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Marine barracks bombing 4 decades ago still echoes in the Middle East

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The crisis in Israel and Gaza comes 40 years after America was embroiled in another attack in the region, one that some believe touched off the so-called war on terror. Here's WHRO's Steve Walsh.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff was a Navy chaplain stationed in Norfolk before he arrived in Beirut on the weekend of October 23, 1983. When the explosion happened at 6:22 a.m., he thought his barracks had been shelled. The blast knocked him off his feet.

ARNOLD RESNICOFF: And as we got up, we were slapping each other on the back and thanking God that we made it, that whatever hit us didn't destroy us.

WALSH: Resnicoff then heard the sounds of chaos coming from outside.

RESNICOFF: And only then, because of the screams from the building 75 yards away and also the screams from the Marines outside yelling for us to come help, we realized we had only suffered the shock waves, shock blast.

WALSH: Two hundred and forty-one dead, mainly U.S. Marines from Camp Lejeune, N.C. A truck bomber had burst through the gates of the airport where they were sleeping on Sunday. More Marines died that day than on any day since Iwo Jima in World War II. Over the next few days, Resnicoff lost his kippah or yarmulke, helping to dig out the wounded. One of his fellow chaplains fashioned him another one out of camouflage.

RESNICOFF: He said, I want every marine here, every military person here, to know that unlike the country that we're in right now, where every religion is fighting other religions, we chaplains helped everyone. But not just that, we did it side by side.

WALSH: President Ronald Reagan sent the U.S. into Beirut on the invitation of the Lebanese government at the time. It was supposed to be a peacekeeping operation, but the country was in the middle of a civil war. Bilal Saab is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. He says the U.S. simply didn't understand what it was getting into.

BILAL SAAB: We did not see the kind of opposition that we would face. And we did not read the terrain quite properly and also the regional context. We truly believed that we were there to sort of keep the peace. There was no peace to be kept. It was law of the jungle at the time in Lebanon.

WALSH: A second explosion killed 58 French paratroopers who were part of the same peacekeeping force. A U.S. court would eventually determine that the Iranian-backed Hezbollah was responsible. Forty years later, the bombing is often cited as the beginning of what the U.S. would later call the war on terror. Again, Bilal Saab.

SAAB: I think that the modern era of spectacular terrorism, I would say, started with Hezbollah.

WALSH: Mireille Rebeiz is an associate professor at Dickinson College and is researching the incident. Rebeiz heard stories about the bombing growing up in Lebanon. She says the lessons are still being learned in Lebanon and in the U.S.

MIREILLE REBEIZ: It's important to address the roots of the problem. The indignity in which some people live are the main reason that terrorism grows. People are not born hateful, people become hateful.

WALSH: Stephanie Barrett-Smith of Virginia went weeks without hearing anything about the fate of her brother, Lance Corporal Richard Barrett.

STEPHANIE BARRETT-SMITH: Then I think a couple weeks had gone by, and then the government car pulled up in front of my dad's work. And he just ran through the shop screaming because he knew, you know, what that car was there for.

WALSH: There is a memorial to the bombing at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Originally, Barrett-Smith avoided going there, but now she goes there each year on the anniversary. She says it's important to be around others who remember.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh in Norfolk, Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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As a military reporter, Steve Walsh delivers stories and features for TV, radio and the web.