by Gilbert Cavanaugh
The holidays are all about remembering: remembering our traditions, remembering to be grateful – remembering each cousin’s name, etc. Part of holiday remembrance is even just remembering to remember all the things you have to do, whether they be Christmas cards, invitations, or whatever. But this holiday season I have awkwardly remembered something I should not have forgotten – and that almost all of us forgot.
This past year marked the 55th anniversary of America’s brief intervention in Lebanon. Between July 15th and late October of 1958, around 14,000 American military personnel came to and left the tiny nation – about the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined. One has to wonder just how little was accomplished for “Operation Bluebat,” as it was called, to have been almost completely forgotten by history. In researching the event more deeply, this blip on the interventionist radar begins to move from being not just mysterious, but absurd as well. Take for example, what English journalist (and expert on Lebanon) Robert Fisk wrote in Pity the Nation:
The 1958 war is remembered now not so much for the vicious sectarian battles that occurred in Beirut but for the arrival of the US Marines, who stormed ashore only to find the beaches occupied not by militiamen but by bikini-clad ladies and street urchins who were merely waiting to sell Coca-Cola to the country’s latest rescuers.
Many more examples of completely botched expectations and bad planning on the part of the U.S. military can be found with even just a bit of research. For instance, one of the only studies on the intervention available online, “Not War But Like War”: The American Intervention in Lebanon by Roger J. Spiller, ends on this biting note:
Virtually every official report opens with the caveat that had Operation BLUEBAT been opposed, disasters would have occurred, and argues that problems encountered during the operation’s course could have been solved well before the order to execute was given. Some of the reports at higher echelons sounded hopeful notes: future reforms would prevent such problems, should an operation of this kind be launched again. Modern soldiers are in the best position to consider whether such predictions have come true.
Yes, you read right, the lightning quick invasion launched by American Marines was never “opposed” in the traditional military sense. Despite the United States maintaining an eye on the region for some time, no detailed plans for an invasion had been developed. Then on July 14th, when a coup shook Iraq, President Chamoun of Lebanon, worried that he would be next, “lost no time in summoning Ambassador [of the U.S.] McClintock to ask for military intervention…. he insisted that it arrive within forty-eight hours.” This takes us back to the Robert Fisk passage, American Marines hitting the foreign beach only to find vendors and pretty ladies, which makes one wonder, “what happened next?”
Not much. Given that, “even native Lebanese had difficulty discovering the allegiances of the many armed civilians in and around Beirut at that time,” tensions were very high, but no battles or skirmishes flared up – ever. This was quite fortunate for a military confused by a situation “beyond the power of nuclear weapons to solve.” There were little instances of luck as well: when two marines accidentally wandered into a hostile part of Beirut, they were given “a lecture on American imperialism” and returned to their comrades in arms.
Very little changed within Lebanon either, outside of a presidential election, no noteworthy events took place while American troops were there. After the departure of American forces, things remained fairly quiet until 1975, when a horrific 15 year civil war broke out. The situation, at least from an American Cold War perspective, in North Africa and the Middle East did not change either. Those who launched the coup in Iraq stayed in power for another decade, and even then never returned to the monarchy they had had before – and a pro-Western government would not hold power there until, well, 2003. Pan-Arabist and Egyptian President Nasser was not frightened by the show of strength either. In the span of a decade he would bring about more socialist domestic policies, absorb Syria, play a hand in the Yemeni Civil War, and fight another war with Israel.
So what was accomplished? Like with most wars and “war-like” operations, the only tangible effect seems to have been a single combat death. On August 1st, American Sergeant James Nettles was shot and killed by a sniper bullet in Beirut. Despite the fact that he was in the military, I cannot find a single photo of him, and even aside from that, and his death is ignored by many. The Wikipedia page on the intervention does not mention him at all, nor does one of the only books on matter, The United States and the 1958 Lebanon Crisis by Erika G. Alin – which concerns itself almost exclusively with the diplomacy surrounding the matter, and barring that omission, is good. A few years ago, pop historian Doris Kearns Goodwin even felt comfortable saying that no American soldiers died in combat during President Eisenhower’s administration – and when fact checkers took her to task, they too failed to mention any Lebanon incurred casualties.
So this holiday season, try to remember James Nettles.