Monday, August 04, 2008

A Quarter Century Ago: Grenada and Beirut

25 years ago this month, I was living the good life. After a rough junior year at Eastern Illinois University, I was taking summer school with a new major and a new attitude. After struggling with my Biology major, I'd discovered Political Science after taking a required class in the subject. The teacher, with the improbable name of Dr. John Faust, had captured my imagination. I was hooked, and would go on to get my Bachelor's and then Master's in Political Science.

This had entailed a major change in my plans. When I was 19, I'd had it all planned out; I'd go to Eastern for a year, get some basic classes out of the way, and transfer to the University of Illinois to study Biology.

In the military, they say that the plan ends with the first shot. This was the case with my first year at Eastern. I discovered a lot of things. First, I was way more interested in Political Science than Biology, at least at that point in my life. Second, I'd met the best friends I'd ever meet in my life-- Jim, Larry, Andreas, Carolyn, Tim, Mark, Ron and maybe two dozen others, and had no desire to transfer to the University of Illinois.

The summer of 1983 was a turning point. I'd realized that I had a passion for Political Science and History. As I began my senior year, I jumped into it, taking two Political Science classes-- the "Politics and Ideology of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe", and "Party Politics." The latter was taught by my advisor, the late Joe Connelly, who, I did not realize until fairly recently was the advisor for two of my oldest and closest friends, Andreas and Ron.

That summer was a turning point in my life more than academically. After playing guitar since I was 15, I was, for the first time, able, to my surprise and delight, to sit down and figure a song out on the guitar by ear. I remember playing a lot of guitar that summer.

I was rooming that summer with a friend from the dorms, Kenny. We lived in a huge old frat house off-campus. We were not in the frat; they took in "independents" in the summer in order to cover costs. Years later, the well-insured house burned to the ground while vacant during Christmas break.

The summer was idyllic. I was taking summer school classes I loved. I'd come home from class, eat lunch and lay out in the sun wearing just my cut-offs studying. Sometimes I'd throw one of the albums I listened to a lot that summer onto the turntable: The Beach Boys' "Endless Summer" best-of collection, Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska" and "Born To Run" albums, Joni Mitchell's "Hejira" and Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited."

Around 3 or 4 in the afternoon, I'd head over to Taylor Hall, where I worked in the food service. I made a bunch of friends there, too. At night, I'd study a little more, chat with Kenny, sometimes watch the Cubs games with my housemates and call it a night. Since we didn't have class on Fridays, on Thursdays, we'd head up to Mother's, a bar in the square, for $1.75 pitchers and good music.

One night, I was hanging out in the room Kenny and I shared, taking a break from studying, watching a show I'd come to enjoy. It was a talk show that came out of Detroit, hosted by Dennis Wholey, a guy I'd never heard of.

I came to really like the show and Dennis Wholey himself. He was intelligent and interesting, and had guests that nobody else would have. I respected the way he dealt bluntly with his alcoholism.

That July night, he had a guy I'd never heard of, who was the leader of a country I'd never heard of. The guy was Maurice Bishop, who was the Prime Minister of Grenada, a tiny island nation of about 100,000 people in the Caribbean.

As the interview unfolded, I became fascinated with what was going on. Bishop had taken power in March of 1979 while Prime Minister Eric Gairy was out of the country. Only 33 years old, he headed up the "New Jewel Movement," a group that held a spectrum of leftist beliefs. The New Jewel Movement instituted ties with the government of another leftist Caribbean island nation, Cuba.

1979 seemed to be the year of the young man throughout the developing world. In Ghana, 31-year-old Flt. Lt. Jerry Rawlings had deposed the corrupt government of Ghana and instituted a reform government. In the Central American nation of Nicaragua, 31-year-old Daniel Ortega, leading the FSLN, a coalition of leftist revolutionaries, assumed power.

