It was 12 years ago, on March 14, 1983, that the commandant of
the Marine Corps sent a highly unusual letter to the secretary of
defense expressing frustration and anger at Israel. General R.H.
Barrow charged that Israeli troops were deliberately threatening
the lives of Marines serving as peacekeepers in Lebanon. There
was, he wrote, a systematic pattern of harassment by Israel
Defense Forces (IDF) that was resulting in "life‑threatening
situations, replete with verbal degradation of the officers, their
uniform and country."
Barrow's letter added: "It is inconceivable to me why Americans
serving in peacekeeping roles must be harassed, endangered
by an ally...It is evident to me, and the opinion of the U.S.
commanders afloat and ashore, that the incidents between the
Marines and the IDF are timed, orchestrated, and executed for
obtuse Israeli political purposes."1
Israel's motives were less obtuse than the diplomatic general
pretended. It was widely believed then, and now, that Israeli
Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, one of Israel's most
Machiavellian politician‑generals, was creating the incidents
deliberately in an effort to convince Washington that the two
forces had to coordinate their actions in order to avoid such
tensions. This, of course, would have been taken by the Arabs as
proof that the Marines were not really in Lebanon as neutral
peacekeepers but as allies of the Israelis, a perception that
would have obvious advantages for Israel.2
Barrow's extraordinary letter was indicative of the frustrations
and miseries the Marines suffered during their posting to
Lebanon starting on Aug. 25, 1982, as a result of Israel's
invasion 11 weeks earlier. Initially a U.S. unit of 800 men was
sent to Beirut harbor as part of a multinational force to monitor
the evacuation of PLO guerrillas from Beirut. The Marines,
President Reagan announced, "in no case... would stay longer
than 30 days."3 This turned out to be only partly true. They did
withdraw on Sept. 10, but a reinforced unit of 1,200 was rushed
back 15 days later after the massacres at the Palestinian
refugee camps at Sabra and Shatila that accompanied the
Israeli seizure of West Beirut. The U.S. forces remained until
Feb. 26, 1984.4
During their‑year‑and‑a‑half posting in Lebanon, the Marines
suffered 268 killed.5 The casualties started within a week of the
return of the Marines in September 1982. On the 30th, a
U.S.‑made cluster bomb left behind by the Israelis exploded,
killing Corporal David Reagan and wounding three other
Corporal Reagan's death represented the dangers of the new
mission of the Marines in Lebanon. While their first brief stay had
been to separate Israeli forces from Palestinian fighters
evacuating West Beirut, their new mission was as part of a
multinational force sent to prevent Israeli troops from attacking
the Palestinian civilians left defenseless there after the
withdrawal of PLO forces. As President Reagan said: "For this
multinational force to succeed, it is essential that Israel withdraw
"Incidents are timed, orchestrated, and
executed for Israeli political purposes."
Israel's siege of Beirut during the summer of 1982 had been
brutal and bloody, reaching a peak of horror on Aug. 12, quickly
known as Black Thursday. On that day, Sharon's forces launched
at dawn a massive artillery barrage that lasted for 11 straight
hours and was accompanied by saturation air bombardment.8
As many as 500 persons, mainly Lebanese and Palestinian
civilians, were killed.9
On top of the bombardment came the massacres the next month
at Sabra and Shatila, where Sharon's troops allowed Lebanese
Maronite killers to enter the camps filled with defenseless
civilians. The massacres sickened the international community
and pressure from Western capitals finally forced Israel to
withdraw from Beirut in late September. Troops from Britain,
France, Italy and the United States were interposed between the
Israeli army and Beirut, with U.S. Marines deployed in the most
sensitive area south of Beirut at the International Airport, directly
between Israeli troops and West Beirut.
It was at the airport that the Marines would suffer their Calvary
over the next year. Starting in January 1983, small Israeli units
began probing the Marine lines. At first the effort appeared
aimed at discovering the extent of Marine determination to resist
penetration. The lines proved solid and the Marines'
determination strong. Israeli troops were politely but firmly turned
away. Soon the incidents escalated, with both sides pointing
loaded weapons at each other but no firing taking place.
