The Beirut Operation in 1983; Mission Impossible

The Bombing of the Marine Barracks in Beirut Lebanon occurred  on 23 October 1983. 241 Marines and soldiers were killed. Many others were crippled for life. On the occasion of the date since this tragic event happened , every year, there are a number of post mortems, lessons learned, (or perhaps more appropriately, unlearned), and articles published analyzing the reasons we were caught off guard.

marine barracks pic

I had a rather extensive personal inventory of articles, monographs, and clippings on the bombing. I reviewed these and the multitude of sources on line analyzing the whys and wherefors. Three of the main reports were the Inman Report, the Long report, and  the  reports of the Senate and House subcommittee investigations. All are on line in one form or another.

When these things happen, the American mindset demands a culprit. As a sociologist who use to speak at my classes told the students,  Americans believe every ailment has to have a pill to cure it and every dilemma has to have a happy denouncement within the end of the 30 minute program.

So it  was with the  findings and conclusions of the many reports on the bombing. To be sure, grave mistakes were made, laxity was evident, knowledge of the culture and society was totally absent, intelligence was raw and uninterpreted, unity of command was vague, force protection was inadequate, and probably most of all,  the mission of the Marine unit was nebulous…something about exhibiting a ” presence.” The colonel commanding the unit,   Colonel Timothy Geraghty took the hardest hit. He was singled out among the many culprits as the one easiest upon which to pin the blame.

To digress one moment, It is good President Trump acknowledged the anniversary of the Marine barracks bombing. So often the sacrifices of our troops in these “peacekeeping” or assorted small operations go unremembered.

Some background is necessary. To do that return to 1958. The Eisenhower  doctrine and the Baghdad pact attempted to draw the Arab countries into an anti-Soviet orbit, allied with the West. Of course it created the opposite effect.  It resulted in massive upheavals all over the Middle East, including the overturning of the royal House of Iraq. Lebanon was in turmoil, agitated by the speeches  of Abdul Nasser  and assorted radical leftist groups. In those days the communist movements were strong in the Arab world and we saw them as an extension of the Soviet imperialistic moves in the Middle East.

President Chamoun of Lebanon requested American help and we responded by sending in about 2000 soldiers and marines.  According to observers who were there at the time, the American soldiers came onto the beaches of Lebanon in full combat gear much to the surprise of bikini clad girls on the beach. We stayed from July to Oct 1958. The Lebanese government stabilized and it seemed that our “presence ” had done the trick. So fast forwarding to 1983.

The Israelis in 1982  had invaded Lebanon in response to repeated terrorist operations conducted by various factions of the Palestine Liberation Organization originating from south Lebanon. In fact the PLO had become an occupation force in the south, much to the dismay of the largely Shi’a population of the south. The Palestinian presence was deeply resented so much so that the Shi’a welcomed the Israeli units pouring into Lebanon. The Israelis however made the same mistake occupiers often do….they overstayed their welcome. Lebanon, splintered by the civil war that began in 1976, evolved into a primitive tribal/sectarian battleground.

historyleb1

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The first of the three Israeli invasions of Lebanon. The U.N. “peacekeeping” force UNIFIL stationed in South Lebanon has proven itself to be utterly useless.

The back of the PLO  in Lebanon was broken by the 1982 Israeli invasion into Lebanon but the resulting turmoil endangered not only Lebanon but the entire Middle East because of all the players, domestic and foreign, involved. Particularly the Shi’a had awoken  and were flexing their muscles after centuries of being the underclass in Lebanon and the Arab world in general. A deal was brokered whereby the Palestinian  armed elements were exiled out of Lebanon, mostly to Tunisia, and The Palestinians were generally defenseless against Christian and Shi’a depredations on their camps. So in essense the Marines were sent as a peacekeeping force, primarily to protect the Palestinians.

lebpalestinians

When I lived in lebabnon it was very difficult , if not impossible, to get  to get Lebanese citizenship. Generally  they could if they came  up with $50000

The marine unit deployed into this mess, a land in which one needed a scorecard to identify the various militia groups and contending outside powers. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)  itself had 12  different and separate  organizations, the Christians, as always, were  divided into rival groups. Even the Maronites ended up killing each other. The war itself evolved from initially a war between the Christian Maronites (the Katai’ib) and the PLO  (who are mostly Sunni)  into a war between mostly all the Sunni Muslims and Christian Maronites, and finally in a particularly bloody phase, a war between the  Shi’a militias and the Palestinians. (the “war of the Camps.”)

