It was the morning of 9 January 1984. The command “Battle Stations” came over the 1MC of the USS New Jersey. As we took our stations I remembered the conversations aboard ship in the preceding days. I remember wondering about these “enemies” our officers and comrades seemed so anxious to eradicate. And then New Jersey’s main battery of 16-inch guns opened up, for the first time since Vietnam.
A Rumor of a War
Like all the other sailors, my heart had been struck by the news that 220 Marines, 18 sailors, and 3 soldiers had perished in a terrorist attack on the barracks of the 1st Battalion of the 8th United States Marines at Beirut airport. We were all angry over the deadliest single-day death toll for the United States Marine Corps since the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II. For us, the situation was surreal. In my rack on either the USS Iowa BB-61 or her sister ship USS New Jersey BB-62, I’d listen to 80s tunes from Bon Jovi or Prince, then take the duty in ship’s living hell of an engineering space, buried inside 60,000 tons of reinforced steel. Then there we were, in striking range of the evil the world has battled since forever. Or, so we were told.
“We’ll turn Lebanon into a parking lot,” I remember one Senior Chief from WEPS saying. “Yeah, by the time we’re done there won’t be nothing left but a crater,” a shipmate who was a boatswain’s mate chided. In the galley of the great ship, on deck, in our racks, on duty in the boiler rooms, the bravado and the fear of unknown battle echoed each day. Then our ship shuddered as the recoil of our 16-inch guns fired 1900 pound projectiles at Syrian anti-aircraft positions miles onshore.
That “enemy” was unknown, unseen, and as mysterious to us young sailors as any mythic combatants. For all we knew, great Hector, or the general Hannibal may have been on the other end of our guns. It was a strange time. We were proud to serve, and I was arguably the proudest of all. But something nagged at me, even without knowing the political situation.
All the Wrong Places
As it turned out, the combatants underneath those mighty guns were, in fact, shooting at our comrades. We really were supporting our comrades. Only we should never have been there in the first place. The catastrophe that is Lebanon has seen so much death and destruction. The U.S. Marines, French Legionnaires, Israeli IDF forces, Palestinians, Syrians, Iranians, Hezbollah, and hundreds if not thousands of civilians died in the months before and after the bombing of the Marine barracks.
So, although I am ashamed of what our leaders forced us, soldiers and sailors, to do, I am proud to have done my duty to protect my shipmates in harm’s way. I would do it again, even though I now know the truth of matters in American foreign policy.
What none of us knew back then was that the whole mess in Lebanon came to a head when the IDF invaded the country on June 6, 1982, in something called Operation “Peace for Galilee.” This was supposed to create a 40 km buffer zone between the PLO and Syrian forces in Lebanon and Israel. In reality, it ruined any chance there will ever be peace in the region, and it will have cause the deaths of millions of people before it’s all over. The PLO had been attacking Israel from inside Lebanon, so the Israeli leadership figured they’d turn what was a paradise into a living hell where chaos would rule. Lebanon, it’s a kind of “no man’s land” now. And if you think Israel is not just as evil as any regime in the Middle East, read all about something called the Sabra and Shatila massacre.
An Unpopular Truth
For those who recall, this was the United Nations called Israel’s role a kind of “genocide.” It was a moment where Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had more or less encircled Israel’s perceived enemies so that terrorists of the Phalange Christian Lebanese right-wing party could rape, torture, and kill people inside the encirclement. I am sorry, there is no soft way to put what happened to 3,500 civilians, mostly Palestinians and Lebanese Shiites, in Israel’s war on her neighboring countries. As I type this, a harsh thought comes to my mind.
Some will take this wrong, but here does. Am I the only one who notices that Palestinians, Syrians, Libyans, Iraqis, and other Arab people are the only ones listed in these genocides? 3,500 in Sabra and Shatila in 1982, 1,417 Palestinians in the Gaza Massacre of 2008-2009, 2,205 Palestinians in the 2014 Gaza War, 400,000 dead because of the Syria Civil War, 655,000 are dead in Iraq, 122,000 in Libya to get rid of Gadaffi, and God knows how many in Yemen and other places where we intervene either for oil or to prop up Israel. If I am hurting feelings here, rest assured it will pass. Unfortunately, the children of all those dead will remember. And there lies the real Armageddon laying in wait.
“Another One Bites the Dust,” by Queen. This is the last tune I remember a shipmate playing as he bragged about how much “good we’d done off the shores of Lebanon.” We’d relieved some of the crew of the USS New Jersey, and were headed back to the Gulf Coast and our ship, USS Iowa, being outfitted with the deadliest hardware possible in Pascagoula, Mississipi. As I served my country, my captain, and my comrades in the years that followed I wondered every day about America’s role in the world. And lately, I’ve often wondered who survives crises unscathed in the way Israel has. I have many friends there, and each has his or her own perspective. But the leadership, the premise, and the one-sided casualty list haunt me every day. The fact we cannot even talk about it – this sticks in my brain like a thorn. What does it all mean?
Back then I did not know who the heck the now notorious Donald Rumsfeld was, but after the barracks was bombed, then U.S. Middle East envoy Rumsfeld arrived in the Syrian capital within hours of the attack and met immediately with Foreign Minister Abdel Halim Khaddam. It is interesting, ironic, and a bit sad that there is still no official statement on who was actually responsible for blowing up the equivalent of 21,000 pounds of TNT underneath the Marine Barracks at Beirut Airport. “Rumors,” say the Iranians and Syrians were behind it. Rumsfeld, the Bush presidents, and others who are now termed “warmongers” have their suspicions, but even President Reagan’s Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger never came forward and named those responsible.
As for Lebanon, I cannot leave off here without framing the importance and culture of this amazing spot of land on the eastern Mediterranean. Lebanon has witnessed civilization for more than seven thousand years, predating recorded history. This was the land of the Canaanites and the Phoenicians, who flourished for over a thousand years (1550–539 BC). Once an Ottoman satellite, the region was run by the colonial French for a time.
Lebanon was referred to as the “Switzerland of the East” during the 1960s, but the Civil War of 1975 ripped the country to pieces. Many experts attribute this civil war to the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who fled to Lebanon when the state of Israel was established. According to some historians, shifting the demographic balance in favor of the Muslim population set the country upon itself.
My opinion is that Lebanon was a functioning republic that became just another victim of the Cold War. Soviet interests, versus the western hegemony, and the special case of Israel, these were the ingredients of paradise lost. The situation in Lebanon today is really an echo from before the time of the Israelites, and facets like the rebellious nature of the Mardaites of old. Leveraging ancient sects and ideologies, it’s still the way of the Great Game. But where does this leave us?
We cannot change who we were. Nor can we change who we are. We can, however, change the future, and who we will become. I said it earlier. I am ashamed of what they made soldiers and sailors do, but proud to have done my duty. And herein lies a great opportunity. Since we know the end of war. Since we know our leaders and the elites manipulate all of us, we can reshuffle our world and our future. If I want to believe the Twin Towers caved in upon themselves on 9/11, I can forget what I learned playing with my building set as a kid. If cheap gas because of the Iraq war makes me forget about invisible weapons, I can choose to forget. If millions of refugees do not swarm into Atlanta from Syria, what business is it of mine if there is war?
Or, I can decide the world is my business. I can decide I am responsible. We can be responsible. We can change the world. We can have that lasting peace. But we can’t do it by following “them.”
Phil Butler, is a policy investigator and analyst, a political scientist and expert on Eastern Europe, he’s an author of the recent bestseller “Putin’s Praetorians” and other books. He writes exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”