geraghty saw it ad coming. The record, if we will look, is fdled with his requests to backload his troops on amphibious shipping. As the September War intensified, so did Ger- aghty’s dire predictions. He did not envision a truck bomb tha1 could kill 241 of his men, but he came close. However, Ger- aghty was denied the command prerogative of attending to the security of his unit, mainly because politicians at home still had something to gain from having Marines on the ground in Beirut. The shooting war was safely hidden from public—and congressional—view; there was actually no known public context for a precipitous backloading °1 Marines. And there was no public debate. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who were sympathetic to Geraghty’s pleas, tried on 19 October to bring the matter before President Ronald Reagan, but they were thwarted by the Department of State. The final message did not get through. (P is imperative to understand that the Defense Department was “out of the loop” in Beirut; Geraghty was operating under the direction of the State Department and the National Security Council.)
Colonel Geraghty has been pinned with the responsibility for the bombing, but it is a fact that he was not given the authority to do what he could to prevent the bombing. It was Geraghty’s professional judgment that it was long past time to leave Beirut, but he was thwarted from doing so.
In this age of flawless global communication, where have we gone wrong? We used to know what was right-' The commander on the scene must have the final say i11 how his force is to be used. Or, if he is overruled and something terrible happens, he must be shielded from unfair reproach. How else are we going to get our military commanders to commit themselves to implementing nat'onal security policy decisions?
Payback. In the final analysis, there is just one thing jhat could have saved those 241 lives in Beirut, and that is the absolute conviction on the part of our adversaries that we have the means and the will to hunt down and Punish anyone who harms even one hair on the head of any American serving overseas. It is clear that this simPle message was never communicated to the perpetrators °f the Beirut bombing—nor even to the participants of the bloody and fatal September War that preceded it. It Was not communicated before, and it was not put into action after; no retribution has ever been exacted—none whatsoever.
Let us be clear on this point: There is absolutely no doubt that Iran and Syria sent the bomb, though the actual work was accomplished by Lebanese Shiites. However, far from being pilloried, both conspirator states have been sought out since as allies by the U.S. government. Shortly after the bombing it bankrolled, Iran was rewarded t°r the accident of its geostrategic location by the shipment of U.S. arms and spare parts. And, several years iuter, the same Syrian regime that implemented the Beirut bombing was sponsored by the United States in its return to the brotherhood of nations for its symbolic and bloodless participation in the Gulf War.
In order to remain a great nation, we must remain willing to do what is right in the world. If this means intervening in the affairs of other nations, then we must remain willing, as we have been in the past, to risk our most valuable national asset, our own people. If we do that, however, we must let it be known—openly or in secret, it matters not—that we will hold this or that party responsible for the deaths of our people, that we will never forget, and that we will seek retribution, at a time and place and by means of our own choosing, quietly or in public view. There is no point being a superpower, capable of reaching or penetrating to any point on the globe, if we are unwilling to use our weaponry—at least to defend or hold as surety the lives of citizens we send into the world to carry out our policies.
The specter of Beirut held us hostage for nine years. Our success in Somalia shows that we can get things right if we respect the needs of those we help, and we must, of course, continue to do what is right in the world. To do so, to avoid failure, we must study the past—even the most painful moments of the past. We must strip the past of its enduring lessons, taking care to winnow out false lessons. Then, we must proceed farther down the road to our national destiny.
Great nations cannot be hamstrung by past tragedies or failed strategies. They must move ever forward.
Eric Hammel, a prolific writer on military subjects, is author of The ‘Root (New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986), an account of the Beirut operation soon to be republished in paperback by Pacifica Press.
ARLEIGH BURKE ESSAY CONTEST
The U.S. Naval Institute is proud to announce its tenth annual Arleigh Burke Essay Contest, which replaces the former annual General Prize Essay Contest.
Three essays will be selected for prizes.
Anyone is eligible to enter and win. First prize earns $3,000, a Gold ^Ldal, and a Life Membership in the Naval Institute. First Honorable Mention wins $2,000 and a Silver Medal. Second Honorable Mention vv>ns $1,000 and a Bronze Medal.
The topic of the essay must relate to the objective of the U.S. Naval Institute: “The advancement of professional, literary, and scientific knowledge in the naval and maritime services, and the advancement of 'he knowledge of sea power.”
Essays will be judged by the Editorial Board of the U.S. Naval
I- Essays must be original, must not exceed 4,000 words, and must not have been previously published. An exact word count must appear on 'he title page. .
All entries should be directed to: Publisher, U.S. Naval Institute, 118 Maryland Avenue, Annapolis, Maryland 21402-5035.
2' Essay must be received on or before 1 December 1993 at the U.S. Naval Institute.
4. The name of the author shall not appear on the essay. Each author shall assign a motto in addition to a title to the essay. This motto shall appear (a) on the title page of the essay, with the title, in lieu of the author’s name and (b) by itself on the outside of an accompanying sealed envelope. This sealed envelope should contain a typed sheet giv- >ng the name, rank, branch of service, biographical sketch, social security number, address, and office and home phone numbers (if available) of the essayist, along with the title of the essay and motto.
The identity of the essayist will not be known of the judging members of the Editorial Board until they have made their selections.
5. The awards will be presented to the winning essayists at the 120th Annual Meeting of the membership of the Naval Institute. Letters notifying the award winners will be mailed on or about 1 February 1994, and the unsuccessful essays will be returned to their authors during February.
6. All essays must be typewritten, double-spaced, on paper approximately 8 'A x 11". Submit two complete copies.
7. The winning and honorable mention essays will be published in the Proceedings. Essays not awarded a prize may be selected for publication in the Proceedings. The writers of such essays will be compensated at the rate established for purchase of articles.
8. An essay entered in this contest should be analytical and/or interpretive, not merely an exposition, a personal narrative, or a report.
Deadline: 1 December 1993