On Oct. 25, 1983, the United States invaded the tiny Caribbean island republic of Grenada, a military mismatch analogous to a Goliath doing battle with a David—only with no sharp stones in the shepherd’s pouch.
Hostilities on the island were declared over within a week. The invasion is remembered today in America, if at all, as a brushfire war where the US military won a restorative victory in its first full-fledged combat since the ignominious end of the Vietnam War a decade earlier.
In subsequent years, the American military would march on to victory in Panama and in Kuwait, and then deploy for larger, much longer wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But 30 years after the invasion of Grenada, hindsight suggests that this little war turned out in the long run to have a disproportionately large effect on the American military.
The victory took longer to achieve and was more costly in American casualties than it should have been because of serious flaws in how the four uniformed branches performed together in joint combat. And in key respects, how the Pentagon is structured today—how military combat commands are organized and led, how officers get to be admirals or generals, and how the military relates to the news media on the battlefield—is because of the embarrassing lessons it learned in Grenada.
Today the military has a new set of experiences under its belt. And with defense cuts looming again, it faces what many believe will be similar challenges to those of that time: how to adapt for new kinds of engagements, and ensure that all the military services, indeed all branches of government, work effectively together to plan and fight the inevitable next war. The example of Grenada suggests that productive change can, indeed, come to even a resistant, entrenched bureaucracy—but it also offers a vivid warning about what can happen when you wait to make these changes until after the shooting starts.
For most of its modern history, Grenada’s principal claim to fame—besides wide, sandy beaches and a gentle climate—has been as a leading world exporter of spices, especially nutmeg. An island microstate located 100 miles off the coast of Venezuela, it has a population comparable to the city of Cambridge, Mass., and a land area equal to Philadelphia’s.
But after the nation gained its full independence from Great Britain in 1974, the tiny state played host to very volatile domestic politics. On Oct. 19, 1983, Grenadian Prime Minister Maurice Bishop, three of his cabinet ministers, and seven of his close supporters were executed by Grenadian soldiers on the orders of a hard-line faction within Bishop’s own Communist-style party. The killings plunged the country into governmental chaos, raising fears for the safety of about 1,000 Americans living on the island, including 600 US students attending St. George’s University School of Medicine.
Even before the killings, the Reagan administration had been concerned about the growing influence of Cuba and the Soviet Union on the island’s leftist government, especially the potential military uses of a new 9,000-foot commercial runway then nearing completion on Grenada by Cuban construction workers.
When the bloody coup occurred in 1983, a US Navy aircraft carrier group and a Marine amphibious unit happened to be in the Atlantic in route to the Mediterranean. The battle-ready force of 11 ships was diverted south to Grenada. A secret American-led invasion was hastily organized and launched.
An American force of more than 6,000 that included elite troops from all four uniform services was dispatched to the island. The resistance they faced was a poorly trained Grenadian Army of about 700 front-rank soldiers supported by 650 military-trained Cuban construction workers and 43 Cuban and Soviet military advisers.
In charge of the American force was Vice Admiral Joseph Metcalf III, a three-star admiral with the US Navy. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, then a two-star general in command of a Georgia-based Army division, was picked by the Pentagon to be the Army’s top liaison to Metcalf. In his autobiography, Schwarzkopf recalled feeling “about as welcome as a case of the mumps” when he reported for duty with the Navy. That feeling foretold a great deal.
Given the mismatch of forces, American victory in Grenada was preordained. But the US military had a much tougher time at the start of the invasion than expected. The Grenadians and the Cubans offered surprisingly stiff initial resistance—and American combat units proved maladroit at working together.Continued...