The death of a Marine Corps commander scarred by the 1983 Beirut bombing serves as a reminder of the risks still faced by U.S. troops in the Middle East.

The death of a Marine Corps commander scarred by the 1983 Beirut bombing serves as a reminder of the risks still faced by U.S. troops in the Middle East.

General Alfred M. Gray Jr., who passed away on March 20, 2024 at the age of 95, was considered a legend for his heroic actions in combat.

However, despite his military successes, Gray, who served as the 29th commander of the Marine Corps from 1987 to 1991, was one of the darkest days in U.S. military history, the Oct. 23 bombing of the Beirut barracks. It will always remain connected. The 1983 terrorist attack killed more than 300 people, including 241 U.S. military personnel under Gray’s command, even though Gray was in the United States at the time of the attack.

As a scholar currently conducting research for a project on the attack, I know that Gray’s death comes amid escalating violence in Lebanon and at a time when U.S. troops in the Middle East are once again being targeted by Islamist groups. I can’t help but pay attention to this. Funded by Iran.

marines in lebanon

Gray’s experience with U.S. involvement in Lebanon highlights the dangers American forces face when deployed in volatile regions.

On June 4, 1981, he was appointed commander of the 2nd Marine Division and all battalions that marched into war-torn Lebanon from 1982 to 1984.

A picture of a man in military uniform.
Portrait of General Alfred M. Gray by Peter Egeli.
Washington Post (via Getty Images)

By that time, the country’s civil war had been going on for six years. It began on April 13, 1975, and was fueled by events south of the border, similar to the current surge in violence in Lebanon.

Palestinians who were expelled or fled from what became Israel in 1948 eventually became refugees in neighboring countries, including Lebanon. In 1964, the Palestine Liberation Organization was founded to represent the Palestinian people and fight the Israeli occupation. By the mid-1970s, more than 20,000 PLO fighters were in Lebanon and began attacking Israel.

However, their presence in Lebanon has sparked violence between Lebanese Christians and Lebanese and Palestinian Muslims. Some in Lebanon wanted peace with Israel, while others wanted to fight for the Palestinian cause.

Several gruesome massacres characterized the first five years of the civil war. In 1982, Israel launched Operation Galilee to destroy PLO forces, invaded Lebanon, and occupied Beirut.

Lebanese authorities appealed to Western countries for assistance. In August 1982, the governments of the United States, France, Italy, and the United Kingdom created a multinational peacekeeping force aimed at restoring peace and halting fighting between Lebanese, Palestinians, and Israelis.

This was not the first time Lebanon had asked the United States for assistance. On July 15, 1958, 1,700 Marines arrived in Beirut ready for combat amid hostilities between Christians and Muslims. However, unlike 1958, the fighting in the 1980s was more violent, and already he had been in an out-and-out war for more than five years.

Although most Lebanese welcomed the foreign peacekeeping forces, many opposed them, viewing them as Western colonial interference in a Muslim-majority country.

day of attack

Then, on October 23, 1983, witnesses reported seeing a yellow Mercedes truck speeding towards the barracks housing American servicemen. It contained 10,000 pounds of explosives, and the force of the explosion flattened the building, killing 220 Marines, 18 U.S. Navy sailors, and 3 U.S. Army soldiers.

A few minutes later, a similar attack occurred in the French sector, killing 58 French paratroopers.

To this day, this event remains the deadliest single-day attack for U.S. Marines since the 1945 Battle of Iwo Jima.

The pro-Iranian Shiite group Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attack.

Gray, a two-star general, was alerted to the attack just after midnight. The Beirut barracks bombing was a personal event for Gray. His troops were in Lebanon and he had visited them several months before the attack.

Group of men in military uniform standing around a table
The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1989, with General Alfred M. Gray on the far left.
AP Photo/U.S. Department of Defense/Robert D. Ward

After the bombing, Gray attended more than 100 funerals for fallen soldiers. He also tendered his resignation over the incident, the only senior officer to do so. His request was denied.

Lessons from 1983

Many parallels can be drawn between the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing and current events.

In August 1982, President Ronald Reagan expressed serious concern about Israeli actions in Lebanon and warned Israel against offensive use of American weapons. In a telephone conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, President Reagan described Israel’s siege of Beirut as a “Holocaust.”

In response to this human crisis, a multinational peacekeeping force was tasked with evacuating PLO fighters outside Lebanon to Tunisia. Once this mission was accomplished, U.S. forces withdrew from Lebanon.

However, escalating violence prompted their return. In fact, while the Palestinian fighters were evacuated, their families remained behind. Then, after the assassination of Lebanese president-elect Bashir Gemayel on September 14, 1982, Christian Phalangist militias invaded two refugee camps, Sabra and Shatila, killing more than 2,000 Palestinian civilians. . Israel was believed to be indirectly responsible for these massacres.

From that moment on, for Islamic militias, the U.S. military was no longer perceived as peacekeepers, but as allies of Israel and partners in crimes against Muslim civilians.

Forty years later, U.S. forces in the Middle East are still targeted for much the same reason. As a result, hostility toward U.S. military personnel has increased in the region.

There is another similarity. Just as the group that claimed responsibility for the 1983 Beirut attack was funded by Iran, so too are groups today responsible for attacks on U.S. military bases across the Middle East.

In the wake of the failure involved in the 1983 bombing, Gray sought to reform the Marine Corps after the tragedy with an emphasis on intelligence gathering and understanding enemy groups.

And while it is right to honor a high-ranking military man who has dedicated his life to military service, we must take into account the causes that led to, and many of the causes of, the deaths of those under his command. It is equally important to The terrorist bombings of 1983 are still going on.

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