2019 is the 36th anniversary of the second deadliest terror attack on Americans at the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, which was bombed by Lebanese terrorists supported and directed by Iran on October 23, 1983. The attack, which killed 241 American servicemen (220 Marines serving in the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines; 16 Navy personnel; and three Army soldiers), was the deadliest single-day death toll for the Marines since the World War II Battle of Iwo Jima and the deadliest for the U.S. military since the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam.
The Marines were in Lebanon as part of an international peacekeeping force trying to stabilize the country, which had been torn by a civil war between Christians—with their ally Israel—and Muslims. A U.S. contingent entered Lebanon in July of 1982 to oversee the departure of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which Israel had invaded to displace. That American detachment left in September of 1982, but U.S. forces returned later that month when violence resumed.
The story of the Marines in Lebanon can only be described as a tragic comedy of errors. President Ronald Reagan foolishly believed sending in the Marines would stabilize the region. Instead of insisting that the Marines insert into Beirut with the required tanks, artillery, helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft to ensure their own security, and to also return fire if attacked, Reagan’s Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger, went to extreme measures to “defang” the Marines through rules of engagement that forced the Marines to operate from a defensive posture. This included reducing heavy weapons and ordering the Marines to keep their weapons unloaded to prevent accidental shootings. The Marine Corps wasn’t designed to keep the peace, the Marine Corps exists to wreak havoc on bad guys. The events in Lebanon drove home this point.
After the attack on the Marine barracks, Weinberger committed the unforgivable sin of ensuring there would be no retaliation or escalation by the U.S. military against Iran or forces in Lebanon—even though 241 service men had been murdered.
President Bill Clinton and his cabinet didn’t learn much from the events in Lebanon. Clinton’s Secretary of Defense, Les Aspin, turned down a request from the ground commander of U.S. forces in Mogadishu, Somalia for armor (tanks). The failure of Aspin to approve sending tanks to Somalia weakened the ability of the U.S. Army to defend itself. During a mission on October 3 and 4, 1993, two U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopters were shot down. Without tanks to blow up technicals (trucks with heavy weapons mounted on them) and break through barricades, the U.S. Army became engaged in a long-running firefight resulting in the deaths of 18 soldiers. Had just two M1 Abrams tanks with dozer blades on the front been authorized by Aspin for use in Mogadishu, the outcome would have been much different.
The events in Somalia can be viewed in this video Black Hawk Down.
There are grave similarities between the events in Lebanon and Somalia—poor mission planning, poor execution and eventual withdrawal of the U.S.
A Simple Plan
In April 1983, the U.S. embassy in Beirut was struck by a 400-pound suicide truck bomb, which killed 63 people, including 17 Americans, and wiped out the CIA’s Middle East bureau. When the bombing proved to be an overwhelming success, terrorists began to think on an even larger scale—attack the U.S. military peacekeepers directly in Lebanon.
Unknown to the U.S. military at the time, the National Security Agency (NSA) had made a diplomatic communications intercept on September 26, 1983, in which the Iranian Intelligence Service provided explicit instructions to the Iranian ambassador in Damascus (a known terrorist) to attack the Marines at Beirut International Airport. The suicide attackers struck 28 days later, with word of the intercept stuck in the intelligence pipeline until days after the attack. There is an eerie similarity between the attack on the Marines in Beirut and the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, investigators identified multiple instances of messages that indicated an attack on Pearl Harbor was imminent, but the messages were either ignored or deciphered too late.
As is the case with most terrorist attacks, a simple plan resulted in catastrophic casualties. On the morning of October 23, 1983, terrorists hijacked a water delivery truck on its way to the Beirut International Airport Marine barracks and sent another truck, loaded with explosives, in its place. Ismalal Ascari, an Iranian, drove the 19-ton truck over the barbed wire fence around the barracks, past two guard posts, and into the center of the Marine barracks compound. (The lack of security around the Marine barracks was appalling. The fact that the Marines were in the building in the first place proved a tragic mistake). According to the FBI and other intelligence agencies that investigated the attack, the resulting explosion from the hijacked water truck was the largest non-nuclear explosion that had ever been detonated on the face of the Earth, with a force equal to between 15,000 and 21,000 pounds of TNT. In other words, only the use of the atomic bomb on Japan on two occasions in 1945, were larger than the explosion that destroyed the Marine barracks in Lebanon.
