Selling the modern era’s first ‘pre-emptive’ war
It isn’t nutmeg that’s at stake in the Caribbean and Central America; it is the United States’ national security.
—President Ronald Reagan, March 10, 1983
On October 23, 1983, US combat troops began Operation Urgent Fury in the eastern Caribbean, invading the sovereign state of Grenada, an island of 113 square miles with approximately 110,000 inhabitants. It was the first time the US military had committed combat troops since Vietnam. Over the course of a year, the Reagan administration had argued vigorously that Grenada posed a threat to US national security.
Unlike the unlimited access journalists had in Vietnam, the media were barred from covering Urgent Fury. Adm. Wesley McDonald banned reporters for “operational reasons.”
Nightly news broadcasts showed images of journalists in helicopters circling the island in a futile attempt to cover the combat. After three days of heated charges by media organizations of Pentagon censorship, and pressure from some members of Congress, Joint Chiefs of Staff chair Gen. John W. Vessey directed McDonald to allow reporters on the island by October 28.
Urgent Fury, carried out 20 years before Operation Iraqi Freedom, has faded from public and political memory.
Indeed, during the commemoration of the death of Ronald Reagan in the summer of 2004, Grenada went all but unmentioned. Few heralded the former president for saving the country from what he characterized at the time as an imminent threat. Yet there is much to be remembered, as there are many cogent parallels between Grenada and Iraq.
Certainly there are numerous points of departure, not least of which are the geographic, political and religious differences between the two countries. Urgent Fury was quickly completed and considered a success at the time. But on that small island can be found the precursors to much of what would happen two decades later.
Though contentious, it was the first time that “pre-emption” for security reasons was posed as a justification for military intervention. The invasion of Grenada, it was argued, was a defense against Communism; that of Iraq was called a defense against terror. But in the aftermath of both operations, flawed intelligence would be the common theme.
In denouncing enemies quite distinct from one another, the rhetorical similarities between two activist Republican presidents are nonetheless striking. Finally, in implementing new and historically divergent policies restricting media access, the military learned important lessons about the press and the public, lessons they would later apply to the Middle East.
Because the press corps was kept off the island, no independent footage of the first three days of Urgent Fury was available to the news media. Pentagon camera crews supplied the first pictures from Grenada of warehouses that appeared to be stacked with automatic weapons. The footage was used to verify Reagan’s claim that there were enough weapons to “supply thousands of terrorists.”
When reporters were finally allowed onto the island, the warehouses they found were half empty. Some contained cases of sardines, and most of the weapons were antiquated.
Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review (3-4/85), Newsday editor Anthony Marro suggested the weapons were “more suited for defense by an island militia than for the export of terrorism and revolutions.”
Stuart Taylor, Jr., writing in the New York Times (11/6/83) about US intelligence, reported that initial claims of the numbers of Cubans on the island were greatly inflated. “Over three days the Pentagon estimate of the number of Cuban fighters who had met the invading force seems to have plunged from more than 1,000 to fewer than 200, including the estimated 30 to 70 Cubans who were killed.”
In the wake of the invasion, reporters criticized the inaccuracies that had been used to justify it. “The inflation of the number of Cubans, and the initial characterization of them as a military force, was part of the data that were used by the Reagan administration to argue that a Cuban takeover was at hand, and that American students were in danger,” Marro wrote. In addition, since journalists did not accompany troops, there was little independent documentation to refute or confirm administration assertions.
Our values and theirs
Taking a closer look at claims made by the Reagan White House about the dangers posed by Grenada helps illustrate the enduring language and logic of war. Recognizable at the time as classic Cold War rhetoric, Ronald Reagan’s oratory also heralded speeches yet to be given by President George W. Bush.
As early as February 1982, when introducing the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI), Reagan drew a line between democratic governments in the hemisphere and the New Jewel Movement headed by Prime Minister Maurice Bishop:
Nowhere in its whole sordid history have the promises of Communism been redeemed. Everywhere it has exploited and aggravated temporary economic suffering to seize power and then to institutionalize economic deprivation and suppress human rights…. In the Caribbean we above all seek to protect those values and principles that shape the proud heritage of this hemisphere. Some, however, have turned from their American neighbors and their heritage. Let them return to the traditions and common values of the hemisphere and we all will welcome them. The choice is theirs.
