Rembering Bill Stelpflug

Just before the Syria war, I received a letter from the mother of the late Lance Corporal Bill J. Stelpflug, who joined the Marines in 1982 and was sent to Beirut in May 1983. A massive bomb destroyed the marine barracks on October 23, and Bill died in that attack.

The intense debate within the United States these days about whether or not to attack Syria as punishment for the Damascus regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons is one of the most dramatic examples of democracy in action that I have ever witnessed—“the consent of the governed” in action. It is clear that a big majority of Americans do not support a military strike. Only 36 percent of Americans surveyed approve launching a strike, according to this week’s Washington Post/ABC poll released on Tuesday, which is down from the 63 percent who approved military action when asked last December. Anti-attack sentiment is almost the same across party affiliations.

So something deep inside the minds and hearts of ordinary American is skeptical about using military force in Syria, as the House of Representatives discussions indicate also. It seems to me critically important that any American decision on Syria should reasonably reflect the sentiments of the American people; but how can we gain deeper insights into that sentiment other than through polls and media statements?

I was recently privileged to gain some insights into such sentiments from a family in Alabama that enjoys special credibility in asking about the appropriateness of American military attacks in the Arab World. A few years ago, just before the Syria war, I received a letter from Mrs. Peggy Stelpflug, the mother of the late Lance Corporal Bill J. Stelpflug, who joined the Marines in 1982 after graduating from high school in Auburn, Alabama. He was sent to Beirut in May 1983 with the Marine contingent that was assigned to protect Beirut Airport and help the Lebanese government restore its control of the country. A massive bomb destroyed the marine barracks on October 23, and Bill died in that attack.

Twenty-five years after his death, in 2008, his mother Peggy, who taught English at Auburn University, compiled a collection of the letters that Bill had written home to his family members, which she shared with me. I read the letters with profound respect for this young American who served his country faithfully (as had his father William, a retired U.S. Air Force pilot). I read the letters, and then exchanged emails and spoke on the phone with Peggy.

The experience was doubly moving. I was moved first by the poignancy of Bill’s letters home. They reflected his typical, all-American yearnings for things like football games and picnics on the beach with friends and family, while he was also growing into a hardened man who fired all kinds of powerful weapons, often at enemies he did not see or know. His letters reflect his feelings, observations, sensitivity to the devastation in Beirut, and also his fears and frustrations about the mission he was involved in.

On Sept. 7, 1983, he wrote to his parents: “I am alive and well. Maybe a little dirty, tired and shell-shocked, but walking and talking. Our ‘war’ just lasted 3 full days so far. Two more Marines have been killed by rockets and more wounded. All the fighting is the Lebanese Army putting on their pants and trying to quell the Moslems for good. They began their campaign from our perimeter, so we were sucked into the battle. We have been taking rockets and bullets…we have been shooting back with some effect, mainly snipers or destroying rocket positions with artillery…I am filthy, and bone sore, and 100% fit….It worries me more to know that ya’ll worry about me more than I worry about me…like you said, there is no peace to keep here. If you’re not a war maker, get the hell out of the way. I think Beirut is just a realistic training base for the U.S. Marine Corps, getting us used to the real thing. Tell everyone I’m fine and plan to stay that way. Won’t go out of my way to be a hero, or anything like that. Just doing my time in this Mediterranean junk yard. Thinking of home. Love you all very much.”

His letters are striking – and typical of many young American troops abroad, I suspect – for the very little information they contain about the local environment in which he was serving and fighting. He compensated for this with humor, bravado, and pride in serving his country. He did his job faithfully and well (he was promoted several times before and during his Beirut stay).

The next day after he wrote this letter, September 8, 1983 – exactly 30 years ago tomorrow – the USS Bowen fired its 5-inch guns against Druze positions in Lebanon, in the first American use of naval gunfire support, which edged the United States into a position of being an active protagonist in the war alongside the government forces. On October 23, a truck bomb attack against the Marine barracks killed 241 Americans, alongside 58 French troops. Bill Stelpflug was listed as missing in action. On October 29, Major Eric Christenson visited the Stelpflug home to inform them that their son Bill had been killed in the attack.

The second way that this episode moved me was that 25 years later, Peggy Stelpflug would write to me out of the blue—she saw that I was living and writing on political issues from Beirut, often critically of U.S. foreign policy—and asked me earnestly: Did Bill serve and die for a good cause? Was the U.S. mission something the Lebanese people approved of? Had the United States done the right thing by using its military force in Lebanon in 1983? A quarter century after her son had died in Beirut, she needed to know why he had died, and if the cause of his mission had been just.

Peggy and I chatted a few times about Lebanon and the United States in 1983. I believe she learned some new things, and I certainly was enlightened by this family’s noble reactions. I asked her and her husband for permission to write about Bill’s letters and about the family’s questions on the wider political issues that shaped American foreign policy then, and they graciously agreed. Peggy and her husband William shared my sentiments that Bill’s life, service and death could enrich “our common desire to learn from each other in the cause of advancing our shared humanity….and that the lessons of his life and death would perhaps be illuminating for others.”

It is appropriate today — 30 years to the date when American ships shelled the Lebanese mountains—that all of us be very sure that before American men and women are sent again to attack Arab targets, that citizens across the United States like the Stelpflug family in Auburn, Alabama are credibly consulted on such an important decision. These American families that express such skepticism in the opinion polls deserve a clear answer. So do the Syrian people. So does the world.

Bill Stelpflug never got to enjoy Auburn’s winning the US collegiate football championship in 2010. He would have partied like crazy. Maybe he did party, wherever he is. But perhaps he can take solace in the fact that his short life has left an important legacy for Auburn fans, Alabamans, and all Americans: the citizen’s duty to serve, and also to ask if the mission he or she is asked to accomplish is morally and politically correct. That, I assume, is what “the consent of the governed” is all about.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri.

Copyright © 2013 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global