Professor Richard Lance Keeble, Acting Head of the Lincoln School of Journalism, highlights the significance of the 1983 US attack on Grenada– largely missed by the corporate media
Confidential Downing Street documents just released from the National Archive under the 30-year rule have highlighted the humiliation felt by Margaret Thatcher’s government over the US invasion of the Commonwealth island of Grenada in October 1983. Yet such ‘disclosures’ are hardly revealing: the opposition of both Thatcher and the Queen to the intervention in the Caribbean island – the first of its kind by the US on a former British colony – following a Marxist-led military coup was much reported at the time.
The real significance of the Grenada assault has been little explored by the corporate media. For the US, it amounted to the first large-scale intervention in the hemisphere since the invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965 and the first overt deployment of US troops since Vietnam. Moreover, it was the first time special forces were deployed on a major scale since the launch of their revitalisation programme two years earlier. The permanent war state was raring to go. All four US military services wanted a piece of the action – and they duly got it. Media critic Robin Andersen argues that there were many cogent parallels between Grenada and Iraq, two decades later. ‘Though contentious, it was the first time the formulation of “pre-emption” for security reasons was posed as a justification for military intervention. The invasion of Grenada, it was argued, was a defence against terror. But in the aftermath of both operations, flawed intelligence would be the common theme.’
The Grenada assault also set the precedent for a series of quick, US military adventures – celebrated as ‘heroic’ victories in the compliant corporate media – against puny Third World countries which culminated in the 1991 Gulf conflict. In 1986 came the eleven-and-a half minute attack by fighter jets on Libya: in actual fact, a ruthless attempt by the US to assassinate President Col. Gadaffi from the skies. Three year later, the Americans invaded Panama to capture its leader, General Noriega (formerly on the CIA payroll) and regain control of the strategically crucial canal.
Operation Urgent Fury (as the Pentagon dubbed the Grenada assault in the glitzy, Hollywoody style that was to accompany all the US invasions) also represented an attempt by the US elite to erase the memory of its disastrous intervention in the Lebanese civil war. On 23 October 1983, a Mercedes containing 12,000lb of explosives was driven into the US marine compound in Beirut by a member of a Shi’a militia, Islamic Jihad, and blew up killing 241 Americans, there to bolster the CIA-regime of President Gemayal. On the same day a bomb exploded at the French military headquarters in Beirut killing 58 soldiers. Another humiliating American retreat was put into motion. According to investigative journalist Greg Palast, President Reagan was the first President of the United States to cravenly accede to the demands of terrorists when he gave in to Hezbollah’s demand and ordered the Marines out of Lebanon. And as Noam Chomsky commented on the Grenada invasion: ‘Just a couple of days before, there had been a bombing in Lebanon in which 241 marines were killed. And they had to cover this up with a grand gesture defending us from destruction by Grenada. After the invasion, Reagan stood up and said: “Our days of weakness are over. Our military forces are back on their feet and standing tall.”’
In all, 7,300 US military personnel and 300 police from Jamaica, Barbados and St Lucia were involved. Virtually every element in the US military played a role: airforce, navy, army (82nd Airborne), Marines, Army Rangers, Navy Seals and Delta Force. Historian James Combs has argued that the Grenada invasion was significant in the emergence of a new kind of media spectacle warfare. He said: ‘Grenada was likely a preposterous military action producing no real results in terms of the array of power in the world, but it did help relegitimate the idea of intervention as beneficial and successful without producing a quagmire, nuclear exchange, large casualties and financial sacrifice by the citizenry…War was now to be conducted with not only concern with military tactics but also with how the war looked as dramatic narrative seen almost instantaneously back home.’
All journalists were excluded from covering the invasion. The Joint Chiefs of Staff imposed total operational secrecy. Even White House spokesman Larry Speakes, who had described the idea of an invasion as ‘preposterous’ in response to a CBS News inquiry on the eve of the operation, was excluded from National Security Council planning by White House chief of staff (and later Secretary of State) James Baker and not informed until after the first landings.
A few journalists did try to reach the island by speedboat but were fired at by a US fighter and turned back. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, who led the military action (and later the US-led coalition forces in the Gulf in 1991), records approvingly in his autobiography how one of the military commanders, Vice-Admiral Joseph Metcalf, responded to a question by one of the reporters involved: ‘Admiral, what would have happened if we hadn’t turned around?’ with the words: ‘We would have blown you right out of the water’ Two journalists did, however, manage to slip on to the island the night before the attack and were able to record the bombing of a civilian psychiatric hospital which killed 17 patients (four others were captured by the military and held for two days). Without their presence that ‘mistake’ might never have been recorded.
On 27 October, the President appeared on television explaining directly to the public the rationale for the invasion. He claimed Grenada had become a Soviet-Cuban beachhead because some Cuban contractors were building an airfield there under British authorisation. Such a television appearance showed a sophisticated information policy – with the President able to present his message unfiltered by journalistic commentary or analysis. The carefully managed news conference with the American military appealing over the heads of journalists this time to the global community was to be an important feature of Gulf media strategy. Indeed, it was to prove to be a consistent element of Thatcherite and Reaganite populism – with the heads of secretive, centralised states using the mass media to articulate their views over the heads of the traditional representative institutions (Parliament, Congress) to the public at large.
Grenada has been described as the ‘uncovered invasion’. All the major features of the operation were distorted by administration lies, misinformation, secrecy – and in the end by journalistic bickering. And all the justifications provided by the administration for the attack (dutifully reported in the press) were later deemed to have been spurious. Pentagon camera crews supplied propaganda pictures from Grenada (a device later to be used in the Gulf) of warehouses stocked with automatic weapons to ‘supply thousands of terrorists’ (according to Reagan). But once allowed on to the island, reporters found the warehouses were half empty, many containing cases of sardines while most of the weapons were antiquated. White House communications director David Gergen resigned afterwards in protest at the lying by his superiors.
The primary aim of the invasion, according to the administration, was ‘to protect innocent lives’ – in particular, those of American students at a medical school on the island. Yet the invasion itself cost many people their lives. For some time the administration refused to reveal any casualty figures. In the end they said 18 Americans were killed and 113 wounded. The Cubans reported 24 Cubans and 16 Grenadians killed with 57 Cubans and 280 Grenadians injured. The Grenadian High Commission later suggested 1,500 Grenadians were killed. Half the 18 US dead were said to have been from ‘friendly fire’.
On the second day of the invasion, the press reported official sources as saying that soldiers were meeting substantial resistance from 1,100 Cuban troops on the island with ‘4,340 more on the way’ while a ‘reign of terror’ was endangering US medical students on the island. All of this ‘information’ was later found to be lies. As Garry Wills commented: ‘The war was won because it could not be lost – the American invaders had a ten-to-one superiority over the defenders and all of the air and artillery weapons used.’ On 31 October, the US State Department revised its earlier figures: there were, in fact, just 678 Cubans on the island of whom only 200 were soldiers. So much for administration claims that the island had become a massive base from which the Cubans and Soviets were planning to export terrorism. But the exaggeration of the threat and invention of an enemy was to be repeated significantly during the later Gulf crises of 1991 and 2003.