Tensions were high enough by late January that a special
meeting between U.S. and Israeli officers was held in Beirut to try
to agree on precise boundaries beyond which the IDF would not
No Stranger to the Marines
However, on Feb. 2 a unit of three Israeli tanks, led by Israeli Lt.
Col. Rafi Landsberg, tried to pass through Marine/Lebanese
Army lines at Rayan University Library in south Lebanon. By this
time, Landsberg was no stranger to the Marines. Since the
beginning of January he had been leading small Israeli units in
probes against the Marine lines, although such units would
normally have a commander no higher than a sergeant or
lieutenant. The suspicion grew that Sharon's troops were
deliberately provoking the Marines and Landsberg was there to
see that things did not get out of hand. The Israeli tactics were
aimed more at forcing a joint U.S.‑Israeli strategy than merely
In the Feb. 2 incident, the checkpoint was commanded by Marine
Capt. Charles Johnson, who firmly refused permission for
Landsberg to advance. When two of the Israeli tanks ignored his
warning to halt, Johnson leaped on Landsberg's tank with pistol
drawn and demanded Landsberg and his tanks withdraw. They
Landsberg and the Israeli embassy in Washington tried to laugh
off the incident, implying that Johnson was a trigger‑happy John
Wayne type and that the media were exaggerating a routine
event. Landsberg even went so far as to claim that he smelled
alcohol on Johnson's breath and that drunkenness must have
clouded his reason. Marines were infuriated because Johnson
was well known as a teetotaler. Americans flocked to Johnson's
side. He received hundreds of letters from school children,
former Marines and from Commandant Barrow.12 It was a losing
battle for the Israelis and Landsberg soon dropped from sight.
But the incidents did not stop. These now included "helicopter
harassment," by which U.S.‑made helicopters with glaring
spotlights were flown by the Israelis over Marine positions at
night, illuminating Marine outposts and exposing them to
potential attack. As reports of these incidents piled up, Gen.
Barrow received a letter on March 12 from a U.S. Army major
stationed in Lebanon with the United Nations Truce Supervisory
Organization (UNTSO). The letter described a systematic pattern
of Israeli attacks and provocations against UNTSO troops,
including instances in which U.S. officers were singled out for
"near‑miss" shootings, abuse and detention.13 That same day
two Marine patrols were challenged and cursed by Israeli
Two days later Barrow wrote his letter to Secretary of Defense
Caspar W. Weinberger, who endorsed it and sent it along to the
State Department. High‑level meetings were arranged and the
incidents abated, perhaps largely because by this time Ariel
Sharon had been fired as defense minister. He had been found
by an Israeli commission to have had "personal responsibility"
for the Sabra and Shatila massacres.15
Despite the bad taste left from the clashes with the Israelis, in
fact no Marines had been killed in the incidents and their lines
had been secure up to the end of winter in 1983. Then Islamic
guerrillas, backed by Iran, became active. On the night of April
17, 1983, an unknown sniper fired a shot that went through the
trousers of a Marine sentry but did not harm him. For the first
time, the Marines returned fire.16
The next day, the U.S. Embassy in Beirut was blown up by a
massive bomb, with the loss of 63 lives. Among the 17
Americans killed were CIA Mideast specialists, including Robert
C. Ames, the agency's top Middle East expert.17 Disaffected
former Israeli Mossad case officer Victor Ostrovsky later claimed
that Israel had advance information about the bombing plan but
had decided not to inform the United States, a claim denied by
Israel.18 The Iranian‑backed Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility.
Veteran correspondent John Cooley considered the attack "the
day [Iranian leader Ayatollah] Khomeini's offensive against
America in Lebanon began in earnest." 19
Still, it was not until four months later, on Aug. 28, that Marines
came under direct fire by rocket‑propelled grenades and
automatic weapons at International Airport. They returned fire
with M‑16 rifles and M‑60 machine guns. The firefight resumed
the next day with Marines firing 155mm artillery, 81mm mortars
and rockets from Cobra helicopter gunships against Shi'i Muslim
positions. Two Marines were killed and 14 wounded in the
exchange, the first casualties in actual combat since the Marines
had landed the previous year.20
From this time on, the combat involvement of the Marines grew.
