I was barely five years old on October 23, 1983 when news that the USMC barracks in Beirut, Lebanon had been bombed crossed our screen. My dad was in the Navy and was deployed at the time. I actually remember some of the events from that day.
At 0620 on Sunday, October 23, a Mercedes truck plowed through two sentry points outside the Marine barracks at the Beirut International Airport. The Marines guarding the points carried rifles, but the weapons were not loaded. Once the truck reached the entryway of the building the driver set off the most powerful non-nuclear blast currently known, lifting the barracks off its foundation and leveling it.
241 US servicemen, mostly Marines, died in the attack.
Just two short minutes later, another Mercedes truck drove into the French military barracks in Ramlet al Baida. Several French paratroopers had rushed out onto the balconies to see what was going on at the airport when the other suicide bomber drove into the barracks’ underground parking area. Similarly, the building was lifted from its foundation and leveled. 58 French soldiers were killed.
Despite promising not to be cowed by terrorists, then-president Ronald Reagan eventually ordered all US troops to withdraw. We pulled the last man out of Lebanon by February 26, 1984. Some have argued in the past that the bombing was directly related to Naval shelling of Druze villages; it’s far more complicated than that.
The Lebanese civil war left the country wide open for jihadist factions to take root. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad all grew exponentially by moving into Lebanon during the upheaval of the war. A contingent of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard trained and armed the jihadists while the Ayatollah provided funding. Attacks on Christian and Catholic groups were severe. Attacks were also launched against Israel, culminating with members of the Abu Nidal Organization attempting to assassinate Israeli ambassador Slomo Argov in London in June of 1982. Israel targeted PLO camps and other jihadist positions in West Beirut, and the PLO immediately broke the cease-fire between Lebanon and Israel by firing over 100 rockets and mortars into Israel. Tired of hiding, Israeli forces invaded.
Partnering with Maronite Christian militias, the IDF rapidly took East Beirut and began bombing PLO strongholds in West Beirut. In retaliation, PLO attacked not only Israeli positions but Maronite civilians. The fighting became so intense that Lebanon called on the UN for help – that’s where America came in. The US called for the PLO to retreat from Beirut and sent a contingent of Naval forces, along with Marines, to help keep the peace.
In September of 1982, Israeli-backed Maronites invaded PLO camps in Sabra and Shatila. Maronite and Phalangist leader Elie Hobeika, who had a major axe to grind with the PLO over the murder of his family, rapidly recruited a number of men who had been expelled from the Lebanese army for criminal activity to do the dirty work. Angry over the assassination of Lebanese president Bashir Gemayel, they blamed the PLO and attacked. It is claimed that 3500 were slaughtered – though only about 800 or so were confirmed dead – and the Lebanese civil war was thrust to the forefront of international news. The backlash was so intense that then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon resigned his post.
The US didn’t consider itself a combatant force. We oversaw the withdrawal of Syrian troops; shortly thereafter, Israel withdrew. Then, in April 1983, the US embassy in Beirut was bombed, killing 63. Intelligence showed that jihadist groups were hiding among Druze encampments, so Reagan ordered the Navy to shell their positions.
The US wasn’t there to pick a side. We were there to try to keep the peace. This was not the first time that American interests had been attacked in the Mideast, and if you listen to some of the Marines who survived the bombing they’ll tell you that we should have declared war on terrorism in 1983 rather than waiting for 9/11 and all of the attacks between the two.
After we left, Syrian troops returned to Lebanon. Hezbollah grew into a formidable militia in Beirut, eventually routing Amal (Christian) militias. The war did not end until 1990. Hezbollah holds a major presence in Beirut to this day, and it has proved to be dangerous to Israel.
The bombing of the Marine Barracks in Beirut was about far more than just retaliation. It was a terrorist attack, and they have not forgotten what they consider a victory against America. Incredibly, a search on the DoD’s website shows that Obama has apparently not recognized the anniversary of the attack since 2009.