by John Reid
“It’s the deadliest attack ever on a U.S. diplomatic mission to that point. It takes many years to confirm that it was an Iranian operation, organized by operatives from their Revolutionary Guard. Nobody understands it that day, but a new kind of war has begun.” (David Ignatius in The Washington Post, April 17, 2008, 25 years after the event.)
It is one o’clock in the afternoon, of Monday, April 18, 1983. I am at my desk facing the front of my office on the third floor of our embassy in West Beirut. Six hours earlier, I had walked the short distance from my ground-floor appointment to the embassy for my daily pre-work Arabic-language lesson. Entering the embassy, I had my usual seven o’clock encounter with Mohammed, the young Palestinian security guard on duty. As I passed, Mohammed gave his usual greeting: “Good morning, Mr. John!” I replied, as usual, “Good morning, Mohammed, how’s it going?”
“Wonderful, Mr. John, wonderful.”
It has been a quiet morning, and I am enjoying the opportunity to address some office issues neglected during my temporary exile to East Beirut, during last year’s Israeli invasion. Making some headway, I decide to continue working rather than go down to the ground-floor embassy cafeteria for lunch. My good friend, Bill McIntyre, however, is in the cafeteria. Bill is acting director of the USAID office, and he is meeting an American journalist. Two other friends from the USAID office, Anne Dammarell and Bob Pearson, are also in the cafeteria, as is Bill’s wife, Mary Lee. Tom Blacka, an AID officer I knew years before is in the cafeteria. He has just arrived in Beirut, coming out of retirement to take a job in Lebanon, and he is happy, once more to be in the thick of things.
I am about to turn to the right and begin drafting a document on my manual typewriter. When I do, I will face the side of my office and the floor-to-ceiling glass windows, through which I can look across the broad thoroughfare in front of the embassy to the Mediterranean Sea. The embassy is in an old hotel building, and many offices like mine are oddly shaped with large windows.
Immediately behind me, but not accessible from my office, is another office shared by Hassan Assaran and Edgard Khoury, two of the twelve Lebanese who staff my small public affairs operation, responsible for the cultural and media functions of the embassy, the latter including my own role as embassy spokesman. Edgard has a Danish wife, Ermaline, and two children, Rudy and Tanya. He is the only one of my Lebanese staff who appeared daily throughout the time in East Beirut and worked with me throughout the Israeli invasion the year before. At my two Christmases in Lebanon, Edgard and Ermaline have invited me to their home for dinner, and, most recently, they asked me to bring along my friend Ryan Crocker, the political counselor. Hassan, who shares the office with Edgard, is Egyptian, employed years before in a regional printing plant operated by the US in Beirut. Both Hassan and Edgard are in their office, and I have met with them earlier for our daily review of the local Arabic-language newspapers.
To my left is a wall, and, on the other side of this wall is the central corridor running the length of the third floor. There is no door in this wall, and, to access the corridor, I must pass through the office directly in front of me.
This office, connected to mine by a door, has its own floor-to-ceiling glass windows. It is occupied by Beth Samuel, our American secretary. Beth, a dear and trusted friend from a previous posting, is married to Leonardo, a talented Filipino musician and craftsman. The year before, when I desperately needed help and when no foreign service secretary would accept the Beirut posting, Beth called from Washington and, exaggerating her Texas twang, said, “Honey, Nardo and I are so desperate to get out of Washington we’ll do anything, even if it means coming to Beirut and working for you.”
A nearby office on the same side of the corridor is occupied by two Lebanese secretaries, Maha Sa’ab and Maggie Teen. Maha is a quiet and gentle woman. Maggie is intelligent, good-natured, outspoken and loyal, and she is very competent. Five more of our Lebanese staff work on one side or the other of the third-floor corridor. Our driver, Salim, is in the embassy motor pool. Souhail Abou-Halkah and Riad Abdul-Massih work in our library on the embassy’s ground floor. As usual, Riad is immaculately dressed in his grey suit, white shirt and grey silk tie. Souhail forgot his eyeglasses this morning and asked Riad to drive him home to retrieve them. Riad said he was busy, so Souhail asked our senior Lebanese staffer, Elias Kawar, to drive him.