Their actions were generally seen as siding with Israel against
Muslims, slowly changing the status of the Marines as neutral
peacekeepers to opponents of the Muslims.21 Israel could hardly
have wished for more. The polarization meant that increasingly
the conflict was being perceived in terms of the U.S., Israel and
Lebanon's Christians against Iran, Islam and Lebanon's Shi'i
Accelerating the Conflict
Israel accelerated the building conflict on Sept. 3, 1993 by
unilaterally withdrawing its troops southward, leaving the Marines
exposed behind their thin lines at the airport. The United States
had asked the Israeli government to delay its withdrawal until the
Marines could be replaced by units of the Lebanese army, but
Israel refused.22 The result was as feared. Heavy fighting
immediately broke out between the Christian Lebanese Forces
and the pro‑Syrian Druze units, both seeking to occupy positions
evacuated by Israel, while the Marines were left in the crossfire.
23On Sept. 5, two Marines were killed and three wounded as
fighting escalated between Christian and Muslim militias.24
In an ill‑considered effort to subdue the combat, the Sixth Fleet
frigate Bowen fired several five‑inch naval guns, hitting Druze
artillery positions in the Chouf Mountains that were firing into the
Marine compound at Beirut airport.25 It was the first time U.S.
ships had fired into Lebanon, dramatically raising the level of
combat. But the Marines' exposed location on the flat terrain of
the airport left them in an impossible position. On Sept. 12, three
more Marines were wounded. 26
On Sept. 13, President Reagan authorized what was called
aggressive self‑defense for the Marines, including air and naval
strikes.27 Five days later the United States essentially joined the
war against the Muslims when four U.S. warships unleashed the
heaviest naval bombardment since Vietnam into Syrian and
Druze positions in eastern Lebanon in support of the Lebanese
Christians.28 The bombardment lasted for three days and was
personally ordered by National Security Council director Robert
McFarlane, a Marine Corps officer detailed to the White House
who was in Lebanon at the time and was also a strong supporter
of Israel and its Lebanese Maronite Christian allies. McFarlane
issued the order despite the fact that the Marine commander at
the airport, Colonel Timothy Geraghty, strenuously argued
against it because, in the words of correspondent Thomas L.
Friedman, "he knew that it would make his soldiers party to what
was now clearly an intra‑Lebanese fight, and that the Lebanese
Muslims would not retaliate against the Navy's ships at sea but
against the Marines on shore." 29
By now, the Marines were under daily attack and Muslims were
charging they were no longer neutral.30 At the same time the
battleship USS New Jersey, with 16‑inch guns, arrived off
Lebanon, increasing the number of U.S. warships offshore to 14.
Similarly, the Marine contingent at Beirut airport was increased
from 1,200 to 1,600.31
A Tragic Climax
The fight now was truly joined between the Shi'i Muslims and the
Marines, who were essentially pinned down in their airport
bunkers and under orders not to take offensive actions. The
tragic climax of their predicament came on Oct. 23, when a
Muslim guerrilla drove a truck past guards at the Marine airport
compound and detonated an explosive with the force of 12,000
pounds of dynamite under a building housing Marines and other
U.S. personnel. Almost simultaneously, a car‑bomb exploded at
the French compound in Beirut. Casualties were 241 Americans
and 58 French troops killed. The bombings were the work of
Hezbollah, made up of Shi'i Muslim guerrillas supported by
America's agony increased on Dec. 3, when two carrier planes
were downed by Syrian missiles during heavy U.S. air raids on
eastern Lebanon.33On the same day, eight Marines were killed
in fighting with Muslim militiamen around the Beirut airport.34
By the start of 1984, an all‑out Shi'i Muslim campaign to rid
Lebanon of all Americans was underway. The highly respected
president of the American University of Beirut, Dr. Malcolm Kerr,
a distinguished scholar of the Arab world, was gunned down on
Jan. 18 outside his office by Islamic militants aligned with Iran.35
On Feb. 5, Reagan made one of his stand‑tall speeches by
saying that "the situation in Lebanon is difficult, frustrating and
dangerous. But this is no reason to turn our backs on friends and
to cut and run."36
The next day Professor Frank Regier, a U.S. citizen teaching at
AUB, was kidnapped by Muslim radicals.37 Regier's kidnapping
was the beginning of a series of kidnappings of Americans in
Beirut that would hound the Reagan and later the Bush
administrations for years and lead to the eventual expulsion of
nearly all Americans from Lebanon where they had prospered for
more than a century. Even today Americans still are prohibited
from traveling to Lebanon.
