When Will We Ever Learn?

Franklin Lamb with a piece from Beirut which was featured on Al Manar News

Beirut -- This observer has no idea if the American Ambassador here in Beirut, Maura Connelly or Secretary of State John Kerry 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 ever 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 Middle East.”

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 responsibility.

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 sides."

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.

US shells
photo:  US Pentagon. The New Jersey opens fire on an enemy position off
the coast of Beirut 9 January 1984. New Jersey's shells were sometimes
fired from 16 inch (406mm) guns at the rate of four per minute and killed
hundreds of Lebanese civilians, mostly Shiites and Druze since arriving at
Beirut on 9/23/82). The ships on board arsenal included 21,000 shells.
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 Kerry 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.

Janet's body
Photo: AFP with permission. The remains of an American journalist
and her unborn son are removed from the rubble of the US Embassy
on 4/18/82. Janet Lee Stevens, 32 years old at the time of her death,
was Ph.D. student in Arabic literature at the University of Pennsylvania
and she loved her experience in Lebanon and enthusiastically wrote her
twin sister back in Atlanta, Georgia that in Lebanon, she was doing “the
best writing I have done in my life, because here one must do one’s utmost.”
“Devoted to the cause of Palestine. Humane, talented, self-reliant, ambitious,
fearless, and rebellious,” is how one former Lebanese editor described Janet.

It is certainly appropriate to honor the victims of the 1983
Janet Lee Stevens, hours before her death
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.”

Has it?

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 fplamb@gmail.com


  1. Great piece,one thing that is certain that with friends like these who needs enemies..

  2. very informative...it's not that the Americans don't learn, it's the Israelis who don't want to learn and who drive American foreign policy in that region....the tail waging the dog.

  3. Niall I think your right a cara.