Five floors above me, on the top floor of the embassy, Ambassador Robert Dillon has changed clothes and is about to leave his office to jog on the campus of the American University of Beirut, adjoining the embassy. In his fifth floor office at the other end of the building, political counselor Ryan Crocker is editing a cable. Six feet away, his wife Christine, who works as his secretary, is just finishing her lunch. Other political officers work nearby. On the ground floor, Lisa Piasik, with whom I studied Arabic in Washington, has just left her office for a language lesson on the third floor. Her colleagues in the consular section are anticipating their lunch break. Among them is a good friend, Bedros Anserian, with whom I had worked closely in East Beirut during the Israeli occupation.
|A Lebanese rescue worker leads John Reid to a nearby ambulance outside the American embassy, April 18, 1983. (Photo by unknown Lebanese well-wisher.)|
As I sit in my office, I feel more comfortable and less threatened in Beirut than I have at any time since my arrival in August 1981. The embassy staff, American and Lebanese, are a relatively small group, and the dangers of Beirut have drawn us close. We party, travel and play volleyball together. We watch the backs of one another. The friendships are unique in my foreign service experience, encompassing, among others, Ambassador Dillon, the staff of various other embassy sections, the security staff and the drivers. The Lebanese have invited Beth and me into their homes for meals with their families. I also have close friendships with colleagues in other embassies—German, French, British and Italian—and an extraordinary range of friendships in the Lebanese community. The shared trials, dangers and challenges of life and work in Beirut during the Israeli invasion have cemented friendships more tightly. Scattered during the Israeli invasion, some in the West Beirut embassy, some in the East Beirut compound of the ambassador’s residence, some isolated, some evacuated to the U.S. and some elsewhere, we are back in the embassy and together again. We can do our work properly. With the Israelis and Palestinians gone, the militia checkpoints have been dismantled, and we can now move freely from one part of the city to the other. One evening a few weeks ago, Beth and I drove over to East Beirut for pizza. The restaurant staff were astonished when they learned we came from the US embassy.
A US-led multinational force is on the ground. It was here before. After the PLO left, it withdrew and then returned after massacres in Palestinian refugee camps and the assassination of President Bashir Gemayal. Now Bashir’s brother, Amin, is president, the multinational force is back, and life as close to normal as it gets in Beirut. We are welcome where we have never been welcome before. Some months before, a group of six Egyptian professors at Beirut Arab University invited me to visit their institution and asked for my cooperation. Beirut Arab University students are radical and stridently anti-American, and this opportunity was unprecedented. In response, I ask our headquarters in Washington to recruit some American experts on Islam who come to Lebanon. They are welcomed at the university. The next morning, their presentations are reported favorably on the front page of al-Nida, a communist newspaper consistently hostile to the US. The only disturbing note is that, recently, one of the Egyptian professors called on me and said they must discontinue their cooperation. When I relate this to Ryan Crocker, our political counselor, he tells me that there have been other disturbing signs that things may not be as happy as they seem.
As I am about to turn toward the windows and begin typing , Mohammed, the friendly security guard in front of the embassy, ascertains that Ambassador Dillon is in the building and that the circular drive in front of the building is clear. He gives a signal. A pick-up truck loaded with explosive enters the drive, crashes into the front of the embassy and detonates. Propane tanks in the cafeteria kitchen ignite, and, among the many people killed is Bill McIntyre, my friend. His wife, Mary Lee, and my friends, Anne Dammarell and Bob Pearson, are badly injured. Tom Blacka is killed. In the consular section on the first floor, Bedros Anserian, is injured by flying glass and eventually loses one eye. On the eighth floor, Ambassador Dillon is knocked off his feet and injured by debris from a falling wall. Altogether, 63 people die in the explosion, and scores more are injured.
The central part of the front of the embassy collapses. The fracture line on the third floor runs through the center of my office, and my chair and desk disappear as a portion of the floor falls.
Hearing the explosion and seeing the smoke, doctors at the American University of Beirut Hospital, on the hill behind the embassy, immediately prepare to deal with multiple cases of massive trauma. One of the doctors is a young plastic surgeon, Usama Hamdan.
On the way to collect Souhail’s eyeglasses, Elias Kawar and Souhail hear the explosion and reverse course to return to the embassy. Ryan Crocker later tells a journalist that the blast blew his pencil out his hand. Ambassador Dillon’s wife, Sue, and New York Times journalist Tom Friedman tell the ambassador it was the loudest explosion they ever heard.
I hear nothing. The office turns white and seems to change shape.
I was on my back, near the inside wall of the office. I must have been thrown there. Looking up, I could see the wall beginning to crumble and fall toward me. Everything seemed to move very slowly, and I will swear that my precise thought was, “Holy shit, here comes the wall!” The wall landed on me, and I felt nothing. I was covered in debris—bricks, plaster and mortar—almost up to my neck. I knew that something bad had happened, but I didn’t know what. I thought I heard small arms fire, and I definitely smelled tear gas–I learned later that the explosion had ruptured tear gas canisters the Marine security guards had stored in the embassy basement. Many years before, the army had taught me the response to tear gas; I turned my head and pressed my nose as close as possible to the floor.
The first thing I heard was Beth in the adjacent office, shouting, “John, are you okay?” I replied, “I don’t think so.” Blood was running from my face and scalp, I had lost my glasses, I could see out of only one eye, and I was pinned to the floor.
I next heard a male voice shout from the corridor, “Beth, are you okay?” Beth answered, “I’m okay, but I don’t think John is.” Someone shouted, “John, where are you?” I answered as well as I could and heard noise before the same voice shouted, “John, we can’t find you. We’ll get help and come back.”
