A truck bomb ripped through the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut 20 years ago this week, marking the first major assault in a two-decade terrorist war of embassy bombings and plane hijackings that culminated on Sept. 11, 2001.
The shocking attack killed 241 U.S. servicemen in a single strike — more than died on the deadliest day of fighting in Vietnam, this year's invasion of Iraq or the entire 1991 Persian Gulf War.
And it gave terrorists a major victory. The bombing drove the military from its peacekeeping mission in Lebanon and provided a blueprint for attacking Americans. The retreat of U.S. forces inspired Osama bin Laden and sent an unintended message to the Arab world that enough body bags would prompt Western withdrawal, not retaliation.
"There's no question it was a major cause of 9/11," said John Lehman, the then-secretary of the Navy, who today is a member of the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks.
"We told the world that terrorism succeeds."
About 2,000 Beirut veterans and family members will gather Thursday at Camp Lejeune in eastern North Carolina, where most were stationed in 1983. They will mourn fallen comrades and remember a doomed mission.
At best, they believe, the world has forgotten their sacrifices. At worst, they fear they'll always be considered a failure — and the painful lessons of their tragedy will be ignored.
"It was such a useless, fruitless thing," says Brian Kirkpatrick, a Beirut survivor who crawled his way out of the rubble. "We gained nothing. We lost everybody."
But in the halls of the Pentagon and the State Department, Beirut has not been forgotten, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told The Charlotte Observer. Many of the leaders from 20 years ago — who now serve President Bush — work to avoid a repeat of the disaster as they plan the military missions of today.
Bush reminded Americans of the tragedy in a prime-time speech last month. He urged the country to prepare for a long and costly effort to rebuild Iraq and not to repeat the mistake of leaving before the job was done.
"What would happen if we left this business unfinished," Armitage said, "is an Iraq that would become more of a threat — sort of an Iraq unchained."
The Beirut bombing taught the United States more about protecting troops and picking battles. Using the military for peacekeeping, leaders learned, can be just as hazardous as fighting a well-defined enemy.
But as the U.S. death toll in Iraq rises, critics of the Bush administration question whether those lessons are being heeded, or if the United States has been set up for another failure at the cost of American lives.
In 1983, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger didn't want the Marines in Beirut.
They'd gone in the year before to calm fears that Lebanon's civil war could spark a battle engulfing the entire Middle East. The Marines' role was to evacuate Palestinian fighters and prevent an invasion from neighboring Israel.
U.S. diplomats promised the safety of Palestinian families who remained. But after the Marines finished their job and withdrew in 1982, thousands of Palestinians — largely women, children and the elderly — were massacred by Israeli-backed Lebanese militia.
An embarrassed State Department persuaded President Ronald Reagan to send the Marines back, hoping their mere presence in Lebanon would prevent further bloodshed and salvage the peace plan. Weinberger fought the decision.
To signal they were neutral in the civil war, the Marines were stationed between warring factions. They made their base at Beirut International Airport — the tactically unwise low ground.
They carried weapons, but the rules of engagement mostly forbade them from keeping a round in the chamber. They had orders not to shoot unless they were direct targets and knew for sure who had fired first.
But by trying to keep order in Beirut, the Marines and U.S. diplomats were seen as allies of Lebanon's unpopular government and became targets of snipers, shellings and car bombings.
In April 1983, terrorists smashed a stolen GMC pickup loaded with explosives into the U.S. Embassy, killing 63 people, including 17 Americans.
Six months later, the truck bomb at the Marine barracks killed 241 U.S. troops.
After the barracks bombing, Reagan had a choice: Commit more forces to Lebanon only nine years after Vietnam, when public support for a long military conflict was low, or retreat.
"It's a hard thing to say, it's a hard thing to accept, but we had lost," said Ryan Crocker, the political officer in the Beirut embassy, who later became Deputy Secretary of State for Near East Affairs. "The situation would not have gotten any better. We would have had more dead Marines."
To political and military leaders in the United States, the pullout made sense. With a crippled Marine battalion and no clear military target, some thought withdrawal was the only option.
"You can't police the world," said P.X. Kelley, the then-Marine commandant. "Sometimes the best option is to do nothing."
But to terrorists and their backers, it was a sign of weakness, confirming their belief that the Americans had no staying power. The Syrian prime minister had told Morris Draper, a special presidential emissary, just months before: "You Americans can't hold your breath."
The U.S. response to the barracks bombing was limited. Despite indications that it was carried out by the radical Islamic group Hezbollah and backed by Iran, a planned U.S. military mission to bomb terrorist training camps was never carried out.
