October 23 1983 isn’t like 9/11 in the minds of most UW-La Crosse students. Most were too young to remember, and many others weren’t born yet. Today is the the 30th anniversary of the first large-scale terrorist attack against America. Widely unfamiliar today, the date will never be forgotten for the friends and families of 241 US servicemen lost.
“I don’t know − I think I might have heard something about it, but it’s not something I’m familiar with or think much about,” says Josh, a UW-L philosophy major. He adds, “I was just a kid then.”
A premonition of things to come, the terrorist bombing of October 1983 on the Marines in many ways represents the ignominious relationship the US has with the region. The attack not only took the lives of 241 Americans, but set in motion events still playing-out today.
The bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, changed the way foreign policy is conducted to this day. Stout security, complex intelligence, and increased vigilance are paramount considerations when operating in a forward-deployed area. Troops are inserted and extracted in the manner best to minimize their exposure to danger. Also, US forces abroad now also work in tandem with other units in their proximity and draw support from a network of elements. The bombing affected the way by which the American military operates in hostile environments, and it ended US involvement in unarmed “peacekeeping missions.”
America’s involvement in the Middle East goes back decades, and hostility in the region is nothing new. In the early 1980s, then President Ronald Reagan committed 1,800 US Marines to an international peacekeeping force in Lebanon. Civil war and religious unrest between rivaling factions were tearing the country to pieces. One of the main warring groups involved, Islamic Jihad, was the precursor of the modern-day Hezbollah.
Assuming the role of peacekeepers, the Marines were there to quell violence and build relationships. In keeping a non-confrontational posture, they were not armed with live ammunition, and their barracks, a four-story concrete building protected only by a chain-link fence, afforded little protection.
“I lost my best friend from sniper fire in Beirut. He was right beside me and got the whole back of his head blown off,” says Jeff Lee, a Beirut veteran with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit. “We had no ammo and no means of retaliation. I escorted him all the way home to Kansas. It still haunts me and pisses me off.”
Like today, foreign presence− let-alone that of Americans− in the Islamic world was not welcomed by all. One Sunday morning, a yellow Mercedes truck slowly approached the Marines’ perimeter. Expecting a water delivery and unaware that the truck had earlier been hijacked, sentries were not concerned as they watched the truck approach. The lumbering truck suddenly picked-up speed and crashed through the gate. Horrified sentries frantic for authorization to engage helplessly watched the driver speed across the compound towards the main barracks. Seconds after the truck slammed through the command post and came to rest in the large central atrium, a flash of light accompanied the detonation of 12,000 pounds of explosives and compressed natural gas. 220 Marines, 18 sailors, and three soldiers, most still asleep at just after 6 that morning, were killed instantly.
A subsequent FBI investigation would determine that the blast lifted the barracks a foot in the air before collapsing all at once on the Americans. The explosion still stands as the largest intentional non-nuclear detonation in history. To this day the bombing remains the greatest single-day loss of life for the Marines since World War II.