When Reagan Sent In the Marines Cover

When Reagan Sent In the Marines

The Invasion of Lebanon

Patrick J. Sloyan

Thomas Dunne Books, New York, 2019, 228 pages

Book Review published on: March 27, 2020

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Patrick Sloyan, who served with several media outlets over a career that began in 1960, writes a fascinating assessment of the events and circumstances that led to the terrorist bombing of the U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, in October 1983. The bombing killed 241 American service members, almost entirely marines. Sloyan asserts Marine Corps Col. Timothy Geraghty, commanding officer of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, was not at fault for the loss of these service members, but instead it was the result of inept senior leaders in the Reagan administration and President Ronald Reagan himself who were to blame. The author alleges that poor advice provided to Reagan ultimately led to reprehensible decisions by the president. These decisions had catastrophic consequences, including the aforementioned loss of life and the enduring friction and conflict the United States faces in the Middle East.

The author begins by providing historical context leading up to the barracks bombing. He paints an insightfully detailed picture of the interplay among regional state actors, organizations, religious factions, and leaders. He believes that chief among the many destabilizing influences in the Middle East at the time was the steadfast determination of Israel to rid Soviet-backed Syrian forces from West Beirut and southern Lebanon in 1982. Israel wanted to expel Syrian forces before Syria had the chance to annex all of Lebanon. It was also an opportunity for Israel to rid Lebanon of the Palestine Liberation Organization, a thorn in Israel’s side. Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon convinced a naive Reagan administration to provide the military weaponry for Israel to do just that. Reagan thought it was an effective way of striking back at Soviet aggression.

When all was said and done, Israel failed to achieve its objective and retreated back home, but not before having killed thousands of civilians, mainly Muslims, as part of a siege and an intense bombing campaign of West Beirut. Adding to the tragedy and situational chaos, Israel left before a Lebanese force could take over and restore stability, causing Reagan to deploy Marine units to Beirut as a peacekeeping force. Significant consequences of these events included the rise of the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon sponsored by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini and its Revolutionary Guard, subsequent bombings (most notably the Marine barracks in Beirut), kidnappings of Americans in Lebanon, and the rise of Osama bin Laden, who witnessed the West Beirut air strikes.

The author describes Reagan’s National Security Council as generally incapable and bungling, as well as in constant conflict with each other over policy and professional competence. He describes national security advisor (NSA) Adm. Poindexter (Reagan’s fourth NSA) and Chief of Staff George Schultz as “political nitwits.” He refers to Secretary of State Alexander Haig and NSA Robert McFarlane as ego-driven and uniquely unqualified to serve in their assigned positions. He further notes that U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, Robert Dillon, felt that McFarlane was also problematic while serving as Reagan’s representative to the Middle East. Sloyan credits McFarlane with numerous miscalculations in assessing the strategic and operational environment, for being a poor decision-maker, and for providing misinformed policy recommendations to Reagan. For example, McFarlane recommended that the Marines remain a presence in Lebanon, that they remain in their current physical location, and that the United States use naval gunfire to target Muslim forces in Lebanon as a peace-promoting effort. This further led to the targeting of Americans and U.S. service members in Lebanon. Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger wanted the Marines out of harm’s way, believing they had no defined mission, capabilities, or adequate rules of engagement to defend themselves. McFarlane, as well as Schultz, believed otherwise.

Sloyan depicts Col. Geraghty as a highly competent commander who was set up for failure and who became the scapegoat of the Reagan administration after the horrific bomb attack on the Marine barracks. The author claims that the president betrayed Geraghty, allowing him to be relieved of command, formally investigated, and held directly responsible for the inadequacies of a security plan that led to the 241 deaths and the destruction of the barracks. Sloyan describes U.S. military operation Urgent Fury, deploying troops to “rescue” American students studying in Grenada from its Marxist repressive regime—an operation that commenced two days after the barracks bombing as a ploy to detract attention from the disaster playing out in Lebanon. Taking everything into account, the author blames President Reagan and his dysfunctional and intellectually ill-equipped National Security Council for the policy failings that led to the barracks bombing and the enduring problems the United States faces in the Middle East today.

This is a well-crafted, researched, and powerfully provocative investigative assessment of not only the circumstances that led to the Marine Corps barracks bombing in Beirut, but also the detailed interplay within the Reagan administration along with many of the Middle Eastern leaders and actors shaping the geopolitical environment at that time. The author weaves a fascinating and complex web of interactions of events that took place before, during, and after the barracks bombing, and the unfortunate legacy it has left. Before reading, be warned that Sloyan has his own interpretive bias of events and their consequences. Nevertheless, it is an intriguing read in which the reader can formulate his or her own opinion. Either way, it is a notable contribution to the body of knowledge addressing this challenging and highly turbulent time in U.S. and Middle Eastern history. Military historians, Middle East specialists, international relations/affairs and political science academics/practitioners/students, military professionals, and government officials will find this a most worthy read.

Book Review written by: Lt. Col. David A. Anderson, PhD, U.S. Marine Corps, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas