Authors: Andrew J. Bacevich
Tags: #General, #Military, #World, #Middle Eastern, #United States, #Middle East, #History, #Political Science
Apart from mild obstructionism by Israeli forces and some grandstanding (as the Americans saw it) by French legionnaires also dispatched to the scene, the entire operation went off without a serious hitch. The Marines fired no shots and sustained no casualties. Instead, to pass the time, they “played cards and volleyball,” according to
The New York Times
Things went so well that by September 3 luminaries such as Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, trailed by members of Congress, began arriving to pose for photographs while lunching on C-rations. Their work apparently finished, the Marines themselves soon began packing up to leave. On September 10, the last to depart clambered aboard a landing craft that displayed a large banner proclaiming “Mission Accomplished.”
Not for the last time, the claim proved to be illusory. While the Marines had performed admirably, they had accomplished next to nothing. Certainly, they had not fulfilled President Reagan’s naïve expectations of making peace.
This became evident just four days later, on September 14, when a bomb planted by a Syrian agent killed Bashir Gemayel along with twenty-six other senior members of his Phalange party. The Lebanese parliament had only recently elected Gemayel as his country’s next president—he was the sole candidate—an outcome that Israel and the United States strongly supported.
In the eyes of Begin and Sharon, Gemayel’s ascendancy kept alive their vision of an Israeli-Lebanese condominium. For its part, the Reagan administration saw Gemayel as the key to restoring some semblance of Lebanese stability. Now the object of these improbable hopes was dead.
Sharon reflexively blamed stay-behind PLO fighters for Gemayel’s assassination. Yet if the loss of Israel’s would-be Lebanese partner was a setback, it also offered an opportunity to purge Beirut of its Palestinian presence once and for all. The day after Gemayel’s murder, IDF units occupied the Palestinian precincts of West Beirut in force. There they facilitated the entry into the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps of Phalangist militiamen bent on liquidating the inhabitants. A massacre ensued. Before it was over, the Phalangists had murdered in cold blood at least 700 and perhaps as many as 3,500 Palestinians.
An international outcry erupted, as belated as it was predictable. A
cover story decried “butchery the mind cannot comprehend.” When the killing finally ended more than thirty hours after it began,
There were only the sounds of mourning and the bodies, sprawling heaps of corpses: men, women and children. Some had been shot in the head at pointblank range. Others had had their throats cut. Some had their hands tied behind their backs; one young man had been castrated. Middle-aged women and girls as young as three, their arms and legs grotesquely splayed, were draped across piles of rubble. Portions of their heads were blown away.
President Reagan wasted no time declaring his “outrage and revulsion over the murders,” offering his condolences to the “broader Palestinian community” and fingering Israel as responsible. He all but ordered the Israeli government to withdraw its forces from Beirut forthwith.
Within days, he also decided to reinsert U.S. Marines into that city. As part of a multinational peacekeeping force, they were to establish “a presence in Beirut, that would in turn help establish the stability necessary for the Lebanese government to regain control of their capital.”
How exactly the Marines were to accomplish such an ambitious task, even if assisted by other small allied contingents, was not at all clear. Still, Reagan himself expressed confidence that it could be done. Conditions were ripe, he insisted, for the United States to take “bold and timely initiatives” to free Lebanon of foreign forces and undertake a “systematic program to rebuild Lebanese security forces.”
Demonstrating that U.S. forces by their very presence could bring order out of anarchy would establish a valuable precedent, with potential application elsewhere in the Greater Middle East. “For an administration so dedicated to the accumulation of military power,” the historian Ronald Steel observed at the time, “how irresistible to have the chance to actually use it—even in the most limited way. What is the point of being a global superpower if one is unable to project that power?”
The Washington Post
surmised that projecting American power into the Lebanese morass would “dramatize the U.S. role as the region’s only potential peacemaker.” The stakes went beyond Lebanon itself. “If things go well,” the
reporter speculated, the United States stood to “regain credibility in the eyes of the Arab world.”
For his part, Leslie Gelb of
The New York Times
saw the reentry of U.S. forces as evidence that the United States had “assumed the role of Middle East policeman.”
Yet the contrast with the brief, just-completed U.S. intervention was striking. In that case, Marines had focused on completing a concrete and narrowly defined mission: Implement an agreed-upon evacuation of PLO fighters. By comparison, this new mission was broad and slippery. Nothing had been agreed upon. The United States was projecting power into a void, vaguely hoping that an agreement of some kind would magically emerge. With unknowns outnumbering knowns by a generous margin, Beirut was about to become a place where Marines strolling around with unloaded weapons did so at their peril.
Nonetheless, on September 29, a somewhat larger task force—approximately 1,200 Marines in all—arrived back in Beirut and took up defensive positions in the city’s battered international airport, littered with refuse from years of fighting. That same day, the task force suffered its first casualties, with one Marine killed and three wounded while attempting to clear the airfield of unexploded ordnance. Even so, the mission began in an atmosphere of relative calm, which persisted through the fall and into the winter.
The Americans settled in for what promised to be a long haul. Tours of duty were relatively brief, as every hundred days or so, a new unit rotated in, allowing its predecessor to depart. But the overall mission was open-ended. Marines stayed busy mounting show-the-flag patrols beyond their defensive perimeter while hosting an endless stream of VIPs. Starting in November, they also undertook small-scale training efforts in support of the Lebanese army.
