Friday, June 05, 2009

The Year the Music Died

Looking back through the historical haze and geopolitical gunsmoke of the last twenty years, the events at the close of the ninth decade of the twentieth century seem to gain gravitas at each glance.

Not a week into the year 1989, the United Sates Navy provided the exclamation point to the long-running feud between Ronald Reagan and Muamar Qaddafi, when two Libyan MiG-23 fighter-bombers ventured just a tad bit too close to a U.S. carrier battle group operating in the Gulf of Sidra north of the Libyan coast and were summarily shot down by two U.S. F-14 fighters. The Colonel remembers thinking at the time that "this could be an interesting year..." That would turn out to be an under-thought that would have qualified me for award of a Colonel's Monday Morning MOTO Gold Medal had this blog been extant at the time.

The Sidra Smackdown was of particular interest to those of us in the First Battalion, Eighth Marines at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. We would shortly be redesignated Battalion Landing Team 1/8 (BLT 1/8) and were beginning a grueling training regimen with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (24th MEU) to earn our Special Operations Capable (SOC) designation prior to our upcoming deployment to the Mediterranean. Operations against Libya were among a plethora of contingencies for which we were preparing as the forward deployed military expression of American foreign policy. We were scheduled to sail from the East Coast in October.

Two weeks later, the greatest American President of the 20th Century (a moment of reverent silence, please) left office and left his former political rival and Vice President, George the Elder, holding the reins.

Two weeks later, February the 2nd, the Kremlin announced the departure of the last column of Soviet troops from Kabul, ending nearly a decade of disastrous military adventurism in Afghanistan; said disastrous decade exacerbated by U.S. aid to the Afghan Mujaheddin fighting the Soviets, in return for the Soviet exacerbation of a disastrous decade of American military adventurism in Vietnam.

Two weeks later, February the 14th, the first Global Positioning Satellite was launched--the first in a constellation of satellites whose measurement of elapsed time has revolutionized our civilization in peace and war. By the time we Marines of the 24th MEU (SOC) arrived in the Mediterranean with rudimentary GPS receivers to experiment with, there was a small handful of satellites available for limited hours. The Colonel remembers thinking at the time, "this GPS stuff could be big..." Monday Morning MOTO medal stuff.

Five and half weeks later, March the 24th, the captain of the Exxon Valdez exclaimed to his First Mate, "I said 'Tanqeray on the rocks,' not 'Take her in on the rocks!'" Eleven million gallons of oil spilled into Prince William Sound. Sometime later a sea otter, "saved," cleaned of oil, and rehabilitated, was promptly eaten by a killer whale immediately upon its release, as its releasers watched.

A month later, April the 21st, student democracy demonstrations began in Beijing's Tianamen Square--opposite the gate to the ancient imperial palace, the Forbidden City, over which a huge portrait of Mao anachronistically hangs. As the demonstrations swelled and gained public support, Mao's totalitarian successors finally declared Martial Law--as if Martial Law had not already existed since 1949. (Ironically, the Chinese communist totalitarians had lionized a similar student uprising against an ineffectual and cruel Chinese government on May 4th, 1919.) The students responded to the threats of the Chinese Politboro by unveiling the "Goddess of Democracy," a plaster of paris statue mimicking the Statue of Liberty. Five nights later, 20 years ago today, while the world watched on live television, Chicom tanks and armored personnel carriers rolled over the demonstrators. The western world expressed its outrage by increasing our orders of cheap Chinese-made shirts and tennis shoes.

Ten and a half years after the Tianamen Square Massacre, on a cold, blustery Thanksgiving Day, the Colonel walked the length of the square from Mao's mausoleum to his monstrous mien mounted over the Gate of Heavenly Peace, and marveled that, still on active duty, there I was, strolling unnoticed by a sworn enemy against whom I was still preparing (and am still expecting my nation some day) to go to war.

A month after the Chicoms silenced the students' cry for freedom and a day after America celebrated its freedom and independence, American culture continued its plunge into meaningless with Seinfeld's premiere of his show about nothing.

The year 1989 saw a major hurricane, Hugo, ravage a southern coastal city, Charleston, on the 21st of September, preluding an era of storms savaging southern coastal cities, the cost of recovery from which will pale in comparison following the Cat 3 that someday will sweep the streets of Manhattan.

On the 13th of October, Friday the 13th, the 24th MEU (SOC) and its ground combat element, BLT 1/8, sailed from the East Coast. Commanding BLT 1/8 was, then, Colonel, later Commandant of the Marine Corps, Mike Hagee. I was his Operations Officer. We were ready, willing, and able to go toe-to-toe with the Warsaw Pact or any of its clients ringing the Mediterranean. The knowledge of this struck fear in the hearts of the socialist totalitarians behind Churchill's Iron Curtain, and the East Germans were the first to crack under the strain. On November the 9th, the East German government opened checkpoints in the Berlin Wall allowing their captive citizens freedom to travel to the Western sectors of the city. Jubilant Berliners began tearing down the wall the next evening. As Colonel Hagee and his staff watched this unfold on CNN in the Rota, Spain Naval Base Officers' Club, one of my buddies turned to our battalion commander and asked, "Does this mean we can go home, now?"

A month later, on Malta, at a summit for which one of our rifle companies, trained and equipped to conduct raids from small boats, provided security, President Bush and Premier Gorbachev concluded with the announcement that the Cold War was beginning to end.

The year concluded, while I was, as always seemed to happen, on the other side of the planet, with U.S. combat operations against the government of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. Seemed fitting to me--we helped put him in power; we took him out. The Colonel remembers being frustrated that Marines were fighting their way through some of my old high school days' stomping grounds and a Marine (me), who knew his way around those jungles and had high school classmates fighting against us as part of the Panamanian army, couldn't get into the fight for which I was probably most prepared.

It was a most momentous year and I had a ringside seat. Uncle Sam has been a great travel agent.
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