Tomorrow will mark the 21st anniversary of one of the most egregious failures in US military history. On October 23, 1983, a Syrian- and Iranian-backed Hizbullah terrorist drove a Mercedes truck laden with 180 kilograms of explosives into the US Marine barracks at Beirut International Airport. Three hundred and fifty US Marines lived in the four-story building. Two hundred and forty-one of those men were killed in their sleep that Sunday morning when, in a split second, the building was reduced to a 4.5-meter pile of debris.
In a gripping memoir, Peacekeepers at War – A Marine's Account of the Beirut Catastrophe, written in 1986, former marine Michael Petit recalled his shock as he surveyed the rubble, gazing at the crushed bodies and tattered bedrolls of his fellow marines, smelling the acrid stench of fiery death and hearing the howls of those buried alive.
"How could this happen?" he wrote. "I wailed in anguish as I surveyed the carnage moments after the blast. I felt devastated. Furious. Friends had lived in the [building]. Co-workers. Marines who were in Lebanon on a peacekeeping mission."
US forces were initially deployed to Beirut in 1982 to enable PLO forces to escape from Lebanon. In 1983 they returned, along with French, British and Italian troops to separate the IDF, the Christian, Druse and Muslim militias and the Syrian military forces from one another. The purpose was to enable the incapable, incompetent and corrupt Lebanese Army to assert control, first over Beirut and its suburbs and gradually over the entire country.
Inevitably, things did not work as the policymakers had hoped and the forces on the ground were quickly sucked into the Lebanese Civil War. During the early phase of the Marines' deployment in 1983, they had frequent hostile run-ins with Israeli forces. Informed by the accepted wisdom of the time, the Marines thought the Israeli military presence was the main reason for the violence. After US pressure forced Israel to redeploy IDF forces out of Beirut, however, the Marines suddenly found themselves being attacked by the same Syrian forces and Druse and Muslim militias that had previously been fighting the IDF. Moreover, they found themselves exploited by the Christian militias which shelled the Druse and Muslims from behind Marine positions, using the Americans as cover just as had been the case for the IDF.
After the barracks bombing, the intelligence section of the Marine Task Force on the ground sent a cable to Washington explaining the situation rather aptly. "This country is at war. There is no cease-fire. Tactics have changed The Multinational Force is not the target of an Iranian madman suicide commando. The Multinational Force is the target of a collective group of Syrian surrogates and Syrian-dependent militias who are conducting a war, a terrorist war, against the French 11th Division paratroopers and the US Marines."
The intelligence report went on to explain that without an increase in military capabilities, Beirut would be lost. For its part, back in Washington, the Reagan administration realized that it was up against something both new and highly undesirable in Lebanon. Rather than contend with this new terror war, it changed the subject – attacking a Soviet proxy in Grenada and then quietly pulling its forces out of Lebanon in the months that followed.
The failure of US forces in Lebanon was based on a number of incorrect assumptions of policymakers in Washington as well as on an antiquated fighting doctrine for the US armed forces that provided little guidance for troops engaged in a war against unconventional foes.
In 1983 the US viewed armed conflicts through the prism of the Cold War and even through the lens of World War II. The enemy was the Russians and the method of battle was attrition warfare between two large, conventional and well-identified opponents. Policymakers and military commanders alike had next to no understanding of the threat of Arab and Islamic terrorism and little understanding of the military threat posed by state-sponsored terrorism. The US had little cultural understanding of the forces at play in Lebanon and no means of effectively communicating messages to anyone on the ground.
On a military level, the Americans were politically constrained. As a force with a defined mission of peacekeeping, the Marines were prohibited from taking the kinds of military actions that might have deterred the Syrians and the Syrian-backed militias from targeting the American forces. The Syrian army was using its SAM anti-aircraft batteries to target US aircraft and nothing was done. For months, the Marines responded to artillery attacks against their headquarters at the airport and their forward positions around the American University with illumination rounds.
