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Flashback Necessary Force

October 23, 2008

“If we are there to fight, then we are far too few. If we are there to die, then we are far too many.”
Rep. Sam Gibbons (D-Florida)

Twenty-five years ago this week, a suicide bomber drove a truck full of TNT into the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon, killing 241 American soldiers.

As members of a multi-national peacekeeping force, the Marines had come to Lebanon not to fight, but to restore order in a country riven by civil war. Dangerously exposed and lacking a clear mandate, they were, said one key player, "a disaster waiting to happen." And when it did, U.S. resolve collapsed along with the barracks -- within months, the last of the American troops had left the country, never to return.

Even before the blast, Congress had been seriously divided on our participation in the peace-keeping force. In the House of Representatives one of the most forceful advocates for withdrawal -- even then bucking his party -- was a first-term Congressman from Arizona by the name of John McCain.

For a timely look back at how the debate played out on Capitol Hill, we offer two brief excerpts from Retreat from Beirut, FRONTLINE'S 1985 program on the Lebanon bombing, and the larger questions it raised -- what circumstances justify our putting American troops in harm's way, and what role ought the Congress to play in the decision? (Note: Sen. McCain is not the only current candidate in the excerpts.)

P.S. For a participant's look back at these events, see Robert McFarlane's just-published anniversary op-ed piece in The New York Times.

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