All quiet on Beirut front, but . . . ; Marines in Lebanon boost US image

The view from the sandbagged fighting holes isn't very threatening.

Some 400 yards away, a small Israeli Army unit mans an armored personnel carrier. Occasionally, the Israelis start the engine, drive it down the road, then drive it back.

Aside from occasional artillery duels, this is about the only action the 250 United States marines of Fox Company have seen in Lebanon. But as a part of the US Marine contingent of the multinational peacekeeping force in Lebanon, they are playing a more important noncombattant role.

As part of the peacekeeping force that also includes 1,500 French and 1,500 Italian troops, the 1,200 marines here have been given the job of securing and, if necessary, defending Beirut International Airport. The airport has been open to commercial traffic since the day after the marines arrived on Sept. 29.

But the real significance of having marines in Lebanon under current circumstances has more to do with projecting an image of US commitment and resolve to help Lebanon rebuild peacefully than the preparation for potential combat with opposing forces here.

And in a wider sense, the marines' mission has been seen as an indication that the US is getting over its post-Vietnam reluctance to use the military as an arm of US diplomacy. Some even see it as an opportunity for the Marine Corps and the military in general to regain some of the prestige lost in Vietnam, and an opportunity to show that marines don't always have to use their guns to be effective and successful.

''Bringing the flag ashore was the most important thing we've done, and if you can do it without firing a shot, you can't be any more successful than that, '' says Lt. Col. Robert Johnson.

This is not to suggest that the marines aren't ready, if necessary, to fight. As a matter of fact some of them say they would prefer a good fire fight to the sitting around.

Last weekend, on the other side of the airport near Hotel Company (another marine unit), the Lebanese Army fired shots into the air to disperse a crowd of angry Muslims protesting the demolition by the government of parts of their neighborhood. The shooting took place close to a marine checkpoint, and during the confusion the marines radioed in for backup. Among those in the backup squad was Cpl. Rowland Mark Pointer of Geraldine, Ala.

Corporal Pointer, a mountain of a man even among marines, says he headed up to the trouble with his flak jacket on and his M-16 rifle and then took cover and listened as the bullets flew overhead.

''My adrenalin was pumping - I was wanting to shoot back so bad I couldn't stand it,'' he says grinning.

No marines did shoot back and the Lebanese Army eventually brought the demonstration under control.

As a part of their mission the marines have been clearing the airport area of unexploded bombs and shells left over from the war between the Israelis and the Syrians and Palestinians. According to Colonel Johnson, the marines have collected more than 1,100 pieces of weapons and ammunition, ranging in size from 155 mm shells to small bomblets.

The only US casualty has come during this clearing operation when a bomblet exploded, killing a marine.

Though it has been generally quiet, based on the proliferation of newly dug bunkers and the assortment of military equipment all around the airport, it seems clear the marines could put up a good fight if they had to.

The French and Italian units of the multinational force, because of their different mission, are stationed on street corners throughout the city. By contrast, the marines man their red clay bunkers under the occasional roar of an incoming or outgoing jetliner. The preparations on the ground have been for a combat mission - as one marine officer put it - ''just in case.''

In addition, though observers say that the Italian and French contingents may be more vulnerable to snipers and terrorist bombs in their mission on Beirut streets, they note that the US contingent is the one best able politically to man the ''front line'' between the Israelis and the rest of the multinational force.

This leaves the men of Fox Company with little to do militarily. They say one of the most interesting actions they've seen so far was the artillery duels last week between the Christian and the Muslim Druze militias in the hills several miles to the southeast. Other than that, the marines say they clean and reclean their rifles, then dig and redig their fighting holes. That leaves a few minutes each day they say for eating, sleeping, and standing guard.

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