Remembering the Beirut Barracks Bombing

By Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff, Post 212

From 1982-84, I was part of a three-man rabbi-priest-minister chaplain team assigned to Commander 6th Fleet on the USS Puget Sound, homeported in Gaeta, Italy. I visited all US ships in the Mediterranean in addition to frequent visits to the Marines in Beirut.  On October 21, 1983, I was sent to Beirut in order to lead a memorial service for Allen Soifert, a Jewish Marine killed by sniper fire.  I was offered a flight back to Italy the next day, but after explaining that I would not travel on Shabbat, I stayed until Sunday October 23, when the Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah terrorist attack took the lives of 241 men – 220 Marines, 18 Sailors, and 3 Soldiers.  It was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded, and for the Marines, it was the deadliest attack since the WWII Battle of Iwo Jima.  Four days after the attack, Vice President George H. W. Bush led a White House team to visit the survivors, asking me to write a report of the bombing and its aftermath for President Ronald Reagan.  The president read that report in full to the 20,000 attendees of the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s “Baptist Fundamentalism ‘84” convention in Washington, DC.

As I look back at the terrorist attack 34 years later, these excerpts from the final entry of my article provides background for the 1983 attack and some of my reflections of its aftermath:

On October 21, 1983, I arrived in Beirut to lead a memorial service for a Jewish Marine, killed by sniper fire.  The Protestant and Catholic chaplains joined me for a psalm during hat service.  We wanted to say something about our presence; we wanted to say that here and in a country where peoples of different religions were killing each other, we believed we could stand together.  Had there been a Muslim chaplain in the Navy then, I would have welcomed his presence at that service.

Because the next flight was on Shabbat, I postponed my planned departure until Sunday. It was that morning, October 23, when the truck crashed through the gate, and two hundred and forty-one Americans were killed.

For the first time, those of us in Beirut understood the “terror” in the word “terrorism.” There was an immediate reaction, a feeling that we should expand our perimeters, to ensure that the next attack would be more distant from our center.  If you can’t stop a terrorist who is willing to die, then you must make him die farther away.  In the future, I think all of us would think differently about Israel’s need for “buffer zones.”

The Marines were heroic that day, risking life and limb to save their comrades. Amidst the rubble, we found the plywood board which we had made for our “Peace-keeping Chapel.” The Chaplain Corps seal had been hand-painted, with the words “Peace-keeping” above it, and “Chapel” below it.  Now “Peace-keeping was legible, but the bottom of the plaque was destroyed, with only a few burned and splintered pieces of wood remaining.  The idea of peace, above; the reality of war, below….

Our final decision to pull back and to redeploy to the ships was inevitable given the deteriorating situation within Lebanon.  There was some hesitation, because no one wanted to send out a message that terrorism works.   But the response to the changing situation had to take one of two forms: withdrawal from our positions on land, or a massive build-up, and perhaps a military intervention to shore up the Lebanese Armed Forces.

As we pulled back, there was some talk of failure, but these Marines did not fail.  They served with strength and with courage, never succumbing to the hatred around them, never giving in to the urge to avenge their fallen comrades.  It was the international effort to negotiate peace which failed, despite the time the peace-keepers had “bought” for the diplomats.

Mark Twain once wrote that a cat which sits on a hot stove will never do so again – but it will most likely never sit on a cold stove either.  I hope we will not overreact to our experience in Lebanon, lumping all stoves together, and losing courage to try again to help when the cause seems just – even if helping means taking risks.

The Jewish teaching [based on the Biblical story of Moses intervening to save a slave who was being beaten] is “Where there is no man, strive to be a man.”  Or, as William Cohen, a Jewish poet, has translated it: “Where there is no humanity, you be humanity.”

In Beirut, we Americans strove to be human, despite the inhumanity which sometimes seemed to surround us.  For a time our presence seemed to make a difference – seemed to give breathing space for hatreds to cool, and working space for diplomats and politicians to confer.

It is inspiring how many of our men who have suffered here still speak in terms of an effort which was worthwhile, and a goal which was – and I hesitate to use the word when it is chic to be cynical – noble.

During Purim, as I sat with the Marines on the ships so close to Lebanon, we read the Book of Esther, the story of personal vendetta, religious hatred, and political intrigue.  Somehow Jews kept faith.  Perhaps this was the real miracle of the Purim story.

Volume 71. Number 4. Winter 2017

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