Book Review: “When Reagan Sent In the Marines” Chronicles the Debacle the Gipper Wanted to Forget

Book Review: “When Reagan Sent In the Marines” Chronicles the Debacle the Gipper Wanted to Forget


“Like two kids in a lot, you have got to let them fight and then you pull them apart.” That’s the breathtakingly blithe and condescending analogy President Donald Trump used to describe the deadly conflict between Turkey’s government and Kurdish fighters as he pulled U.S. troops from a buffer zone in Syria last month.

The New Yorker’s Robin Wright saw a parallel in an earlier decision by a president many of Trump’s supporters like to compare him to: Ronald Reagan. “In both cases, the U.S. intervened with the initial prospect, perhaps naïvely, of restoring stability after a flashpoint — the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, in 1982, or the rise of isis, in Syria and Iraq, in 2014 — and of then building on it in broader efforts toward peace. When the going got tough, however, the U.S. retreated from both countries. And chaos erupted.”

If you don’t know much about the involvement of the Marine Corps in Lebanon in the ’80s, you’re not alone and that’s no accident. As Patrick J. Sloyan points out, just weeks after the largest non-nuclear explosion in history killed 241 Marines in Beirut, Reagan addressed a multigenerational crowd of military honorees that happened to include the recently returned commander of the targeted force. In his speech, Reagan didn’t even mention Beirut — but he was sure to celebrate the glorious liberation of Grenada.

Sloyan’s new book When Reagan Sent in the Marines chronicles the widely forgotten history of how U.S. forces were so disastrously deployed. A veteran reporter who was on the scene in the Middle East during the events he describes, Sloyan didn’t come to pull punches. In the book’s very first paragraph, he writes, “Surrounded by conflict, ignorance, and incompetence in Washington, Reagan guided U.S. foreign policy to a low point few presidents can match.”

In other words, when someone compares a presidential decision to Reagan sending in the Marines, that’s not a good thing. Today, rose-tinted memory bathes the Reagan administration in the glow of 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War effectively ended. While it might be fair to credit Reagan with a certain moral clarity, even moral courage, in partnering with Mikhail Gorbachev to embrace glasnost and perestroika, Sloyan eviscerates the 40th president for wreathing himself in military pomp while callously neglecting the troops under his command.

The author lays the lives of those lost Marines — and many other lost lives, including those of Palestinian families brutally tortured and slaughtered by the Christian militia running Lebanon while Israel, with American backing, accorded tacit permission — squarely at the feet of Reagan, who Sloyan argues used his charisma as a smokescreen for his inability to run an effective foreign policy. The commander-in-chief, in Sloyan’s account, kept his distance from numerous key operations (sometimes conveniently so, as in the Iran-Contra affair) but was susceptible to inept intervention in response to emotional appeals and political expedience.

Both played a role in Reagan’s decision to send 1,200 U.S. Marines into Beirut in the wake of the Palestinian massacre. They were part of a multinational peacekeeping force totaling 5,000, but even that was laughably small in a war zone contested on all sides by tens of thousands of combatants with little to lose. Further, advisers who reported directly to Reagan insisted that the Marines stay in highly vulnerable barracks on low ground, even after a bombing at the U.S. Embassy took 63 lives.

Reagan personally approved the naval bombardment of a Shiite Muslim faction taking potshots at the Americans from the Beirut hills — though their real enemy was Lebanon’s ruthless Christian leadership, which the U.S. supported. Reagan had visions of a dramatic air attack like he’d seen in the movies, but his more prudent advisers knew that any bombardment from water or air would have little effect other than to make more enemies for the nervous ground troops, who weren’t even allowed to keep bullets in their rifle chambers.

So it was that on October 23, 1983, a suicide bomber drove a truck through the Marines’ thinly-policed security perimeter and detonated explosives with the combined force of over 20,000 pounds of TNT. The morning attack, coming before reveille, killed the American soldiers in their sleep. 58 French military personnel were killed in a parallel attack.

“We have strong circumstantial evidence,” said Reagan in an address to the nation, “that the attack on the Marines was directed by terrorists who used the same method to destroy our embassy in Beirut. Those who directed this atrocity must be dealt justice, and they will be.”

“They never were,” writes Sloyan.

In February 1984, Reagan said, “The situation in Lebanon is difficult, frustrating, and dangerous. But that is no reason to turn our backs on friends and to cut and run.”

“Three weeks later,” writes Sloyan, “the president decided to cut and run.”

While the author admits there’s no smoking gun decisively tying Reagan’s reticence to attack Iran — clearly the author of the attacks — to fears that it would inflate the cost of oil, Sloyan avers there’s no way the impact of military action on pump prices in an election year wasn’t considered. Reagan pulled out, leaving a vacuum that allowed tensions between an aggressive Israel and the Iran-backed Hezbollah to continue unchecked.

Reagan swore America wouldn’t bargain with terrorists, only to sign off on an attempt to buy hostages’ freedom by selling arms to Iran, with proceeds going to the Nicaraguan Contras without Congressional approval. That story, you might have heard.

The tragedy of 1983 goes even beyond the hundreds of dead Americans and countless casualties among other factions fighting in Lebanon that year. “Osama bin Laden,” writes Sloyan, “said the falling buildings in West Beirut in 1982 inspired his 2001 destruction of the World Trade Center.” The author acknowledges that Reagan inherited a legacy of under-examined American support for Israel, but argues that he made a bad situation much, much worse.

Troubling as the comparison between 1983 and 2019 is, it may not extend much farther than the present moment. Reagan, eventually, apologized. It was for the Iranian arms sales, not for the actions he ordered in Lebanon, but it was an apology. “What should happen when you make a mistake is this,” he said. “You take your knocks, you learn your lessons, and then you move on. That’s the healthiest way to deal with a problem.”

We seem unlikely to hear any such sentiments from our current president, with his “great and unmatched wisdom.” Sloyan probably isn’t losing any sleep waiting for a book review from the Oval Office.

Jay Gabler