We recognize in these words the fundamentals of war rhetoric, with the clearly drawn dividing line between “us” and “them.”
In a speech two months later, the president added another dimension to the basic binary structure by assigning a geopolitical context that emphasized the dangers posed by what he argued was a small but formidable enemy. While speaking in Barbados (4/8/82), Reagan included Grenada in the spreading Communist threat he saw in Central America:
El Salvador isn’t the only country that’s being threatened with Marxism, and I think all of us are concerned with the overturn of Westminster parliamentary democracy in Grenada.
That country now bears the Soviet and Cuban trademark, which means that it will attempt to spread the virus among its neighbors.
The metaphor of viral disease evokes fear and offers few avenues of approach consistent with diplomatic or even rational solutions to foreign disputes. The metaphor can only be extended in certain prescribed ways. Since it is a “spreading virus,” not some bacteria, a simple antibiotic cannot restore health. Interventions far more drastic need to be taken. We see here the linguistic logic of such military euphemisms as “surgical strike.”
By the spring of 1983, the president escalated his rhetoric about the dangers Grenada posed to the United States. As Robert Beck argued in the Long Term View (Spring/04), “Just like that which preceded the March 2003 US attack on Iraq, the Grenada invasion was preceded by maximalist administration rhetoric about regional and strategic threat.”
Seeing danger from space
On March 23, in a “National Security Address to the Nation,” Reagan delivered what Beck calls a “rhetorical coup de grace” on Grenada. The president showed television viewers reconnaissance photographs that he said provided evidence that a suspicious airfield was being constructed on the island. Reagan asserted, “On the small Island of Grenada . . . the Cubans, with Soviet financing and backing, are in the process of building an airfield with a 10,000-foot runway. Grenada doesn’t even have an air force. Who is it intended for?” Explaining that American oil imports pass through the Caribbean, he continued, “The Soviet-Cuban militarization of Grenada, in short, can only be seen as power projection into the region.”
But the new airstrip at Point Salines was no military secret. American students attending St. George Medical School had frequently jogged around it as it was being built. In fact, the Soviet Union did not financially support building the airfield, while development money did come from other members of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS). The project was consistent with the development of a tourism industry and other Caribbean business ventures.
But satellite imaging creates meanings over and above what it purports to depict. The strong visual rhetoric communicates a sense of danger and urgency that demands timely response. The need to use a spy satellite to reveal a construction project asserts that the project is secret, and therefore a threat to those it is hidden from.
Taken from such distances, the visual technology produces a blurred, grainy scene, making spy images difficult to decode. With details hard to define, they are not recognized as familiar landscapes. A high degree of interpretive analysis assigns meaning to them. These characteristics render such imagery extremely suitable as persuasion. These same strategies would be used two decades later on February 5, 2003, this time by Secretary of State Colin Powell on the floor of the United Nations, as he argued the need for pre-emptive war against Iraq.
Reagan was unable to garner public support for a US invasion of Nicaragua. But a small island, Grenada, would be an easier target, more quickly subdued. And the cumulative criticism of Nicaragua played an important role in the president’s pre-invasion rhetoric characterizing Grenada. Grenada, Cuba and Nicaragua were dubbed the “Caribbean Triangle.” Reagan’s words are familiar in retrospect, exhibiting a distinct rhetorical similarity to the “axis of evil.” They imply a crucial connection without having to articulate or defend accusations that influential economic or political ties exist and have resulted in significant threat.
The defining moment for the invasion of Grenada came when the government was deposed and Prime Minister Maurice Bishop assassinated on October 19, 1983. Though the Reagan White House was predisposed to military intervention with increasingly escalating rhetoric, the final plan for Urgent Fury followed the coup. The coup provided an incident that could be responded to, just as the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, provided the context for the war on Iraq. The invasion was set in motion in the days following, and the White House was careful to launch diplomatic efforts garnering regional support from the OECS, the same group that had helped finance the new airport.
