The Rumsfeld Memo Demonstrates a Defense Quandary

More than two years ago on Sept. 11, 2001, America’s sense of security was shattered by brutal terrorist attacks. The Bush administration responded with a War on Terror. As a result, if you ask the typical American when the War on Terror began, the obvious response is “September 11.”

In fact, however, the war in which America is now engaged arguably began not two years ago last month but 20 years ago this week. It started with a terrorist assault on a U.S. Marines’ barracks in Beirut, Lebanon.

The events of Oct. 23, 1983, commenced a little after 6 a.m. while most of the members of the First Battalion, 8th Marines slept in their bunks.

A truck loaded with a massive 12,000-pound bomb crashed through a chain link fence and barbed wire entanglements surrounding the Marines’ Beirut headquarters. Security guards opened fire on the vehicle, but it was too little, too late.

The truck smashed into the barracks and instantly exploded, collapsing the four-story building. Two hundred and forty-one soldiers were killed and 80 were injured.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, the public responded with sadness and outrage. President Ronald Reagan was asked why it was necessary to have a U.S. military presence in Lebanon. He pointed to the importance of the United States playing a role in maintaining peace in the Middle East.

“We’ve been concerned because the Middle East is a powder keg,” said Reagan, opting for a pair of words that might have described the explosion at the barracks. “Four times in the last 30 years, the Arabs and Israelis have gone to war. And each time, the world has teetered near the edge of catastrophe.”

Reagan had in mind a larger context: The events of that October 1983 came only 10 years after the October 1973 Yom Kippur War that not only brought Israelis and Arabs to blows but also brought the United States and USSR perilously close to a nuclear exchange.

Just six years prior to that, in June 1967, came a Six Day War that likewise involved the superpowers. The same was true for the 1956 Suez Crisis, an Egyptian-Israeli shootout that directly included the world’s dominant nations.

In an address to the nation, Reagan condemned the Lebanon attack as an attempt to spark a withdrawal of American troops. Such a withdrawal, he claimed, would send a message that terrorists could easily manipulate the United States.

Yet, ultimately, the terrorists’ mission was successful: the remaining Marines were evacuated in February 1984.

Ronald Reagan would look back at the episode as the worst of his presidency. Each time a reporter asked him if he harbored any regrets during his eight years, he quickly snapped, “Beirut.”

In the two decades since, terrorism against the United States, its citizens, and its property have continued – often unchecked. The list is lengthy:

· Three Iranian-sponsored U.S. embassy bombings in Lebanon from 1983 to 1984 killed a number of diplomats and soldiers.

· In October 1985, terrorists hijacked the Achille Lauro in the Mediterranean Sea, and tossed overboard a 69-year-old, wheelchair-bound American tourist named Leon Klinghoffer.

· The Pan Am Flight 103 bombing by Libyan agents over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988 killed 270 innocent passengers.

· A World Trade Center bombing in 1993 killed six New York office workers and wounded many more.

· The Khobar Towers bombing in 1996 by Islamic terrorists killed 17 soldiers in Saudi Arabia.

· U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa in 1998 killed more than 200 people.

· The USS Cole bombing in Yemen killed 17 soldiers in 2000.

This is just a sample of how Americans have been consistently targeted by Middle East terrorists since 1983. Only recently were Americans hit hard at home. This has been an ongoing war since the early 1980s, not a two-year war started by Osama Bin Laden and his suicide bombers.

For America, World War I did not begin in August 1914, as it did for Europe. It did not begin on May 7, 1915 with the sinking of the Lusitania. It came in April 1917 when Congress authorized President Woodrow Wilson’s declaration of war.

Likewise, for America, World War II did not begin in September 1939 when the Nazis butchered Poland. It began only after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

Similarly, America’s war with terrorism did not begin on September 11, 2001. The horrific events of that day were merely a violent wake-up call. The war began in Beirut, Lebanon 20 years ago this week.

Earl H. Tilford

Earl H. Tilford

Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. He currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. A retired Air Force intelligence officer, Dr. Tilford earned his PhD in American and European military history at George Washington University. From 1993 to 2001, he served as Director of Research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute. In 2001, he left Government service for a professorship at Grove City College, where he taught courses in military history, national security, and international and domestic terrorism and counter-terrorism. Email: [email protected]

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