Top Reagan officials disagree on why. Weinberger says a conclusive link to Iran and Hezbollah was never proven. McFarlane said Weinberger was too concerned about the political risks of failure and losing support from U.S. allies in the Arab states.
Either way, critics say the lack of retaliation cemented America's weak image in the Arab world.
"If we had struck back and pulled out," said Bill Cowan, part of a top secret intelligence team sent to investigate the bombings, "we wouldn't have been leaving with our tail between our legs."
Two decades of Arab-backed terrorism have followed the bombings of the Marine barracks and the U.S. Embassy in Beirut.
American soldiers are "paper tigers," Osama bin Laden told ABC News in 1998. "The Marines fled after two explosions."
Using the Beirut bombings as a guide, terrorists:
—attacked American embassies in Kuwait two months later, and Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, killing 307 Americans and others.
—hijacked TWA Flight 847 for 17 days in 1985, taking hostages and killing a Navy diver.
—exploded Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, killing 270.
—bombed the World Trade Center in 1993, killing six and wounding about 1,000.
—killed 19 Americans in the 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers, a U.S. military base in Saudi Arabia. The attack also wounded more than 370 Americans and Saudis.
—struck the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, killing 17 sailors and injuring 39 others.
—flew hijacked planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, killing nearly 3,000 people.
In those cases and dozens more, terrorists exploited unconventional methods and Western openness. And in almost every case until Sept. 11, the U.S. military response was minimal.
For bin Laden and other terrorist leaders, Beirut showed how to attack a larger force and inflict the maximum damage — physical and psychological. Terrorism experts say manuals found in al-Qaida's Afghanistan training camps were filled with references to Beirut.
"The fact is, today, the people who ran that operation are heroes" among terrorist groups, "and nothing has ever been done against them," said Lehman, the former Navy secretary. "Not retaliating was a terrible blunder."
While terrorists took their lessons from Beirut, the Pentagon learned more about when to send troops and how to protect them.
"Culturally, it changed the military," said Phil Anderson, a former Marine and terrorism expert.
Weinberger summed up the lessons in a 1984 speech. The main points of what became known as the "Weinberger Doctrine" were restated after the first Gulf War by Colin Powell, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: The United States should commit troops only when vital national interests are at stake, only as a last resort, and with overwhelming force.
"It has to be for a sufficiently important cause," Weinberger told The Charlotte Observer.
The doctrine has been modified — and sometimes ignored — over the years, but the Beirut lessons still had a major impact:
Commanders insisted on more clearly defined missions with sufficient force to carry them out and a way to determine when troops could go home.
"You don't halfstep it," said Jay Farrar, a former Marine captain who served in Beirut and is now a military expert for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "You deal swiftly and with a tremendous amount of force."
Policymakers realized that "presence" is not a mission, and commanders became increasingly reluctant to commit troops to peacekeeping efforts unless they were welcomed by all sides. Armitage cited the recent example of the U.S. role in Liberia, when both sides in a civil war requested American troops.
The concept of "force protection" came of age after the barracks attack. Rules of engagement are less limiting, and security around U.S. forces is tighter.
"We go in heavy," said P.J. Crowley, a retired Air Force colonel and former special assistant for national security affairs to President Clinton. "We have a plan for protecting our forces."
Crowley and other critics of the Bush administration say that's where planning for the occupation of Iraq has failed. War planners didn't send enough U.S. troops and failed to win enough support from other countries.
"We did the war without completely understanding how to do the peace," Crowley said. "We're ad hocing the peace."
More U.S. servicemen have died in Iraq since the end of major combat operations was declared May 1 than during the six-week invasion. Terrorist car bombings have ripped through the United Nations' Baghdad headquarters and other civilian targets.
A recent survey by the military newspaper Stars and Stripes found many troops in Iraq expressing sentiments similar to their Beirut counterparts. Roughly a third said their morale was low and their mission ill-defined. They characterized the war in Iraq as having little value.
But Armitage, the deputy secretary of state, said there are key differences between the mistakes in Lebanon and Iraq today.
"In Lebanon, we didn't have a clear mission," he said. "We didn't understand the complexities."
In Iraq, he said, the troops have that clear mission — creating stability. Two-thirds of servicemen agreed in the Stars and Stripes poll. And other policymakers argue that troops need to stay until that mission is accomplished.
"There would be lingering perceptions of Beirut today if we pulled out of Iraq prematurely," said Dennis Ross, a Middle East envoy under two presidents. "The perception would be the U.S. intervenes, but it does not stay."