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When Will We Ever Learn?

Thirty Years After the Bombing at the US Embassy in Lebanon

by FRANKLIN LAMB

This observer has no idea if the American Ambassador here in Beirut, Maury Connolly or Secretary of State 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 (AUB) to meet a friend at Starbucks. When I entered, maybe the 5th tme my life I have been to a SB, since I don’t drink coffee and for political reasons tend to avoid the chain,  but  I noticed that someone was playing Dietrich’s classic.

Reading the reports of 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.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry slammed Hezbollah in the Lebanese media on the anniversary of the 1983 suicide bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut that killed 52 people, 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 Middle East.”

What both officials avoid 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.

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 persuasion operating  just in Beirut in the early 1980’s, Islamic Jihad did claim responsibility.

The American officials also failed to take into consideration the fact that the US Embassy, which, Washington has never denied, had at the time 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 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 protection and as it targeted civilians the Marine base too became a legitimate target.   Politicking the event three decades later, notwithstanding, there was no terrorism involved in either operation.

The reason is because despite Reagan administration claims, and Ambassador Connelly’s assertions this week, 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.  And when the New Jersey‘s shells had killed hundreds of people, mostly Shiites and Druze. It was not surprising that 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 sides.”

Some examples.  On 14 December, 1983 the New Jersey fired 11 projectiles from three of her 16 inch (406 mm) guns and the rate of three per minute each at positions inland of Beirut. These were the first 16 inch (406 mm) 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”) participated  led the action.

On 8 February 1984, New Jersey fired almost 300 shells at Druze and Shi’ite positions in the hills overlooking Beirut. Another] of the massive projectiles rained down on the Bekaa valley east of Beirut and constituted the heaviest shore bombardment since the Korean War.

The accuracy of New Jersey‘s guns was a scandal in US government circles and was consistently called into question. An investigation into New Jersey’s gunfire effectiveness in Lebanon, led Marine colonel Don Price, found that many of the ship’s shells had missed their targets by as much as 10,000 yards (9,140 m) and therefore may have inadvertently killed civilians. Records and oral hearings of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee 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 well it did hit things.  Mainly it bombed innocent civilians and 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 Sweifeit, 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 Lebanon.

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 depending how they are loaded and with what explosive mixture. Clearly visible around Sweifeit and dozens of other smaller towns, are the remains of houses and buildings not yet repaired from the intense shelling.  Also shown, are indications in the ground at various locations when unexploded shells remain imbedded. One wonders if as part of the ‘special enduring friendship between the United States and Lebanon on a person to person level” that the president spoke of this week, he might order the Pentagon to defuse and removed these huge 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 appropriate to honor the victims of the 1983 US Embassy bombing and the other tragedies in Lebanon during this period under review.

In her closing remarks this week Ambassador Connelly noted that her opinion, “the bombing of the US Embassy taught us the stakes of involvement in this region,”

Has it, and we contemplate a “neutral peacekeeping presence” in Syria.

When will we ever learn.

Franklin Lamb is doing research in Lebanon and Syria and can be reached c/o fplamb@gmail.com