The War on Terror: A Persistent Debacle

I just said goodbye to my son, age 21, as he went off to complete his studies at the University of Toronto. We were cleaning out the garage during the two weeks my son was home. I came across some old pictures and documents from my years in the Navy, including a copy of a naval message referring to the only battle order ever received and executed in the twenty-six year history of the ship I served on, USS Arthur W. Radford (DD-968).

Dated September 22, 1983, at 2219Z hours, the message cited our shore bombardment mission in response to attacks on the Ambassador’s residence and the “MOD” near Beirut, Lebanon. It’s almost twenty-one years later and I can’t remember what “MOD” stands for, although I assume it refers to the Marine encampment in and around the Beirut airport, because it was almost always getting attacked. 2219Z refers to 19 minutes past 10 Greenwich (“Zulu”) time. It was about 0219 Beirut time, where we were. We fired about 125 rounds of seventy-five pound, five-inch diameter projectiles onto two targets, presumably the perpetrators of the attacks against our own people. But one never knows.

It had been a busy three or four days in Beirut. Our first call for fire mission, on September 19, had not gone so well. It was a beautiful day. We were out from shore about 50 miles, getting refueled and dumping trash. We were also taking on potable water, as our own evaporators (machines that turn sea water into potable water) had been broken for about 10 days and we were at the point where we all needed a shower really badly. But we were interrupted in the middle and had to sever our connections with the replenishment ship because “all hell broke loose” and the usual harassment fire directed at the Marine position had become much more intense – requiring a response, I guess.

We broke off and headed east as fast as we could, in constant clear voice radio communication with the “on-scene commander,” some admiral designated CTF-61 and his bloated “staff” running things, I’m sure they told themselves, from a protected enclave somewhere or other. We kept asking them which “fire support area” around Beirut they wanted us in, and they didn’t know. They kept telling us to “wait.” Finally, on our own initiative we just headed to a spot where there seemed to be a lot of action, and when we got there we reported ready. Then the commander gave us a target.

It was out of range.

No problem, we said. We’ll get ourselves in range. More running at flank speed to get into position to take the target under fire, and maybe about twenty minutes later we were there. But there was a problem: a too large discrepancy between our location as determined by a visual fix and our location as determined by the fire control radar controlling the gun system. The book said firing under such circumstances was a no-no, and our captain went by the book. The on-scene commander, who minutes earlier could not figure out or communicate to us where exactly it was he wanted us to go, and so wound up giving us a target out of our gun range, was now suddenly impatient and indignant at the delay. In any event, we didn’t shoot, and the mission went to another ship. It was very embarrassing.

Then we got a “hot bearing” on one of our propeller shafts, and we had to shut it down, leaving us basically immobilized. We were effectively out of action for the remainder of the day. That was even more embarrassing.

Still, there’s an indescribable excitement as you line up to do what you’re trained to do, and there was no question of being justified in doing it. We had been back and forth to Beirut several times since our arrival in the Mediterranean in May, and someone was always shooting at our guys and we were never shooting back. It felt good to be finally shooting back, even if we screwed up the first mission.

Of course, it shouldn’t have felt good. It was really just more mindless escalation, a point that was vividly made about a month later, when a truck loaded with explosives and a couple of suicide bombers crashed into the Marine barracks near the airport. It killed 241 Marines and sailors. Our success in “suppressing enemy fire” had been quite short lived, as it turned out.

We were gone from Beirut by that time, tied up alongside a repair ship in La Maddalena, west of Italy. We got the news, and we were shocked. We wanted to go back there and kill someone. Again. That’s how these things go, you know.

We made another deployment in 1985, to the Persian Gulf. We didn’t fire the guns except for exercise, and to relieve boredom, while we just “patrolled” around a small area north of Bahrain, off and on, for the four months or so we were there. One night, on watch, we were so bored we followed a tiny, unlighted radar contact for four hours until it was light and we could visually identify it. As we suspected, it was just some dhow, a little merchant boat.

On many occasions during that deployment we saw (on radar) two Iraqi aircraft flying south/southeast along the southern shoreline of the Gulf. At one point they would turn left, often towards our position, in a “hook” maneuver, then head back north towards Iraq. We were in a lot more danger than we felt: two years later they were doing the same thing when the USS Stark was patrolling in the same area, only this time the Iraqi F-1’s fired a couple of Exocet missiles, scoring direct hits on the Stark. I was in law school near Philadelphia by then.

