From Beirut to Baghdad -- Semper Fidelis

Posted: Oct 17, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Each Sept. 11, Americans will commemorate one of the most tragic days in American history -- a day when 2,998 of our friends and neighbors were murdered by fanatic terrorists. It is a day that will not be forgotten because, for so many Americans, Sept. 11 marks the start of the war on terrorism.

But in fact, terrorists proclaimed war on Americans long before Sept. 11, 2001, and every time American interests are targeted by these fanatics, there is one American family which suffers casualties, or is called upon to retaliate, or both. That American family is the United States Marine Corps.

Among their many other duties, Marines have the unique honor and responsibility of providing security at American embassies around the world, where the sentries are ordered to "take charge of this post and all government property in view." Unfortunately, embassies tend to be a favorite target of terrorists. The Corps' history of fighting terrorists dates to 1804, when Marine 1st Lt. Presley O'Bannon led his men to defeat the Barbary Pirates.

But the modern day war on terrorism is often traced to Nov. 4, 1979, when Iranian militants seized the American embassy in Tehran, Iran, and took 66 Americans hostage -- 52 of whom would be held in captivity for 444 days. Four years later, on April 18, 1983, the U.S. embassy in Beirut was attacked when a terrorist drove a pickup truck into the building, killing 63 people, 17 of whom were Americans.

Six months later, U.S. Marines who were helping to keep the peace in Lebanon were the target of what was -- prior to Sept. 11, 2001 -- the largest terrorist attack in American history. At 6:22 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 23, 1983, a homicide bomber crashed a large Mercedes truck, loaded with over 2,000 pounds of explosives, through a barbed wire fence and other barriers into the four-story headquarters of the Marine compound located at Beirut's airport. The attack killed 241 Marines, sailors and one soldier, who were members of Battalion Landing Team 1-8 of the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit, and instantly turned the building into a pile of rubble.

At the time, the world was a dangerous place -- as it is now. It was the height of the Cold War, and President Reagan had already branded the Soviet Union "the Evil Empire." One month before, the Soviets shot down a Korean airliner -- Flight 007 -- killing all 269 people on board, including 61 Americans, one of whom was U.S. Rep. Larry McDonald.

Two days after the Beirut bombing, Marines, along with other U.S. forces, landed on Grenada to rescue American medical students following a Marxist coup on the island. The threat of terrorism against Americans had become every bit as real as the dangers of the Cold War and Soviet expansion.

When the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit (MAU) was ordered to Lebanon from its home at Camp LeJeune, N.C., it was the fourth such Marine unit to serve in the country since Sept. 1982. They were invited there as part of a Multinational Peacekeeping Force along with France, Italy and, later, Great Britain to help enforce a tenuous peace arrangement between the various factions in Lebanon. The Marines' mission was to control the area around the Beirut International Airport -- Lebanon's link to the outside world.

During better times, money from rich Arab states used to flow through the international banks in Beirut, and the city was known as the "Paris of the Middle East." But parts of the country were deteriorating, and outside the airport perimeter were slums that bred recruits for militant groups like Hezbollah, which was responsible for the Oct. 23 bombing.

Since 1983, Marines and other U.S. military personnel have been targeted by terrorists in Kuwait, Bogota, Madrid, San Salvador, Frankfurt, West Berlin, Riyadh, Dhahran, Nairobi, Dar es Salaam and Aden, to name a few. Yet they continue the fight, and today in Afghanistan and Iraq they are not only defending Americans from terrorists, but their presence has allowed citizens in those countries to escape repressive and torturous regimes.

The war against terror, as the president has repeatedly warned, will not be short in duration, as evidenced by next week's 20th commemoration of the bloodiest terrorist attack in U.S. history, prior to Sept. 11. On Oct. 23, Marines all over the world will take a moment to salute their comrades who were murdered 20 years earlier, and then they'll return to the fight until it is won.

Perhaps on that day, all Americans can take time to acknowledge the extraordinary contributions our fellow Marines have made to defend America's liberty throughout our history, particularly those who sacrificed their lives from Beirut to Baghdad to defend our nation and bring peace to a violent part of the world.

Semper Fidelis, Marines. Semper Fidelis.

Pete Stenner, a retired colonel, is a 30-year veteran of the Marine Corps and was the executive officer of the Battalion Landing Team 1-8 in Beirut.