A Brief History
On August 21, 1982, elements of the 860 man French contingent of the Multinational Force in Lebanon (MNF) arrived in Beirut. A few days later United States Marines followed adding another 850 troops, and the next day 575 Italian troops arrived. The MNF was a US brokered peace keeping force with the intention of saving lives among Lebanese in the wake of the June 1982 invasion of Lebanon by Israel in pursuit of Palestine Liberation Organization fighters. The MNF was assigned the mission of evacuating PLO fighters and Syrian troops from Lebanon so that the Israeli forces would also leave. Events proved to be not so simple, costing many American and allied lives and leaving Lebanon a war torn shambles.
The MNF was to provide, at the request of the Government of Lebanon, the evacuation of foreign (PLO, Syrian and Israeli) forces from Lebanon and provide training for the Lebanese government forces with the goal of restoring Lebanese sovereignty over their own country. At first, things went more or less according to plan, with the MNF taking control of port facilities and safely evacuating Syrians and PLO troops. Over a 15 day period many PLO and Syrian forces were peacefully evacuated from Lebanon, including PLO chief Yasser Arafat.
The mission in Lebanon evolved into a more permanent peace keeping effort, with added forces for each contingent, including a British force that arrived in February of 1983. The 1400 US Marine Amphibious Unit was given the area of the airport to occupy, though not clearly with a mission of maintaining the security of the facility. The 1400 man Italian force was located in the South, protecting refugee camps. The French had a total of 1600 troops in Lebanon, split between the MNF and the United Nations UNIFIL peace-keeping force. The British 100 man company was near the airport. The MNF was not permitted to take part in combat, but was allowed to defend themselves only. The US reserved the right to use naval gunfire if needed to defend American troops. Each nation involved in the MNF had naval and air forces available for support.
On September 14, 1982, the president-elect of Lebanon was assassinated, sparking a reaction by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), which invaded Lebanon to root out PLO contingents believed to be scattered throughout the country. The Israeli incursion resulted in fighting that claimed the lives of hundreds of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians. During this time the MNF troops had been withdrawing from Lebanon having completed their mission, but President Reagan responded to the reignited fighting by sending American Marines back into Beirut. Other MNF forces followed. Including armored vehicles from Britain. The situation in Lebanon had deteriorated in the last Quarter of 1982 and into 1983, but MNF forces maintained a tense presence with limited combat, mostly consisting of being caught between warring forces or being targeted by minor attacks. Not only was Lebanon wracked by foreign fighting forces, their internal domestic political situation was torn with discord as well, including fighting and violence.
On April 18, 1983, the American embassy in West Beirut was bombed by a terrorist in a van packed with explosives. Sadly, 63 people died in the blast. Marines were dispatched to reinforce embassy security and the situation had heated up. Resistance to the presence of the MNF was now apparent. Diplomatic efforts continued, and the US State Department intervened with US Marine attempts to reinforce their defensive position. (This information and the following is not taken from a written source, but the author’s own memory of the situation from eyewitness accounts.) Marines were precluded from using the amount of sandbags and barbed wire they would have liked to use according to military tactics, with State Department officials saying they “did not want it to look like the US was taking over the place.” The bulk of the Marine Amphibious Unit (a battalion reinforced) was quartered in a single building instead of being deployed in a spread out manner in accordance with military doctrine. Having the Marines in the building (later referred to as the “Marine barracks”) left less of a military statement on the eyes of the Lebanese and others in Lebanon.
On October 23, 1983, the military situation for the MNF changed drastically. No more sporadic incidents, but a major attack against the French and American compounds. Suicide car/truck bombs simultaneously hit the French and Marine Barracks, killing 241 Americans and 58 French paratroopers. MNF forces began taking increased small arms and mortar fire, while politicians wrung their hands and wondered what went wrong. (At this time the author volunteered and was assigned as the replacement Battalion Intelligence officer for 1st Bn 8th Marine Regiment that had most of their Headquarters Company killed or wounded in the Beirut Blast. As it turned out, those of us designated as replacements sat at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina waiting for our ride to Lebanon, but the HQ Company and an additional Rifle Company from 2nd BN 6th Marine Regiment was sent instead of direct replacements.)
A stunned nation watched as tracer bullets lit up the sky in nighttime Beirut where Marines were now “hunkered down” and wondering why they were even there. No clear mission existed other than merely to be there, a presence hoped to be somehow pacifying to the war torn area. President Reagan appeared to the public to courageously take responsibility for the fiasco, but he later made a mockery of that responsibility in the 1984 Presidential debates by whining that he had not been the guy in charge on the ground. (If you detect bitterness, you would be correct.) US and French aircraft conducted missions in Lebanon and US naval gunfire was used against suspected positions used to target MNF forces with artillery or mortars. Syrian anti-aircraft defenses nearly provoked armed conflict with the US by firing at American planes. The US response included the battleship New Jersey firing its 16 inch guns, including a salvo that killed the Syrian Commanding General in Lebanon. Massive retaliation was demanded by an angry and bewildered American public, but President Reagan told the people that we could not strike back blindly (he knew more than he let on about the perpetrators of the barracks bombing) as we supposedly did not know who had perpetrated the tragedy.
(On October 25, 1983, only 2 days after the stunning news of the Beirut Bomb hit the American people, the public was again stunned by the news that the US had invaded the small Caribbean island of Grenada, reportedly to rescue Americans and other students of the medical school there. This operation was seen by many as a pathetic attempt to divert attention from the Beirut disaster, though it is hard to say if that is really the case. What we do know, is that the Grenada operation was a hurried and poorly planned and run operation that resulted in much more damage and casualties than it should have, but that is another story The US suffered 19 dead and 116 wounded and the loss of 9 helicopters.)
The Italians left Lebanon in February 1984, the French evacuated the troubled country in March, and the American forces followed on July 31, 1984. The US had lost a total of 265 killed, while the French lost at least 89 killed. Italy suffered only 2 fatalities, and the British managed to avoid losing people by spending a minimal amount of time in Lebanon. (The British had also joined in the chorus of those denouncing the American invasion of Grenada.) Despite the crushing military disaster President Reagan won reelection in 1984, never really suffering the consequences of ordering an ill-considered and hamstrung military operation.
Question for students (and subscribers): Do you think the United States should have sent troops to Beirut in 1982-1984? If so, what would you have done differently? Were the Marines sacrificed for no good reason, or was their sacrifice a vital role in defending the United States? You tell us in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Benis, Frank. U.S. Marines in Lebanon 1982-1984. St, John’s Press, 2016.
Geraghty, Timothy (Colonel, USMC). Peacekeepers at War: Beirut 1983 – The Marine Commander Tells His Story. Potomac Books, 2009.
United States Government/Department of Defense. President Reagan’s Commitment of Peacekeepers in Lebanon, 1983 – American Intervention After Israel’s Invasion, Marine Barracks Bombing, Missiles in the Bekaa Valley, Extracting the PLO. Independently published, 2017.
The featured image in this article, a photograph courtesy of Maj Fred T. Lash, USMC (Ret) of Marines of the 32nd Marine Amphibious Unit and legionnaires of the 2nd Foreign Parachute Regiment forming a joint security guard during the evacuation of the PLO from Beirut, Lebanon, is a work of a sailor or employee of the U.S. Navy, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, it is in the public domain in the United States.