'Someone Else Will Raise Your Children': During Beirut Bombing Anniversary, Marine Commandant Warns Against Attacks on US Forces

Marines right dig through the rubble in Beirut after 1983 blast.
In this Monday, Oct. 24, 1983, file photo, U.S. Marines and an Italian soldier, right, dig through the rubble of the battalion headquarters, in Beirut, Lebanon, working around the clock searching for victims of the suicide truck bomb attack against the U.S. Marine barracks on Oct. 23, 1983. (AP Photo/Bill Foley, File)

Forty years ago, a suicide bomber in an explosive-laden truck breached the Beirut International Airport and detonated their bomb, killing 241 American troops -- mostly from the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, of the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit -- who had deployed to Lebanon as a peacekeeping force during the country's civil war.

On Monday, top military officials who gathered in Jacksonville, North Carolina, to mark the anniversary of the 1983 bombing noted the parallels between the Beirut attack and what is shaping up to be a new and tumultuous chapter in the Middle East following the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas.

Two aircraft carrier strike groups and military units, including the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, have been deployed to the region to support Israel and deter others such as Iran and Hezbollah from entering the conflict. U.S. troops have already faced an uptick in attacks in Iraq and Syria, and as more forces move into the region, officials fear further strikes.

Read Next: Testing of Navy SEALs May Unveil Scale of Performance-Enhancing Drug Use -- and Unleash Legal Battles

"In 1983, the Marines and sailors of Battalion Landing Team 1/8 were deployed to Lebanon on a peacekeeping mission to be a friend to the Lebanese people and bring about a semblance of stability to a region marked by decades of conflict," Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro said.

"Does that sound familiar?" he said during the event, which included Marines, veterans and family members.

Del Toro's comments come just days after the USS Carney shot down cruise missiles from Houthi forces out of Yemen, according to the Pentagon. Bases with U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria were also targeted by drones, and an American contractor died of a heart attack amid the threats -- a harbinger of the potential regional violence that could be caused by the Israel-Hamas war, which began Oct. 7.

The Oct. 23, 1983, attack on the Marine barracks was preceded by increased assaults on U.S. personnel, escalating tensions in the region, state-sponsored terrorism, and a U.S. response focused on deterrence and allyship with Middle Eastern countries.

The commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Eric Smith, offered some of the most aggressive U.S. rhetoric about wider conflict in the region following Israel's declaration of war and bombing of the Gaza Strip in response to the surprise Hamas attack, which killed about 1,400 Israelis earlier this month.

"I'll tell you this -- the 24th MAU, Marine Amphibious Unit -- there's a unit just like it today that's in the area," Smith said, referencing the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which he said was "in the vicinity" of the Mediterranean and Red Sea in response to the conflict.

"They're there also to come in peace, if called, but they bring with them the weapons of war, if needed," Smith said to whoops and applause from the crowd. "For those that are in the area, if that MEU has to go in, if you target them, someone else will raise your children."

Amid the saber-rattling, there were other lessons to be learned from the 1983 bombing. It was the single deadliest day for the Corps since the Battle of Iwo Jima during World War II and a tragic mark in the service's history.

U.S. officials have linked the 1983 attack to Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militant movement based in Lebanon. In a State Department commemoration Monday, the U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea said that the attack was "conducted with Iran's support."

A Defense Department commission report published two months after the 1983 attack said that the Marines were tasked with "the unique and difficult task of maintaining a peaceful presence in an increasingly hostile environment."

It conceded, however, that the security measures at the compound "were neither commensurate with the increasing level of threat confronting the [U.S. multinational force] nor sufficient to preclude catastrophic losses such as those that were suffered on the morning of 23 October 1983."

While seemingly apt at the time, given indirect and probing attacks on the base, the commission said, "the decision to billet approximately one-quarter of the [battalion landing team] in a single structure contributed to the catastrophic loss of life."

The conflict in Lebanon was complex and involved religious differences between the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Christans and Muslims. The Marine forces thrust into the midst of the fighting were meant to buy the Lebanese government time to gain control, according to the Marine Corps University.

The Oct. 23 attack turned the Marine presence there from one of deterrence to that of risk of further attacks as the state government struggled to quell the fighting. By 1984, the Marines and other multinational forces had evacuated from the country.

As the war in Israel unfolds today, defense officials said last week that the Marine Corps' 26th Expeditionary Unit was heading "to the waters off of Israel" as a result of the crisis after it abruptly ended pre-scheduled training in Kuwait.

A Navy spokesperson told Military.com on Monday that the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group, which transports the 26th MEU, was in the Gulf of Oman area conducting freedom of navigation operations.

Recently, the Pentagon bolstered its presence in the Middle East, including with two carrier strike groups; a Marine expeditionary force; Patriot missile battalions; and a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, battery. At least 2,000 troops were put on alert as a response to the instability embroiling the Middle East, as well.

Israel has been adamant about the U.S. keeping troops out of the country.

The Defense Department has maintained that the moves are acts of deterrence aimed at warning Iran and its proxies not to take advantage of the instability, even as U.S. forces have seen an "increase in rocket and [unmanned aerial vehicle] attacks against our bases in our facilities in Iraq and Syria," according to Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary.

Meanwhile, the 1983 barracks attack, many have argued, ushered in a new era of terrorism that the U.S. is still fighting today.

Retired Col. Timothy Geraghty, the then-commanding officer of 24th Marine Amphibious Unit during the attack, said that Iran and its proxies continue to influence the region through terrorism, a sentiment that the Pentagon has largely agreed with.

"The bombing launched a murderous new era of international terrorism," Geraghty said Monday. "For those of you here today who served so courageously during the Beirut mission in 1983, it is important to remember that many of the same culprits continue their havoc and carnage today."

-- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at drew.lawrence@military.com. Follow him on X @df_lawrence.

Related: US Redirects Navy Carrier Strike Group, Deploys High Altitude Defense Missile System and Patriot Battalions to the Middle East

Story Continues