Another October 23rd has come and gone, another anniversary of the 1983 U.S. Marine barracks bombing in Beirut -- and more inane articles written by people drawing the wrong lessons. As usual, the authors perceive the United States as some innocent Little Red Riding Hood attacked unjustly and without provocation by evil wolves. Last year, former Reagan-era National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane penned an especially ill-informed piece titled "From Beirut to 9/11." McFarlane blamed Hezbollah, though the Shiite resistance group did not yet really exist and nobody knows who actually committed the attack.
A short history lesson is in order: The 1983 bombing, in which suicide bombers driving explosives-laden trucks killed 241 U.S. military personnel and 58 French servicemen, was in response to an American attack. The United States, at McFarlane's behest, chose to back one side in Lebanon's civil war. Opposition groups, composed of Lebanon's various religious sects, battled the Lebanese Army, which was acting as a sectarian Christian militia. The United States had just given the Lebanese Army a great deal of military equipment. The opposition forces confronted the Lebanese Army in Suq al-Gharb and were defeating the U.S.-backed forces, which could have led to an end to the civil war and a victory for the opposition forces. There was little consultation within Ronald Reagan's administration when McFarlane decided to call for the USS New Jersey off the coast of Lebanon to provide gunfire support for its beleaguered allies. Until then, the United States had maintained a fairly neutral stance, but after this attack the U.S. warships continued to sporadically shell the opposition fighters. At this point, the United States became just another militia in the Lebanese civil war.
The United States chose not to raise the alert level for the Marines participating as part of the multinational peacekeeping force in Beirut because it thought that would imply that the Marines were also implicated in the attack. But, as U.S. military personnel, of course they were implicated -- McFarlane had made them so, and their blood is on his hands. The attitude among some at the National Security Council was that it was time to teach the Lebanese opposition forces -- read: Muslims -- a lesson. At the State Department's political and military affairs bureau, "we were shocked" by the shelling at Suq al-Gharb, one former senior member told me. "We were left speechless." They knew there would be retaliation for this American act of war.
Interestingly, my views are supported by none other than retired Col. Timothy J. Geraghty, the man who commanded the Marines in Beirut 25 years ago. Geraghty wrote an article last year for the U.S. Naval Institute's publication Proceedings: "The Marine and the French headquarters were targeted primarily because of who we were and what we represented. ... It is noteworthy that the United States provided direct naval gunfire support -- which I strongly opposed for a week -- to the Lebanese Army at a mountain village called Suq-al-Garb on 19 September and that the French conducted an air strike on 23 September in the Bekaa Valley. American support removed any lingering doubts of our neutrality, and I stated to my staff at the time that we were going to pay in blood for this decision."
Geraghty was not the only military expert who has doubts about the U.S. role in Lebanon during the 1980s. Robert Baer was a CIA field agent covering Lebanon out of Damascus at the time of the bombing. "Don't forget the Lebanese Christian forces kidnapped the Iranian chargé d'affaires, a senior Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps officer," he told me. "The Iranians held the U.S. responsible. As far as they were concerned, we opened the first shot in the war."
Clashes between the Marines and the Lebanese Shiites living in Beirut's southern suburbs also turned the United States into a combatant in the Lebanese civil war. "The Marines killed a lot of Shiites. So we're talking about simple revenge. Well, on second thought, revenge isn't that simple. The problem in any war is that there is no such thing as a precision weapon," Baer continued. "We didn't have a clue who we were killing [in Lebanon]. ... It was just numbers. It made good above-the-fold headlines. An eye for an eye."