An Expert Says Stay...

updated 11/07/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/07/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

A highly decorated Marine company commander in Vietnam, former minority counsel to the House Veterans Affairs Committee and a celebrated novelist (1978's Fields of Fire), James Webb, 37, recently traveled to Lebanon to report for a TV program on the Marines in Beirut. "When I go somewhere like that I view myself as a Marine. They're my friends, "says Webb. Upon his return, Webb, author of the just-released novel A Country Such As This, shared his thoughts about Lebanon with PEOPLE correspondent Margie Bonnett Sellinger.

Why are we in Lebanon?

The multinational force was brought in to enable the Arabs and Israelis to disengage, to bring a sense of calm to the Beirut area and to allow the Lebanese to rebuild their army and restructure a strong central government. People say there has been fighting between factions for 1,000 years. But the truth is Lebanon was one of the emeralds of the Mediterranean until 1975, when this thing blew up.

Are we there because of Israel?

No, we're there because of the Middle East as a whole. If the multinationals were to pull out today, the Syrians would pour down into Beirut from the hills. That would risk the Israelis' coming back again, and there would be no country called Lebanon. I think that's pretty clear.

Why can't the Marines fight back?

They are subject to "the rules of engagement." They have to see the individual shooting at them before they can shoot back, and then they can only return fire with the exact sort of weapon that's being used on them. In other words, you can't drop an artillery round on a guy who's shooting at you with a machine gun. That's escalation.

Are the Syrians and Iranians trying to escalate the situation?

There's no doubt about it. They can't lose and we can't win if this thing explodes. If we respond aggressively, then they can claim we are acting with the Israelis and the Phalangists and that will split the country in half, which is what the Syrians want. And if we sit back and take it, like we've been doing, then the American public gets enormously frustrated and says, "What the hell are we doing there allowing our guys to get shot at?"

Should we pull out?

The reality now—and this is a reality that has been forced on us by the terrorists—is that we have to hang in until our mission is complete. The way for the issue to be resolved is for successful negotiations to take place among the various Lebanese factions. This process has already begun, perhaps in seriousness for the first time since this latest cease-fire.

If we're going to stay, what can the Marines do to protect themselves?

This attack would never have happened in Vietnam. The truck would never have gotten into our headquarters area.

Why?

In Lebanon they have so few Marines that they can't even conduct an aggressive defense. In an aggressive defense, you have your main area, then you have outposts with company strongpoints around it, so that you can pick up the truck maybe 1,000 meters away and challenge it there.

It sounds like we have to rethink our presence in Lebanon.

Absolutely. We have to have either more of it or less of it. The British have only 100 men there. They're very visible because they get out in these little armored cars and show the flag, but they're the only people not to have taken a casualty. Their compound is surrounded by a reinforced wall and there's a chain-link fence dropped down the front of the building to repel rocket-propelled grenades. It's just plain hell getting into their buildings. They have superbly built bunkers.

You think, then, that we should boil down the size of our force.

No. If the mission of protecting the airport remains, then I'm for the other option. We should allow the Marines to conduct an aggressive defense. That doesn't mean attacking anybody. It just means having enough people to set up a perimeter with outposts.

Do you have a sense of déjà vu—that this is another Vietnam?

Vietnam, to us, is a buzzword for fear—fear of failure. I think if there had been no Vietnam, we'd probably have been able to solve this more easily.

Please explain.

The memory of Vietnam has made us less able to act on a bipartisan basis here at home. It has also made us less decisive. When you act militarily, you have to know what you are going to do. You have to go in and do it—then you have to get out. I keep going back to Lebanon in 1958, when we intervened in a struggle between the pro-Western government and leftist Arab nationalists. We said, "Okay, we're going to go in." We put 14,000 people in there. Boom. We were in and out in three months and things remained relatively stable until 1975.

You seem to be suggesting that we are suffering a national identity crisis.

That's true. Ever since Vietnam, we've begun with the premise that we're going to fail. Yet the lesson we should have learned from Vietnam is that you cannot try to fight a war at the same time you're debating it. What we need now is a clear statement of what we want to accomplish in the Middle East. I think the American people will get behind it, but they have to be able to see a clear objective down the road.

Is this an American-Soviet conflict or just a local war?

The Soviets want to be players in the Middle East, and the Syrians are their way to do it. The Soviets have 7,000 advisers and very sophisticated gear committed to the conflict.

A final question: In your opinion, have the Marines been properly trained and equipped to deal with terrorism?

For a year the Marines have been just herculean. Their restraint has been incredible. As for terrorism, you can no more prepare yourself for a terrorist than you can prepare yourself for being robbed on the street.

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