(The following essay appeared as the “backpage editorial” in Folio Weekly, November 25, 2003, p. 79. The magazine has a print run of 46,000 and is read by 143,500 people in Northeast Florida.)

offensive line
by Ronald Kephart * rkephart@unf.edu

October 26 marked the twentieth anniversary of the U.S. military invasion of the Caribbean nation of Grenada, a three-island Caribbean nation composed of Grenada, Carriacou, and Petit Martinique. As a witness to that event, I find it instructive — and disturbing — to reflect on this event in light of what is happening in Iraq today.

The principal rationale for the Grenada invasion or intervention (some Grenadians call it the “intervasion”) was the “rescue” of U.S. citizens who were studying medicine at St. Georges University. Then-president Ronald Reagan expressed fear that these students might be taken hostage or otherwise harmed in the wake of an October 19 coup. The coup brought a disturbing end to Grenada’s mildly socialist 1979 Revolution and installed what appeared to be a more severely left-fascist group of leaders. There were other justifications given for the invasion, centering on the idea that Grenada would become a Caribbean military outpost for the Soviet Union and Cuba.

At the time, I was a graduate student doing doctoral research on Carriacou. The Marines reached Carriacou on Nov. 1, after spending a week on the main island of Grenada. When they found out that I was a US citizen, the first question they asked me was about the location of the “battalion of North Korean soldiers.” Now, Carriacou is a twelve-square-mile island inhabited by several thousand people, nearly all of African descent, living in a society where everyone knows everything that’s going on. The idea of a battalion of Koreans hiding there was simply ludicrous. As we see now with Iraq, strange ideas about the “enemy” are nothing new.

And why was Grenada an “enemy”? The inflated threat that Grenada provided in the Cold War environment of Reagan’s presidency included more than these phantom North Korean troops. The Grenada Revolution focused for the most part on social, educational, and health issues, extending for example free education and health care to residents (with help from Cuban doctors). Perhaps these were underlying annoyances for a government that has never been willing to come fully to grips with the health, education, and welfare of its own people, but the Reagan administration found other things to rant about in public. Reagan claimed that a new airport with a runway capable of handling jet planes could only be intended for military use. In fact, Grenadians had been working for a new airport for years, because the old one was dangerously close to the mountains and could handle only smaller prop planes (meaning that Grenadians going abroad or tourists flying into Grenada nearly always had expensive layovers in Barbados or Trinidad). The Reagan administration was also upset by the Cuban presence, even though the Cuban “force” consisted mostly of teachers, doctors, and middle-aged construction workers helping build the new airport (of the 784 Cubans on the island, about 40 were members of the Cuban armed forces).

It was obvious well before the events of late 1983 that the collapse of Grenada’s social experiment was helped along (to put it charitably) by the behavior of the Carter and Reagan administrations. President Carter refused to provide hurricane relief aid to Grenada in August 1980. And in early 1983 Reagan refused to meet with Prime Minister Bishop, who would later be killed in the coup — a move that certainly enhanced the opposition’s ability to portray Bishop as an ineffective leader.

The full extent of U.S. involvement in Grenada will become apparent as documents become available, as they have for US operations in Guatemala, Chile, and other places. As William Blum writes in Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower (Common Courage, 2000): “Reagan administration destabilization tactics against the Bishop government began soon after the [1979] coup, featuring outrageous disinformation and deception.” The similarities to Iraq are hard to ignore. In both Grenada and Iraq, the U.S. has sent its military into a country after an extensive campaign of disinformation and deliberate inflation of the threat they posed. There are parallels in the aftermath as well. For example, just as American soldiers seem to be in more danger after the Bush administration declared the “mission accomplished,” some medical students in Grenada felt more vulnerable after U.S. efforts to “rescue” them than they did before the attack began. Bush II’s premature aircraft carrier celebration of victory echoed Reagan’s public announcement that the medical students had been rescued, although at the time military personnel were still trying to figure out where all the students were.

On November 5, 2003 another parallel between the two campaigns surfaced as the result of an ABC News investigation. In the days between the 1983 Grenada coup and the subsequent invasion, Reagan's State Department rejected attempts by the part of the now-famous medical school to facilitate communication, via their headquarters in New Jersey, between U.S. officials and the leaders of the coup. I believe the State Department's response was, loosely: "Thanks anyway, but we have our own sources of information."

It now appears that the Iraqi leadership was trying to negotiate a deal to avoid war using a Lebanese politician/businessperson as go-between. According to ABC News (November 5, 2003): “A possible negotiated peace deal was laid out in a heavily guarded compound in Baghdad in the days before the war, ABCNEWS has been told, but a top former Pentagon adviser says he was ordered not to pursue the deal.”

The parallels, and the mind-set that produced them, are not coincidence: Some of the same people who guided Reagan/Bush I (Wolfowitz, Perle, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Abrams, etc.) are enjoying a homecoming of sorts as members of the Bush II administration. Although most of them never actually served in combat, they apparently really enjoy sending U.S. citizens into harm's way, even when it could be avoided.

In June 2003, I revisited Carriacou and Grenada to conduct linguistic research. I flew into the new airport, landing on the long runway that Reagan claimed Grenada didn’t need but which the U.S. helped complete after the invasion. Perhaps we did some other things for Grenada. We did not, as far as I know, help replace the Cuban doctors and teachers who had made such a profound impact during the revolution. We did not repair the old mental health hospital, “accidentally” bombed by the U.S. during the invasion; it is still in ruins.

As US citizens, we enjoy unprecedented freedom and liberty, along with unprecedented power. The question is: How will we use it? The neoconservative answer: Dominate the world militarily with “preventive” strikes, not excluding the use of nuclear weapons if necessary, as part of a perpetual war — something neocons consider the natural state of humankind. But is this what we, the people, really want?

The US can offer positive things to the world (the Peace Corps, for example, which first took me to Grenada in 1971). To make the positive dominant, we need to rededicate ourselves to preventive good will, such as helping so-called “third-world” countries like Grenada with schools, hospitals and roads, even when they choose slightly different development paths. Of course, to accomplish this we have to lose the “preventive war” ideology — along with the ideologues that have imposed it on us.

Ronald Kephart is an associate professor of sociology, anthropology, and criminal justice at the University of North Florida.