“Presence” was supposed to buy time, allowing Lebanon’s ostensibly nonsectarian army to reassert responsibility for maintaining internal security. Such an outcome, of course, was contingent upon Israel and Syria agreeing to withdraw their own forces, a prerequisite to restoring Lebanese sovereignty. Only then would the Marines be able to resurrect their “Mission Accomplished” banner.
Marine relations with the IDF remained contentious. According to Weinberger, the Israelis repeatedly “harassed our forces.”
Claiming to take fire from areas under U.S. control, IDF units responded vigorously, either by returning fire or dispatching armored reaction forces that intruded into turf under Marine jurisdiction. The Marines responded with equal vigor. In the most dramatic such incident, on February 2, 1983, Captain Charles B. Johnson confronted a column of Israeli tanks advancing toward a Marine checkpoint and ordered them to halt. When the commander of the lead vehicle announced his intention to proceed, Johnson, dismounted with sidearm drawn, replied that he would do so “over my dead body.” With that, the Israeli column attempted to bypass Johnson, at which time the young Marine officer leaped aboard the lead tank and angrily ordered the Israeli commander to halt. A nonviolent disengagement ensued, with Johnson thereby earning a place of honor in service lore.
Here, in microcosm, was a validation of what U.S. military presence could achieve not only in Lebanon but elsewhere in the Greater Middle East as well. Because they commanded respect, U.S. forces could persuade the unruly or the mischief-minded to behave, even without having to fire a shot. To stand firm sufficed to make the point. So it appeared, at least.
Far more significant than Captain Johnson’s commendable heroics was the intensifying violence between opposing Lebanese sects, which the availability of nearby Western peacekeepers did nothing to avert. Indeed, U.S. support for the Lebanese army, itself increasingly aligned with the Phalangists in opposition to Palestinian, Druze, and Shia militias, had the effect of making the Marines a party to Lebanon’s resurgent civil war. The Marines manned checkpoints and conducted joint patrols with Lebanese army forces while also providing them with stocks of ammunition.
An ostensibly neutral presence was morphing into active engagement.
Soon enough, the peacekeepers themselves became targets, as did Western interests more generally. On March 16, unknown assailants ambushed a Marine patrol, wounding five. Other small attacks followed, with both Marines and allied forces targeted. Then on April 18, a major escalation occurred. A suicide bomber, driving a van packed with explosives, detonated his vehicle at the entrance of the U.S. embassy, tearing the face off of that seven-story building and killing sixty-three, including seventeen Americans. Marines rushed to secure the site and minister to the injured. The following month, Druze artillery began shelling Marine positions at the airport. During the summer, these attacks, now including mortars and rockets, intensified and became more frequent. Marine helicopters also came under fire. The posture of the Marine force changed. Patrolling ended. Vulnerable outposts were abandoned. No one used terms like
to describe the situation.
By now tanks and a battery of 155mm howitzers had arrived to reinforce the Marines. Additional assets from the U.S. Sixth Fleet were also gathering off the Lebanese coast. These included a carrier battle group augmented by the USS
, a mothballed World War II battleship that the Reagan administration had recently refurbished. At least the hunkered-down peacekeepers did not lack for firepower.
As the futility of U.S.-led efforts to negotiate a mutual withdrawal of all Syrian and Israeli forces became apparent, the government of Israel took matters into its own hands. On the night of September 3–4, without advance notification to Washington, Israeli forces pulled out of Beirut to a “security zone” in southern Lebanon. This “uncoordinated withdrawal,” wrote Colonel Timothy Geraghty, the Marine commander, “put the multi-national peacekeeping force, and especially the U.S. contingent, directly in the crosshairs of the Muslim militias.”
The implications became immediately apparent as a hail of rockets and artillery rounds struck the Marine compound on September 5 and 6. U.S. casualties mounted, with several killed and some two dozen wounded. As the Americans endured “incessant pounding,” Marine artillerymen returned fire, furthering the transformation of peacekeepers into combatants.
The escalation moved Reagan—call sign “Silver Screen Six”—to phone Geraghty directly.
The president vowed to provide “whatever support it takes to stop the attacks.” As if reading from a movie script, Geraghty promised the commander in chief that his Marines would “hang tough and carry out our mission.”
Reagan himself felt certain that a bit of muscle-flexing could put things right. To his diary on September 7, he confided that “I can’t get the idea out of my head that some F-14s…coming in at about 200 ft. over the Marines & blowing hell out of a couple of artillery emplacements would be a tonic for the Marines & at the same time would deliver a message to those gun happy middle east terrorists.”
Within days, he signed off on a classified directive authorizing “naval gunfire support and, if deemed necessary, tactical air strikes” to support the Lebanese army.
Indeed, U.S. forces were already upping the ante. On September 8, navy warships entered the fray, engaging suspected antigovernment militias with 5-inch cannon fire. During subsequent days, shelling continued. On September 19, for example, U.S. warships supporting the Lebanese army fired 350 rounds over a five-hour period, while Navy fighter jets conducted reconnaissance overhead. As the Marine official history noted, “this specific instance of combat support evidently ended the perception of the Marines as neutral in the eyes of anti-government factions.”
Whether intentionally or out of sheer ignorance, the United States had effectively enlisted as a full-fledged co-belligerent in Lebanon’s civil war.
To their credit, the Marines remained steadfast. They neither flinched nor budged, magnificently unaware of the fate awaiting them, despite the flashing-red warning signs. It was as if during the weeks prior to December 7, 1941, the Japanese navy had conducted a series of small-scale preliminary raids on Pearl Harbor while the pride of the Pacific Fleet remained stubbornly tied up two-by-two on Battleship Row.