Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Army I Knew: Grenada 6, or, We Were So Much Older Then...

Thirty years ago a much younger me, a medic with the 82nd Airborne Division, spent a month or so "liberating" the island of Grenada from the evils of Communism.

As we read in Parts 1 through Part 5, young Doc Chief had no idea what the hell was going on around him, assuming that because everyone and everything looked so warlike that he was involved in an actual war that, like the wars he had read about, was being planned and executed by people who knew how to do those warlike things.

But, as we've also read, the war was, like many other wars, compounded of good and bad guesses, correct assumptions and mistakes, and the people in charge of it were in many ways unprepared, or poorly trained, or just confused.

And as a result people died, as they tend to do in wars when their leaders are unprepared, or poorly trained, or confused.

Luckily for those of us who survived the first couple of days everyone stopped shooting quickly. But as it happened my outfit remained on Grenada for nearly a month, doing this and that, showing The Flag and supporting what passed for a post-invasion "reconstruction".

I wrote about this in a letter to my parents sent in November, and so the following account in blockquotes is from my younger self, Specialist Doc Chief; where necessary I will add my current observations or comments in normal text.

Now what happened, younger me?
Monday 31 October

We rode in helicopters ("airmobled") north to a soccer field west of the large town on the northeast of the island, Grenville. The move into town was quite bonhomious - smiling and waving. We set up shop on a knob crowned by a weird-looking castle that seemed to be a sort of cistern. That night we went into Grenville and set up checkpoints to sieve out the PRA or Cubans fleeing for their hides.

We found nothing.

The next morning, Tuesday, 1 November...

...a nice lady brought us coffee and biscuits.

We moved up to a home not far from the cistern (which had overflowed during the night and drenched out rucks) which we called the White House, for its general grandeur compared to its neighbors.

Thar night we suffered our first casualty, a kid who shot himself in the leg with his own .45.

That day we did our first valley-hunting, walking up and down the roads, showing the flag and asking for Cubans or weapons caches. No luck."
And we never DID have any luck.

The bottom line is that the folks in Grenada wanted what most people everywhere want; to be left alone to do what they can to make a living, make a life, and a life for their friends and families.

They hadn't wanted to be kicked around by Gairy's goons. They hadn't wanted to be kicked around by Bishop's, or Cooard's, thugs. They didn't want to be kicked around - not that we did much kicking, really - by Uncle Sammy's minions, either.

The "war" was something that, like most sensible people, they wanted little or no part of. So they didn't want any trouble with, or from, us. We spent the rest of the month doing nothing of military value.

And that was lucky for me, because I was a mess in Grenada.

I had too little raw courage and too much imagination to be a good grunt, and I was too young to have learned the sort of self-discipline and dignity that would have allowed me to control my fear and harness my imagination.

That, and I was too much in love with myself and my own life at 26; I couldn't imagine anything so precious as to be worth risking it.

I may well have been one of the few old soldiers more willing to take risks than I was as a young soldier. But, then, as a young soldier I was only worried about myself; as an old one I had soldiers who needed me to be calm and think clearly to preserve their lives rather than be frightened for my own.

Of the remaining month or so probably the most worthwhile thing I did was work in the little medical clinic in the tiny town of Happy Hill, north of the capital of St. Georges.

Like most people in the world, the people of Happy Hill were very poor, and what little medical care they could find was on the level that most poor people get. Which is to say, poor. They had a doctor that traveled in once every couple of weeks, but most people couldn't afford him.

One of the few good things that Grenadians had to say (to our faces) about the Cubans and their Grenadian clients was that they had brought actual doctors and nurses to everyone, not just the handful of wealthy plantation owners and businessmen in St. Georges.

Nurse Joan was overjoyed to see us.

Nurse Joan - that's her on the left, the slim little woman standing next to the wall in the photo above - had been the sole constant caregiver in the little Happy Hill Clinic. She had provided what she could but knew, as only someone who knows how little she has, what she lacked and how her people suffered from that.

