Beirut 1983: History, History, History

Amid the tension over Afghanistan and in the background of the latest bombings in Iraq, some may remember one of the most tragic events in Marine Corps if not U.S. military history. As many wonder what direction U.S. military policy soon might take, some may be reminded of dark days in Beirut, Lebanon.

Oct. 23 marked the 26th anniversary of the truck bomb that killed 241 servicemembers, (most almost instantly) annihilated an awkward mission, and sent the entire Marine Corps and U.S. policymakers reeling from the aftershocks.

We were at the Naval Academy at the time, and not much news penetrates the cone of silence. But word spread quickly of the incident, and even those of us consumed by studies knew this was big. Really big.

A year later I was at the memorial service near Camp Lejeune, N.C. The devastation was apparent. It was carnage of another sort. A friend pointed out one of the Marine commanders from Beirut. He was a shell of a man, a walking corpse appearing consumed by the fate that had befallen his men. The bombing of the Marine’s airport compound resulted in the largest loss of Marine life since the landings at Iwo Jima. Beirut was now this man’s legacy. Not really how one plans to end a Marine Corps career.

The history of this tiny military presence started simply, but grew complex against a background of the political and religious unrest. Policies were cobbled together in an attempt to stabilize the region, but a timeline written by famed Marine Corps chief historian Ben Frank, shows a decent into chaos.

In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon to push back invading Palestinian Liberation Organization forces and probably Syrian fighters. The PLO wanted international assurances it could pull out safely. A multinational force was formed, including 800 Marines from the 32nd Marine Amphibious Unit. By Sept. 10, the PLO had moved out and the Marines ordered home. But not so fast—the Lebanese president–elect was assassinated soon after plunging the nation further into turmoil. The Marines would stay, though units would rotate over the next year. The Marines were armed and armored, despite critical reports to the contrary following the blast.

A large car bomb exploded April 18, 1983, at U.S. embassy in Beirut killing 61. Islamic fundamentalists claimed responsibility as they had for other incursions. The Marines came under attack at their airport base many times during this period. Men were killed. They were wounded in the fighting. During much of Sept. 1983, U.S. Navy ships provided naval gunfire support to the Marines.

The situation was escalating. A Sept. 26 ceasefire was anything but, and Marines remained in the line of fire. All reached a crescendo shortly after 6 a.m. Oct. 23 when the truck no one could stop detonated 12,000 pounds of explosives leveling the building housing 300 or so Marines. Fighting continued until the Marines redeployed Feb. 26, 1984. The mission essentially was abandoned.

Leaders over the years have pointed to Beirut as changing their views on how to fight an irregular war. Twenty-six years later does it impact Afghanistan? Iraq? Do they teach Beirut? It is classic; it is epic on many levels.

Can its value be over-estimated?

Recent Posts