Somalia's real parallel isn't Vietnam -- it's Beirut

Sheldon Himelfarb

October 22, 1993|By Sheldon Himelfarb

TOMORROW, America will mark the 10-year anniversary of another international peacekeeping disaster -- one in which more U.S. Marines were killed on a single day than on any day since Iwo Jima.

The tragedy occurred in Beirut, Lebanon, on Oct. 23, 1983. A Hezbollah suicide bomber drove a truck loaded with explosives into the Marine barracks at dawn, slaughtering 242 sleeping men.

In a recent series of interviews, survivors of the blast and the politicians who dispatched them shed new light on the disaster. Beirut was not Mogadishu; Hezbollah was not Mohamed Farah Aideed's clan. What's clear from this new testimony, however, is that the parallels between the two situations are too numerous and important to ignore. Yet that's exactly what seems to be happening.

In Beirut, as in Mogadishu, the U.S. sent thousands of young men into the midst of a civil war that had raged for years under the mantle of "peacekeeping." At first, the detachments were kept relatively small, and the use of force limited to emphasize the friendly nature of our mission. "The idea was to go out and show the flag," recalls former Marine sergeant Steve Russell, "let the public see you."

The U.S. wanted to stop the Lebanese civil war with its presence, not its guns, or to use the analogy favored by then Secretary of State George Shultz, we were putting "police" onto the streets who were "capable of maintaining peace."

Time and again, the military men on the scene took issue with this notion of policing a country at war with itself. Col. Tim Geraghty, the commander of the decimated unit in Beirut, said it best: "You are highly vulnerable because of the mission that you have, a peacekeeping mission essentially in a place where there wasn't any peace."

Many Marines wondered why they'd been sent to do the job at all. "Our mission was peacekeepers," added Sergeant Russell, who was nearly killed in the explosion. "I have never, even to this day, ever been trained as a peacekeeper. I was a combat Marine."

At first, fighting in Beirut, like fighting in Mogadishu, almost came to a halt with the arrival of the Marines. The longer American forces remained in Lebanon, though, the less the locals feared them, and violence picked up again. Soon, units on patrol in the capital reported more brazen rock throwing and anti-American jeering, then more sniper fire. Suddenly American casualties began to mount, and Washington began debating that ever difficult decision: whether to "cut and run."

Former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger heaped scorn on those opposed to leaving. "I literally begged each meeting that I attended to get them out of there," he said, "but to no avail because it was always argued by those in our government who wanted to keep them there that this would be cutting and running and Marines never retreated -- and various other nonsensical slogans."

But President Reagan sided with Secretary Shultz, a former Marine himself. "The president was worried about cutting and running," Mr. Shultz explained. "That's not some slogan, that is something that hurts you badly. And the fact that in the end it appeared more or less that's what we did has hurt us in the Middle East even to this day. People remember that."

Do they? Over the last few months I've heard America's involvement in Somalia likened to its protracted involvement in Vietnam, and contrasted with our short, victorious war in the Persian Gulf. Yet despite the spine-chilling similarities between the two peacekeeping missions, hardly a word has been said about Beirut.

In fact, the Reagan administration went to great lengths to avoid the appearance of cutting and running. Although lawmakers in Washington loudly demanded a speedy withdrawal after the barracks bombing, the administration declared its resolve and sent reinforcements with heavier weaponry to the region. Only after six more months did the U.S. finally abandon Lebanon. Sound familiar?

Yes, President Clinton, with his recently announced plans for beefing up the men and equipment in Somalia and then departing in about six months, seems to be following the same script as President Reagan did in Lebanon. What's different today, however, is that this president has the benefit of knowing how the script ends.

In Lebanon, it ended with the worst of all outcomes: more peacekeeping casualties, a civil war resumed in full force and the perception that the U.S. ran away.

Tomorrow there will be small, quiet ceremonies all over the country, where those who lost sons, fathers, friends and husbands in Lebanon will grieve. I met several of these families and know that not a day goes by when they don't think about what went wrong in Beirut.

I hope someone in the administration is doing the same.

Sheldon Himelfarb is a Washington-based producer for Yorkshire Television Ltd. His program, "Beirut Bombing," airs tonight at 9 on the Arts and Entertainment Network.

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