President Ronald Reagan called it "hideous" and "insane." His defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger, called it "an impossible mission." The New York Times described it as "a haunting scene." A Marine who was there called it "a dirty and bloody war."
Beirut, 1983. Most Americans have either forgotten or never heard about what happened there 30 Octobers ago. But the men who were there haven't forgotten – nor have America's enemies.
‘This ain't that bad' The U.S. intervention in Lebanon began with the best of intentions. After almost a decade of war involving too many sides to count – PLO terrorists; Christian militias; Sunnis, Shiites and Druzes; the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF); the Israeli and Syrian armies – the idea was to deploy an international peacekeeping force to stabilize Lebanon, or at least to prevent the war from further metastasizing.
In August 1982, Reagan sent a small force of 80 Marines to facilitate the movement of Palestinian militiamen out of Beirut.
Later that same year, he sent 1,200 Marines as part of a congressionally authorized multinational force to both serve as a buffer between the warring factions and shore up the Lebanese government. Italy and France also sent troops to participate in the mission.
But good intentions don't ensure good outcomes. In April 1983, a suicide bomber attacked the U.S. embassy, killing 16 Americans and foreshadowing what was to come.
Large contingents of Marines began arriving soon after the embassy attack.
"It looked like a peaceful city," recalls John Jackson, who served with Charlie Battery, 1st Battalion, 10th Marines, which provided artillery support to Battalion Landing Team (BLT) 1st Battalion, 8th Marines. But soon after hitting the beach, Jackson realized he was in a war zone. "We would look up at the mountains and watch the militias fight at nighttime," he says.
"I didn't have a sense of the situation," says Craig Renshaw, who served with 1/8 Marines.
"I was fresh out of boot camp. I thought, ‘This ain't that bad. We'll just sit here until something happens.'"
As it turns out, that was precisely the problem with Washington's approach to Lebanon.
Keeping peace and counting rounds Reagan's national security team was divided. Weinberger, who died in 2006, was concerned about the mission from the outset. "There was something like 27 or 28 separate armed groups, all of which had only one thing in common: they opposed us," he explained in a PBS interview.
Weinberger worried about "very vague rules of engagement," warned that the Marine force would be "a sitting duck," and argued that a buffer force only makes sense "if you insert it between two warring factions that have agreed there should be a buffer force."
"I felt very strongly that they should not be there," Weinberger recalled. "They had no mission but to sit at the airport. I begged the president at least to pull them back and put them back on their transports as a more defensible position. I guess I wasn't persuasive enough."
Weinberger's worries were well-founded. "Until mid-August, we were just a show of force in place," Renshaw explains. "Then we started getting hit – mortar rounds, snipers. We were ducking and dodging. But we couldn't shoot back."
Jackson adds, "We were supposed to be peacekeepers, but there wasn't much peace to be kept." He recalls how "we started as neutrals." But when the Marines were ordered to train the LAF, "the factions started to see us as no longer neutral."
Indeed, by late summer, U.S. warships began firing rounds in support of the LAF. The naval bombardments were "convincing proof the U.S. was no longer neutral," as historian Patrick Brogan notes in his book "World Conflicts."
Soon, USS New Jersey, with its massive guns, took up station off Lebanon.
"I felt relief when I saw the New Jersey," Renshaw says. "Just to see it go up and down the coastline, you thought, ‘Now we mean business.'"
Yet Washington remained halfhearted, and the mission remained nebulous.
"Marines are fighters," Jackson says. "We wanted to be let loose. And at times, they let us do what we were capable of, but most of the time we were held in check."
For instance, when fired upon, a Marine unit would have to get on the radio, report that it had taken fire, report a visual ID on the source of fire, and then request permission to return fire.
"If I did return fire, they would count my rounds at the end of the day," Jackson recalls.
Renshaw's unit found a clever way to deal with the straitjacket rules of engagement. "We started to make sure our radios didn't work," he says with a wry chuckle. That meant that the highest-ranking Marine on location could authorize return fire.
Through it all, America's enemies were watching. "They would hit us and watch and wait," Renshaw says. "And they figured out that our hands were tied."
Marines were being killed in small numbers during the summer of 1983. Writing in his memoir years later, Reagan recounted the words of a grief-stricken father who asked during a condolence call from the president, "Are we in Lebanon for any reason worth my son's life?"
Reagan's response was, like the Marines' mission, murky. "Brave men and women have always been willing to give up their lives in the defense of freedom, and that's what our Marines are doing in the Middle East," he said.
That didn't convince most Americans, Reagan's diary entries reveal. "The people just don't know why we're there," he wrote on Sept. 30, 1983.
‘Gone – just a cloud of smoke' As dawn broke on Oct. 23, Renshaw had just finished up his watch on duty in a machine-gun pit on the perimeter of the Beirut airport. He crawled into his rack for some much-needed rest. Then it happened.
"It was a rumble, a roar," he remembers. "The bomb shook me. It shook everything. We ran out and looked toward battalion and it was gone – just a cloud of smoke." The radio traffic was "crazy and chaotic. Some guys were saying it was artillery, but I knew it wasn't that."