No one came. Recalling the small arms fire I thought I’d heard, I decided I had to get out. I managed to free my arms and throw rubble off my body. Eventually, I was able to grab a pipe behind my head and pull myself free. I was concerned about spinal or lower body injury, but I supported myself on the pipe and got to my feet. Nothing was broken, although I could not open my right eye. I thought I would survive.
I came out into the central corridor and noticed to my left that direct sunlight seemed to be coming through the dust and smoke. It made no sense. This was where the office occupied by Edgard and Hassan was supposed to be. Maha was by the door. My clothes were torn, I was covered with dust and blood. Maha began screaming, “Mr. Reid! Oh, Mr. Reid!” I shouted, “Maha, shut up and let’s get the hell out of here!”
Maha and I made our way down the stairs to the ground-floor corridor, behind the consular section. The floor was littered with broken glass and splashes of blood. Injured people were lying around everywhere. Unable to do anything else, I sat on the floor and leaned against a wall. An embassy janitor, a kind man to whom I had frequently spoken, knelt beside me and began mopping blood from my face with brown paper towels from an embassy bathroom. One of the consular staff, Mary Agopian, came staggering down the hallway. The front of her body and her face looked like they had been shredded, and she was screaming, “Somebody help me, help me!”
An embassy security officer, Dick Gannon, appeared and told us to form a single line so he could lead us out of the building. I took Mary Agopian under the arms, someone else took her feet, and we began carrying her. Our single file moved through a maze of offices and hallways and then stopped. The lock on an emergency gate had rusted shut, and we had to reverse the whole column and find another way out. Eventually, we came to a wall at the north end of the embassy. Some of the younger political officers were on top, lifting people across. One of them was a friend, Dennis Foster. I helped pass Mary up. Lebanese began crowding around, pushing, shoving, trying to get out. I backed off. Dennis shouted, “Okay, John, it’s your turn.” I approached the wall and reached for the hands above. Up and over and down I went.
On the other side, Lebanese rescue workers walked me to an ambulance. An American woman I didn’t know was already seated inside. I sat beside her. Two Lebanese came running up with a stretcher on which there was a dead Lebanese lady, her face black and her swollen tongue hanging out. They shoved the stretcher into the ambulance, and the ambulance lurched forward. The stretcher and the dead lady rolled out onto the ground into the dust. They hadn’t strapped her in. The Red Cross people got the body back into the ambulance, and we started up the hill toward the American University of Beirut hospital. French paratroopers from the multinational force lined the street, sealing off the entire area.
When I got to the hospital emergency room, I spotted Beth. She had said she was okay, but she wasn’t. Her face was cut and bleeding. Someone gave us a quick examination and said they were dealing with some really serious cases, and, since ours could wait, would we mind? Of course not. Waiting, I saw Anne Dammarell and Bob Pearson. This was the last time I saw Anne before she was sent to Germany for medical treatment. Sometime later, Bob told me that, after the explosion, he found himself completely buried in debris and unable to breathe. A yoga practitioner, he focused his strength, thrust himself upward into the air and ran out of the building.
The hospital director came into the emergency room. He was accompanied by the Minister of Public Health, whom I knew. I spoke to the minister, and he introduced me to the hospital director as the U.S. embassy spokesman. The director asked for my help. The hospital switchboard was flooded with incoming calls from news media in the United States, and no one in the hospital could make necessary calls out. Could I take the incoming calls and deal with them?
I began taking calls, working out a little statement: “This is John Reid, the American embassy spokesman in Beirut. I am at the AUB hospital now. I can give you 60 seconds; is your recorder on?” I then ran through a very quick summary of what I knew. It didn’t take long. Once the people had the sound bite from the guy on the scene, they were satisfied.
Afterward, I found the hospital director and told him that the switchboard problem seemed under control. He offered to introduce me to one of his best plastic surgeons so I could begin getting my face and head repaired. I asked him if the offer could include Beth, and he readily agreed.
While waiting for the doctor, I looked for some of my Lebanese colleagues in the emergency room, but I saw no one. Finally, someone told me that Elias Kawar was outside. I went to the door and found Elias, Maggie Teen and a few others. Among us, we had seen or had contact with eight of the twelve Lebanese staff. One of the missing turned up, alive and healthy, a few days later. No one could account for Edgard, Hassan or Riad.
As we were sorting this out, I saw Peter Sherman with his CBS camera crew headed toward me. I liked Peter and would normally have done anything I could to help him, but, in my present circumstance, I wasn’t ready for any on-camera interviews. I retreated inside. Peter’s coverage, carried on the CBS news that evening, reported that I was outside speaking to friends and relatives of local staff who had gathered at the hospital.