Images seen and unseen
In the absence of combat coverage, the military did offer other photo opportunities that were very effective in justifying their mission. Members of the press were escorted to Charleston Air Force Base, where returning medical students kissed the ground, exhilarated to be out of harm’s way. Highly positive television and newspaper reports repeated Reagan’s assertion that “we got there just in time.” The invasion in retrospect became justified as a rescue mission of American nationals—an evacuation of the approximately 1,000 students attending St. George Medical School.
With few negative images to cast a dark eye over Urgent Fury, the American public responded favorably to assertions that the mission had to be carried out to save the American students on the island. An ABC/Washington Post poll found 71 percent of the public in favor of the invasion, only 22 percent opposed.
Without independent real-time coverage, the Los Angeles Times later reported (1/13/91), “There were no on-the-spot reports of the inter-service snafus that bedeviled the operation, of the high incidence of US casualties from ‘friendly fire’ or of the 30 inmates killed in an air strike on the local mental hospital.” Even though no television footage was aired in a timely manner of the bombing of the civilian psychiatric hospital, two journalists who managed to slip ashore the night before the assault recorded the story. Four other members of the press were captured by the military and held incommunicado for two days.
The government said that it prevented reporters from accompanying the troops because of concern for their safety. But danger had never been a deterrent to journalists, 50 of whom died in Vietnam covering that war.
The credentialing required to cover combat included forms releasing the government from responsibility.
Subsequent comments by Secretary of State George Shultz revealed some sense of what the real motivations were: “These days in the advocacy journalism that’s been adopted, it seems as though the reporters are always against us and so they are always trying to screw things up. And when you’re trying to conduct a military operation, you don’t need that.”
And in the midst of the controversy following the press embargo, Reagan explained at a press conference that the media had not been on “our side militarily” in Vietnam. However, former President Jimmy Carter would later comment (L.A. Times, 2/13/89) that the military’s handling of journalists in Grenada was “much more repressive in nature than anything I remember in the history of our country.”
Numerous government investigations over the years have demonstrated a disturbing lack of evidence behind the claims that Grenada was a threat to the United States and other islands in the Caribbean. Robert Beck (Long Term View, Spring/04) cited a Senate Armed Services Committee staff report from February 1986 and a Department of Defense assessment from July 1986 that both discuss the “almost total lack of accurate intelligence.”
These reports were later confirmed in the memoir of Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, who admitted to “an abysmal lack of accurate intelligence” before the Grenada invasion. Beck noted that the Reagan White House had an “exaggerated perception of the threat posed by a Cuba-backed Grenada.”
In a PBS Frontline documentary, Operation Urgent Fury, Francis McNeil, Reagan’s special emissary during the Grenada intervention, told journalist Seymour Hersh: “Wishful thinking is a problem that afflicts any government . . . but it seemed to me that the ideological component of the Reagan administration harkened back to almost the McCarthy period.” And as Beck pointed out, “The extent to which the Soviet Union would or could have strategically exploited Grenada seems in retrospect rather slight.”
Though a staunch anticommunist and friend of Reagan, then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher did not approve of the US action, commenting on BBC radio, “If you are going to pronounce a new law that wherever there is Communism imposed against the will of the people then the US shall enter, then we are going to have really terrible wars in the world.”
Though the administration had secured an invitation from OECS, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution on November 2 condemning the invasion as a “violation of international law.” The vote had a greater majority than the resolution condemning the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Article 51 of the UN Charter bars military action against another country unless it is defensive in nature.
In 2003, the United States argued that the invasion of Iraq was a defensive action against the imminent threat of weapons of mass destruction. Subsequently, that claim too was shown to be based on faulty, exaggerated and planted evidence. The lack of adequate public examination in the aftermath of Urgent Fury and in the years that followed has no doubt contributed to the loss of critical perspective on war rhetoric of preemptive strikes.