In fact, it was a Mercedes truck crammed with 2,500 pounds of explosives. The truck had been waved through an LAF checkpoint, as The New York Times later reported; Renshaw's gun nest was about 700 yards southeast of the area where it got through. The truck veered across a four-lane highway, gathered speed in an empty parking lot and hurtled toward its target: the Marine battalion headquarters.
As the suicide bomber raced through the barriers, one Marine radioed, "A large truck is bearing down on me." Another Marine fired off at least five rounds. Yet "another threw himself in front of the speeding, explosive-filled truck," according to the Times. But it was too late. The truck crashed through an iron fence and leveled the building, leaving a crater 30 feet deep.
Jackson's unit was a 40-minute drive away from the airport.
"A day before the attack, we were assigned to train an LAF artillery unit up near the Chouf Mountains northeast of Beirut," Jackson explains, remembering how upset he was about being sent on the training mission because it meant he would miss a USO concert.
"When we got word of the attack, we tried to make our way back to headquarters," he recalls. "But because of all the fighting and all the checkpoints, it took us two hours."
He adds, "We had lots of intel about threats –things like RPGs, grenades, snipers – but suicide bombing was never brought up."
Renshaw's unit was ordered to take up positions on the perimeter. He's thankful for that. "I was lucky," he says. "I didn't have to see what was under all that rubble."
The attack claimed 241 Americans. A nearly simultaneous attack hit the French base, killing 58.
There is broad consensus today that Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militant/terror group founded in Lebanon in 1982, orchestrated the operation.
Resolve and rhetoric After the bombing, positions near the airport came under increased sniper and mortar attack. U.S. and French warplanes responded. On a single day in December 1983, 28 carrier-borne U.S. planes struck Syrian targets. That same month, New Jersey opened up on Syrian and terrorist targets. In early February 1984, as New Jersey's museum reports, the venerable battleship fired almost 300 shells at Druze and Syrian positions.
Reagan vowed to dig in, rhetorically asking, "If we were to leave Lebanon now, what message would that send to those who foment instability and terrorism?" The heavy guns seemed to underline his resolve.
But Reagan's rhetoric and New Jersey's volleys were little more than covering fire for an orderly withdrawal. "Once the terrorist attacks started, there was no way that we could really contribute to the original mission by staying there," he conceded.
And so, on Feb. 2, 1984, Reagan ordered the "redeployment of the Marines from Beirut airport to their ships offshore," realizing something he should have known before: that U.S. forces couldn't remain in Lebanon "and be in the war on a halfway basis."
"Perhaps the idea of a suicide car-bomber committing mass murder to gain instant entry into paradise was so foreign to our values," he confessed in his autobiography, "that it did not create in us the concern for the Marines' safety that it should have."
Last impressions Looking back across the decades, we know that the Beirut bombing was not an aberration, but rather a jarring glimpse of the terror that was to come: Khobar Towers, Kenya and Tanzania, the Cole, Madrid, London, Mumbai, Bali and 9/11.
In fact, Gen. Tommy Franks, former CENTCOM commander, traces a line from Beirut to 9/11.
"What did we see happen in 1983 in Beirut, Lebanon? We saw the interests of the United States of America attacked by terrorists," he observed in a 2007 interview, pointing to a long list of attacks after Beirut that went largely unanswered. "I do believe there is a connection," he said, "an indication served up to terrorists over the course of almost two decades that says it is OK to attack the interests of the United States of America without fear of serious retribution."
Interestingly, Osama bin Laden confirmed Franks' diagnosis. "Where was this false courage of yours when the explosion in Beirut took place?" the terror leader howled, calling it "a pleasure" to see America "defeated in the three Islamic cities of Beirut, Aden and Mogadishu."
In short, if the decision to go into Lebanon was risky, the way Washington decided to pull out proved disastrous, which leads us to some lessons of Beirut:
-Presidents must be careful where and how they deploy U.S. troops. If the policymakers and public aren't fully committed, as was later articulated in the "Weinberger Doctrine," it's better to hold back than jump in. U.S. forces should not be asked to keep the peace between sides that haven't made peace – and should never be left as sitting ducks.
-U.S. interventions need to have clear objectives. Commanders and their troops need to understand what their mission is, which means policymakers need to define that mission from the outset.
-Having a clear mission with clear objectives is only part of the equation. Once deployed, troops need to have the rules of engagement necessary to protect themselves and prevail. "Anytime you send a force in with its hands tied," Renshaw argues, "they really don't need to be there."
-Policymakers need to prepare for the worst – and need to prepare the public for the worst. "It's ridiculous to get into something and not think that the worst-case scenario can happen – and then not have a response," Jackson explains.
-Finally, last impressions may be more important than first impressions. The way U.S. forces leave – and the reason they do – can have a lasting effect on the enemy. Reagan sensed that, as underscored by his rhetorical question about the consequences of leaving Lebanon. His instincts were right. Hasty withdrawals from Lebanon in 1983 and Somalia a decade later sent the wrong signal to bin Laden and his followers.
Alan W. Dowd is a contributing editor to The American Legion Magazine.