But suddenly the rich Americans were everywhere; medics helping with minor surgery, our physician's assistant, Chief Schrum, providing actual surgery and dispensing medicines that no one in Happy Hill had ever even seen, much less been provided. I think we all liked working in the Happy Hill clinic; the people were hard-working and solid, and we loved Nurse Joan for her goodness and caring.

On the back of the photo above - that she sent along after me after I had left - she wrote "Friends that will never be forgotten."

But as American soldiers always have, everywhere they have visited, one day the big camo-colored truck whined and bellowed up the steep road to Happy Hill and we were gone.

What now?

Thirty years later, what did we do, all of those sailors and Marines and soldiers transported to the Spice Island at such expense to slay Grenadians where they ran and to chase the evil Cuban imperialists out?

Certainly we didn't remove the airfield that was such a threat to lilypad Soviet troops throughout the Caribbean. In a twist of fate that I hope amuses the shade of old Mo Bishop and his bullet-riddled pals in their lost grave somewhere near Fort George the old Ranger drop zone is now officially the Maurice Bishop International Airport.

Most Grenadians are still poor.

Most of them still work either as small farmers or as menials in the tourist industry. Capitalism has given Grenada what its given pretty much everyone else; lots of nice things to buy but as often as not - and more often for those of us not born to the purple - a pretty scary chance of not being able to afford to buy them.

It's hard to say that the 1983 invasion did any harm and may well have done some good - in cold, geopolitical terms. But in human terms it did real harm. I did real harm, and all my buddies in the 82nd.

Could Bishop and Cooard done better? Maybe not. But that's not the point; we - Ronnie Reagan, Fast Eddie Trobrough, and I - didn't give them the chance. We decided that we knew better than the people in Grenada. So we went in and took that decision away from them.

As a Grenadian commentor notes, the U.S. rolled back the things that the New Jewel Movement did for the vast majority of the people of Grenada. It's all fine and dandy to have a bunch of Americans come work in you clinic...but it's better to have a real clinic, and a real doctor. And real work, and real rights that don't depend on the bounty of some autocrat.

With the cold light of hindsight its obvious that the events of 1983 had nothing to do with "liberation" or helping anyone, other than helping the Cold Warriors "fight the Commies"

Given the pre-invasion events I suspect that it's also likely that the ramshackle Cooard-Austin "government" might well have fallen within years, or even months, leaving Grenada where it is today more-or-less only without the people dead these thirty years.

A 2012 study of pre- and post-invasion Grenada concludes in part:
"The U.S. attempt to make Grenada a model for modernization did not necessarily fail. But it produced mixed results. The political democracy the U.S. hoped to encourage resulted in ineffective governance. Significant advancements in the island’s infrastructure and social services occurred, but many of these were unsustainable after U.S. aid ended in the early nineties. In part, the Cold War was over. But the U.S. no longer saw Grenada as the model it could have been, and there was little to no foreign investment from American or western businesses. The Grenadian government did not have the budget, nor the expertise, to prolong many of the U.S.-implemented development programs."
Sound familiar?

Thought so.

The only positive thing I can think of is from the standpoint of the U.S. Army; the messes we made and the people we killed in ignorance or error forced us to look hard at ourselves.

And there were a LOT of errors. The story about the guy who had to make a credit card call to Fayetteville to get fire support?

It was true.

It wasn't as depicted in what may well be the worst American war movie ever filmed (Heartbreak Ridge, for those of you lucky enough not to have suffered through it...) but rather during the siege of the SEAL team forted up in Government House, where the salty soldiers couldn't contact the FM radios in the orbiting Army helicopters on their Navy UHF sets.

One of the squids called Ft. Bragg, reached the Operations center there with the target coordinates. The TOC relayed the coordinates to the naval task force off Grenada that dispatched a destroyer or frigate to fire the mission.