Finally, Beth and I saw Dr. Usama Hamdan the plastic surgeon to whom the hospital director directed us. Dr. Hamdan was a superb physician and an excellent person. He looked after Beth and me for days afterward. We became good friends, and we still are. Beth and I both had cuts and glass fragments embedded in our faces. In my case, the worst damage was on the right side of my face, the side that had been toward my office windows. Had I turned toward the typewriter, the glass would have blown into the front of the face and my eyes. Dr. Hamdan sutured the cuts and removed as much of the glass as he could find. Some was deeply embedded. Days later, when I was having dinner with some of the Marines, a large glass fragment popped out of my neck.
Beth and I left the hospital. It was early evening. We were both anxious to contact our families, and Beth recalled that her German friend, Anne-Liese Mayer, had a phone from which we could direct-dial international calls. We managed to hail a cab, but the driver refused to take us. Our heads were bandaged, and our clothes were dusty and soaked with blood and saline solution. A second cab pulled over, and the driver allowed us in. When we reached our destination, the driver declined the fistful of cash I pulled from my pocket. “Allah ma’ak,” he said. “God go with you.” Then he saw the water and blood we’d dripped onto the rear seat and snatched the money out of my hand. When Anne-Liese opened her apartment door and saw us, she screamed, “The radio said you were dead.”
There were several people in the apartment. One of them was a friend, Hinrich Reinstrom, Director of the Goethe Institute in Beirut. Hinrich made a very kind offer: If I could not stay at my own apartment, he would be glad to put me up. I thanked him for his kindness.
Beth and I made our calls. When I talked to my father, he told me that Sam Courtney, my boss in Washington, had phoned him. Sam told my father that he had heard me on the radio and that I was okay. I was and still am grateful to Sam for this extraordinary consideration.
Beth returned to her apartment, in the same building as Anne-Liese’s, and I began walking back toward my own. A U.S. Marine passed in a jeep and offered me a ride. As I got out of the jeep and walked into my apartment, I first saw Ryan Crocker who was unhurt. I then encountered Phil Habib. Habib had done an incredible job of negotiating the Israeli and Palestinian withdrawals from Beirut, but I’d had little direct contact with him. He recognized me though. “John, are you okay?” I replied that I was, considering the circumstances. “That’s good, because you look like hell.”
My large ground-floor apartment was a short walk away from the embassy. When I got there, it had clearly been identified as the closest, most convenient place to rally survivors and try to resume operation. Already, furniture was being moved out of the living room, and people were gathering. I couldn’t stay there, so I somehow got back to Anne-Liese’s place, met Reinstrom and accepted his offer. He received me graciously. Very early the next morning, I stood on Reinstrom’s balcony and thought, “This is going to be a terrible day.” I returned to my own place, and Beth and some of the Lebanese staff appeared soon afterward.
In a small room next to my bedroom in the apartment, I had set up an alternative office and equipped it with typewriter, telephone and minimal office equipment. This became my permanent office for the rest of my time in Beirut. Beth and I worked there, and the Lebanese staff worked in rooms at the rear of the apartment, later moving to a temporary structure just outside the apartment building. The consular section occupied the front. I tried to stay in the apartment. There was constant disruption, people were coming and going at all hours, and some of my belongings were pilfered. After a few days, I piled everything in the bedroom, locked it and moved to a hotel.
On Tuesday morning, April 19, I gathered in the temporary office with Beth and some of my Lebanese colleagues to try, once again, to account for everyone and sort out who needed to do what. Bob Dillon and Ryan Crocker came in. There were about 200 newsmen in front of the embassy, and they wanted some kind of statement. Could I get something together?
The right side of my head was so swollen that I could not have worn my eyeglasses, even if I hadn’t lost them in the bombing, and my right eye was swollen shut. I touch-typed a draft which I couldn’t read. Ryan looked at it and made a few suggestions. Bob looked at and said, “It’s okay, let’s go. I want you along.”
Bob and I walked the short distance to the embassy. There was an enormous crowd of journalists, illuminated suddenly by an explosion of camera flashes and TV lights. It never occurred to me that my bandaged head would attract so much attention, but this was the picture that appeared in U.S. papers. Ambassador Dillon read the statement. It sounded good. We took some questions.
On Wednesday, April 20, I recommended that Bob again appear before the media with refined casualty statistics. Years later, Bob’s recollection was that I insisted he do so, despite his reluctance: “John came up to me and said, you’re going to have to go out there and talk to those newsmen. And I said, oh my God, John, what do I say? So John reached in his pocket, here it is.” Bob and I went out, and Bob read the statement and took questions. After a while, the questions and answers began repeating themselves. I tugged on Bob’s coat and whispered, “I think this is getting too chatty; let’s get out of here.”
