COBBLESTONE streets, following the Bay of Beirut south of the city, harbored a series of government warehouses. Just out of the hills surrounding Beirut, two tired squads of my rifle platoon made one of the warehouses our new home. Guarding Marine equipment and the largest rats we'd ever seen was unusual duty. In 1958, few Americans knew a country named Lebanon existed; even fewer cared. A small country, tucked away at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, absorbed in political problems. When the political process failed, young men like me wielding rifles and bayonets enforce the will of those too old to fight. This was the Beirut of 1958. Within two miles of the warehouse, refugees from Palestine stewed in squalid camps. Their hope lay with anyone who would support overthrow of the current regime. Therefore, Lebanese officials asked the United States to help maintain peace. President Eisenhower answered with marines and paratroops to aid the faltering government. Russia, Syria, Egypt, and whoever else had a stake in the area rattled sabers. Religious factions also joined in the fray.
Snipers hit the warehouse area soon after we arrived. Rebels or Palestinians, it made no difference who shot at you. Two confused boys running into the sniper fire were yanked to safety by a couple of marines led by me, their platoon leader. The young boys were afraid of us. All of Beirut had the same fear. We'd been compared by the locals to ``storm troopers'' of Nazi Germany.
Immediately, Aden and Jamel inherited a group of uncles; it took little time before all the locals knew the boys were under our protection. Marines have a way of making things clear. The boys were sacrosanct and they loved it. We were American marines fighting to enforce the foreign policy of our country; protecting Aden and Jamel, the two young boys, was a welcome addition to the job description.
Candy, food, and caps were given freely, medals were pinned on the neatly dressed boys. After three days of this special treatment a woman appeared at the guarded entrance. With a mother's persistence she demanded to see the officer in charge. How does a mother reprimand the savior of her sons? Just like any other in any other country. She asked:
``Why do you give my children all this?''
``Well, Ma'am, we like 'em,'' I answered.
``They won't eat their meals, all they want to eat is what your men give them. They think it will make them as strong as the marines who gave them the gifts.''
A compromise was soon reached. All the candy was given to Mom for distribution. I found I had another commanding officer.
Aden's and Jamel's parents were educated people. Education was the reason Gamal Nasser used to expel them after taking control of Egypt. Lebanon seemed as good as any place to settle. She and her husband ran a small hotel near the docks in order to sustain life. Aden and Jamel were their reasons for fighting the tide of destruction.
Days became weeks, friendship became deep affection. Two little boys of 7 and 5 became the focal point of our group. While the politicians temporarily ``solved'' problems that would turn into civil war, a few marines fell in love. ``Transfers cancel all debts and friendships,'' so the old Marine saying goes; not this time. Tears appeared in the eyes of my men as they packed. How do we leave the boys?
Mrs. Zatoni sent Aden and Jamel to fetch me. Entering their living quarters, I was greeted with coffee. No time was spent on preliminary conversation - time was of the essence. Our job completed, we were headed back to sea.
``Lieutenant, take our boys with you,'' the father begged, as his wife began to cry. ``Please take our sons to America. When you marines leave, war and death will take your place. Leaving with you is the only chance our boys will ever have to live.''
No one had ever prepared me for such a demand. War had been my training, my very reason for existence. After some time I explained they had asked me the impossible. Thinking they had no future, Jamel and Aden dominated their thoughts. Sacrifice for their babies, give them to the men in the green suits who were feared by everyone.
Love takes many forms; I learned a difficult lesson that day. Leaving the hotel with tearful eyes, an eternal truth carved a niche in my heart. Love is the strongest power of all. Never have I believed that any man or woman had greater love than those two had for their children. Each begged me for their son's lives, while politicians struggled for power.
While my men were crying for justice, two little boys were lost in the big picture of international politics. Today, Americans are finally aware of the conflicts in Beirut. Lebanese mothers are still crying for their children; I still cry for Aden and Jamel. Marines just aren't that tough.