On October 20, 1983 a fanatic drove a truck loaded with 12,000 pounds of explosives into a barracks full of U.S. Marines serving in Beruit, Lebanon as part of an international “multi-national peacekeeping force.” The driver detonated the explosives, killing 241 Marines. In 1984, President Reagan withdrew all remaining U.S. forces from Lebanon.
President Reagan wrote about these events in his memoirs. Poignantly, he confessed that sending Marines into Lebanon was his “greatest regret and greatest sorrow” as President, and that “(e)very day since the death of those boys, I have prayed for them and their loved ones.”
In trying to understand the source of the mistake, President Reagan concluded, “Perhaps we didn’t appreciate fully enough the depth of the hatred and the complexity of the problems that make the Middle East such a jungle.” He then recommended to future presidents, a test to be applied in determining when to deploy U.S. troops abroad. But, he cautioned, “Even after all these other tests are met, our troops should be committed to combat abroad only as a last resort, when no other choice is available.”
As Santayana said, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
How sadly and senselessly tragic it is that future presidents did not heed the wise counsel of Mr. Reagan.
Below is the relevant portion of President Reagan’s memoirs.
Grace and Peace
As 1984 began, it was becoming clearer that the Lebanese army was either unwilling or unable to end the civil war into which we had been dragged reluctantly. It was clear that the war was likely to go on for an extended period of time. As the sniping and shelling of their camp continued, I gave an order to evacuate all the marines to anchored off Lebanon. At the end of March, the ships of the Sixth Fleet and the marines who had fought to keep peace in Lebanon moved on to other assignments. We had to pull out. By then, there was no question about it: Our policy wasn’t working. We couldn’t stay there and run the risk of another suicide attack on the marines. No one wanted to commit our troops to a full-scale war in the middle East. But we couldn’t remain in Lebanon and be in the war on a halfway basis, leaving our men vulnerable to terrorists with one hand tied behind their backs. We hadn’t committed the marines to Beirut in a snap decision, and we weren’t alone. France, Italy, and Britain were also part of the multinational force, and we all thought it was a good plan. And for a while, as I’ve said, it had been working.
I’m not sure how we could have anticipated the catastrophe at the marine barracks. Perhaps we didn’t appreciate fully enough the depth of the hatred and the complexity of the problems that make the Middle East such a jungle. Perhaps the idea of a suicide car bomber committing mass murder to gain instant entry to Paradise was so foreign to our own values and consciousness that it did not create in us the concern for the marines’ safety that it should have. Perhaps we should have anticipated that members of the Lebanese military whom we were trying to assist would simply lay down their arms and refuse to fight their own countrymen. In any case, the sending of the marines to Beirut was the source of my greatest regret and my greatest sorrow as president. Every day since the death of those boys, I have prayed for them and their loved ones.
In the months and the years that followed, our experience in Lebanon led to the adoption by the administration of a set of principles to guide America in the application of military force abroad, and I would recommend it to future presidents. The policy we adopted included these principles:
The United States should not commit its forces to military action overseas unless the cause is vital to our national interest.
If the decision is made to commit our forces to combat abroad, it must be done with the clear intent and support needed to win. It should not be a halfway or tentative commitment, and there must be clearly defined and realistic objectives.
Before we commit our troops to combat, there must be reasonable assurance that the cause we are fighting for and the actions we take will have the support of the American people and Congress. (We all felt that the Vietnam War had turned into such a tragedy because military action had been undertaken without sufficient assurances that the American people were behind it.)
Even after all these other tests are met, our troops should be committed to combat abroad only as a last resort, when no other choice is available.