The suicide truck bombing, along with a similar bombing that day which killed 58 French paratroopers, was perpetrated by the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah (“Party of God”), which was created, supported and directed by Iran. The U.S. did nothing to punish Iran in 1983 or any time thereafter for attacking the Marines. The attack on the Marine barracks and lack of retaliation by the U.S. emboldened terrorists in the Middle East. Two years after the bombing of the Marine barracks, TWA Flight 847 was hijacked and forced to land in Beirut, Lebanon. Navy diver Robert Stethem was beaten and murdered, and his body was dumped on the tarmac at the airport. I am incredulous that two terrorists associated with the killing of Stethem remain on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list, Ali Atwa and Mohammed Ali Hamadei.
President Donald Trump: Why haven’t you directed the U.S. military or the CIA to find and kill Atwa and Hamadei? Why haven’t you asked Israel to find and kill both men? By all accounts both men are in Lebanon.
Currently, the U.S. and Iran are engaged in sabre-rattling, with Trump vacillating from threatening Iran with military action to stating that he has no desire to go to war with Iran. Note to President Trump: As Commander in Chief, the worst thing you can do is threaten the use of military force. Frankly, you have threatened to use the military so many times that you’ve created the perception that you are a paper tiger capable of growling but lacking the courage, claws or fangs to do any real damage. In the case of Iran, some military analysts believe the die has been cast and the U.S. has already reached the point of no return regarding the use of military force. If the U.S. withdraws the military assets already in the region, Iran will have learned a valuable lesson—Donald Trump will back down. Worse, Iran will understand that it can operate with impunity on the world stage putting Israel, the U.S. and other nations at risk.
Based on interviews with the media, tweets and past comments on Iran by Trump, it appears that the president is searching for a reason to attack Iran. Mr. President, you don’t need to find a reason to attack Iran. Iran gave you the reason on October 23, 1983 when it ordered the murder of 241 members of the U.S. military. In addition, from 1983 until the present, Iran has committed one aggressive act after another against the U.S. and our allies, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia. Iran is indeed a legitimate military target.
If you have members of your cabinet urging you to avoid military conflict with Iran, Mr. President, ask them to justify a reason why the U.S. shouldn’t get payback for the killing of 241 members of our military. Ask them to explain how Iran will become less of a threat in the future when the CIA has identified Iran as a growing major threat to the U.S.
There Are Two Options: Bad and Worse
After reviewing several articles written by former senior leaders in the military regarding a potential war with Iran, I have identified a key reason why engagements by the U.S. military have become increasingly ineffective since World War II. (This is the best strategy paper I’ve read related to a war with Iran.) During WW II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and President Harry Truman, as well as America’s military leaders like Dwight Eisenhower, Curtis LeMay and George Patton, all believed that the only way to win a war was to utilize the strategy of total war. What makes a policy of total war so devastating is that attacking civilians is justified—sort of like Iran when it sponsors and funds terrorists to kill innocent men, women and children. Far too many of the military plans I’ve reviewed regarding Iran all go to great lengths to limit civilian casualties. This is a mistake.
Trump should order the Secretary of Defense to present a military plan that specifically calls for the complete destruction of Iranian military assets, as well as intentionally attacking one or more of Iran’s largest cities with the intent of killing as many civilians as possible. Sounds cruel, doesn’t it? It’s not and here’s why. The best deterrent for war with Iran is for the people of Iran to take to the streets in massive protest to destabilize Iran’s government which is dominated by clergy. Trump making it clear that the U.S. will target Iran’s largest cities should have the desired effect of rallying Iran’s population to force change from inside Iran. The U.S. can provide support to Iranians to hasten the destabilization of the government.
Trump would also be wise to learn from the poorly planned and executed war with Iraq by the Bush administration in 2003 which proved the fallacy that a small military force supported by air power could gain control over a large military and civilian population. I rank the invasion of Iraq as the single worst foreign policy decision in the history of the United States—even worse than the decision to go to war with Vietnam. This article by David Frum offers an interesting perspective on the topic of Iraq and Iran.
Iraq fell apart because there weren’t enough U.S. troops to secure a country with a population of 25.6 million people (2003 statistic). Iran has a population of 81 million people, and it is the 17th largest country in the world. This link provides in-depth information related to Iran’s military capabilities. Theoretically, in order to go to war with Iran, the U.S. would have to activate all 600,000 men and women currently serving in the U.S. Marines and Army, as well as activate the National Guard and Reserves. According to military doctrine, however, the size of the force would still be too small to invade a country with a population of nearly 81 million people. Without a draft, the U.S. doesn’t have enough troops to fight Iran. Raise your hand if you think Republicans want to go into the 2020 election with Trump talking about the need for a draft… Anyone?
