When Will We Ever Learn?
Beirut — This observer has no idea if the American Ambassador here in
Beirut, Maury Connolly or Secretary of State John Kerrey has ever listened to
Marlene Dietrich’s classic October 1965 performance of Pete Seeger’s “Where
Have All The Flowers Gone,” still stunning, deeply moving and available
on the Internet.
But on this 30th anniversary of the bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut I
found myself near the old embassy site on the sea front for personal reasons,
and stepped down the block below the American University of Beirut
to meet a friend at Starbucks. When I entered, maybe the 5th time in my life
I have been to a Starbucks since I don’t drink coffee and for political reasons
tend to avoid the chain, I noticed someone was playing Dietrich’s classic.
Having just read reports in the Lebanese media concerning the American Ambassador and Secretary of State’s political comments on the embassy events, three decades on, Marlene’s
enchanting, deep voiced, “When will they every learn,?” numbed me.
Kerry slammed Hezbollah in the Lebanese media, saying “On this
30th anniversary of the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon,
the United States celebrates 30 years of close cooperation with the people of
Lebanon that proves the enemies of democracy failed,” he said from
Washington, “especially at the people-to-people level, and this proves the
terrorists’ goals were not achieved.”
For her part, U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Maura Connelly said the bombing
opened a new chapter in America’s history in the Middle East. Connelly said
the explosion taught Americans that “peaceful intentions were not enough to
protect us from those who would use terror to achieve their aims in the
What both officials avoid mentioning is the subject of who was committing
the terrorism in Lebanon when these events, including the US Marine
Barracks and the Embassy again in 1984, occurred.
Regarding Hezbollah, which would not be a formed organization ready to
announce itself publicly until 1985, CIA operative Robert Baer and his team
assigned to investigate the Embassy bombing concluded there was not
enough reliable evidence to support the theory that the Party of God was
responsible. Among the more than three dozen militias of various persuasions
operating in Beirut alone in the early 1980’s, only Islamic Jihad claimed
The American officials also failed to take into consideration the fact, never
denied by Washington, that at that time the US Embassy had the largest
contingent of CIA agents working out of the Embassy and performing
command and control functions for the US Marine base in South Beirut, more
in fact than in any other capital city except Moscow. When the US Embassy
became a command post, by the terms of the 1961 Vienna Convention on
Diplomatic relations it lost its protected status.
The US Marines as a hostile military force in Lebanon never had adequate
protection, and by targeting civilians, its base near the airport became a
legitimate target. Contrary to the political spin put on the event, there
was no terrorism involved in the operation.
The reason is because, despite Reagan administration claims, and this
week’s assertion by Ambassador Connelly, the US forces were not “a neutral
peacekeeping unit” as hyped. Rather, they were enemy combatants fighting
and killing on one side of a civil war conflict. When the battleship New
Jersey‘s shells killed hundreds of people, mostly Shiites and Druze, that fact
was clear. It’s not surprising that in his memoir, General Colin Powell,
at the time an assistant to Caspar Weinberger noted that “When the shells
started falling on the Shiites, they assumed the American ‘referee’ had taken
Some examples. On 14 December, 1983 the New Jersey fired 11 projectiles
from three of her 16 inch (406 mm) guns at the rate of three per minute each
at positions inland of Beirut. These were the first 16 inch shells fired for effect
anywhere in the world since New Jersey ended her time on the gunline in
Vietnam in 1969.
According to news accounts by reporters in Beirut at the time, the New
Jersey bombardment sometimes began at 1:25 P.M. and ended at 11 P.M.
followed by American fighter-bombers which could be heard flying over
Beirut in search of targets.
On September 19, 1983, the New Jersey and other US warships began shelling
Druze, Syrian and Palestinian positions in the Chouf Mountains outside
Beirut. The battleship New Jersey with its 2,700 pound shells (“flying
Volkswagens”) led the action. And on 8 February 1984, the New Jersey fired
almost 300 shells at Druze and Shi’ite positions in the hills overlooking Beirut.
More of the massive projectiles rained down on the Bekaa valley east of
Beirut and constituted the heaviest shore bombardment since the Korean War.
The inaccuracy of New Jersey‘s guns was a scandal in US government circles
and was consistently called into question. An investigation, led by Marine
colonel Don Price, into New Jersey’s gunfire effectiveness in Lebanon found
that many of the ship’s shells had missed their targets by as much as 10,000
yards (9,144 meters) and therefore may have inadvertently killed civilians.
Records and oral hearings of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the
matter could not be clearer, and Secretary Kerrey and Ambassador Connelly
know this. Tim McNulty, a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune based in
Lebanon at the time wrote: “Everybody loved the New Jersey until she fired
her guns. Once she fired, it was obvious she couldn’t hit anything,” Well,
as the citizens of Lebanon know, it did indeed hit things. Mainly innocent
civilians, their property and Lebanon’s infrastructure.
As Secretary of State Kerrey knows well from his nearly three decades in the
US Senate and his four years (2009-2013) as Chairman of the Foreign
Relations Committee the actions of the USS New Jersey itself was arguably
terrorism and some experts in the International Law Bureau of the Pentagon
have said as much.
This observer lived for more than a year in the Chouf village of Choueifat, a
beautiful place set high above the remains of the US marine barracks, the
Beirut airport and the Mediterranean Sea where the USS Jersey and other US
Sixth fleet warships are normally positioned when they come calling on
Neighbors still recall what some here call, “the terror days of USS New
Jersey” and its shelling with both 26 inch and 19 inch shells, the former
weighing up to 2,700 pounds. Clearly visible around Choueifat and dozens of
other smaller towns, are the remains of houses and buildings not yet repaired
from the devastation caused by the intense shelling. Also visible at various
locations are indications that unexploded shells even now remain imbedded
in the ground.
One wonders if as part of the “special enduring friendship between the
United States and Lebanon on a people to people level” that the president
might order the Pentagon to defuse and remove these huge unexploded
bombs. If so he would distinguish his administration from that of the
occupiers of Palestine who for more than three decades have targeted various
parts of Lebanon with American supplied and US taxpayer-paid weapons,
including literally millions of US-made cluster bombs during the 33 day
Israeli aggression in 2006.
It is certainly appropriate to honor the victims of the 1983 US Embassy
bombing but it is no less appropriate to honor the other tragedies in Lebanon
during this period under review that precipitated it. In her closing remarks
this week, Ambassador Connelly noted that in her opinion, “the bombing of
the US Embassy taught us the stakes of involvement in this region.”
As we contemplate another “neutral peacekeeping presence” being
planned in Washington for Syria, we gravely doubt that it has.
When will we ever learn?
Franklin Lamb is doing research in Lebanon and Syria and can be reached c/o firstname.lastname@example.org