On Oct. 23, 1983,  a stake-bed truck carrying explosives drove directly into the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines barracks in Beirut, Lebanon and exploded. The force of the explosion collapsed the four-story building into rubble, crushing to death 241 American servicemen, majority of them being U.S. Marines.

On Oct. 23, 1983, a stake-bed truck carrying explosives drove directly into the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines barracks in Beirut, Lebanon and exploded. The force of the explosion collapsed the four-story building into rubble, crushing to death 241 American servicemen, majority of them being U.S. Marines. (Screen grab from U.S. Marine Corps video)

Armed personnel, in extreme situations mandating a quick response, tend to react more from instinctive emotion as little time exists for careful reflection. As we have seen, this has been a problem in the U.S. over the past few years involving several police-involved shootings that proved sometimes to be warranted and sometimes not. But any time a human life is lost in such instances, obviously an in-depth investigation needs to be undertaken to determine accountability. Such a determination, however, is not always easy to make. 

A recent case in point representative of this involved a shooting by an Israeli Defense Force unit in Gaza. Three men were suddenly observed running toward the unit, requiring a split-second decision as to whether they posed a threat and a shoot-to-kill response. 

In a war zone located on foreign territory, the only “known” for this IDF unit was that unknown threats could emerge from anywhere. The fact that many soldiers were combat rookies also put them on edge. Although the three shirtless people running toward them waved a white shirt and shouted in Hebrew, Hamas was well known for using any possible means to lull Israeli soldiers into a false sense of security to spring an ambush.

One such ploy in the tunnels was used to draw IDF soldiers toward the sound of a crying baby. It turned out the baby’s cries emanated from a recorder the terrorists played hoping to lure the Israelis into a kill zone. Another ploy involved terrorists who spoke perfect Hebrew or who wore IDF-issue “tzitzits” – distinctive Jewish religious shirts with tassels – to similarly lure IDF soldiers into a trap. Additionally, in direct violation of international law, Hamas has booby-trapped bodies of dead Israelis, barbarically seeking to claim the lives of those attempting to recover the remains. 

These Hamas ploys understandably leave Israeli soldiers leery of what to expect on the battlefield. But they also tend to leave them with a hair-trigger reaction when a perceived threat presents itself. That was why, as the three men drew closer to the unit, an IDF soldier, fearing an ambush was about to be sprung, opened fire, killing them.

Sadly, it was discovered the three were Israeli – hostage escapees fatefully racing for the safety they anticipated the IDF unit would provide.

Unlike what we have seen in the U.S. when innocent deaths occur, accountability becomes a hot potato issue. However, in this case, the IDF commander of the unit involved quickly acknowledged responsibility. In doing so, he added the observation, “In a single moment, the complexity of our justified war in Gaza has been demonstrated.”

It is clear the tragic death of the hostages has hit the Israelis hard, nearly bringing some IDF leaders to tears. While they noted the incident provides a lesson learned, it undoubtedly will be a lesson learned by Hamas as well. The terrorist group, recognizing this incident will likely make the IDF a little more gun-shy about hair-trigger reactions, will seek to take advantage of the extra seconds a slower Israeli reaction will provide them to exploit. 

Those favoring implementation of a more delayed response by the Israelis ignore a lesson the U.S. learned the hard way in 1983. That lesson was taught by terrorists at the cost of 241 American servicemen’s lives. It involved the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, where the lesson came in the bombing of that building. And it came, ironically, when our Marines were there to save lives as part of a peacekeeping force. However, concerned that a loaded weapon might endanger innocent life, Marine commanders ordered guards not to chamber rounds in their rifles. 

As a result of this order – given to protect locals – at 6:22 on the morning of Oct. 23, 1983, a 19-ton truck loaded full with compressed gas-enhanced explosives and driven by a suicide bomber was observed by sentries barreling through road barriers and racing toward the barracks. Unfortunately, however, the sentries lost precious time fumbling with their weapons, trying to insert loaded magazines into their rifles. Thus they were unable to take the driver under fire in a timely manner. They were left to watch the horror of the devastating explosion that followed, bearing witness to the largest single day loss of Marine lives since World War II.

With the lengthy list of conflicts Israel has fought not only against Hamas but the Arab nations around it as well, it learned long ago that the color of combat is not always black and white. But what Israel takes away from the unfortunate deaths of the three hostages cannot be based on emotion. Any changes need to be implemented only after careful reflection concerning the best interests of maintaining the safety of its soldiers. Unfortunately, they are faced with operating on a battlefield filled with unknown risks against an enemy willing to violate any principle of warfare banned by international law.

In a touching act of a grieving Israeli mother who recognizes the complexities of combat the IDF is facing, Iris Haim – whose son Yotam, 28, was one of the three hostages killed – recorded a message for the IDF unit that had shot him. She expressed the family’s love for the soldiers and did not blame them for Yotam’s death, understanding and appreciating what they are doing to keep Israel safe. Obviously not an easy message for a grieving mother to write, it is revealing about the sacrifices the Israeli people recognize they must accept when it comes to fighting a brutal enemy.

For football players on the gridiron, the fight is one of inches; for warriors on the battlefield, it is one of seconds. While a slow reaction by the former may cost his team a game, they will return to play another day; but a slow reaction by the latter can cost the warrior his life as well as the lives of his fellow team members. 

The death of these hostages comes at a high cost. It is more than just the loss of three innocent human lives. The guilt of the Israeli soldier responsible for the deaths will haunt him for the rest of his life. That is what makes him human and, as such, separates him from the Hamas terrorists who, after their massacre of Israeli men, women and children on Oct. 7, suffer from no similar sense of guilt.

James Zumwalt is a retired Marine infantry officer (lieutenant colonel) who served in the Vietnam War, Panama and Operation Desert Storm. He heads the security consulting firm Admiral Zumwalt & Consultants Inc. in Herndon, Va.

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