The high loss of life in Beirut, Lebanon, after two trucks packed with explosives rammed the barracks of United States Marines and French soldiers, has set off a major debate in both America and France.
Much of this debate boils down to three key questions:
1. Who killed the troops and why?
2. Why were the troops sent to Lebanon?
3. Will the surviving soldiers stay on or go back home?
Let's take the questions one by one:
First, who killed them and why?
Probably, political or religious fanatics were responsible. Whatever the reason, the idea was to give a clear message to the US Marines and the French soldiers that they were not wanted there.
Those who might want the Marines and the French troops out include the Iranians, who have taken American hostages in the past; the Syrians, who live in the country next door and are friends of the Russians. The Syrians are trying to control events in Lebanon. Other possible suspects include extremist Muslims.
By extremists, we mean people who take such an extreme view they are willing to carry out assassinations or other violent acts. In saying this, however, we have to be careful not to label all Muslims extremists. This is because there are Muslims willing to work with Christians, the other major religion in the country, to bring about peace.
Similarly, there are also factions of Christians which have been guilty of violence not only against Lebanese Muslims but also against Palestinians who live in Lebanon.
As you can see, the situation is very complicated, with many parties involved. Among the Lebanese people themselves, there are said to be about 17 different sects, representing Christians (including Maronites), Muslims (including Sunnis and Shiites), and Druzes (who are an offshoot of Muslims).
Why were the troops sent to Lebanon, anyway?
The Marines, the French, and the Italians were sent as part of a peacekeeping mission. Their arrival in August 1982 came after the Israelis had attacked Palestinians in Beirut. The reason the Israelis gave for their attack was that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had been firing rockets at them from Lebanese territory. The Israelis thought, if they attacked the PLO fighters in Beirut, they would get rid of the problem.
The PLO were holed up in Beirut. They couldn't get out while the Israelis were bombarding them. A deal was struck. The Israelis would retreat, provided the Palestinians left Beirut. Once this agreement was achieved, the Marines, the French, and the Italians - as part of a multinational (many nations) peacekeeping force - helped the Palestinians to leave safely. This peacekeeping force was regarded as a friend by many Lebanese, including the rather weak Lebanese Army, which could not have done the job itself.
When the evacuation, as the departure of the Palestinians was called, was achieved, the work of the Marines was done. They left. But hardly had that happened before the new Lebanese president, Bashir Gemayel, who was a Christian, was assassinated. Some extremist Christians were so upset by this that they swept through the refugee camps of Palestinians who were not PLO fighters and who were staying behind and massacred them.
The problem was so serious that President Reagan ordered the Marines back. But US Marines did not go back alone. Assisting with the peacekeeping work a second time are also French, Italian, and British soldiers.
This time the going has been rougher. The Marines and the French, in particular, instead of being seen as a neutral force trying to keep the peace, have unfortunately been caught in the violence between Christian and Muslim factions in Lebanon. The fighting between these factions has gotten a lot worse since the Israelis, who had remained in Lebanon after the PLO left, decided it was better to leave before they too suffered too many fatalities. Like the Marines, they were also losing men through sniper fire.
The Oct. 23 blast was, however, the worst violence perpetrated against either the Americans or the French.
Will the surviving soldiers stay on or go home?
So far President Reagan, who originally made the decision to send the Marines in, is sticking to his decision that the Marines will stay. The French are saying the same thing. However, President Reagan's decision to send the Marines has become a lot more unpopular as the number of marines killed has risen.
If the opposition to having the Marines there gets stronger and stronger, he may decide it is wisest to back down. But he is in a difficult position. He won't want to give the impression that he is letting the Lebanese government down - or his French, Italian, and British allies - by pulling his men out after saying how important it was that they stay there.