[ NOTE: At the time of the bombing in 1983, Powell's rank was major general, and served
as the senior military assistant to then Secretary of Defense, Casper Weinberger ]

Colin Powell's reaction to the Beirut Marine Barracks bombing... (pages 280-281)

"On October 23, six days after Bud McFarlane became National Security Advisor, I received another middle-of-the-night call from the National Military Command Center. This time there was no question about alerting Weinberger immediately. A terrorist truck bomb had struck a U.S. Marine barracks at the airport near Beirut, Lebanon. Again, the news came out in dribbles. Each time, I had to convey the mounting horror to a Defense Secretary who I knew was squeamish about death. On taking over his Pentagon office, Weinberger had gotten rid of a portrait of James Forrestal, the first Secretary of Defense, who had taken a suicide plunge from the Bethesda Naval Hospital. Weinberger replaced Forrestal's picture with a rosy Titian on loan from a Washington museum. This night, each of my calls was like a physical blow to the Secretary. Eighty bodies pulled out. A hundred. A hundred and fifty. In the end, the toll reached 241 Marines dead. A near-simultaneous terrorist attack at a barracks in downtown Beirut killed seventy-seven French soldiers.

Our Marines had been stationed in Lebanon for the fuzzy idea of providing a "presence." The year before, in June 1982, the Israelis had invaded Lebanon in one final push to drive out PLO terrorists. This move had upset the always precarious Middle East balance. The United States, consequently, was attempting to referee the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Lebanon. The Marines had been deployed around the Beirut airport as what State Department euphemists called an "interpositional force." Translation: The Marines were to remain between two powder kegs, the Lebanese army and Syrian-backed Shiite units fighting it out in the Shouf Mountains. Weinberger had opposed the Marines' involvement from the start, but lost the policy debate in the White House to McFarlane and Secretary of State George Shultz.

I was developing a strong distaste for the antiseptic phrases coined by State Department officials for foreign interventions which usually had bloody consequences for the military, words like "presence," "symbol," "signal," "option on the table," "establishment of credibility." Their use was fine if beneath them lay a solid mission. But too often these words were used to give the appearance of clarity to mud.

On August 29, before the airport truck bombing, two Marines had been killed by Muslim mortar fire; on September 3, two more, and on October 16, two more. Against Weinberger's protest, McFarlane, now in Beirut, persuaded the President to have the battleship U.S.S. New Jersey start hurling 16-inch shells into the mountains above Beirut, in World War II style, as if we were softening up the beaches on some Pacific atoll prior to an invasion. What we tend lo overlook in such situations is that other people will react much as we would. When the shells started falling on the Shiites, they assumed the American "referee" had taken sides against them. And since they could not reach the battleship, they found a more vulnerable target, the exposed Marines at the airport.

What I saw from my perch in the Pentagon was America sticking its hand into a thousand year-old hornet's nest with the expectation that our mere presence might pacify the hornets. When ancient ethnic hatreds reignited in the former Yugoslavia in 1991 and well-meaning Americans thought we should "do something" in Bosnia, the shattered bodies of Marines at the Beirut airport were never far from my mind in arguing for caution. There are times when American lives must be risked and lost. Foreign policy cannot be paralyzed by the prospect of casualties. But lives must not be risked until we can face a parent or a spouse or a child with a clear answer to the question of why a member of that family had to die. To provide a "symbol" or a"presence" is not good enough.

Then, later in his book... future implications on military intervention (page 292-293)

I knew that Weinberger, for all his outward self-possession, had been deeply troubled by the tragic bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut. I did not realize how deeply until a singular draft document came out of his office. He asked me to take a look at it and circulate it to the administration's national security team. Weinberger had applied his formidable lawyerly intellect to an analysis of when and when not to commit United States military forces abroad. He was put off by fancy phrases like "interpositional forces" and "presence" that turned out to mean putting U.S. troops in harm's way without a clear mission. He objected to our troops being "used" in the worst sense of that word. He had come up with six tests for determining when to commit American forces.

Weinberger's antagonist, George Shultz, was dismissive of Cap's approach. I had watched the irony of their squabbling for months. The Secretary of State was often ready to commit America's military might, even in a no-man's-land like Lebanon. What was the point of maintaining a military force if you did not whack somebody occasionally to demonstrate your power? On the other side was the man responsible for the forces that would have to do the bleeding and dying, arguing against anything but crucial commitments.

Not only did Weinberger want to sell his guidelines inside the administration; he wanted to go public that summer. We started considering possible speaking platforms, but White House political operatives nixed any such controversial speech until the presidential election was over. After Reagan's reelection, Weinberger addressed the National Press Club on November 28. I went with him to hear him describe the tests he recommended "when we are weighing the use of U.S. combat forces abroad."

(l) Commit only if our or our allies' vital interests are at stake.

(2) If we commit, do so with all the resources necessary to win.

(3) Go in only with clear political and military objectives.

(4) Be ready to change the commitment if the objectives change, since wars rarely stand still.

(5) Only take on commitments that can gain the support of the American people and the Congress.

(6) Commit U.S. forces only as a last resort.

In short, is the national interest at stake? If the answer is yes, go in, and go in to win. Otherwise, stay out.

Clausewitz would have applauded. And in the future, when it became my responsibility to advise Presidents on committing our forces to combat, Weinberger's rules turned out to be a practical guide. However, at the time of the speech, I was concerned that the Weinberger tests publicly proclaimed, were too explicit and would lead potential enemies to look for loopholes."


with Joseph E. Persico
©Random House Publishing | Ballantine Books



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