“Left a hundred…drop fifty.” The Gunny gnawed off another chunk of his Mars Bar and squinted up at the Chouf settlements in the Anti-Lebanon Mountains where Druze gunners were launching rockets into our compound at Beirut International Airport.
“If they’ve got an FO up there he needs a block of military instruction—or glasses.” I moved to look over the Gunny’s shoulder and spotted the flash from the launch site as another Katyusha rocket headed in our direction. We had the best seat in the house, a couple of lawn chairs that we’d hauled up onto the roof of the 24 MAU CP located in the airport’s former Fire Department. As a couple of Vietnam Veterans with plenty of experience under fire, we’d staked out the rooftop as a little sanctuary where we could talk privately while the rest of the MAU scrambled to bunkers and battle stations.
“Reminds me a little of Con Thien…or maybe Khe Sanh.” The Gunny and I had served at those besieged battlefields during the Southeast Asia Wargames and both of us were quietly discussing the frustration and inevitable consequences of living in the ten-ring of a big target surrounded by people with evil intent and access to artillery, mortars, and rockets. Over the past six months or so, we’d seen it coming and watched various Marine commanders bitch about a nebulous mission to no avail. Various bureaucrats and diplomats up and down our convoluted chain of command wrote off the increasing levels of incoming fire as “overs” or unintentional stray rounds from battles up in the mountains ringing BIA where the Lebanese Army our Marines had helped train was engaging Syrian, Druze and other formations determined to unseat a government shot through with factional disputes.
“The big difference,” I told the Gunny, “was that at Con Thien and Khe Sanh we could shoot back. We start doing that here in Beirut—assuming we could even get clearance—and there goes the neutral peacekeeper image Washington keeps pushing.”
“There it is…” The Gunny nodded and walked with me down below our perch where I was packing to leave Beirut. “This ain’t gonna end well, Skipper. You’re lucky to be out of it.”
As usual, the Gunny was right on all counts. I was lucky to be out of Beirut. Just a few months after I returned Stateside, happy to be home but fraught with worry about the buddies I’d left behind, a suicide bomber drove an explosive-laden truck into our Battalion Landing Team headquarters. In one devastating second, the big building dubbed the Beirut Hilton, the building where I’d spent so much time on duty or visiting friends, disappeared. The structure that anchored our over-stretched perimeter around BIA collapsed in a near-nuclear detonation and crushed the life out of 241 of America’s finest fighting men. It took nearly everything I had to keep from screaming that it was bound to happen at the sad-faced pundits who announced the news on TV that day in October 1983.
Of all the experiences I have stored in the military section of my memory banks Beirut remains one of the most painful. For the second time in my life on that devastating day in 1983 I was home safe from the wars and dealing with survivor guilt. Maybe if I’d just volunteered to stay in Beirut I could have done something; maybe I could have found a way to shake up the bureaucracy and warn them of what the Gunny and most of the other Vietnam Veterans serving in Beirut could so plainly see coming in one form or another. When I left we had gone from peacekeepers to enemy combatants in the eyes of the anti-government factions and religious extremists who seethed while we trained the Lebanese Army and then called air strikes and naval gunfire missions on them. Peacekeepers don’t do that stuff. Warriors do.
Marines are warriors by nature and by training. You can call them Peacekeepers, or neutral observers or any other euphemism that politically suits a given situation, but you can’t—or shouldn’t—ask them to stand by and take a beating while they have the means to give better than they’re getting from an enemy on any battlefield. That’s a recipe for disaster. Of course being Marines and both highly dedicated and strongly disciplined, they will do as directed by lawful authority even if it obviously means they are likely to get killed in the process. Boiled down to the essence, that’s what happened in Beirut.
The fact that it happened to some of the finest men—both veterans and boots undergoing their first trial by fire—that I’ve ever known is both sad and exasperating as I look back on the experience thirty years later. It’s also one of the things that make me most proud to be a Marine and to have served at their side in Beirut. And so, for the first time in those thirty years since the bombing in Beirut, I’m going to join a dwindling muster of survivors at Camp Lejeune where we will remember the experience and honor those who didn’t make it home. There will be a lot of bitching, re-hashing, and remembering along with tears and tremors as we remember. But remember we will—even if the rest of the country does not.