The day after Regier's kidnapping, on Feb. 7, 1984, Reagan
suddenly reversed himself and announced that all U.S. Marines
would shortly be "redeployed." The next day the battleship USS
New Jersey fired 290 rounds of one‑ton shells from its 16‑inch
guns into Lebanon as a final act of U.S. frustration.38 Reagan's
"redeployment" was completed by Feb. 26, when the last of the
Marines retreated from Lebanon.
The mission of the Marines had been a humiliating failure—not
because they failed in their duty but because the political
backbone in Washington was lacking. The Marines had arrived
in 1982 with all sides welcoming them. They left in 1984
despised by many and the object of attacks by Muslims. Even
relations with Israel were strained, if not in Washington where a
sympathetic Congress granted increased aid to the Jewish state
to compensate it for the costs of its bungled invasion, then
between the Marines and Israeli troops who had confronted each
other in a realpolitik battlefield that was beyond their competence
or understanding. The Marine experience in Lebanon did not
contribute toward a favorable impression of Israel among many
Americans, especially since the Marines would not have been in
Lebanon except for Israel's unprovoked invasion.
This negative result is perhaps one reason a number of Israelis
and their supporters today oppose sending U.S. peacekeepers
to the Golan Heights as part of a possible Israeli‑Syrian peace
treaty. A repeat of the 1982‑84 experience would certainly not be
in Israel's interests at a time when its supporters are seeking to
have a budget‑conscious Congress continue unprecedented
amounts of aid to Israel.
Ball, George, Error and Betrayal in Lebanon, Washington, DC,
Foundation for Middle East Peace, 1984.
*Cockburn, Andrew and Leslie Cockburn, Dangerous Liaison:
The Inside Story of the U.S.‑Israeli Covert Relationship, New
York, Harper Collins, 1991.
Cooley, John K., Payback: America's Long War in the Middle
East , New York, Brassey's U.S., Inc., 1991.
*Findley, Paul, Deliberate Deceptions: Facing the Facts About
the U.S.‑Israeli Relationship, Brooklyn, NY, Lawrence Hill
Fisk, Robert, Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon, New
York, Atheneum, 1990.
Frank, Benis M., U.S. Marines in Lebanon: 1982‑1984, History
and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps,
Washington, DC, 1987.
*Friedman, Thomas L., From Beirut to Jerusalem, New York,
Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1989.
*Green, Stephen, Living by the Sword, Amana, 1988.
*Jansen, Michael, The Battle of Beirut: Why Israel Invaded
Lebanon , London, Zed Press, 1982.
MacBride, Sean, Israel in Lebanon: The Report of the
International Commission to enquire into reported violations of
international law by Israel during its invasion of Lebanon ,
London, Ithaca Press, 1983.
Ostrovsky, Victor and Claire Hoy, By Way of Deception, New
York, St. Martin's Press, 1990.
Peck, Juliana S., The Reagan Administration and the
Palestinian Question: The First Thousand Days , Washington,
DC, Institute for Palestine Studies, 1984.
*Randal, Jonathan, Going all the Way, New York, The Viking
Schechla, Joseph, The Iron Fist: Israel's Occupation of South
Lebanon, 1982‑1985 , Washington, D.C.: ADC Research
Institute, Issue Paper No. 17, 1985.
*Schiff, Ze'ev and Ehud Ya'ari, Israel's Lebanon War, New York,
Simon and Schuster, 1984.
Timerman, Jacobo, The Longest War: Israel in Lebanon, New
York, Vantage Books, 1982.
