Watchman Willie Martin Archive

 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

 from Beirut."7

 "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

 probing lines.

 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

 Books, 1993.

 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

 Press, 1983.

 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,

 pp. 69‑71.

 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,

 p. 189.

 10 Green, Living by the Sword, pp. 178‑80.

 11 Frank, U.S Marines in Lebanon: 1982‑1984, pp. 45‑46.

 12 Ibid.

 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

 Journal, 1/31/85.

 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

Reference Materials