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Birth of a War

A quarter-century has passed since 241 Marines, sailors and soldiers were blown up in their beds in Beirut, Lebanon, on Oct. 23, 1983. Since that day, the United States has fought two short wars and several battles in the Muslim world and, since 2001 and 2003, has been engaged in two wars of attrition in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many observers see the Beirut barracks attack as the initial skirmish in what has become the global war on terrorism. Twenty-five years later, it is fair to consider how far we've come - or how rough the journey has been - in our clash with the world of Islam.

The importance of the Beirut bombing remains paramount to the families of those who were killed on that date, or died later from wounds or heartbreak. Dozens of lives were ruined by the event; a few survivors who remain on active duty hold the lessons dear. But the real importance to the world was that ill-equipped Muslim warriors ejected the U.S. Marines from Lebanon without paying any price whatsoever. Indeed, it took until this past February for Imad Muggenieh - mastermind of the barracks bombing, along with the deadly disaster in Mogadishu chronicled in "Black Hawk Down," the U.S. embassy bombings in Africa, the murder of Blackwater operatives in Iraq, and who knows what else - to be blown up, presumably by Israelis.

Since the barracks attack, the U.S. military has twice defeated the sprawling but inept army of Saddam Hussein and, on numerous occasions, has been routed by ill-trained Muslim militias armed with ancient Soviet light arms, homemade bombs, and a Quran-inspired will to win.

This is not to say that U.S. troops themselves have lacked the will to win, but it is to suggest that America has so far lacked some important ingredient necessary to defeat this amorphous enemy. Perhaps that ingredient is a clear comprehension of modern war, or even a clear understanding that a never-ending political cycle at home does not translate well into geopolitical realities: you can't co-opt Muslims abroad as props in presidential races and political knife fights without having them react badly.

In Beirut, the United States sought to achieve lofty, if undefined, political goals with either too few troops or entirely the wrong force for the mission.

In Afghanistan, we have so far failed to deploy a credible force or a lasting pacification and reconstruction strategy. In Iraq, we have piled on with so much force as to bring our shrunken military to the point of collapse, and certainly to the point where our defense is spread so thin that we cannot adequately defend our own borders, let alone deter foreign aggression against U.S. allies.

Who will stop North Korea if, in the death throes of its communist regime, it invades the south? Who on this planet will stand up to Iran if it decides to make war beyond its borders? Where will tens of millions of impoverished Mexicans head if deadly temperatures and persistent drought force them from their homes? What U.S. national institution except the military can even begin to care for them?

What did America's enemies learn in Beirut?

They confirmed, with the blood of their sons, the ultimate lesson of the Vietnam War: Americans are willing to lose only so many lives on ill-defined overseas missions to vanquish threats of wide-ranging dimensions. In Vietnam, the threat was writ large, so the magic number was 58,000.

In Beirut, it was writ small, so the magic number was a bit over 250. In Mogadishu, in 1993, it was hardly writ at all; the final tally was 18, all in one day. In 1999, when Ambassador Richard Holbrooke tried to convince Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic to give up Kosovo or face U.S. military action, it is reputed that Milosevic responded to every threat with one word: "18," a reference to Somalia and the extent to which America was willing to actually wage war. So far, with more than 4,000 killed and 30,000 wounded, Iraq has not yet hit its number. Muslims who hate us are certain they will reach it soon.

 

The Missing Images. A key political lesson learned from Vietnam was that an honest photographic record of an unpopular war might have a negative impact on the message the government dispenses to build and maintain domestic support for war. In World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt authorized the release of even the most graphic combat photos and film footage as a means to raise U.S. consciousness of the stakes. And that it did. It made Americans of the day fighting mad at the Japanese and Germans.

Open access to grim images of war was repeated in Korea and Vietnam, wars that were not popular at home. Such access was gamed to within an inch of its life in Beirut and utterly quashed during the first Gulf War. It is being quashed now. Nothing good will ever come of this policy. If a war is worth fighting, the U.S. electorate must be educated - not manipulated - and brought into the reality of that war.

If the price indeed becomes too high, the electorate, duly informed by its government, must speak its will. Things have gone so far awry since 2001 that combat photographers are not even allowed to take graphic photos for the sake of training or analysis, much less share them with their fellow citizens.

Since 2004, I have produced eight books built around thousands of World War II combat photos stored and available at our National Archives, where anyone from anywhere in the world can view and copy them for free. In that same time, I have been unable to locate more than four official and verifiable combat photos - all from one sequence - taken in Iraq. More to the point, I don't know a single active-duty officer who has seen others. I did find, in 2006, that official photos of the Beirut bombing aftermath, which I sought in 1984 for use in my book on the subject, have been removed from public access - even for use by Marines in training.

 

The Meaning of It All. Beirut veterans, even surviving bombing victims, were offered no government or service-sponsored mental-health care. The dead and wounded were denied their Purple Hearts until one Republican senator - Charles Percy of Illinois - publicly demanded they be awarded. In early 1984, only months after the bombing, a senior Navy doctor at Camp Lejeune quashed informal efforts by a survivor's family to offer a meeting place for grieving junior officers. Some returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, especially those who wish to remain in the service, have said they are discouraged from seeking definitive mental-health treatment. This is especially corrosive in towns and cities whose police, firemen and emergency medical technicians - people in extremely stressful professions - often serve in local National Guard or reserve units that have been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. Many newly returned veterans encounter stigmatization when they seek mental-health care, so many of them seek care outside of VA, and out of their own pockets, because the system is overwhelmed in many parts of the country.

A large part of the Reagan administration's decision to commit Marines to Lebanon, and keep them there so long, was a turf war with Congress. Then it was a question over the War Powers Act, which Congress had only just passed as a means to regain at least part of its long-moribund constitutional authority to declare war. As had by then become the custom, the president wanted to exercise unfettered use of the military. Reagan decisively blundered in Beirut, which had no real purpose, but Congress ultimately and decisively acceded to his will. The war-powers issue was never resolved, and here we are again, in the midst of a continuing military and geopolitical conflict, against an enemy who perceives us as weak and without the stomach for a long war, full of coffins, costs and consternation at home.

What is the chief lesson of Beirut at the quarter-century mark? What should we have learned? What do we still need to learn? The answer to all three questions is "nothing."

We already knew the answers. They're the same as they always are in questions of war and peace, life and death, prosperity and ruin. They're the lessons we learned from Korea and Vietnam and have seen again in Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq. It's not so much that we get the government we deserve, as it is that we are the government we deserve. And if we don't ask critical questions - if we do not care that we are denied even so much as authentic images of a war, and if we don't demand control - who will?

Eric Hammel is a military historian and author of 40 books, including "The Root: The Marines in Beirut, August 1982-February 1984."

 

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