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From 'Get Tough' to Capitulation : BEST LAID PLANS: The Inside Story of America's War Against Terrorism by David C. Martin and John Walcott (Harper & Row: $22.50; 392 pp.; illustrated; 0-06-015877-8)

July 31, 1988|Alton Frye | Frye is author of "A Responsible Congress: The Politics of National Security" (McGraw-Hill).

A book that is at once familiar and surprising, depressing and engrossing, makes demands upon its readers. Every American will recall the major episodes depicted by David C. Martin of CBS News and John Walcott of the Wall Street Journal in "Best Laid Plans: The Inside Story of America's War Against Terrorism." From the seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran in 1979 through the skyjackings, seajackings, hostage-takings and other terrorist actions of the 1980s, saturation coverage has been the order of the day. One might be forgiven for averting one's eyes from such dreary subjects, so extensively reported earlier.

Resist that inclination. Martin and Walcott have delivered a work that is more than a model of conscientious journalism; it is likely to prove a gold mine of leads and source material for histories yet to be written. Theirs is an indictment without malice, a review of the American government's flailing attempts to cope with contemporary terrorism in its varied forms. Interviewing on a massive scale, they have blended fresh accounts from participants in counterterrorist campaigns with evidence from both classified and open documents to gain needed perspective.

One finds here characters striving to be larger than life, seeing themselves in the heroic proportions that equip them to undertake efforts others would deem foolhardy. The reader glimpses Oliver North in all his zeal . . . and his dedication; Delta Force's Charlie Beckwith in his gutsy determination to free Americans in Tehran . . . and his humiliation at the futile loss of life in the Iranian desert; Ronald Reagan in his earnest commitment to deal sternly with terrorists . . and his anguished discovery that, more often than not, impotence was his lot.

One also meets less hyperbolic individuals caught up in large events, doing their jobs with fortitude and perseverance. Operating under stringent political guidelines, Col. Timothy Geraghty deploys his Marines at the Beirut airport for diplomatic effect, only to see 241 of them pay the final price in what FBI experts term "the largest non-nuclear blast they had ever seen." Ordered to hit Syrian anti-aircraft sites in Lebanon, Rear Adm. Jerry Tuttle plans to hide his planes in the sun by striking at midday, but takes casualties when higher authority orders an early morning attack so hasty that underarmed planes are exposed to maximum visibility from ground fire. Lincoln Gordon and other senior intelligence advisers dissect the evidence and conclude that, although Moscow is opportunistic, it has no "orchestrated terrorism program"; still the Administration persists in confusing "the war against terrorism and the war against communism."

More damning than the authors' own conclusions are the verdicts gleaned from those who played active roles in the government. Many are bitter and have grown scathing toward the President they once served. Thus, Howard Teicher, formerly a key member of the National Security Council staff: "Because he was unwilling to exercise leadership or to enforce discipline within his own Cabinet, history will judge Ronald Reagan a weak and indecisive man." Noel Koch, long the Pentagon's principal official for anti-terrorism, asserts that the bureaucracy simply ignored National Security Decision Directive 138, issued in April, 1984: "The President's signature on a document meant no more to the conflicted elements of his Administration than his pro forma threats against terrorism meant to the terrorists."

Snafus and ineptitude abound in these pages. U.S. reconnaissance loses track of the hijacked Achille Lauro and has to call on Israel to help find the ship. Stretched to their operational limits, F-111s retaliate against Libya for the bombing of a disco in Berlin, but their high-tech weaponry proves unreliable. The battleship, New Jersey, lobs hundreds of gigantic shells into Lebanon without precise knowledge of the targets it is striking, inevitably killing "the odd shepherd," as John Lehman puts it. Even the technical excellence of the Navy's interception of a plane fleeing Egypt with terrorists on board ends in tragicomic standoff between American pursuers and Italians jealous of their sovereignty.

Yet the lesson drawn concerns not military foul-ups, but the profound mismatch between enormous military power and the calculated micro-violence practiced by terrorists. It is the lesson captured in the evolving rhetoric of Ronald Reagan himself. By 1987, his initial pledge of "swift and effective retribution" against terrorists had become what the authors term a "whimper of resignation." More charitably, one welcomes the President's belated realism in declaring that "there is a limit to what our government can do for Americans in a chaotic situation such as that in Lebanon today."

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