Operation Fury, the invasion of Grenada, began on October 25th, 1983. Here’s a little background, but before we start, note that there is a mini-article at the end on the Beirut Marine Corps barracks bombing that happened two days before the invasion of Grenada. There’s a tie-in which I hope reveals the hidden value and meaningfulness of that tragedy.
The Vietnam War ended on April 30th, 1975 in national bitterness, division, and disillusionment. The military draft ended with it, and the Army had to become an all-volunteer force. Active-duty Army personnel went from a high of about 1.5 million in the late 60s to about half that from 1974 through the time of the Grenada invasion. A lot of combat experience left the ranks. Combat skills were lost to a large extent.
As a whole, the army of 1983 was no longer a combat-tested army. The emphasis was on the Cold War in Europe, deterring the Soviet army from over-running Europe. It was a war of status quo, of nervous and uncertain stability. And it involved ground troops operating more or less on their own, with nuclear missiles and the US Air Force as possible players.
There was a perception problem of the US, even within the US. Was the US too weak to withstand global Communism? Had the “peaceniks” taken over? Had US leadership gone soft?
And then came a counter-counter-counter (if I counted counters right) revolution in the tiny Island of Grenada, 213 square miles. There was a reason for US intervention: seven hundred US medical students attending St. George’s University School of Medicine on the island. Also the revolutionaries were getting financial and military support from Cuba and Russia … and building an international airport.
An international airport? On an island of 90,000 very uneducated, very poor people, whose main products were nutmeg and bananas? For “tourism”, although no hotels or attractions were being built?
The Cuban Missile Crisis of the 1960s immediately leaped to mind. Grenada might be a lot further from the US than Cuba, but it could easily serve as a forward operating base for Russia to stage stuff, like, oh, maybe … missiles, to be sent to Cuba when the time was right.
“By the fall of 1983, that runway, built mainly by about seven hundred Cuban workers who were all reservists in the Cuban Army, was nearly complete.” – Jeffrey J. Clarke, Chief of Military History, U.S. Army Center of Military History, Publication CMH Pub 70–114–1.
On that basis alone, I completely agree with Reagan’s decision to invade Grenada. Given Russia’s history of forcibly dominating Eastern European nations, and Cuban and Russian expansion in Nicaragua and El Salvador, it was necessary to accept the reality of the threat. “Taken together, Cuba, Nicaragua and Grenada enveloped the Caribbean in a strategic triangle, through which half of any U.S. wartime reinforcements to NATO would have to pass.” –Military Times
Grenada was within a long reach of the US military, no other major power was heavily invested in the island, but there was a significant presence of Cuban military. Grenada must have seemed a necessary challenge and an easy target.
It was and it wasn’t. The various branches of the then-current US military lacked experience in working with each other. The decision was made to act on short notice, in a location which we had no real intelligence for. Even good maps of Grenada were non-existent. The weather didn’t cooperate: the SEAL team experienced 25 % casualties just getting into their Zodiac boats, and had to be rescued. The parachute drop plan was changed at the literal last minute, which put the Rangers half an hour behind schedule. The resistance was determined. Snafus plagued inter-forces communication. Intelligence about the location of the students was incomplete. Enemy counterfire was more capable and of heavier caliber than expected. Helicopter crashes and shootdowns caused US casualties.
Poor planning on the basis of non-existent intelligence, very brief planning made worse by plan changes while already in combat, poor coordination between branches of the military, one unauthorized commander giving orders, delays due to mission failures, significant friendly fire deaths, significant US-caused civilian deaths … a perfect storm of bad choices. Lack of knowledge and preparation, and bad luck.
Does it all sound like a failure? On one level, yes.
But the invasion achieved every goal! The students were liberated, the island soon had elections restored, and the Communists were removed from power. US forces kept “uncovering huge warehouses full of Soviet and Cuban military equipment as they progressed.” (Also from the Military Times article cited.)
And our warriors never flinched. One witness quoted in the Military Times article related how, after a completely fouled-up parachute drop that left the Rangers divided, scattered, highly vulnerable, and under fire, the detachment that could, acted! “The Rangers rose from the ground as one organism, screaming their war cries, and assaulted straight across the runway toward the enemy guns. Within 10 minutes the guns fell silent.” (Also from the Military Times article cited.)
Although Reagan apologized to Thatcher for invading a Commonwealth nation, the Grenadans were happy with the result: “Nowadays, Grenada marks this day as a national holiday known as Thanksgiving Day. It commemorates the freeing, as a result of the invasion, of several political prisoners, who subsequently went on to be elected into office.”
Even the failures of the mission were clouds with silver, if bloodied, linings. The Department of Defense was forced to get off its casual rear end and fix the problems. Obviously, if one small island could cause so much trouble, there was a massive amount of work to be done to get the military ready to WIN anything major. The excellent article cited lists several of the major changes which, in my not-so-humble opinion, made the invasion of Grenada the most important fight since the Tet offensive. And for a long time before. Excellence can result from failure. Never give up! Never stop learning!
I also recommend this article highly: “Operation Urgent Fury”.
BEIRUT MARINE BARRACKS BOMBING:
Grenada Invasion: History and Significance. Explanation of why we didn’t blast into Beirut in force and wreak vengeance on the enemy: “Just two days before the invasion of Grenada began, the October 23, 1983, terrorist bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon had taken the lives of 220 US Marines, 18 sailors, and three soldiers. In a 2002 interview, Reagan’s Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger recalled, ‘We were planning that very weekend for the actions in Grenada to overcome the anarchy that was down there and the potential seizure of American students, and all the memories of the Iranian hostages.’ ”
Grenada is 1500 miles from the US. Beirut is about 8,000 miles. Given the truly terrible military planning and operation in Grenada, how much worse would things have been if we had gone into Beirut full force from 8,000 miles away, without making strategy, tactics, and coordination much more efficient?
Given that the situation in Grenada constituted a serious and immediate threat to the US, if Reagan had allowed emotion to take charge, whatever the outcome in Beirut, it seems certain that on turning our attention back to Grenada, we would have found a far more dangerous enemy well-prepared and dug in. The results in Grenada also could then have been far worse.
[dateline October 23rd, 2018] “People think that the global war on terrorism started on 9/11, but it actually started on October 23rd, 1983 … I wish America wouldn’t forget, but, you know, it’s really already on the back burner … I really think it should be taught in schools …” (Richard Truman, medic present at the time and narrator of 3-minute video at that link.)
“It was the worst loss for the Marines in one day since the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War Two.” (text on video)
“[Gen. Alfred M. Gray Jr.] was the commander of the 2nd Marine Division during the Beirut bombing … ’Because of the heroism and the sacrifice of your sons, and your fellow Marines, we improved our capabilities, our training, our education,” Gray said at the 35th anniversary observance event at Camp Lejeune. “We got better, we wrote standard operating procedures.’ ”
WHY the Beirut bombing happened: this was posted this October 23rd: A survivor tells his story: “ …Shields told Marine Corps Times … ‘It was working out for a while, but once they figured out we weren’t there for combat, we weren’t going to fire back … they started sending mortars and snipers … The biggest thing is telling their story,’ Shields said. ‘Tell their stories and it keeps them alive in our hearts.’ ”
If you go into a war zone, you had better be prepared to fight. The Marines were cursed with being there on a “peacekeeping mission”, which instead guaranteed their deaths.