A major topic of conversation that night between Wholey and Bishop was an airport runway that was being built in Grenada. It had become a political football between Grenada and the United States. The mile-long runway was wrought with controversy. Grenada needed it, Bishop said, to bring in jumbo jets full of tourists to tiny Grenada, and bring its 110,000 residents out of poverty. The Reagan Administration was claiming that the secret agenda of building the runway was to land Soviet jet fighters and help bring Grenada into the Eastern sphere of influence.

I made a mental note to try to find more information about Grenada, Bishop and the runway and continued about my summer,

My brother, who is a year younger than I, had joined the Marines about a year earlier. At the age of 20, he was sent to the American peacekeeping force in Beirut, Lebanon in the spring of 1983 for what was expected to be a six month deployment. They had been sent there to help cover the withdrawl of Israel's troops, who had invaded Lebanon the year before.

As the situation in Beirut intensified-- the Marines were caught in the crossfire of the complicated and vicious factionalization of Lebanese political and military life-- I began to worry about my brother.

My new school year started. I was rooming with three great friends, studying what I loved studying, and now that I was working part-time, I could put some financial worries behind me. Then, the rug got pulled from under my feet.

On Sunday morning, October 23, 1983, I was sleeping in. My roommate Jim ran into my room to tell me what he'd heard on the news that morning: there had been an enormous explosion at the Marine barracks in Beirut. There were already known to be many dead and wounded.

For four agonizing days, my family and I waited for news. Finally, on Thursday, October 27, I got a phone call from my parents-- they had just gotten a call from his girlfriend, who had just gotten a call from him. He was all right, but had been busy furiously digging through the rubble with hundreds of other Marines, trying to save the lives of those trapped underneath.

In the meantime, things were also heating up in Grenada. It turns out that both Bishop and Reagan were right, in a manner. While Bishop was a moderate, who actually did see the runway, which was being built by Western contractors, with aid from countries like Canada, Mexico and the Netherlands, as crucial to Grenada's economic development through tourism, there was a faction within the New Jewel Movement that wanted Grenada to ally with the East bloc and wanted to allow the East bloc to use the runway once it was built. A power stuggle quickly turned bloody. On October 19, 1983, Bishop and seven of his closest supporters were taken into custody by Bishops's childhood friend Deputy Prime Minister Bernard Coard. There were island-wide protests over the action-- the charismatic Bishop was very popular in Grenada. They were briefly released, but quickly recaptured and summarily executed. General Hudson Austin, a member of the Grenadan military, took power.

On October 25th, 1983, the United States launched "Operation Urgent Fury." The ostensible rationale for the operation was to protect the lives of American citizens living in Grenada, particularly students at the St. George Medical School. The operation, though, was not without controversy. The British government, then headed by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, was unhappy with the invasion; Grenada was still, technically, a member of the British commonwealth. Technically, the United States had invaded Britain. However, since the United States had supported Britain in the Falklands war the year before, she did not make much of it.

The medical school was another story.

In a Frontline program that aired in 1987, respected investigative journalist Seymour Hersch interviewed the head of the St. John's Medical School and discovered that through the invasion, the people running the medical school were able to get through on telephone lines to the United States offices of the medical school, in New York. It turned out that the Cuban troops, who had been ordered to stay out of the factional fighting within the Grenadan government, had also been ordered to assure the safety of US, English and other citizens who might be caught in the fighting. In fact, representatives of both factions had met with personnel from the medical school and assured their safety. The only danger, the medical school administrators felt, was a US invasion. The medical school representatives revealed that they were trying to contact the White House and inform them of this fact-- but that the White House refused to take their calls.

A more cynical person might say that the White House refused the calls because it might give them evidence contrary to the conclusion and outcome that they wanted to reach-- a US invasion. A more cynical person might also say that the Reagan administration was trying to cover their asses after having allowed hundreds of US soldiers to be killed by leaving them dangerously exposed in Beirut-- the commanding officers had begged high-ups to provide more security, but had been told they couldn't because it would appear like a siege. They were of course thrown under the bus afterward and blamed for failing to provide the defenses they had themselves requested to provide, and relieved of duty. But I'll let history be the judge of the Reagan Administration's actions in Beirut.