The alternative to a draft is to increase the brutality of the attack on Iran, hence the comment about killing Iranian civilians. In WW II, the U.S. didn’t have enough men, tanks or planes to fight Japan and Germany. The equalizer was intentionally killing civilians to create as horrific of an environment as possible. Cities in Germany were intentionally bombed to great effect. Dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945 and Nagasaki, Japan on August 9, 1945 was done for one reason only—to kill large numbers of civilians and force Japan to surrender. The U.S. chose to use atomic weapons on Japan after a review of two proposed military plans to invade Japan—Operations Olympic and Coronet—estimated that if the U.S. invaded Japan, one million Japanese civilians would be killed. Strange as it sounds, dropping two atomic bombs was the most humane option for ending the war with Japan.
Regarding a potential war with Iran, I’m convinced there are two options: bad and worse. If the U.S. rushes into military action, odds are high that Iran could prove to be a much more formidable opponent than many in the Trump administration are willing to accept. Without the required troop strength, the U.S. military will have no choice but to escalate the war, leading to the death of many civilians and an increase in destruction of key infrastructure sites throughout Iran.
If the U.S. opts for a draft(something more close to reality than people realize), the political fallout would be even worse than the protests against the draft in the 1960s and early ’70s. There is no widespread support for a war with Iran because the Trump administration has failed at every level to make an argument as to why a war with Iran is necessary. Americans will rally around a true threat to the security of the United States, but few Americans believe Iran is capable of wreaking havoc against Americans on U.S. soil.
Worse, a war with Iran will expose a very painful truth: The U.S. military isn’t capable of fighting Iran while maintaining the ability to fight in another conflict. I recently returned from a trip to Moscow, Russia, and one of the topics that came up in discussions was Russia’s growing level of confidence to expand their sphere of influence because of their view that the U.S. has grown weaker militarily. Russia is in Syria, and Russia is actively expanding its role in Africa through use of the Wagner Group. (Full Disclosure: I am in the process of trying to secure a contract with the Wagner Group to learn more about their operations from the inside). A war with Iran has an unintended consequence of weakening the U.S. military to the point where Russia (and even China) may feel confident to make a big military move and the U.S. will be unable to do anything about it.
Hawks Must Be Balanced By Doves
Throughout this article, I have taken a position best characterized as being hawkish against Iran. I truly want payback against Iran for what happened to the Marines in Lebanon. Lest anyone think I am advocating for military action that I won’t be a part of, that is false. If war with Iran is imminent, I ask that Trump and Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan grant me the necessary waivers to allow me to once again serve on active duty. I previously served in the Marine Corps for six years. I am more than happy to serve in the Marine Raider Regiment, as a member of an armor crew or as an infantryman. Assign me to the Marine Battalion Landing Team—that will be the first to enter Iran in the event of a war.
After being discharged from the Marines, I earned a bachelor’s degree and three master’s degrees. Deep down inside, I am still very much a hawk. However, over the years I’ve learned a valuable lesson: Hawks need to be balanced by doves. The Bush administration had way too many hawks pushing for war against Iraq and not enough doves asking why war was the only answer.
When Iranian students overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979, it severely weakened President Jimmy Carter. To turn the tide, Carter approved a rescue attempt of the hostages, code name Operation Eagle Claw. Hawks drove every aspect of the mission planning and execution. During critical planning sessions, it was determined that if fewer than six CH-53 helicopters remained operational, the mission would be aborted, even though it was determined only four helicopters were absolutely required. Only five of the eight helicopters made it to the staging area for the mission, and the mission was aborted with tragic consequences. A review of Operation Eagle Claw by a group of mathematicians who studied the mean time between failure rates of the engines and hydraulics on the CH-53 determined that for there to be a 97 percent chance of having six fully operational helicopters arrive as desired, a total of 17 helicopters should have been launched. Hawks accepted the narrow margin of error. Doves would have asked someone to prove if eight helicopters were indeed enough in the first place.
As for Trump, don’t be goaded into a war with Iran. Balance your cabinet with hawks and doves but don’t ever forget, once the toothpaste is out of the tube, its nearly impossible to put back in. Going down the path of war with Iran is a decision not to be made lightly. Learn from the mistakes of the past but understand this most of all—hawks will always say a mission can be accomplished. Always. Doves are needed to ask the hard questions, proving that all required planning has been conducted, potential mission failures have been identified, and insisting that all options other than war have been evaluated. What doves are good at is identifying arguments for war that are false and which ones are legitimate. If you’re not careful, Mr. President, hawks will lead you into a war that will be worse than anything the world has seen outside of WW II.