On October 23rd, 1983, an explosion ripped through an American barracks in Beirut, killing 220 U. S. Marines, 18 Navy sailors, and 3 Army soldiers.  58 French peacekeepers and 6 civilians were also killed in the blast.

Beirut is the capital of Lebanon, and the country’s largest city.  Lebanon lies sandwiched between Syria to the north and east, and Israel to the south.  The incident occurred in the middle of the Lebanese Civil War, which lasted over 15 years total.  After World War II, the country had received its independence from the French, but civil war eventually broke out.  Leading up to the incident in 1983, Israel had invaded Lebanon, international forces were deployed to the area, their president had been elected and then assassinated, there was a massacre that ended with the deaths of 762-3,500 civilians–the area was brimming with instability.

Two trucks laden with VBIEDs (reportedly the equivalent of 21,000 lbs of TNT), detonated near buildings that housed the MNF (Multinational Force in Lebanon).  1st Battalion, 8th Marines were the primary occupying force at these barracks, and so they took the heaviest death toll.  It has been described as the most devastating single blow to the Marines since the battle of Iwo Jima in World War II, where 6,800 American servicemen were killed.

The Beirut memorial in Camp Lejeune – image courtesy of the U. S. Marine Corps

The truck that hit the Marine Corps barracks was a water truck packed with explosives.  The suicide bomber plowed through concertina wire, and was able to barrel past guard posts as their ROE had not allowed them to keep rounds chambered.  By the time they racked their weapons, the precious second was gone and the truck was too far to accurately engage.

Some criticized the Marines for their security standards at the time, but others would claim that the bomb was so huge and so devastating, that had the guards managed to shoot the driver-suicide bomber as it drove through the gate, the explosion would have still toppled the building and killed those inside.  A report was released in 1985 after the barracks bombing, but also after multiple other terrorist attacks on American diplomatic assets abroad.  The “Inman Report” changed the way security is run in such locations, including giving U. S. personnel complete control over its own security even when on foreign soil, finding safer locations for housing, and locating buildings that are of sound construction.  It also took into account a building’s proximity to others.

The barracks – image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The explosive itself was a fuel-air bomb, sitting on top of concrete and marble.  When an explosive is nestled against something like this, it sort of encourages the blast to head in the opposite direction–the path of least resistance.  This explosion then went upward, lifting the barracks off its foundation and collapsing it as the building fell back down.

The second bomb was hidden in a pickup truck, and it was detonated by another suicide bomber–not before they managed to fire some rounds into the driver first.  He may have even been killed, it’s hard to say.  The device still went off, killing 58 French paratroopers and wounding many more.

The French president would come down to the site of the incident the very next day to pay his respects.  The U. S. Vice President at the time, George H. W. Bush, would visit on October 26th.  He said that he would, “not be cowed by terrorists.”