Not only did the Colonel need a score card but he had to understand that in the land of shifting alliances, today’s enemy is tomorrow’s friend. For instance the arch-enemy of the Syrians was  Maronite General Aoun who was chased out of the presidential palace by the Syrians. Today he is the bosom buddy of the Syrians and Hezbollah….. and president of Lebanon!

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Michel Aoun President of Lebanon. Arch enemy of Syria 1983… now close ally

When the PLO armed factions were shattered by the Israelis, the void was filled by the Shi’a militias, the Amal, Islamic Jihad, and the embryonic Hezbollah.  the Lebanese Army had fallen apart when the civil war began, with various units allying themselves with their co religionists. At the time of the Marine entrance into Lebanon, the Lebanese army controlled by the central government, was considered by the non-Christian population as simply another  Christian militia.  Meanwhile there  large contingents of Syrians and Israelis in various parts of Lebanon. Iranian intelligence were showing up in numbers.

leb christians

The Maronites do not identify themselves as Arab, while the Greek orthodox do. Every sect or faction had their own agenda

Into this mess comes the Marine unit, with very little intelligence and absolutely no  cultural intelligence, depending on that critical aspect to be supplied by the notoriously corrupt  Lebanese Deuxieme  Bureau ( state security), The unit was  given a mission probably best described  in ordinary vernacular as “hanging out near Beirut. ”  That was supplemented by  a complicated Rules of Engagement ( ROE) by which the Marines were expected to do not much of anything, including, in some areas,  not to even carry loaded weapons. While sitting in their base camp, the Marines took sniper fire and mortar attacks, killing several Marines, Where do we shoot back and who is the enemy?

Meanwhile the Lebanese army (LAF) made the mistake of going against the tough Druze in the Shuf region,  Finally identifying an enemy to shoot at the American forces began firing artillery into the Druze region, including using the battleship New Jersey to fire 16″ shells into the Shuf and Shi’a regions  A very old friend and the best Lebanese  analyst I know told me the New Jersey went from being a huge propaganda weapon sitting off shore to an object of derision when it simply made huge craters in the rocky hill sides.

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Druze elder. The Druze are among the best fighters in the Middle East. Currently they serve in the armies of Israel, Syria and Lebanon

So now the Americans had evolved into just another militia.  The irredentist and imperialistic, but adroit, Iranians see an opportunity to get the Americans out of the Middle East and they initiate an action to humiliate the Americans causing them to leave the playground to their allies. the Shi’a Hezbollah. It worked. Three months later we left.

Although the Iranian facilitators and apologists, who are  well-funded and reside in large numbers in Washington DC, still insist there is no smoking gun tying the Iranians to this evil deed , there is little doubt that in fact it was an attack ordered by the Iranian regime.  leb sunni.jpg

This event and the humiliation it caused has resulted in unending problems for the U.S. Saddam was frequently quoted in his table talk with his coterie of confidants pointing to the Beirut affair as an example of American weakness…our sensitivity to the “body bag ” issue. A number of the Islamist leaders, including Bin Laden,  have also used it as  an example of how to defeat the American giant.  Simply kill a large number and they will give up.

leb shis

Basically The  Syria, Iran and Hezbollah axis  constitute the primary power in Lebanon today.  Sheikh Faddallah has dissuaded the Lebanese Shi’a in recent years from the more bloody aspects of the Ashurah procession

If there is any American culprit in this whole affair it was Casper Weinberger who failed to carry out Reagan’s orders, and convinced the President to take no  reprisals against the Iranians, Syrians and Hezbollah, apparently to avoid “inflaming the situation.”  At least this seems to be the substance of the divisive arguments in the Reagan cabinet. It is the same refrain we hear every time there is a terrorist  action or provocation. We are slow learners.

Colonel Geraghty, the commander, wrote an informative piece in the Naval Institute Proceedings at https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2008-10/25-years-later-we-came-peace. Apparently he has done well after leaving the Marine Corps.

These post mortems like the reports after the Marine Barracks bombing and the Report on the Khobar towers bombing  strike me as having very little appreciation or understanding for living, working, or fighting in the Arab world. In the comfortable quarters of study groups it all seems so clear in retrospect.

A wonderfully readable and informative  book is entiltled Beirut Rules, by Fred Burton and Samuel M. Katz. It details very accurately the declaration of war on the United States by the Irainian thugs/clerics begining in the early eighties. In collusion with the thuggish Syrian regime and the Hezbollah fanatics, the Iranians have been led to believe that they can humble the Americans at will. Much of that traces back to October 1983.

About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
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