We still had not accounted for Riad, Hassan and Edgard. Relatives of all three had appeared at my apartment. Hassan’s wife was sad and resigned. Edgard’s Danish wife, Ermaline, was distressed but controlling herself magnificently. She told me that, at some time after the bombing, her telephone rang. When she answered it, there was no one on the other end of the line. “Could Edgard possibly be trapped inside someplace and calling for help?” I told her that I knew where Edgard was at the time of the blast, and I was sure he died instantly. Riad’s wife happened to appear when Bob Dillon was in the apartment, and she became very emotional and began screaming. It was a horrible situation, and, thank God, Elias Kawar was there to help disentangle it.
On Wednesday, I had not yet moved out of the apartment, and, at eleven o’clock that evening, I was lying on the bed, exhausted, fully clothed and awake. Sometime around then, Christine, Ryan Crocker’s wife, tapped on the door and said, “John, they’ve found Hassan.” Christine and I walked back to the embassy, where, under floodlights, people were working with machines and shovels to clear debris. Ryan was there. Later, a few years ago, Ryan told the BBC that he stayed there helping with the recovery for 48 sleepless hours.
Someone helped me climb up onto the debris. As I watched, Hassan’s body was pulled out. His face was black, swollen and barely recognizable, but I remembered his clothing from our Monday press briefing, and I identified him. Shortly after one o’clock Thursday morning, Edgard’s body was recovered, and I made the second identification.
I had promised Edgard’s wife a call as soon as I knew anything. Despite the hour, I made the call and gave her the news. She thanked me for calling and said she would let Edgard’s family get some sleep and give them the news in the morning.
My memory of how Hassan’s family responded is less clear. Hassan’s wife spoke no English, and this was something I didn’t want to handle in my far-from-perfect Arabic. I believe Elias Kawar helped me deal with it.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, Beth and I had to go back to AUB to see Dr. Hamdan. I told him that, on Monday, we had missed a large gash on my left leg. It had started to heal, and, to minimize scarring, he had to reopen the wound before he could suture it. Beth and I also visited Mary Lee McIntyre in the hospital.
I was giving several media interviews, including one on-camera for NBC. Bob had told me to use my own discretion and not worry about clearance or guidance for on-the-record discussions of human-interest aspects of the bombing. This gave me much more exposure than I expected or cared about, but I thought it important communicate that we were functioning, carrying on, doing our jobs. I did try to arrange opportunities for other people to be seen by the folks back home. I was able, on one occasion, to arrange coverage of a group of consular officers making identifications by examining personal artifacts removed from the embassy.
I was very concerned that we still could not account for Riad, and, on Thursday, we learned that search-and-rescue would be suspended because a high-level delegation from Washington would visit the embassy site Friday morning. I was angry, furious. When I vented to Bob Dillon, he said, “John, when something terrible like this happens, the American people feel they have to show something, to make a gesture, and this is what they are doing.”
We prepared for the VIPs. On Thursday afternoon I worked with security staff to plan media arrangements in front of the embassy, where the delegation would arrive. At the Ministry of Information that evening, with Elias Kawar and Marine public affairs colleagues—Major Fred Lash and Warrant Officer Bill Henderson– I distributed media accreditations for local and foreign journalists. On Friday morning, I was in front of the embassy checking accreditations. I knew that there are still bodies in the embassy wreckage, and, as I chatted with journalists, I hoped I wasn’t showing the seething rage I felt at being part of this grotesque circus. The choppers, VIPs aboard, dropped out of the sky.
One of the first people out of the choppers was the delegation head, Larry Eagleburger, Assistant Secretary of State. Eagleburger had a brief exchange with Bob Dillon and then walked over to me. Grasping me by the elbow, he said, “John, I understand you’ve really had a tough time.” I know that Bob Dillon put him up to it, but it was the perfect gesture.
One member of the VIP group from Washington was Jock Shirley, a senior boss from Washington. I still controlled the kitchen in my apartment and was still paying the housekeeper to look after the place, so, for several days after the bombing, I had her prepare lunch for Beth, the Lebanese staff and myself. We ate together and discussed our problems or whatever it was we were feeling. I think it may have been important for all of us; I know it was for me. Jock joined us for lunch in my kitchen on Thursday. He was very low-key and interacted well with everyone.
After lunch, we went to Edgard’s funeral. It was in a Greek Orthodox church. There were so many funerals then. Bob Dillon had gone to one, and his wife, Sue, came to Edgard’s. Jock sat at the front of the church with Sue, while Beth and I sat farther back with our Lebanese colleagues. An English-speaking Orthodox priest presided. It was terribly moving. When I left the church and greeted Edgard’s wife, I totally lost it. I sat down on the church steps in front of everyone and started sobbing. A Lebanese journalist I knew helped me to the car. Later in the afternoon, I went to see Hassan’s widow.
On Saturday morning, I was at the airport making media arrangements, talking to the Marine and Navy public affairs people and chatting with journalists I knew. I was even more obsessive than usual about it because I was trying not to focus on what was about to happen. Finally, I couldn’t avoid it any longer, and I went over and stood with Beth and my embassy colleagues nearby. Marines came out carrying 17 flag-draped caskets and loaded them onto an airplane. We were all there, and it was so quiet, so sad, so awful.
