Twenty-five years ago this week, a shocking suicide attack on the US military compound in Beirut reshaped the future of the Middle East. Alasdair Soussi talks to the men who were there.
As First Lieutenant Glenn Dolphin slowly opened his eyes, he strained to focus on the figure of a Marine captain standing over his bunk in the Marine Amphibious Unit headquarters at the United States military compound in Beirut. It had just turned 5:45am, and the West Virginia-born Dolphin was relishing a moment of stillness and serenity in a city that relentlessly rained bullets and bombs. Aware, however, that the officer was calling round in a bid to rouse his fellow Marines for an informal early morning exercise session at the Battalion Landing Team (BLT) headquarters, the 25-year-old leatherneck instinctively rose out of bed.
"I actually sat up, and was ready to go," recalls Dolphin, then a member of the communications section of the 24th Amphibious Unit. "And then I suddenly thought, 'you know, I am tired, I think I'll just lay back down.'" The decision saved his life. At 6:22am, on Sunday October 23 1983, as Dolphin and several hundred of his comrades slept soundly in their bunks, the US Marine Corps compound at Beirut International Airport was rocked by an explosion that scaled new heights in unconventional warfare and decisively reshaped the future of the Middle East - and America's role here - for the next quarter-century.
"I was sleeping next to a door - a steel door - which was a supply closet," recalls Dolphin. "Behind it were filters for gas masks, hoses and tubing - stuff that used to be for the fire-fighters at the airport. The blast blew the steel door through the doorjamb, hitting me in the back, on the left side." The ferocity of the explosion, centred just 100m away at the Battalion Landing Team headquarters, almost sucked the oxygen out of Dolphin's lungs. With little time to shield himself from the hot rush of air that enveloped his sleeping quarters, he watched in horror as everything around him violently sprang to life.
"Everything in our building went airborne," remembers Dolphin. "The glass came out the skylight, concrete and plaster off the interior - anything that wasn't nailed down just took off. And then, just like magic, and all of a sudden because of the vacuum, it all came back again." A19-ton lorry laden with explosives had struck the entrance of the battalion building, seamlessly crashing through the compound's weak defences before detonating in the lobby of the Marine headquarters. The force of the explosion ripped the structure from its foundation, levelling its four stories; trees located 370 feet away were shredded and completely exfoliated. 241 US servicemen died in the rubble.
In 1982, the United States had sent troops as part of a multinational peacekeeping force (MNF) meant to oversee a fragile ceasefire after negotiations ended the siege of Beirut. Peacekeepers from Italy and France joined the American contingent in the unenviable task of keeping order in a land already torn apart by seven years of war. As Lebanon's various Christian and Muslim factions fought a relentless campaign on the country's blood-soaked streets, and Israel laid siege to hostile Palestinian forces following its invasion of Lebanon in June 1982, the MNF was dispatched to Beirut to oversee the evacuation of the PLO and to protect the inhabitants of Muslim West Beirut from both the Israeli army and their Lebanese Christian Phalangist allies. After the successful evacuation of PLO leaders and fighters, the Marines redeployed to their ships on September 10. But following the assassination of the Christian Maronite President-elect Bashir Gemayel - an ambitious man who used his good relations with the State of Israel to get himself elected - an Israeli push into West Beirut and the Phalangist massacre of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, the US sent the Marines back into Beirut - right into the middle of Lebanon's warring factions.
The American presence in Lebanon was rife with contradictions. Alexander Haig, Reagan's first secretary of state, tacitly gave his approval to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon - and the role sought by the US, as the custodian of order in Lebanon and the promoter of peace in the region, was severely undermined by the American alliance with Israel; Lebanon's Muslim population increasingly saw Washington as the backers of a Christian-led government pursuing American-Israeli interests.
The new government headed by Gemayel's brother Amine sought a formal peace treaty with Israel, the so-called May 17 Agreement, with the backing of the US. Syria, the other country occupying Lebanese territory, vehemently opposed the accord, and mobilised its allies - both Muslims and anti-Gemayel Christians - to destroy it. Suddenly, the United States was faced with an increasingly volatile political landscape, which took a rapid turn for the worse in September, when US warships supporting Lebanese army operations shelled villages home to Druze, Shiites and Sunnis, deepening the American involvement in the war.
As Colonel Timothy J Geraghty, the commanding officer of the Marine unit in Beirut, who objected to the shelling at the time, wrote in a recent article for Proceedings, the monthly journal of the US Naval Institute: "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." The American embassy had already been struck by suicide bombers in April 1983. But even Geraghty surely could not have imagined the extent to which he would be proved correct in October.
