I told you in Panama: The Beginnings that I would come back to the subject of the Canal for the bottom line. Ok, here it is. The bottom line that is. Wow! I saw it by being on it in a passenger ship transiting the system of locks. I saw it from a small outboard as we looked for monkeys and birds, and I saw it from the air as we flew back and forth to the highlands. It defines Panama more than the pyramids defines Egypt. It defines Panama more than the Great Wall defines China, and the Leaning Tower in Pisa and the Colosseum are mere dots on the culture of Italy compared to what the Canal is to Panama. There is no other country that is defined so much by a single edifice as is Panama. When the Panamanian Isthmus arose from the sea either three or seventeen million years ago, it started a chain reaction, albeit a slow one, that not only shaped our climate but defined commerce, culture and biodiversity of the planet. When The Ancon, the first ship to pass the Canal finished its passage, it completed the most amazing engineering and human management event of its time. The isthmus once again redefined, in part, how life was lived and how commerce was done. I won’t go into details, but I think you can see what I mean. Among other things that might not have occurred to you, work in the canal was a primary causal factor in defeating Yellow Fever, which was one of the killers of the age. Just use your imagination. The Canal also defines Panama. I know. That sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s true. Without the Canal, Panama, as a republic, may not even exist, and it certainly would not exist as it does today.
How many of you remember our invasion of Panama in 1989? I thought so. Not many. I’m guessing that less than one in a thousand of our estimable citizenry could give you even the barest of outlines of the story. I reported to you in a previous blog that the United States has participated in twelve official wars. I haven’t tried to count the “unofficial” ones, but our invasion of Panama would surely count as one. It also may be the shortest of our wars in that most of the shooting and all of the shouting was finished in about six hours. Yes, I said six hours.
Let me start at the beginning. First there was Noriega. Manuel Antonio Noriega born February 11, 1933 and now residing in an a Panamanian hoosegow that was formerly the main prison in the Canal Zone. Some irony, huh! He was a career soldier that came to like money and intrigue far more than he liked soldiering. Not surprisingly, his military training was assisted no little bit by….guess who…our own Uncle Sam. He received specialized training in intelligence at Ft. Glick in the Canal Zone and in Psy Ops at Ft. Bragg in North Carolina. It is also widely reported that Manuel was on the payroll of our CIA. His job? To gather intelligence and report on all the dreaded commies roaming the region and presumably threatening our homeland. I guess he must have done a pretty good job of it because one report has him being on the CIA pad from 1967 until almost the time that we hauled him to the Federal Detention Center in Dade County, Florida. By hook or crook, he became El Jeffe of the country in 1983 and stayed so until we determined that he had gotten too big for his britches. Ostensibly, our main complaint seemed to be that Noriega found out that the South American drug cartels paid even better than we did and that he could use banks in Panama that he indirectly controlled to launder his and other peoples dirty money.
Here’s the interesting part. He actually lost an election in 1988, and we could have flexed some muscle and kept him out of power if not out of the money, but we didn’t. He threw out the duly elected guy and resumed control. Or we could have gotten some friendly gun-totter to plunk him and be done with it. But we didn’t. We decided to take him out by invading the country. Seems a little overkill don’t you think. But there’s more to the story. We had about twenty thousand troops in the Zone at the time, but they barely got their hands dirty. No, we decided that we needed the 82nd Airborne from Ft. Bragg to do the deed. And they did. They attacked with the full force and fury of the US military establishment. Well, not exactly, but they did land forces at several points though out Panama including Casca Viejo in Panama City. They also dropped a couple of precision guided bombs on Noriega’s traditional stronghold of El Chorrillo and scared the bejesus out of everyone within a couple of miles. There were some more bullets fired and flags waved elsewhere in the country for a bit, but it was basically over almost before it started. It was not without cost though. We suffered twenty-three KIA’s, and presumably some number of wounded, and the Panamanians lost somewhere between five hundred and twenty-three hundred killed. I know that’s a wide range, but that’s how things are around here. Noriega wrapped himself in the white flag, figuring I guess that being a prisoner of war was better than being a casualty of war.
Why really did the US attack Panama in what clearly was an unprovoked act of war. To protect the Canal? I think not. It was already pretty well protected by the twenty thousand or so troops stationed there. To get rid of Noriega? I think not. There were plenty of easier, quicker, cheaper ways to get that done. To show that we are plenty tough and willing to project our power whenever and however we chose? Well, maybe. The neo-conservative ideology of force-projection had not yet been popularized, but maybe this was its antecedent. Many people here believe that we took the action we did as a more or less a trial run. We had a lot of new weapons we hadn’t actually used in combat yet. The F17A fighter, the Blackhawk helicopter, and even the Humvee people carrier, not to mention the precision guided bombs that were to become so popular years later in Iraq. Then the whole military concept of rapid deployment was only an untested theory. Would it really work? We had to find out and where better that Panama. Not too far away, good weather, good food and a foolish tin-pot quasi dictator to blame it on.
The name of this operation. You could almost guess. Operation Just Cause. Wow! Who thinks this stuff up. And of course, you remember who was president of the United State then. You got it. George H. W. Bush. What is it about these Bushes that seem to allow the clever fellows around them and the military to get them in to unnecessary wars?
Under the rubric that all’s well that end’s well, I guess things turned out as they should. The economy of Panama is alive and well. People are starting to discover it as an eco-tourism alternative, and American expats, looking for a cheap place to retire are driving up real estate prices.
More later on the promise of Panama.