The VIP delegation left on the same airplane, and the recovery operation resumed.
Around eleven o’clock in the morning, someone asked me to come down to the embassy and identify a body, probably Riad. I was directed to an ambulance, and someone in a U.S. Navy uniform told me to go inside and take as much time as I needed. The body was on a stretcher, draped with a cloth. Someone removed the cloth. Riad was still wearing his grey suit, now dusty. The shirt was still white, but the grey silk necktie looked incongruous underneath his black, bloated face. This was the second and last time I lost it. I came out screaming, “The bastards! Those rotten bastards!”
Intense and exhausting months followed. Secretary of State George Shultz began shuttling among Jerusalem, Damascus and Beirut, trying to work out some kind of arrangement on Lebanon. His stops in Beirut were unpredictable and occurred on very short notice. I was trying to keep the staff together and engaged in our programs. At the same time, I was trying to salvage whatever I could from the embassy. I particularly wanted to get our radioteletype equipment out of the embassy, set up in my apartment and operating again. In those long-ago days before computers and the internet, this was how we received official texts, documentation, policy guidance and media summaries from Washington. Without this information, we felt isolated. Bob Dillon asked me several times about it, and I badly needed it myself.
The Marine public affairs people offered help. Marines and trucks would arrive, and I would have the staff there to help organize and decide what was needed, what we could salvage and where it would go. We would go into the embassy, find stuff, start dragging it out. Someone would come rushing up and say, “Shultz is coming; they need you at the airport!” I would drop everything, and Elias and I would go running out to the airport where we would meet the 12 or 14 journalists travelling with Shultz. We’d go to the presidential palace and be cooped up together in a press room. The journalists were tired, bored and unhappy that the Lebanese were not allowing them closer to the action. A couple of them were unpardonably bitchy and obnoxious. Every time somebody important said something publicly, Elias and I would record it, and Elias would rush the tape back to Beth so she could transcribe it and do it up as a cable for Washington. Then the cable had to be cleared with everybody and taken back to the embassy for transmission. This would go on for a few days, and then everybody would leave and Elias and I would go back to the embassy. Stuff was sitting in the stairwell. The trucks were gone. The Marines were gone. The staff were all sitting around someplace. I would start over, getting everyone moving in the same direction. Then Shultz would come again. I cannot recall how many times this happened.
On May 6, the embassy organized a memorial service in the chapel of the American University of Beirut. The chapel was filled with people. I drafted a little speech for Bob Dillon. I thought it would be difficult, but it was easy; it all came from my own heart. As Bob was reading it, he choked up and started sobbing. Walking out of the chapel after the service, I encountered Elias. Elias knew I had done the draft. He looked at me and asked, “John, what have you done to our ambassador?”
Sometime during the next three months I was offered a job in Washington, one I wanted. I had close friends and attachments in Lebanon. Bob Dillon was the best American ambassador I had ever encountered—intelligent, hard-working, decisive, articulate, compassionate, personable—and, before the bombing, I had told him I would happily stay in Lebanon a third year to work for him. I was exhausted, however, and, as much as I hated leaving Lebanon and my friends behind, it was time to go home. I asked Bob if he would release me from my commitment. “John,” Bob said, “enough is enough. Besides I may not be around that much longer myself.”
On August 13, Beirut airport was not functioning, and a military attaché friend got me onto a navy helicopter bound for Larnarca, Cyprus. Exactly two years before, I had first arrived in Lebanon. For the next two days, I sat on a Larnaca beach waiting for the August 15 Cyprus Air flight to London. From there, it was PanAm to Dulles.
Ambassador Dillon left Beirut on October 11, 1983. He became Deputy Director General of UNRWA, the UN agency dealing with Palestinian refugees. In 1987, he decided that he would not return to the foreign service, and, in 1988, he became president of Amideast, a non-governmental organization promoting educational exchange with the Middle East.
Ryan Crocker left Lebanon in 1984 to begin an academic year at Princeton. After a subsequent assignment in Egypt, he was named to ambassadorial posts in Syria, Kuwait, Lebanon, Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Bob Pearson died in 1991.
After seeing me off on August 13, Beth stayed in Lebanon until late October. Her subsequent overseas assignments were in Spain, China and Indonesia. Through it all, we stayed in touch. She retired in 1991. She and Nardo settled in Corpus Christi, Texas, where Beth had family. They are now preparing to relocate to San Diego, where Nardo has family. I visited them in Corpus Christi a few years ago, and we still exchange e-mails and talk occasionally on the phone.
Mohammed, the friendly security guard, was arrested shortly after the explosion He spent time in a Lebanese jail and underwent interrogation. I don’t know what happened to him afterward, but I trust it wasn’t pleasant. (At some point some of us were standing around talking about the likely disposition of Mohammed, and the Marine Gunnery Sergeant said, “If they decide to hang him, tell them to invite me. I’ll even bring my own lunch.”)
