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The Lessons of Grenada

Like so many “small wars,” the 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada has been all but forgotten. But the death of Joseph Metcalf III, the vice admiral who commanded the U.S. invasion force, provides an opportunity to recall the impact of this operation.

The Reagan administration was concerned about Grenada because of the presence of Cuban engineers who were building a large airfield that, it was feared, could become a platform for Soviet combat aircraft. The immediate trigger for the invasion was a coup by hardline Marxists in the army who overthrew Maurice Bishop’s government, which was already radical enough. There were fears that the resulting chaos could endanger 1,000 American medical students on the Caribbean island.

An initial landing of 1,500 American troops who went ashore on October 25 met stiffer-than-expected resistance from the Grenadian army and its Cuban allies. The island was not declared secure until November 2. By then some 8,000 American troops had been committed to fight an estimated 1,200 Grenadian soldiers and 780 Cubans. Nineteen U.S. service personnel died. Cuban and Grenadian forces lost 70 men.

Operation Urgent Fury was a success—just what America needed at the time. It was the first successful American military operation since Vietnam, and came just two days after the devastating bombing of the U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut. However small, the victory in Grenada helped to revive American morale, solidify support for Ronald Reagan, and increase confidence in the armed forces.

But from a military viewpoint, Grenada was full of frustrations—as made clear in this study by the historian Ronald H. Cole for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The whole operation was put together at the last minute, with inadequate intelligence and confusing lines of command. Admiral Metcalf, commander of the U.S. Second Fleet, was placed in charge, but he and his staff had no experience of ground operations. A major general named H. Norman Schwarzkopf was abruptly dispatched to offer advice—but not given the authority to command ground forces.

The plan called for a simultaneous assault by Army Rangers on one part of the island and Marines on the other. But the Rangers were landed late and in the wrong order, costing them the element of surprise. A SEAL team was trapped and outgunned at the residence of the British governor general, and had to be rescued by the Marines. Navy A-7 Corsairs attacked a brigade headquarters of the 82nd Airborne, wounding seventeen soldiers.

Some snafus are to be expected in combat, of course, but what made Operation Urgent Fury so frustrating was that the Army, Marines, and Navy literally couldn’t talk to one another. “Because of incompatible radios,” Cole writes, “Navy ships within sight of Rangers and airborne troops could not initially receive or respond to their requests for fire support.” Nor could Marines and Army soldiers talk to one another. This led to an incident in which one soldier (not, as in the Clint Eastwood movie Heartbreak Ridge, a marine) was said to have placed a long-distance commercial telephone call to Ft. Bragg, N.C., to get fire support for his unit.

The lessons of Grenada helped lead to the passage of the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act, which established a more unified command structure for the armed forces, and the 1987 Nunn-Cohen Amendment, which established the U.S. Special Operations Command. Not incidentally, it also helped Schwarzkopf go on to greater glory as a unified combatant commander—a job that didn’t exist in 1983.



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