Syria intervention: Would Operation Biffing Arabs be the best name for it?

America in Lebanon’s civil war in the 1980s, just as it is poised to do in Syria

Share

Almost exactly 30 years ago today, I was having breakfast with my landlord below my home on the Beirut Corniche. The date was 19 September 1983, but nothing has changed – neither Mustapha’s little garden with its yellow and red flowers, my balcony two storeys above, nor the butterflies that settle on the flowers, nor the great bright blue Mediterranean in front of us. I am writing this on that same balcony. We were drinking our third or fourth hot sticky Arabic coffee that morning when we saw the American destroyer the USS John Rodgers making smoke as she moved along the seafront. She passed close to us. We could even see the naval crew on the upper deck and the Stars and Stripes drifting in the warm breeze.

Then there came from the vessel a hollow, popping sound. It was a very dull series of reports, as if someone were playing tennis under the sea. As I wrote later, there was nothing warlike about it. Mustapha fetched his binoculars and I focused on the warship. The glasses caught a puff of smoke, nothing more than a smudge near the for’ard 5in gun. A few seconds later, there was another pop and then I saw a shell case – a brass shell case glinting gold under the sun – bounce off the deck and spin right off the ship into the sea. Pop-pop. Another bright gold casing splashed into the water. Thus did the Americans go to war in Lebanon.

It made no sense to us. America was firing at Syrian-supported Druze militiamen in the Chouf mountains who were trying to destroy the (dubiously) elected government of President Amine Gemayel, whom President Ronald Reagan, and Israel, wanted to rule Lebanon. Washington had taken sides in a civil war and was now fully committed to preserving one bunch of Lebanese against another bunch of Lebanese. In the US, apparently, it all made sense. Reagan had backed Gemayel and now Reagan’s honour was at risk. I shall not speak of parallels.

I was reminded of this Conradian scene by a deeply moving article by my old friend Rami Khouri which appeared last week in a local Beirut paper I rarely buy. I often quote my Arab colleagues by name but usually not in quotation. But Rami’s piece in the Daily Star was brilliant.

He described how a few years ago, just before the Syrian war, he received a letter from Peggy Stelpflug, the mother of Corporal Bill Stelpflug, a US Marine sent to Lebanon in May of 1983 and of how Peggy and her family “enjoy special credibility in asking about the appropriateness of American military attacks in the Arab world”.

And Rami quotes a letter home from Bill, written in Beirut on 7 September 1983 – 30 years ago last Saturday. “I am alive and well,” the young Marine told his family. “Maybe a little dirty, tired and shell-shocked, but walking and talking. Our ‘war’ just lasted three full days so far. Two more Marines have been killed by rockets and more wounded … We have been taking rockets and bullets … we have been shooting back with some effect, mainly snipers or destroying rocket positions with artillery … I am filthy, and bone sore, and 100 per cent fit … It worries me more to know that ya’ll worry about me more than I worry about me … I think Beirut is just a realistic training base for the US Marine Corps … Won’t go out of my way to be a hero or anything like that. Just doing my time in this Mediterranean junk yard. Thinking of home. Love you all very much.”

The day after he wrote this letter, the USS Bowen – a close cousin of the USS John Rodgers which was shooting off my home on the Corniche – opened fire on the same target: Syrian-supported forces in the Chouf. And on 23 October the same year, an Islamist truck-bomber drove to his suicide by exploding his vehicle in the US Marine headquarters beside the airport. I still remember how the air pressure changed inside my own home when that bomb went off. It killed 241 US service personnel. And I recall how I saw with my own eyes the bodies of many of the dead Marines laid out beside the rubble of their headquarters. Six days later, an officer visited the Stelpflug family home in Auburn, Alabama, and told Peggy and her husband that their son, Bill, had been killed by the bomb.

Rami wrote about his conversations with Peggy and spoke of how enlightened he was by the family’s “noble reactions”. He shared their feelings that “Bill’s life, service and death could enrich ‘our common desire to learn from each other in the cause of advancing our shared humanity … and that the lessons of his life and death would perhaps be illuminating for others’.”

But Rami’s penultimate paragraph deserves to be read in full: “It is appropriate today – 30 years after American ships shelled the Lebanese mountains – that all of us be very sure that, before American men and women are sent again to attack Arab targets, citizens like the Stelpflug family are credibly consulted on such an important decision. Those expressing scepticism in the opinion polls deserve a clear answer. So do the Syrian people. So does the world.”

Against journalism of this standard, I must remain silent. It says it all.

Operation Punitive Endeavour?

If – and I repeat “if” because I’m still not at all sure Barack Obama really is going to war in Syria on the back of his own words – there has to be a name for this ridiculous adventure, what will it be called? Churchill used to warn his lads that they should never, ever, give a military operation a stupid name since widows would not want to hear that their husbands died in a ridiculous battle. So I suppose the most honest operational name – Operation Biffing the Arabs Again – is out. So is Operation Bashing Bashar. In keeping with Obama’s evangelical streak, Operation Punishment is probably a bit too revealing – but I suspect Operation Punitive Endeavour might do the trick. Most people will be too lazy to look up “punitive” in the dictionary and “endeavour” is a great work, hinting at enormous struggle hinged to deep morality (which is what Obama’s rhetoric is supposed to be about).

And then – again, “if” America attacks – we must have a good string of excuses for the hospitals/buses/civilian targets we hit. “Collateral damage” will no doubt be churned out by defence correspondents but it is wearing a bit thin. If a cruise missile does hit the roof of the Umayyad mosque in Damascus, however, I will remember well the lies we used when a plane fired missiles into a crowded Baghdad market during a sandstorm in 2003. It was not a missile. It was an Iraqi anti-aircraft rocket that had misfired and crashed into the people.

The same was said in Libya in 1985 when American weapons destroyed the lives of civilians in Tripoli. It was a Libyan anti-aircraft missile that killed them. This was swiftly disproved – so was the lie about the Iraqi rocket. But wait for the Syrian anti-aircraft rocket that kills its own people. It’s an old one. But so is biffing the Arabs.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Iraqi soldiers trained by the US were routed by IS’s smaller force  

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

Patrick Cockburn
Christmas Day cinema-goers seem to have mistaken the complexities of the right to free speech  

There's a time to speak and a time to keep quiet

Paul Vallely
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015