From the Stars and Stripes archives

25 years later: A look at lessons from Beirut

October, 1983: Marines wounded in the Beirut bombing arrive at Rhein-Main Air Base, to be transported to the Landstuhl hospital by an ambulance bus.


By JEFF SCHOGOL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 23, 2008

ARLINGTON, Va. — Twenty-five years ago Thursday, a suicide bomber drove a truck full of 12,000 pounds of explosives into a U.S. military barracks at the Beirut airport, killing 241 U.S. servicemembers.

Most of those killed were Marines who were part of an international peacekeeping force in Lebanon. U.S. forces were withdrawn months afterwards.

Some have said the ultimate lesson of the episode is that backing down to terrorists only encourages more aggression, but others have taken away different lessons from Beirut.

"You should never again commit forces to a peacekeeping role unless there is a peace — a truce. We didn’t have that," said retired Gen. Al Gray, who was commander of the 2nd Marine Division at the time of the bombing, and later became Marine Corps commandant.

In 1982, the United States took part in a multinational peacekeeping force to Lebanon at the request of the Lebanese government.

The move came after Israel invaded southern Lebanon to wipe out the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and while Lebanon was in the midst of a civil war.

In December 1982, U.S. troops began training the Lebanese armed forces, which undermined the United States’ neutrality, Gray said at a Saturday panel discussion at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Va.

Then the U.S. forces earned "a pack-full of enemies" when the U.S. Navy shelled Druze positions in support of the Lebanese forces, Gray said.

"You don’t ever make any more enemies than you’ve already got," Gray said. "And you never do anything that’s not good for the people you’re trying to help. We violated that as a nation."

Retired Marine Maj. Robert Jordan views the withdrawal following the Beirut barracks bombing not a military defeat, but rather symptomatic of a "lack of political will."

When officials start worrying more about the troops than the mission, they defeat the purpose of the mission, said Jordan, a public affairs officer who was in Beirut at the time of the attack.

"When you are going to commit troops, you need to understand that when they go into harm’s way, they are probably going to be sacrificed: Some of them are going to die and some are going to be wounded and so forth, and force protection can only be relied on to a point," he said.

The U.S. government entered into the Lebanon mission without objectively and honestly assessing the risks, or how long U.S. troops would be there, said Anthony Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan think-tank in Washington.

Another error, Cordesman said, was that the military intervention was not accompanied by economic aid and efforts to unite Lebanon’s warring factions — a mistake the U.S. government would later repeat.

"We went into Afghanistan without any clear plan for stability operations or nation-building," Cordesman said. "It took us years to recognize how serious the situation was."

The Lebanon experience also shows what happens when a U.S. mission becomes politicized, said retired Gen. P.X. Kelley, who was Corps commandant during the Beirut attack.

In late September and early October 1983, lawmakers held hearings on when U.S. troops should leave Lebanon, said Kelley, who was on the Oct. 18 panel with Gray.

"This is a little déjà-vu because this is happening in many cases today, where the Congress is saying: ‘When are you going to leave? When are you going to have your exit strategy? When are you going to do this? When are you going to do that?’ " he said. "In many cases, there are no reasonable answers that we military officers do know."

Eleven days before the bombing, Congress passed a law saying that the multinational peacekeeping force would remain in Lebanon for 18 months, Kelley said.

"Now Hezbollah, which was armed in the early 1980s for the expressed purpose of driving the Israelis out, had already — because the Israelis left — had shifted their focus towards us," Kelley said. "And to tell your enemy that not you’re not going to leave his territory for 18 months, I’m sure is one of the things that accelerated the bombing that took place on the 23rd [of October]."

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