Beirut suicide bomb reminds us of the folly of intervention
“They Came in Peace.” It is a phrase that often accompanies any reference to the military peacekeepers from the United States who lost their lives to a devastating suicide bomb in Beirut in October 1983. Frequently adopted by newspaper sub-editors to headline stories about the attack, this arresting sentence also adorns the Beirut Memorial on a peaceful patch of ground in Jacksonville, North Carolina.
It was 30 years ago, on October 23, when 241 members of the US military, mostly marines, were killed after an Iranian and Syrian-backed Shiite faction detonated the equivalent of more than 5,400 kilograms of explosives at the Battalion Landing Team (BLT) building. The property was then the United States Marine Corps headquarters at Beirut airport.
Now known to be the beginnings of the powerful Lebanese resistance movement Hizbollah, the attack was carried out at 6.22am, with a similar assault on the nearby French barracks occurring just minutes later.
The Americans – together with their British, French and Italian allies – were there as part of a multinational force, dispatched by then-US president Ronald Reagan in 1982 to serve as peacekeepers at the height of Lebanon’s devastating civil war. It was an unenviable task. By the time the US hit the shores of Lebanon, the country’s internal turmoil – then making Beirut the most notorious city on the planet and forever more a parody of all things dangerous – had been raging for seven years.
It was a complicated affair. As Sandra Mackey wrote succinctly in her book, Lebanon: A House Divided, this was a conflict in which “each Lebanese group fought its own war. The Druze and some Lebanese leftists fought for power within the Lebanese system. Other Lebanese Muslims fought for a Lebanon that would be part of the Arab world. The Palestinians fought for their own nationalism. And the Maronite militias fought for their vision of Christian Lebanon”.
Add the Israelis and Syrians into that mix – and, in hindsight, it is not difficult to see why the American mission in Lebanon ultimately ended in death, disaster and political ignominy for Mr Reagan’s Republican administration.
Fast-forward three decades and it is not Lebanon, but Syria that is hogging the news agenda.
Most recently, the world’s politicians, news media and chattering classes were agonising over the whys and hows of a US-led intervention in Syria in retaliation for Bashar Al Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Strike or not to strike – that was (and will no doubt again be) the question.
The anniversary of what was the largest loss of life for US Marines in one single day since Iwo Jima in February 1945 is an appropriate time, then, to illustrate the point that waging war is rarely “clinical” and that those sceptical of foreign military interventions always deserve clear answers, including a questioning public.
The American deployment in Lebanon was a political humiliation for a US administration that had already fatally compromised their troops on the ground.
The individual servicemen who lived and worked at the BLT may have “come in peace” but their government’s support for Israel’s June 1982 invasion of Lebanon and its decision, just one month before the bombing, to shell Muslim positions from the Mediterranean in support of Lebanon’s Christian-led government were hardly in keeping with the actions of peacekeepers.
In the case of the peacekeepers, it was almost certainly a significant precursor to the attack that followed. History changed that terrible Sunday morning with the US, overwhelmed by their loss, departing Lebanon four months later, and the internal balance of power shifting to the benefit of the attackers and their regional backers. This saw Syria exercise hegemony over Lebanon for years afterwards.
Those who survived the suicide attack are still suffering – three decades has done little to dull the trauma of an event that also saw a world power humbled.
I have spoken to a lot of US servicemen fortunate to escape with their lives that October day, and guilt, PTSD, depression, alcohol abuse and family breakdown are recurring themes for a great many.
I lived in Lebanon during the 1980s – though born in Scotland to a Scottish mother and Lebanese father in 1979, I spent the first five years of my life in the country’s south – and know how that experience helped shape me as an individual.
For years after leaving Lebanon, I would cover my ears in the dead of night while trying to sleep and would always try to avoid fireworks. I didn’t return to the country until 2002.
For the surviving US servicemen, whose experiences make a mockery of my own, theirs is a perpetual nightmare and a grim testament to what can happen when governments send their young soldiers to intervene overseas.
Western involvement in the Middle East is hardly illustrious – and there are, of course, more recent examples of the calamities that can unfold when the likes of the US put their military boots on foreign ground.
The 30th anniversary of the BLT bombing is a pertinent enough reminder to all that when it comes to debating future interventions (and especially those in the Arab world) the world’s sceptics are right to demand answers from those who would seek to meddle, kill and topple.
Alasdair Soussi is a freelance journalist, covering the Middle East and Scottish politics
On Twitter: @AlasdairSoussi
Updated: October 22, 2013 04:00 AM