The goatscrews at Richmond Hill and Calivigny Point, the overall sluggish and pawky performance of the 82nd (the then commander, MG Trobrough - known to some of the more cynical of us as "Fast Eddie" - retired with his two stars. Traditionally command of the 82nd was a ticket-punch for fast-track star warriors; retiring as a major general suggests that his superiors thought that Grenada showed that he and his unit weren't really ready for Prime Time), the failures ranging from poor tactical decision-making to over all grand tactical and operational planning...all of that suggested that serious problems remained within the U.S. Army and the post-Vietnam armed forces.

A scathing review of the internal shortcomings of the Army forces as well as the even worse shortcomings that affected cooperation between the services resulted in the changes that are collectively termed the "Goldwater-Nichols" reforms:
"The 1986 act formally elevated the chairman of the Joint Chiefs to the position of being the president’s top military adviser. It strengthened the authority of the existing regional war-fighting joint commanders over all the troops assigned to them. To improve relations among the branches of the military, it also mandated that any officer aspiring to become a general or admiral must serve at least one tour of joint duty working with another branch of the service."
The resulting changes produced the military force that was - until the seemingly-endless deadlocks in Iraq and Afghanistan - widely considered unbeatable, the last remaining superpower of armed forces.

Was young Doc Chief part of a triumph?

No, not unreservedly. Democracy and the "free market" have proceeded to provide Grenada with their usual mixed blessings. Counterfactuals are always chancy, and there are more than enough examples from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union to suspect that a communist Grenada might have been poorer but less inequal and "unfair" than the present one.

The armed forces of the United States proved tragically amateurish and poorly prepared even for the shambolic resistance it faced on Grenada, and killed or maimed people that should not have died or lost limbs. The overall political calculation involved in ginning up the invasion seems...poorly thought through, at best. The hard lives of the Grenadians were made harder.

Looking at the long arc of history Hurricane Ivan seems to have been more terrible to Grenada than anything humans - American, Cuban, or Grenadian - devised in the autumn of 1983. But, still...

I think that trying to put Grenada 1983 in perspective I can't help but see it as a lot of sound and fury signifying...if not nothing, then at least not very much.

About 89 people died who wouldn't if Bernie Coaard hadn't been an asshole and Ronnie Reagan hadn't needed to kick some Commie ass.

Another 600 or so suffered injuries great or small.

Some buildings were wrecked, some machines destroyed. A government that was already in the process of self-destructing was overthrown. Some needed changes were made to the U.S. armed services.

In the United States alone 42,584 people died in traffic accidents in 1983.

And young Doc Chief came home having seen just enough of war to know he didn't really want to see any more.

And that's not a very good attitude for a professional soldier.


Ael said...

Thanks Chief, I'm grateful for this trip down memory lane.

Excuse the rant below:

You know, there really is a great deal of invisible arrogance.

"Unsustainable development" happens where poor wretches are unable to maintain the magnificent machines bestowed upon them by a generous Uncle Sam. When in reality, these machines are only useful when part of a larger set of systems that they are a part of.

Then blame the wretches because it turns out that Grenville (or Kabul) isn't in New Jersey. Ah well, the wretches clearly were not worthy in any case.

Given the long experience with this problem, you would think that people would think in terms of systems based development and not in terms of artifact based development. Alas, you can't see a "system" and actual development is clearly not a priority.

I wonder what lessons Cuba drew from Grenada?

FDChief said...

Like I said in the post; for me the one real take-home lesson of Grenada is that it's nearly impossible for a Great Power to do "nation building" with any sort of success unless the conditions within the host nation are damn near perfect.

Grenada is a very pretty, very low-development, low-skill, low-education place. It has little, if any, political, social, or economic ties with any place that could be exploited to change that.

The notion that the smart white people would come in and build up any sort of 21st Century economy there should have been laughed at; the notion that the smart white people could change the political dysfunction that has characterized the place since the end of colonial rule shouldn't even have been considered.

Which isn't to say that Grenada CAN'T change; just that such change has to happen from WITHIN Grenada and not as dispensed from Uncle Bountiful...

Lisa said...