Dr. Usama Hamdan and his physician wife, Aida. eventually emigrated to the United States. He established a thriving practice in a suburb of Boston. When he retired from this, he founded a non-profit organization, the Global Smile Foundation. As foundation head, Usama leads medical teams into impoverished parts of the world to treat children with cleft lips, cleft palates and other facial deformities. When I visited Usama in Boston two years ago, he showed me before-and-after pictures of the foundation’s work. It is astonishing. Horribly disfigured children are transformed into beautiful people. Their lives are changed. Global Smile Foundation (www.gsmile.org) deserves attention from anyone seeking a worthwhile tax write-off.
After I retired from the foreign service in 1995, a friend proposed that we visit Beirut. We made the trip in December, 1997. Bedros Anserian, by this time, had left the embassy and established a tour company in Beirut. I contacted Bedros and asked him to make the arrangements for us. He met my friend, Rusty Lerner, and me at Beirut airport on December 7. Over the next week, Bedros was totally generous with his attention, time and hospitality. (Rusty was a little unnerved by Bedros’ one-eyed driving.) Bedros helped us visit many places I had known before, although I declined his offer of a day tour to Baalbek and the Bekaa Valley. Bedros also helped me track down old friends, including Maggie Teen, Elias Kawar and others not involved in this particular story. Some friends I wanted to see weren’t in Lebanon, and some seemed simply to have vanished. Elias had retired from the embassy, and Maggie was now responsible for the embassy’s cultural programs.
The embassy site, now cleared of rubble, was a vacant lot. My old apartment was unchanged and unoccupied. Partitions installed and alterations made to accommodate the consular section after the attack were still there.. I encountered my old landlord, Al Buckley, still living upstairs. Al said the embassy had promised to restore the apartment to its original condition when it moved out, but nothing was done, and he was never compensated. He just left everything as it was.
Beirut itself was a marvelous surprise. It seemed to have recovered its life. Shops were filled with Christmas displays and lights. The rubble in the center of Beirut had been removed, ruined buildings dismantled and, where possible, historically significant structures cleaned and restored. Construction equipment was everywhere, and new streets and buildings were taking shape. I walked from Hamra to Asharfiya in less than an hour, with a stop for a beer in a delightful pub right where the green line had been. In 1982, the same trip required two hours by car on a long, indirect route through armed checkpoints in Beirut port. It was an exhilarating seven days, and I left feeling encouraged about the future of Lebanon.
About a year before my retirement in 1995, Anne Dammarell contacted me. Anne told me that she and others—wounded in the 1983 bombing or family of those who died—were suing the Islamic Republic of Iran. The basis of the lawsuit was to be Iran’s sponsorship and support of Hezbollah, which carried out the attack, injuring and killing U.S. citizens. She asked me if I wanted to join the group. The group was to be represented on contingency basis by Crowell and Moring, a law firm with considerable experience in representing victims of terrorism, including Terry Anderson, the AP correspondent in Beirut who was kidnapped and held by Hezbollah.
After some reflection, I told Anne that I would join the group. Crowell and Moring interviewed and collected sworn statements from the plaintiffs, myself included. A copy of the complaint was translated into Farsi and forwarded to the Iranian government. The court collected videotaped depositions from Ambassador Robert Oakley and Admiral Bobby Inman. When proceedings commenced on April 7, 2003, no Iranian representation appeared. Anne Dammarell, Ambassador Dillon and others offered verbal testimony.
In decisions issued in December 2005 and September 2006, the U.S. District court in Washington, DC, finding liability on the part of Iran and Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security, awarded damages amounting to $316,919,657 to victims and family members of Americans killed in the April, 1983, bombing.
Throughout the subsequent years, Crowell and Moring have sought enforcement of the judgment, vigorously but, thus far, without success. Whether or not they ever succeed, the judgment fixed the blame for the attack and provided some sense of vindication to the victims. For me, it had two additional consequences. One is that accounts from some other bombing victims, distributed to all of us, have shown me how others suffered and how profoundly others were affected by the event. I gained new perspective. I was not the only person involved in the tragedy. Other things were happening, other people were struggling and dying while I was trying to get out of the building, and, for some, the suffering continued.
The other consequence arises from Anne’s diligence in keeping us informed about the lawsuit. Her e-mails have been like a series of newsletters, uniting her addressees into a kind of alumni group and keeping us in contact with one another.
