By James M. Perry
War, it is said, is hell. It is also frequently a muddle when no one, especially those supposedly in charge, knows exactly what's going on. These muddles happen all the time.
The attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, in Libya, the night of September 11, 2012, killing the American ambassador and three others, was just such a muddle, a complete bollox, that Republicans, all these months later, are still fulminating about.
What happened that night in Benghazi is reasonably clear. More than 100 gunmen, some of them armed with rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns, and even artillery mounted on specially equipped trucks, stormed the lightly defended mission. It was, in other words, a fairly sophisticated operation. Four Americans were killed -- Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens, two security specialists, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, both ex-Navy Seals, and Sean Smith, a Foreign Service diplomat.
Normally in these tragic situations, the loyal opposition makes the case that steps should have been taken to make missions like the one at Benghazi more secure. Republicans, though, make the case that Democrats in the Obama administration, with an election just weeks away, tried to cover up what happened to make themselves look better. They've set up more hearings to embarrass the administration and called on Secretary of State John Kerry to appear before them, even though he has no connection to what happened that night in Benghazi.
Of course the loss of life was tragic. Of course, in hindsight, security at the mission should have been better. (Republicans neglect to mention they have repeatedly voted against appropriating more money for overseas security). And, of course, the administration should have been more open about what took place.
Then, once again, in times of war or in times of terrorist activity, bungling will occur. It always has, and it always will.
On October 23, 1983, for example, a truck packed with explosives crashed into the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, and blew up. The death toll was 220 Marines, 18 sailors and three soldiers. For the Marines, it was the deadliest day in their history since Iwo Jima in World War 2. A second truck bomb struck the headquarters of France's 1st Parachute Chasseur Regiment, killing 58 paratroopers. For the French army, it was the deadliest day since the civil war in Algeria.
The Marines and the French paratroopers were in Lebanon as peacekeepers.
The response to the Marine massacre by Ronald Reagan's White House was muddled. Secretary of State George Schultz wanted large-scale retaliation. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger didn't, noting, with uncommon good sense, that the Americans really weren't sure who was responsible for the attack.
The USS New Jersey, an obsolete battleship, was standing off Beirut in December and was ordered to fire a few rounds at what the Navy thought were enemy positions ashore. Eleven shells, each, wide-eyed witnesses said, as large as Volkswagen beetles, were sent on their way, doing as far as anyone could tell no damage at all. (The New Jersey was in action again in February, firing more than 300 shells at Druze and Syrian positions in the Bekaa Valley. That barrage, the biggest by a battleship since the Korean war, consumed, according to one account, almost half the 16-inch shells available to the US Navy in Europe and the Middle East.)
The peacekeeping force had all gone home by the end of February.
Investigations revealed it might have helped if the men guarding the barracks had loaded weapons or if the barriers were more than just barbed wire.
What happened at the Marine and the French barracks in Beirut was truly a muddle, far more tragic and far more indefensible than what happened in the attack on the American mission in Benghazi. Democrats in Congress, though, seemed to understand that these disasters sometimes happen, and kept their mouths shut. Today's Republicans, in their obsessive hatred of President Obama and the Democrats, show no interest in following their lead.
James M. Perry, a prominent veteran political reporter, is contributing regular observations for post-gazette.com. Mr. Perry was the chief political correspondent of The Wall Street Journal until his retirement. Prior to that, he covered national politics for the Dow Jones weekly, The National Observer.