Robert Fisk writes about Oliver North’s contributions to the ordeal of the Middle East

There seem to have been several Oliver Norths. There was Oliver North the Patriot, whom Robert McFarlane would describe as ‘an imaginative, aggressive, committed young officer’, Ronald Reagan’s personally approved ‘hero’. There was Oliver North the Man of God, the born-again Christian from the charismatic Episcopal Church of the Apostles who believed that the Lord had healed his wounds and who – in the words of one former associate at the National Security Council – ‘thought he was doing God’s work at the NSC.’ There was Oliver North the Man of Action, able to work 25 hours in every 24, dubbed ‘Steelhammer’ by Senator Quayle’s buddy Robert Owen, firing off memos from his state-of-the-art crisis centre in the White House.

And then there was Oliver North the thug, drafting directives that authorised CIA operatives ‘to “neutralise” terrorists’, supporting ‘pre-emptive strikes’ against Arab states or leaders whom America thought responsible for such terrorism, supporting one gang of terrorists – the Contra ‘Freedom Fighters’ of Nicaragua – with the proceeds of a deal that would favour another gang of terrorists, those holding American hostages in Beirut. The Oliver North that the Middle East got was the thug.

Reading Ben Bradlee’s disturbing book Guts and Glory[*] in West Beirut – where some of Lieutenant-Colonel North’s plotting went so disastrously awry – has been an unsettling experience. It is, for example, a sad tribute to North’s charisma that the author should have actually adopted some of the Lieutenant-Colonel’s picture-book overview of the Middle East. Mr Bradlee writes eloquently enough about the evils of terrorism but somehow cannot bring himself to call the perpetrators of a 1985 Beirut car bomb terrorists – because they turned out to be members of a ‘counter-terrorist force’ of Lebanese and Palestinian militiamen trained by the CIA. He writes that the bombing of the US Embassy in Kuwait in 1983 was carried out by the pro-Iranian Hezbollah movement, who ‘had supposedly been provoked by Washington’s support of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982’. But why ‘supposedly’? Was it not possible that the Israeli invasion, which cost more than 17 thousand lives (most of them civilians), should have produced just such violent acts of revenge against Israel’s principal ally?

Bradlee says that Israel’s policy against ‘terrorists’ – a policy with which North, of course, thoroughly agreed – was one of ‘surgical strikes’ that ‘eliminated unnecessary civilian loss of life’. Yet there is, in reality, no such thing as a ‘surgical strike’ – as the hundreds of Israeli air raids in Lebanon over the past 12 years have bloodily proved. Such clinical nonsense can only be dreamed up in the White House situation rooms and by the authors of Israeli and American press releases. Bradlee bought the line.

Again, he describes the 1983 suicide bombing of the US Marine headquarters in Beirut as ‘an incomprehensible tragedy’. Yet there was nothing ‘incomprehensible’ about it: the Marines were targeted because the American Navy was shelling Muslim areas of the Chouf mountains in support of Christian Lebanese forces. And the Marines died because their commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Geraghty, was so convinced that he was still on a peace-keeping mission that he had forbidden his men to carry ammunition clips in their rifles. So when the smiling truck bomber arrived, their guns were not loaded.

On page 328, Bradlee recalls how Amiram Nir, the Israeli Prime Minister’s adviser on ‘counter-terrorism’, suggested that North’s Iranian arms-for-hostages initiative could be strengthened: by ‘getting the Southern Lebanon army [sic] to free twenty or thirty Shiite Hizballah [sic] prisoners “who didn’t have blood on their hands” as an added inducement for the Hizballah terrorists to release the American hostages’. But Bradlee – who seems to have no idea what the South Lebanon Army is – fails to ask why, if these prisoners had no blood on their hands, they were being held captive in the first place. In fact, the South Lebanon Army is a group of undisciplined militiamen working for the Israelis – they would also be labelled terrorists in any objective description – who were and still are holding several hundred Shia Muslims without trial at Khiam jail: these inmates are, in effect, hostages themselves. What the Israelis were actually suggesting was that Lebanese hostages controlled by Israel should be swapped for American hostages held by the Hezbollah. The author clearly does not realise this.

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in

[*] Reviewed by Michael Rogin in the last issue.