Five years ago, on April 18, 2008, many of this group assembled with relatives and friends at the State Department to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the bombing. I had seen Ann Dammarell many years ago, when Bob and Sue Dillon invited her and me for dinner in Arlington, Virginia, shortly after her return from Germany, but I had not seen her since. She was there, as were Bob and Sue and many others I had not seen since 1983. I sat next to Bedros Anserian, now living in Los Angeles and working in a legal office. Bedros flew across the country for the event. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke, as did Bob. Concluding his remarks, Bob observed, “The 1982 Israeli invasion thoroughly radicalized the Shias of South Lebanon. Many of them believed the United States was complicit with the Israelis. We knew there were Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the Bekaa Valley. We knew they had close relations with emerging radical Shia groups. We did not know until it was too late that we had become their major target. They succeeded in mounting a horrifyingly murderous terrorist attack”
Initially, the multinational force was deployed in Lebanon with a precise mission, limited in time and scope, to safeguard the Palestinian withdrawal. It accomplished its mission, the Palestinians, left, the multinational force left. There was no such precision when the multinational force returned. The mission was vague, and no one knew when it would be time or conditions right for the force to leave. People who hated us more than we could possibly imagine saw this as an intolerable threat and decided to do something about it. I am not a political-military expert, but, to me, this juxtaposition appears instructive. If there is a lesson, however, some of us seem not to have not learned it, even after 30 subsequent years of trying this kind of thing.
When I revisited Lebanon in1997, I was elated by the feeling that, at long last, the Lebanese might have begun moving toward the bright future these cultured, gifted people and their beautiful country deserve. This brief glimmer of happiness has dimmed as Lebanon’s troubles have continued. Among other things, Hezbollah was linked to the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri on February 14, 2005. Neither this nor anything else has produced the fragmentation that Lebanon experienced prior to 1982, but the Syrian civil war may undo everything accomplished since 1983. The sad fact is that, now as in 1983, the fate of Lebanon depends on so many things the Lebanese themselves cannot control.
Recently, I listened to recordings of some statements to media after the 1983 bombing. I am astonished by some of my mistakes, some of the details I got wrong. I had not seen or remembered things correctly, I had not yet compared with my experiences with those of others, everything was chaotic and confused, and everyone was under enormous pressure to say something, to do something, to understand and explain what had happened. I regret my errors, I am glad that, 30 years later, they don’t matter, and that’s my excuse. I was not engaged in conspiracy or cover-up, nor were people responsible for errors and contradictions in similar circumstances after the September 11, 2012, Benghazi attack. To allege that they were is demeaning, self-serving and ridiculous.
After the 1983 embassy attack, the Department of State imposed new security standards on embassies around the world. The security measures may have made our embassies and consulates safer, but it is impossible to conduct diplomacy from a bunker. In a bunker, it is also difficult to have the rewarding and productive interaction with local colleagues that I enjoyed with my Lebanese staff. The day after the 1983 bombing, an NBC correspondent asked me why a diplomat would accept an assignment like Beirut. This is where the challenge is, I replied. This is where the work means something. This is where we can make a difference. In a recent interview on BBC radio, I heard Ryan Crocker make the same point: Often the most dangerous places are the places where you can do the most good. Diplomacy has become a risky and dangerous business, and our diplomats know this. How do we protect them while allowing them to do their work and interact with their colleagues and the public, even at some level of risk? What is the proper balance?
On October 23, twelve days after Ambassador Dillon left Lebanon, a suicide bomber attacked the US Marine barracks at Beirut airport, killing 241 American servicemen. On January 18, 1984, AUB president Malcolm Kerr was murdered outside his office. On March 16, 1984, William Buckley, CIA station chief in Beirut was kidnapped outside his apartment. On September 20, 1985, the American embassy, now relocated in East Beirut for greater security, was attacked, and 22 people were killed. In October, the Hezbollah distributed a photo of Buckley’s corpse.
Over the last 30 years, the war has continued, and we have tried to respond. At each juncture, we have had to struggle with the issue of living our lives and working freely versus the acceptance of greater inconvenience, restriction and intrusion in our affairs for the sake of greater security. We have come a long way from the early days of 1983 when most Americans had never heard of a Shia, a Sunni or Hezbollah and would have been outraged by an airport security search. We have a long way to go. So long as we try to maintain the proper balance, weigh our options carefully and use our power judiciously, we are not likely to lose the war, but, no matter how well we do, we are not likely to win it anytime soon.
A career foreign service officer who retired in 1995, John Reid served as United States Information Service director and counselor of embassy in Lebanon, Korea and Thailand. He had two previous assignments in Thailand, as well as postings in Vietnam and Laos. n Washington, he served twice as deputy director of the Office of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, United State Information Agency. He was a fellow at the Center for International Relations, Harvard University, and diplomat in residence at the University of Virginia.
Before joining the foreign service at age 24 in 1964, Reid earned an undergraduate degree in physics from Virginia Tech, worked a year for the Chinese YMCA in Hong Kong, served two years in the army and then earned a masters degree in international relations from Columbia University.
John Reid now divides his time between a house on Lake Anna in Virginia and a cottage on a beach in southeast Thailand, about 40 kilometers from the Cambodian border.