Bloodied, bruised and battered, Dolphin staggered out of his sleeping quarters and into a scene of unthinkable carnage. He was unaware that his spine was fractured. "I looked down the street towards the BLT, and it was all smoky, and there was a lot of wreckage laying about," he recalls. "And then I saw these Marines, and they were walking around aimlessly, some completely naked - their clothes blown off ? three Marines I saw, one with his eye hanging on his cheek, who were being taken to an aid station were all torn up. They looked like they had been sandblasted ? another Marine was on the ground. His arm was broken and it was just hanging there. I tried to get a hold of him, but my back was killing me, and I said 'listen kid, you're going to have to walk'. And I watched as he walked barefoot through all the glass."
Randy Gaddo, a US Marine photojournalist and editor of the forces' newsletter, the Root Scoop, was just about to leave for his photo lab on the third floor of the Headquarters when the blast tossed him several feet into the air. "The BLT was about a minutes walk from my [sleeping quarters]," remembers the Wisconsin-born Gaddo, then a Staff Sergeant in his late twenties. "As I got ready to leave my tent, I heard and felt this thud followed by an explosion, which picked me up threw me back like I was a rag doll?I thought we'd been hit by a rocket or artillery, so after I got up I ran outside to check it out, and expected to find a large crater. But as I looked over towards the barracks, I saw this big mushroom cloud rising up?and then as I looked down, I saw human remains, and that's when I knew that something really bad had happened."
Both men joined others in the painstaking rescue and recovery operation that began almost immediately, but, as Gaddo points out, it was a grim task: "There were some guys who stayed on rescue and recovery almost constantly for days, without food or water?but after a couple of days the smell got to be pretty bad so nobody was real hungry." Joe Ciokon, a US Navy broadcaster who was little more than 50 yards away from the battalion building at the time of the bombing, also found rescue and recovery emotionally draining and not a little disconcerting. "I remember one horrible sight, of one Marine who was half in and half out of the building," recalls Ciokon. "We couldn't do anything - he was on the second deck and the building had fallen on top of him. We would see his arm and leg hang out every morning as we walked by."
After sustaining the largest loss of life in a single military action since Vietnam, the United States limped on for the remainder of the year before withdrawing its 1000-strong detachment on February 26, 1984 - an ignoble end to a muddled and conflicting campaign. Reagan termed the move a "redeployment" but it was, for many, nothing less than a retreat. When the rest of the MNF pulled out shortly thereafter, the country's Christian-led government was forced to bow to Syrian pressure and renege on the May 17 agreement. The Shiite faction responsible for the bombing, which formed the beginnings of the powerful resistance movement that is now Hizbollah, found fertile ground - as did its regional backer, Iran. Lebanon remained as fractured as ever , its territory divided between armed Shiites, Druze, Maronites, Syrians and Israelis, .
The bombing marked a critical turning point for Lebanon and for America's position in the region. Though many Americans now regard the attack as "the first shot in the War on Terror", many political analysts insist it must be considered in the context of Lebanon's bloody civil war - in which the Americans had found themselves deeply involved. "The US troops were viewed by the new Lebanese resistance forces as part of the occupation regime and thus a legitimate military target," says Karim Makdisi, an Assistant Professor of Political Studies at the American University of Beirut. "So, I would say that in reality this event should be contextualised as part of the occupation and resistance to occupation; not a random attack against US interests out of the blue."
But what the Americans regarded as a terrorist outrage emboldened the Iranian-backed Shiite militia, which could claim to have vanquished the Americans (as, decades later, they would claims victory over Israel in South Lebanon). They had not only hastened the departure of the MNF, but had perfected a deadly innovation in asymmetrical warfare: turning the Ammonium Nitrate Fuel Oil car bomb used to devastating effect by the Irish Republican Army into a kamikaze weapon - a car bomb piloted by its suicidal driver through the gates of lightly-guarded installations.
Stung by his experience in Lebanon, Reagan placed Lebanon on the political back burner. This, Air Force Major Raymond L Reyes has written, "arguably contributed to the Lebanese state's demise in the 1980s and the prolonged civil war." "The war ended (in 1990) with Syria entering Lebanon militarily and exercising hegemony over political leaders," he wrote. "Allowing preferred violent groups such as Hizbollah to continue in existence or flourish."
Alasdair Soussi is a journalist specialising in Middle Eastern affairs. Based in Beirut and Cairo, he is writing a book entitled Lebanon: A Land of Consequences.