Preparing the legal argument that justified Urgent Fury for UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick’s October 27, 1983 address to the Security Council was a contentious affair.
Allan Gerson, a member of the US Mission to the U.N., advocated that the invasion should be justified as an anticipatory “collective self-defense action.” But Department of State representative Michael Kozak objected, saying that Grenada posed no imminent threat of “armed attack.”
In heated discussions, Kozak argued that a US self-defense rationale under the circumstances would extend an exception to the UN Charter prohibiting the use of force “to the point that armies could march through it. And any such future armies might not be those of the United States and its allies.” Instead, he urged the legal justification to be restricted to the “protection of nationals.”
Gerson explained his disagreement with Kozak in his 1991 book The Kirkpatrick Mission: Diplomacy Without Apology:
The whole world knows that that’s not what the operation was really about. If it was it would have been much more limited, without the need for OECS involvement. If protection of nationals is what we were truly interested in, we would have done an Entebbe-style rescue. Here US national security interests in the region were involved…. Isn’t that why we did what we did? If so, why not say it?
Kirkpatrick’s speech represented a compromise between the two positions, and strong references to the preemptive rationale remained in her statement to the UN: “The United States, whose own nationals and vital interests were independently affected, joined the effort to restore minimal conditions of law and order in Grenada and eliminate the threat posed to the security of the entire region.”
Lessons of media management
While historians recognize the challenges to the UN Charter posed by the US invasion of Grenada, it did not become a major international incident, nor did it pose the problems for the United States that rose in the wake of the invasion of Iraq. The subdued post-invasion situation in Grenada left the justifications for Urgent Fury intact, and one can only surmise that the outcome emboldened those who would propose a preemptive strike in the future.
Operation Iraqi Freedom, however, did not enjoy such success. While images of the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein made it appear initially that Iraqis would accept US forces in Baghdad, the year that followed the invasion showed that occupying troops (though the Pentagon preferred the term “coalition forces”) could not stabilize the country, and reconstruction efforts were thwarted by the lack of security. The death toll for Iraqis and hostility toward the American occupation resulted in constant attacks.
In addition, adequate international support will not be forthcoming without adherence to the spirit of international law. As Beck and others, including the Center for Constitutional Rights have pointed out, the US doctrine of preemption departs from the common understandings of the legal argument that supports a state’s right to self-protection under the UN Charter.
Taking the exceptional step to military action, without it being an unquestioned response in self-defense to an attack, depends on the reliable assessment of a given threat’s imminence. In evaluating the need for both Urgent Fury and Iraqi Freedom, such claims of imminent threat seem easy to assert as war rhetoric designed to persuade, but harder to verify as a justification for war.
The Pentagon did learn important lessons of media management by implementing such restrictive policies during Urgent Fury. Without on-the-spot reportage, few unpleasant images found their way onto television screens. Yet the military paid a price for creating such ill will among network reporters and the international press corps. Negative coverage and complaints did follow in subsequent reporting, and pressure was brought to bear from current and ex-government officials.
The controversy over the press lockout resulted in a review by a special Department of Defense panel. The Sidle Commission recommended, among other things, the press pool arrangement. Selected journalists accredited and assembled by the military were to go in with the fighting forces next time. Clearly the press would have to be managed in a different way in future conflicts.
But the impact of the images of students kissing the tarmac could not be overestimated. They would become iconic of Urgent Fury, confirming the dominant narrative of a rescue mission, erasing the more complicated nature of the invasion.
Here, too, at the time, media management seemed a great success. Belief in the power of the image to confer meaning onto military conflict no doubt influenced the staging of future visual representations such as the toppling of Hussein’s statue. By the end of the decade, the United States would invade Panama, and the post-Vietnam military management of press access to the battlefield would continue to evolve.
Excerpt from A Century of Media, A Century of War (Peter Lang) by Robin Andersen. Andersen teaches Communication and Media Studies and is director of Peace and Justice Studies at Fordham University.
corrected version 2/13/09