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1984: The Year America Didn’t Go To War

Cabinet members slugged it out, but the one with the real war experience convinced Reagan not to avenge the Marine barracks bombing.
beirut bombing

As tensions between the U.S. and Iran spiked this last June, Maureen Dowd, the imitable New York Times columnist, wrote that “the man” standing between the U.S. and another war in the Middle East wasn’t a part of the Trump Administration’s foreign policy team, but Fox News television host Tucker Carlson. 

Disturbed that Mr. Trump’s actions on Iran might touch off a nasty bloodletting, Carlson (as we are reliably told), privately advised the president against hitting Iran. And so a popular (if slightly exaggerated) fable has taken hold: surrounded by a gaggle of his own experts, and with U.S. bombers poised to destroy Iranian military assets, Trump decided to reject their advice, and listen to Carlson. The bombers were recalled, war averted—and the president returned to his Twitter account. Phew.

Dowd, and many of the rest of us, were gobsmacked. While decrying the lights-camera-action society that has brought us to this pass (a talking heads foreign policy is, it seems, the predictable result of a talking heads culture), Dowd ended her column thusly: “Carlson is pointing out something that Trump needs to hear,” she wrote. “The very people — in some cases, literally the same people who lured us into the Iraq quagmire 16 years ago — are demanding a new war, this one with Iran.” 

Of course, this wasn’t the first time that America actually chose not to go to war, but the decision is rare enough that pointing out when it has happened before, and why, is worth noting —particularly as it involves Iran. 

In October of 1983, a truck filled with explosives leveled the four-story U.S. Marine Barracks in Lebanon, killing 241 American military personnel. The intelligence community laid responsibility for the act at the feet of Tehran’s mullahs, who’d tasked Hezbollah, their proxy in Lebanon, with pushing the U.S. (which had deployed the Marines as part of a multinational peacekeeping mission) out of the region. The incident (the largest non-nuclear explosion since World War Two, as we were told at the time), touched off a legendary internal Reagan Administration dispute over how, and whether, the U.S. should retaliate. 

As debates go, this was a take-no-prisoners donnybrook: on the one side was the outwardly soft-spoken and professorial Secretary of State George Shultz (in fact, he was a nasty infighter whose sneering personnel evaluations could end careers), and on the other Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, a craggy and confrontational workaholic beloved by the military’s most senior leaders. Even before the dust had settled in Beirut, Shultz and Weinberger were weighing in with Reagan on what to do about it—-with Shultz arguing for a full military response, while a shrugging and seemingly detached Weinberger dragged his feet.

The Secretary of Defense had opposed the deployment of the Marines to begin with, and had the support of the military. Colin Powell, Weinberger’s senior military assistant, spoke for many of the military’s leaders when he described the Lebanon deployment “goofy from the beginning.”

For Shultz, however, revisiting the deployment decision was a waste of time. In a series of knock-down-drag-outs that pitted him against Weinberger, the Secretary of State argued that “American credibility” (that old standby), was being tested and that, therefore, the deaths of 241 U.S. Marines was cause enough for a military escalation. 

Weinberger disagreed: “retaliation against who?” he asked. Slow-rolling the president, he argued that the U.S. needed better intelligence before deciding who to punish. Weinberger was adamant: the U.S. had just left one unwinnable conflict (in Vietnam), and shouldn’t be so quick to start another. He dug in. 

On November 17, in an incident that remains controversial, Weinberger seems to have actually disregarded a presidential order for a retaliation. The operation, against Iranian-linked military assets, never came off — though it remains unclear, more than thirty years later, just who was responsible for stopping the operation. Reagan’s national security adviser, Robert McFarlane, was livid — shouting at Weinberger during a telephone conversation that he’d ignored the president’s direct order. Weinberger disagreed: he’d received no such order, he calmly explained. 

Less than one month later, the debate between Shultz and Weinberger had become so ugly, so personal, that the Defense Secretary was openly mocking Secretary of State Shultz’s original support for the U.S. deployment. During one White House meeting, Weinberger implied that if Shultz had not done so, the Marines would still be alive. Shultz turned on him: “Never let me ask for the Marines again,” he said, disdainfully. “If I do, shoot me.” Weinberger, it seems, was willing to accommodate him: “It is easy to kill people, and that might make some people feel good, but military force must have a purpose, to achieve some end,” he later, pointedly, explained. “We never had the fidelity on who perpetrated that horrendous act.” 

The Shultz-Weinberger tilt dragged on until February of 1984, when Reagan decided to “redeploy” the Marines to U.S. ships on station in the Mediterranean. The “redeployment” was seen by Shultz as an ignominious retreat, a sign of American weakness. But, as capably rendered by Marine Colonel and historian David Crist in The Twilight War, that’s not the way the Pentagon viewed it. 