America's interest in being perceived by the warring factions and by the media as "above the fray" even made it impossible for the forces on the ground to take the necessary steps to protect themselves from a car bombing attack. Such an attack was likely given that just months before, a similar car bomb had been used to attack the US Embassy in Beirut.
As Petit put it, "Immediately after the embassy bombing, steps had been taken to safeguard the Marines at the airport, particularly the [barracks building] For a variety of political reasons, extraordinarily stringent security measures were ruled out."
Can there be a repeat of the US's misadventure in Beirut today? Discussing the difference between how the US military perceived armed conflicts 21 years ago and how it now views them with two of the US army's key concept builders this week, it was hard not to be amazed by the radical transformation in thinking that the US military has undergone in the past 10-15 years. US Army Col. Bob Johnson, the chief of Future Warfare at the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, and Bill Rittenhouse, TRADOC's chief of war gaming, are the US Army's chief futurists. As futurists, they are acutely aware of how the military operated in the past and what its chief challenges are today. Both past and present, then, form the basis for how these men project into the future to work to ensure that the US will be capable of contending successfully with threats and wars that will be fought in 2020 and 2025.
According to Rittenhouse, in 1983, with the US's focus on the Cold War and the Soviet Union, "Beirut was an anomaly. It was a tragedy but it wasn't part of our operational thinking. That's changed right now."
Johnson explains that not only is force protection a central aspect of planning and carrying out deployments, but there is an understanding that "there has got to be the view that stability operations or peacekeeping missions are still taking place with some level of combat."
Johnson and Rittenhouse are charged with building concepts for future warfare for the US military. Every year they conduct a comprehensive seminar-type war game called Unified Quest which is based on a scenario for a war that will take place in 10 to 15 years. For the past two years they have conceptualized a war between the US, leading a multinational coalition, and a country called NAIR, which is modeled on Iran from both a geographical and cultural perspective.
In an article in Haaretz at the beginning of the month, military commentator Amir Oren argued that because Johnson and Rittenhouse and their associates chose to base their scenario on Iran, and because the IDF has delegates who participate in Unified Quest, Israel and the US must be planning a joint invasion of Iran. Perhaps unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth.
Unified Quest is an unclassified intellectual exercise with participants from 11 foreign countries, international organizations, academia, the State Department, US governmental and law enforce
ment agencies, members of the media, representatives from the technology and business sectors, and international lawyers, just for starters. Because the game takes place in a futuristic environment that Johnson and Rittenhouse, working with relevant experts, extrapolate from current conditions, Unified Quest "is of absolutely no value," as Johnson put it, to commanders in the field or the Pentagon officials who are charged with planning today's wars.
It is interesting to note the presence of Israelis in the exercise, but as Johnson explains, IDF representatives are there not as coalition members "but as subject matter experts." This in itself is frustrating to many and may, as one senior IDF official who is involved in Unified Quest notes, even explain Oren's irrational departure from reasoned analysis which led him to the bizarre conclusion that the US and Israel are openly and jointly planning the invasion of Iran and that they are doing so in an unclassified war game in the presence of 500 participants from 10 other countries.
At the same time, while the US still refuses to contemplate having Israel as a coalition partner, even in a theoretical war game set to take place 10 years from now, there is no doubt that the American military's view of Israel's strategic posture today bears little resemblance to its perception of Israel's strategic posture 21 years ago. Particularly since September 11, and as the situation in Iraq continues to evolve and mutate, the US military has increasingly come to see Israel's war fighting experience both against the Palestinians and in Lebanon from 1982-2000 as a composite of how America's wars will look in the future. Everything from Israel's need to have armed guards at the entrances to shopping malls and cafes to our tactics for land-air-sea combat operations and intelligence-gathering techniques informs the US military as its commanders prepare for battles of the present and the future.
Back in Beirut in 1983, US Marines greeted Israeli soldiers with hostility as they, like the rest of America, lived in denial of the reality that our nations' enemies are common ones. So perhaps the fact that as the US builds conceptual models for its wars of the future it asks Israelis to participate in its war games as "subject matter experts" is the best indication that in the final analysis, the Americans have drawn the proper lessons from their Beirut catastrophe.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.