Woodward, Bob, Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA 1981‑1987,
New York, Simon and Schuster, 1987.
* Available through the AET Book Club.
1 New York Times, 3/18/83. For a detailed review of these
clashes, see Green, Living by the Sword, pp. 177‑92, and Clyde
Mark, "The Multinational Force in Lebanon," Congressional
Research Service, 5/19/83.
2 See "NBC Nightly News," 6:30 PM EST, 3/17/86; also, George
C. Wilson, Washington Post, 2/5/83.
3 Ball, Error and Betrayal in Lebanon, p. 51; Cooley, Payback,
4 Frank, U.S Marines in Lebanon: 1982‑1984, p. 137.
5 Frank, U.S. Marines in Lebanon: 1982‑1984 , Appendix F.
6 New York Times, 10/1/82. Also see Cooley, Payback, p. 71;
Green, Living by the Sword, pp. 175‑77
7 The text is in New York Times, 9/30/82. Also see Peck, The
Reagan Administration and the Palestinian Question, p. 76.
8 Schiff & Ya'ari, Israel's Lebanon War, p. 225.
9 "Chronology of the Israeli Invasion of Lebanon," Journal of
Palestine Studies, Summer/Fall 1982,
10 Green, Living by the Sword, pp. 178‑80.
11 Frank, U.S Marines in Lebanon: 1982‑1984, pp. 45‑46.
13 Green, Living by the Sword, p. 182.
14 Frank, U.S Marines in Lebanon: 1982‑1984, p. 56.
15 New York Times, 2/9/83; "Final Report of the Israeli
Commission of Inquiry," Journal of Palestine Studies, Spring
1983, pp. 89‑116.
16 Frank, U.S Marines in Lebanon: 1982‑1984, p. 56.
17 New York Times, 4/22/83 and 4/26/83. For more detail on
CIA victims, see Charles R Babcock, Washington Post, 8/5/86,
and Woodward, Veil, pp. 244‑45.
18 Ostrovsky, By Way of Deception, p. 321.
19 Cooley, Payback, p. 76.
20 New York Times, 8/30/83.
21 Ball, Error and Betrayal in Lebanon, pp. 75‑77.
22 New York Times, 9/5/83.
23 Fisk, Pity the Nation, pp. 489‑91; Friedman, From Beirut to
Jerusalem, p. 179.
24 New York Times, 9/6/83.
25 Fisk, Pity the Nation, p. 505.
26 New York Times, 9/14/83.
27 New York Times , 9/13/83.
28 Philip Taubman and Joel Brinkley, New York Times, 12/11/83.
Also see Cockburn, Dangerous Liaison, p. 335; Fisk, Pity the
Nation, p. 505; Friedman, From Beirut to Jerusalem , p. 210.
29 Friedman, From Beirut to Jerusalem, pp. 200‑01. Also see
Green, Living by the Sword, pp. 190‑92.
30 New York Times, 9/29/83.
31 New York Times, 9/25/83; David Koff, "Chronology of the War
in Lebanon, Sept.‑November, 1983," Journal of Palestine
Studies, Winter 1984, pp. 133‑35.
32 Philip Taubman and Joel Brinkley, New York Times, 12/11/83.
Also see Cooley, Payback, pp. 80‑91; Fisk, Pity the Nation, pp.
511‑22; Friedman, From Beirut to Jerusalem, pp. 201‑4;
Woodward, Veil, pp. 285‑87.
33 New York Times , 1/4/84; Cooley, Payback, pp. 95‑97.
34 New York Times, 12/4/83.
35 New York Times, 1/19/84. Also see New York Times,
1/29/84, and Cooley, Payback, p. 75. For a chronology of
attacks against Americans in this period, see the Atlanta
36 Fisk, Pity the Nation, p. 533.
37 New York Times, 4/16/84. Also see Cooley, Payback , p.
111; Fisk, Pity the Nation, p. 565.
38 Cooley, Payback, p. 102; Fisk, Pity the Nation, p. 533;
Friedman, From Beirut to Jerusalem, p. 220