What is known is that the Grenada invasion was a fiasco. The soldiers that were landed there did not have current maps of Grenada; they had to rely on tourist maps provided at the last minute. In the Frontline episode, I remember one young soldier describing the difficulty of calling in artillery fire using these maps-- something like "Fire it a hundred-fifty meters west of "Point of Interest #3." There were a lot of unnecessary deaths on both sides, particularly when US forces bombed a mental hospital, killing dozens of civilians. In the end, when the smoke had cleared, the US suffered 19 deaths, the Grenadans 45 military and 24 civilian deaths, and the Cubans 24 dead. The invasion revealed serious problems in the military-- Reagan had been spending enormous amounts of money on carriers and other big-ticket items, and neglecting things like communication. The different US military services had radios and walkie-talkies that used different frequencies and were unable to communicate with one another, and in a famous incident, a US officer had to call in an airstrike using a pay phone and a credit card.

When news came of the US invasion of Grenada, most people had the same reaction: where's Grenada. I knew-- I'd read a few days before of Bishop's murder. Hearing about Bishop's death that week saddened me. I'd been impressed with him on Wholey's show-- he struck me as a decent man, a Grenadan patriot who genuinely cared about his people.

I've long thought it was ironic that just as I was settling on my major and minor-- Political Science and History, respectively, the politics and history of the world were affecting me personally.

The toll at the Marine barracks in Beirut as much higher than that of Grenada: 241 dead. And at least on person seriously, and perhaps irreparably psychologically scarred.

For many years, my brother did not speak of Beirut. The only mention of it to any member of my family, until he went into treatment in the mid-nineties for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, was a letter he wrote me about a year later. It was clear to me then that the event had shaken him to the core. He'd never seen a dead body before that day-- I don't think he'd ever even attended an open-casket funeral. Those four days he saw hundreds, some of them guys he'd known. In the letter he told me how awful it was to have held smashed, terrified, dying guys in his arms, lying to them to, telling them they were going to be all right in order to make the last few minutes of their lives better. He wrote of how awful it was having to pick up someone who'd been dead for a couple of days, and having to break their arms and legs to get them into body bags.

Not all the casualties of the barracks bombing were guys who died that week. He's gone through two divorces, a bunch of jobs and lots of therapy. His wife moved his children to another state, which didn't help matters. My folks told me recently that he got a good, well-paying job repairing helicopters, something he'd done in the Marines. We haven't spoken since an ugly Thanksgiving dinner nearly seven years ago, but I've thought about calling him and trying to mend fences.

And what of Grenada? Eventually, civilian rule returned to Grenada. Bernard Coard was tried, convicted and sentenced to death, but that death sentence was commuted to life. He resides in Grenada's Richmond Hill prison, where he works as a teacher for other inmates.

The runway was built, and opened a year after the invasion, October, 1984 by Grenada's reinstated Prime Minister Paul Scoon. To this day, it brings planeloads of tourists to Grenada. No Soviet fighter jets are known to have landed on it.


SkylersDad said...

I remember your story of your brother, and what a toll that attack on the barracks took on him.

I see that we have learned pretty much nothing all through the years between then and now.

Mike Jamorama Hammil said...

It was clear to me then that the event had shaken him to the core. He'd never seen a dead body before that day-- I don't think he'd ever even attended an open-casket funeral. Those four days he saw hundreds, some of them guys he'd known. In the letter he told me how awful it was to have held smashed, terrified, dying guys in his arms, lying to them to, telling them they were going to be all right in order to make the last few minutes of their lives better.

Erik Donald France said...

I remember that all very well.

Seemed that Reagan was trying to distract from pulling out of Lebanon by invading Grenada.

If Carter had won in 1980, I doubt Israel would have been given a greenlight to invade, and he would have pushed the Camp David Accords etc. At least he helped bring Egypt and Israel to a real truce in the grand scheme of things.

The world still awaits a sequel to Carter's presidential diplomacy in the Middle East.

Let's not forget that silly take on Grenada, Heartbreak Ridge!