In 1985 Iraq and Iran, two countries now joined at the hip in the “Axis of Evil” whether they want to be or not, were fighting each other, keeping each other so busy that they didn’t bother us, though we were certainly there and almost as tempting a target as we are now. But there were more tempting targets, such as big oil tankers that were carrying “enemy” oil, and they seemed to draw all the attention, which consisted mainly of missiles fired in their direction. Here’s something interesting: you’d think a missile hitting a big tanker would cause a massive explosion, but if the tanker is full of 100,000 tons of crude and the missile goes in, it just makes a big bubble. It’s when the tanker is empty, or half empty, that the missile is really dangerous.

Even back then, what Iraq mostly had was old, worn-out Soviet armaments, and Iran had mostly old, worn-out American armaments. At one point Iran started sending 10-year-old boys into battle, fodder for Iraqi artillery and machine guns. There was a lot of madness in that part of the world in the 1980s. Just like now, only it didn’t seem to involve us so much, unless we were in the wrong place at the wrong time, like the Stark.

Last year the Radford was decommissioned in Norfolk. I drove down for the event, and met up with my old shipmates, who are still more like brothers than friends. It was the first time I had been onboard the ship since I left active duty in 1985. It had a funny looking mast and a vertical launch missile system, but it hadn’t changed very much on the inside. It was dirtier. Eighteen more years of grime will do that, I suppose. Warships are inherently oily and grimy and they smell like diesel fuel, as they should. The Radford carried half a million gallons of the stuff all by itself.

I was looking through the ship’s history at the ceremony and I daresay the time I was onboard – the two deployments to the Med (1983) and the Persian Gulf (1985) – was the most eventful period of the ship’s 26 years in commission. I was struck by that. Seemed like a waste. It’s a lot of work operating a warship: you have to fix it, arm it, supply it, paint it, guard it 24-7, fix it again, tie it to piers, drop its anchor, raise its anchor, fix it again, paint it again, shoot the guns, shoot the torpedoes, shoot the missiles, go get more – fix it again. You get the idea. Anyway, all that time and money and effort and risk over 26 years for what amounted to two combat-support missions, one of which got hopelessly screwed up. Typical government project.

As you can see, my “war stories,” if you can call them that, are of the more mundane variety. No bayonets clenched in teeth, sucking chest wounds, or gory stories of the wounded and dying. But it’s probably more typical of wartime experience: mostly boredom, then occasionally you shoot at stuff, and even less often maybe somebody shoots at you, and that’s the worrisome part.

Which is not to say you don’t learn a thing or two. For example, a lot of flag officers (admirals) are just politicians in uniform. Washington was either their last duty station, or will be their next one, because that’s how you angle for promotions. Their overseas assignments are career ticket-punching events. They are not infrequently incompetent and they get a lot of people killed as a result; another bright idea the on-scene commander had in Beirut was prohibiting any sailor or Marine from loading his weapon unless he was given a direct order to do so, which of course would have to originate with the on-scene commander himself. Effectively, it was a standing order not to defend yourself. His biggest concern, obviously, was that some private would make a mistake and create an “incident,” embroiling the on-scene-commander in Congressional controversy and curtailing further promotions. Word was, the sentry at the gate guarding the Marine barracks was fumbling with his ammo clip trying to get his weapon loaded as the suicide truck got through and killed so many of our comrades, his buddies. It seems absurd, but he would have been disobeying his orders even then. Here was the clear, if unstated policy: we would take the first big hit, whatever that happened to be. To that extent, we were fodder – particularly the Marines at the airport, who were a big, fat, juicy and very vulnerable target. Of course, I don’t think that’s how it was explained to the families of the fallen.

I couldn’t tell you if the Radford‘s one, lone, combat mission killed or even injured anyone. To this day I have no idea. But, underlying that experience – and indeed my entire military service – is a nagging suspicion that it was just a big waste of time, and a dangerous one at that. It doesn’t help that a lot of people say, with good reason, that the Lebanon debacle of 1983 was the real beginning of the “war on terror,” because that starts to make the last two decades look like perpetual war. It’s Orwellian and more than a little crazy, not to mention overwhelmingly tragic in simple human terms.

My son was an infant in 1983, and being over there so much, I didn’t see much of him. Today, he is very musical. He does well in school. He’s had the same girlfriend for three years and I expect they will marry. His adult life is falling into place. He’s close to the same age I was when I went to the Middle East with the Navy. They’re talking about a draft next year.

I hope the 1983 Lebanon debacle wasn’t the beginning of some bizarre, pharaoh’s-tomb-like curse destined to plague my family unto seven generations or something. I wonder if George W. Bush ever has that thought.

No, I’m sure he doesn’t.