Limits of the superpower defined by unknown artist: US still haunted by massacre of marines in Lebanon 10 years ago

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The Independent Online
THE GHOST that haunts the Americans in Haiti and Somalia lies hidden behind a curtain of grass in West Beirut, 40ft from a tangle of blackened concrete stumps and long-rusted iron stanchions. I found it a few days ago, carefully painted on a battered wall, almost totally concealed by vegetation: a cowled figure of death, draped in black with a long scythe in its right hand. The marine who painted it at the back of his open-air mess probably died in the truck-bomb that slaughtered his 240 colleagues on that steaming hot Sunday exactly 10 years ago.

How blithely they had accepted their 'peace-keeping mission' in Lebanon. And how quickly it became 'peace-enforcement'. The Marines had come to protect the survivors of the Palestinian massacre perpetrated by Israel's militia allies. Within months, they were nation-building, supporting the powerless Lebanese president installed by the Israelis and fighting the local Muslim militias. They were in combat, so they told us, with 'international terrorism', firing their artillery into the mountains, using the old battleship New Jersey as a gun platform to shoot at the militias.

Their names remain here too, still legible on a neighbouring wall behind the ruins of their barracks, inscribed in a neat column. Corporals Smith, Rainey, Freund, Nord, Edwards, Lendin, Banks, Nilon, Connors and Webster and their comrades had all painted their identities onto the concrete wall in the weeks before the largest man-made bomb since Hiroshima atomised President Reagan's military mission to Lebanon. Next to their names and the Bunny Club symbol of a white rabbit, the Marines had added in white paint: '110 days in Hell'. When the truck-driver detonated his two tons of explosives at 6.03 that Sunday morning, a hunk of masonry smashed into the wall two inches from the rabbit.

The 20ft crater made by the bomb is still there, although trees now grow out of its mouth. Vice-President Bush, future inventor of the New World Order, turned up two days later. I remember his first reaction when, dressed in flak jacket and helmet, he saw the pile of rubble from which decaying corpses were still being extracted in the heat. He stared at the wreckage and whistled through his teeth, a sound like 'phew', but much longer and high-pitched, the kind of noise President Clinton may have uttered when he heard the casualty figures coming in from the Rangers' doomed mission against Mohamed Aideed in Mogadishu.

As usual, the world forgot the local civilian casualties; the old Lebanese man who sold hot-dogs to the Marines in the basement of their barracks, crushed to death along with his sleeping customers; the woman passenger in the international airport 300 yards away, cut down by swathes of glass as she waited for her plane.

'I was blown 3ft backwards,' an airline check-in desk clerk recalled last week. 'I looked up and it was raining glass and pieces of wood. Then I felt something hot on my feet. I looked down and blood was running down my legs and over my shoes like water . . . I was so frightened I threw myself down the chute we used for the passengers' baggage. I never knew the meaning of fear before. Now everything frightens me.'

It frightened President Reagan, too. Within five months, his surviving Marines were sailing away from Beirut on a clutch of warships, as surely as the USS Harlan County sailed away from Haiti when the Tontons Macoutes turned up at the Port-au-Prince quayside, as surely as President Clinton's soldiers will sail away from Mogadishu in the early spring of next year. The Americans did not stop Lebanon's war - it continued for another seven years after they left.

The pro-Iranian Hizbollah militia this year produced a publicity videotape of their war against Israel, in which the Marine bombing briefly features. Although they do not claim responsibility, the film refers to the two men who destroyed the American and French military headquarters - the French barracks were attacked 16 seconds later - as 'Islamists' and call the bombings a 'victory'.

In the archives of the American CBS television network, you can still see a young George Bush staring in horror at the ruins and uttering that extraordinary whistle. There is another tape of a deafened young marine survivor - I was standing beside him when he gave his interview 10 years ago today - in which he described the suicide truck bomber who had killed his friends.

'All I can remember,' he said, 'was that when he drove the bomb into the barracks, he was smiling.'

(Photograph omitted)