The American Legion Magazine | 10.1.13
By Alan W. Dowd
President Ronald Reagan called it “hideous” and “insane.” His
defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger, called it “an impossible mission.” The New York Times called it “a haunting
scene.” A Marine who was there called it “a dirty and bloody war.”
It was Beirut in 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.
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; Sunni,
Shiite and Druze Muslims; 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.
August 1982, Reagan sent a small force of 80 Marines to Lebanon to facilitate
the movement of Palestinian militiamen out of Beirut.
that same year, Reagan sent 1,200 Marines as part of a congressionally-authorized
multinational force (MNF) to serve as a buffer force between the warring
factions and shore up the Lebanese government.[i] Italy and France also sent troops to participate
in the well-intentioned mission.
good intentions don’t ensure good outcomes.
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
“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,” admits 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, was precisely the problem with Washington’s approach to
The president’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.[ii]
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.”[iii]
“I felt very strongly that
they should not be there,” Weinberger recalled.[iv] “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
“I guess I wasn’t persuasive enough.”
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, he sighs, “The factions
started to see us as no longer neutral.”
Indeed, by the late summer of 1983, U.S. warships began
firing rounds in support of the LAF.[vi] 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 remembers. “Just to see it go up and down the
coastline, you thought, ‘Now we mean business.’”
Yet Washington remained halfhearted, and the mission
“Marines are fighters,” as Jackson puts it. “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
ROEs. “We started to make sure our radios didn’t work,” he says with a wry
chuckle. That meant the highest-ranking Marine on location could authorize return
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,”
That wasn’t persuasive to most Americans, as Reagan’s diary entries
reveal. “The people just don’t know why we’re there,” he wrote on September 30,
As dawn broke on October 23, Renshaw had just finished up
his watch on duty in a machinegun
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,” he recalls. “Some guys were saying it was artillery, but I knew it
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
machinegun nest was about 700 yards southeast of the area where the truck got
through. The truck veered across a four-lane highway, gathered speed in an
empty parking lot and hurtled toward its target: Battalion headquarters.
As the suicide bomber raced through the barriers, one Marine
radioed, “A large truck is bearing down on me.” Another 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 BLT,
leaving a crater 30 feet deep.[ix]
Jackson’s unit was a 40-minute Jeep drive away from 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,” Jackson 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 terror group founded in Lebanon in 1982, orchestrated
After the bombing, MNF positions near the airport came under
increased sniper and mortar attack. French and American warplanes responded. On
a single day in December 1983, 28 carrier-borne U.S. planes struck Syrian
targets.[xi]That same month, the New Jerseyopened up on Syrian and terrorist targets. In early February 1984, as the New Jersey museum reports, the venerable
battleship fired almost 300 shells at Druze and Syrian positions.[xii]
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?”[xiii] The heavy guns
seemed to underline his resolve.
But Reagan’s rhetoric and the 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,” Reagan conceded.[xiv]
And so, on February 2, 1984, Reagan ordered the “redeployment
of the Marines from Beirut airport to their ships offshore,”[xv]realizing something he should have known before—“that we couldn’t remain in
Lebanon and be in the war on a halfway basis.”[xvi]
“Perhaps the idea of a suicide car-bomber committing
mass-murder to gain instant entry into paradise was so foreign to our values,”
Reagan confessed in his autobiography, “that it did not create in us the
concern for the Marines’ safety that it should have.”[xvii]
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 okay to attack the interests of the United
States of America without fear of serious retribution.”[xviii]
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.”[xix]
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 need to be careful where and how they
deploy American 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 the mission from the outset.
Having a clear mission with clear objectives is
only part of the equation, however. Once deployed, the troops need to have the ROEs
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.”
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 leave—can
have a lasting impact 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.
[i] Richard F. Grimmett, "Instances of Use of United
States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798-2010," CRS Report for Congress, March 10,
[vii] Ronald Reagan, An American Life, p.447.
[viii] Reagan, p.447.
[ix] All quotes in the paragraph from Thomas Friedman,
“Beirut death toll at least 161 Americans; French casualties rise; Reagan
insists Marines will remain,” New York Times, October 24, 1983
[xi] Reagan, p.465.
[xv] Reagan, February 7, 1984.
[xvi] Reagan, p.465.
[xvii] Reagan, p.466.