Crist quotes senior defense official Noel Koch as defending the redeployment during a White House meeting that included Reagan’s top advisers—including Shultz. The problem with American policy in the Middle East, Koch implied, was American hypocrisy—and our selective use of the word terrorism: when our friends plant bombs we say it’s because they’re defending our values, but when our enemies do it, it’s terrorism. Shultz snapped: “I couldn’t disagree more,” he responded. The problem wasn’t America’s hypocrisy, it was its lack of will, its weakness—which only encouraged Iran and other terrorists. If that debate sounds familiar, it’s because it is; it rages, on and off, to this day. 

In one sense, the Shultz-Weinberger clash should not come as a surprise. While Weinberger was a Harvard-educated lawyer, his formative experience came in World War II, where he served as an infantry officer during the 1942 Battle of Buna—a fetid, leech-infested Japanese base on the rim of northern New Guinea. For those who survived, including Weinberger, the swamp-slogging battle was an unrelenting nightmare: at its end, the Japanese resorted to cannibalism and used the bodies of the dead to reinforce their defenses. 

Though Weinberger rarely talked about Buna, the experience stayed with him. During an interview I conducted with him when he was defense secretary, he nearly laughed me out of the room when I suggested that the military budget increases he proposed made war more likely. “You don’t get it,” he said. “We’re not buying more guns because we intend to use them, we’re buying more guns so we don’t have to.” 

Weinberger’s favorite military officer, J.C.S. Chairman John Vessey, agreed. Vessey was no shrinking violet. While Weinberger was battling Shultz, Vessey took on Robert McFarlane, Reagan’s interventionist National Security Advisor. Lashing out at the perpetrators of the Marine Barracks bombing, Vessey believed, was unbecoming of a great power. It was “beneath our dignity.” He would know. 

Like Weinberger, Vessey joined the Army as a private, but was made an officer during the invasion of Anzio, the beachhead on Italy’s western coast where the German Wehrmacht battled the Americans to a standstill. Like Buna, Anzio was a charnel house and Vessey was lucky to survive. From Anzio, Vessey made his way to the top of the heap — from Private to General, a nearly unprecedented feat.

In the mid-1990s, during a telephone conversation I had with him from his home in Garrison, Minnesota, I asked Vessey (then retired) to join with other senior military officers in signing an open letter to then-President Clinton urging a ban of landmines. Vessey laughed, scornfully: “Not only am I not going to sign your letter,” he told me, “I’m going to call Clinton and suggest that he mail a landmine to every American family. Everyone should have one. They can put it on the table next to their bed.” When I responded that I would call him at a better time, he relented, if only a bit. “Thank you,” he said, “for your interest in American military policy.”

Of course, there are any number of obvious differences between that time and this one, between the Reagan White House and the Trump Administration—not the least of which is that Weinberger and Shultz were not only experienced and sometimes exasperating infighters, but were acknowledged foreign policy giants. As was John Vessey. Then too, and crucially, Weinberger and Vessey had “seen the elephant”– as the military saying has it — at Buna and Anzio. That’s not true for Mike Pompeo, or for Mark Esper, the newly designated Secretary of Defense; and it’s certainly not true for John Bolton who, unlike Robert “Bud” McFarlane (who served two tours as a Marine in Vietnam), has never heard a shot fired in anger. 

Seeing the elephant matters—and in the recent contretemps over hitting Iran, it probably mattered a great deal. For while Tucker Carlson has entered Washington lore as the man who stopped a war, the thumb-on-the-scales in the recent debate belongs to Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who, like John Vessey, slow-rolled the bureaucracy, and the president. Dunford has a history of this. A can-do Marine, Dunford has not only seen the elephant (and many of them, as it were, in Iraq), is also a first-class student in the ways of Washington. 

When Dunford disagrees with a policy, as a civilian Pentagon official described it to me, “he floods the zone”—- providing volumes of facts and figures that are as likely to delay as inform. He did that, famously, with John McCain, when the two crossed swords over Afghanistan policy during the Obama years. And he did that again, back in June, when Donald Trump wanted to hit back against Iran

“He told the president what would be involved, what it would cost, how Iran might strike back and how many people would die,” this Pentagon official said. “He just laid it out. It was pretty grim, but it’s what made the difference.”

That sounds right, for the one comparison that rings true is the one that recognizes in Joe Dunford what was true for John Vessey. For both of them, striking back, killing who you can because you can (and simply to assuage your own anger) is not only “beneath our dignity”—it’s a signpost on the road to unwinnable wars. 

Mark Perry is a contributing editor at The American Conservative and the author of The Pentagon’s Wars. He tweets @markperrydc.