A note from Post #5:

Having just watched some specials on the anniversary of JFK's assassination, we are reminded that following the Bay of Pigs fiasco, JFK turned away from the advice of his military advisers; of course the LeMay's of the world will always vote to smash things.

You write:

"The 82nd pilots considered the mission, apparently ordered specifically by the Joint Chiefs, to be suicidal ..."

and the tragedy is, they had to fulfill the mission.

Leon said...

Just an FYI, there's an interesting article on Greneda on the Small Wars Journal:

A Grenadian said...

I am a young Grenadian. In 1983 I was 2 years old. I read your series of articles and and I think it was great! Especially your insights into the Grenadian people. A great work of fiction.

It's clear that you knew, and KNOW, as much about Grenada as you knew about your own mission. Check out the recent developments regarding Bernard Coard and other involved in the "coup". They have all been released from jail. Their trial considered unconstitutional and illegal by every nation EXCEPT the US. Imagine, a special law was created to block their cases from going to the privy council. That's like saying "we have convicted you of murder but we will not allow you to make an appeal to the Supreme Court because we know if it got that far you will be freed.". Which is exactly what happened when smart attorneys found ways to get their case heard at that court. The so called Cuban army that was present has been shown to be no more than Engineers and medical staff with a few droppings of security personnel. You, yourself admitted that the most gunfire experienced during your deployment was friendly fire! Imagine that.

The truth is that the real reason for your "Invasion" was that the US simply didn't want another "commie nation" in their backyard. And you came in and left Grenada in a pile of shit. You destroyed the social programs that were helping Grenada. Destroyed infrastructure that we needed at the time. And Grenada is now a place where the people have no direction or zeal. We now have governments that are dependent on what the US leaves for us in a room behind the toilet. When we used have exports and and growing economy.

You were fooled. And you're still drinking the coolaid. Typical arrogant American thinking you are people's saviours when in fact you leave nothing but shit and despair where you've intervened. Look no further than Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Nicaragua, GRENADA. You came to save us right? You've fucked up so many nations and now you have to fight to keep their citizens out of US borders as is shown with your now zealous efforts at US border security.

Don't think I'm a naive US hater. I'm a proud capitalist taking advantage of opportunities as they come. If I were a superpower I'd probably do the same thing as you guys do for my own interests. The only difference is that I won't be spewing the bullshit that you guys do. Just say what your real intentions are and take what you want, because you can. Don't pretend to care.

I need to stop this rant. Before your NSA tags me as hostile and block me from visiting my relatives in the US. Anyway, I should make it clear that I have no issue with you really. You were following orders. Would just prefer if you don't say more about things you don't really know anything about. And if you're interested in learning the fate of the members of the Government you destroyed, check out the links below.

FDChief said...

I'll be the first to admit - as I did in the posts - that I had then and have now no real idea whether what the U.S. did in 1983 was worth a sweet goddamn. Certainly the official "reasons" were lies; the Reagan Administration had wanted to take down the NJM government, well, since there WAS a Reagan Adminstration.

But ISTM that the Bishop/Cooard situation was a mess, too. Are you telling me that the '83 invasion was what "broke" Grenada, that left it a pile of shit? From what I could see then - and what I can see from here, now - it had and has all the same problems that a lot of the rest of the Eastern Caribbean has; it's poor - not Haiti poor, but pretty damn poor - and has little in the way of capital to change that. It's a tourism-based economy; those sorts of economies tend to generate a lot of low-wage jobs. I don't see how the invasion changed that.

I agree with you that the worst thing the invasion did was destroy the cooperative society that the NJM was trying to build and (so far as the Reaganistas could) put as much of the old Gairy-variety goons back in charge. Americans, and especially Republicans, are stupid that way.

Bottom line here is that I'm not trying to tell THE story of what happened in 1983. I'm trying to tell MY story, what I saw, and what it looked like to me both then and now. I was part of something that helped fuck up your home; war does that, and I can't change that. I'm sorry it did, though, and I'm sorry for my part in it.