Operation Screw Up

Military Bright Ideas have a way of ending disastrously and have been doing so at least since the Great War.

Paul Fussell, Wartime (1988)

"Them ops was clusterfucks, more screwed up than a whore's dream. And all the medals in the Pentagon ain't gonna change that. Ain't gonna change nothin'. We're oh-fer-eight. There's eight dead SEALs and at least six more who're never gonna operate again."

We were sitting at a table in a VFW bar frequented mostly by patrons who carried Styrofoam cups into which they would spit tobacco juice. Occasionally the brown stream missed the cup to join the beer and puke stains on the carpet. It was a bar an old sailor like Tom Pynchon would have loved, even though the barmaid was named Brandy instead of Beatrice and was from the Philippines rather than the Med.

Tom wasn't with us, but we were all old sailors: SEALs and frogmen retired for one reason or another. Dinosaurs. Ancient mariners gathered once again to talk about team misadventures in 'Nam, Grenada, and Panama. SEALs had the most casualties for our numbers of any Navy unit in Vietnam, had lost four of the sixteen U.S. dead in Grenada, and most recently suffered four of the 23 U.S. dead in Operation Just Cause, the invasion of Panama that sent Noriega to his luxury digs in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in South Dade.

But we weren't here to talk about facts one could read in the paper or watch unfold on the network news. We were here to talk about what the teams themselves were talking about and in so doing perhaps cast out the demons that had been with some of us for a long time.

Our table had just been wiped clean by Brandy, and we could see our reflections in the polished Formica top. There were six of us: Donkey Dick, the Deuce King, Black Mac, Skipper Stein, Slator Crowe - at least I think that's how he spells his name - and me.

Our reflections seemed to stare at the fresh bottle of Cuervo Gold that Brandy the barmaid had placed before us. Donkey Dick continued with what he had to say: "Yes, them ops was clusterfucks - ain't no medals, flags, or bugles blowin' taps gonna bring back them dead SEALs, fix the wounded good as new. Makes you wanna cry."

We looked quickly at the Deuce King decked out in his lawyer's suit, then heard Black Mac mercifully add, "Makes me want to crank off a half-pound block of C-4 under somebody's ass."

"Or loosen the lug nuts on his tires," one of us said, and we all laughed. The Deuce King laughed hardest of all.

"But just what the fuck did happen in Panama?" Donkey Dick persisted. "You been talkin' to guys in the teams, Slator. What have they told you?"

Slator kept in closer touch with the teams than the rest of us and was usually our storyteller. "Well, what I've heard is not necessarily what happened," he said. "I've not talked to anyone who was on the ground in Panama. I've only talked to a few mates who were at two briefings given stateside after the invasion, by those in charge of the Panama ops."

"What you're telling us," offered the Deuce King, "is that we're about to hear opinions, not facts."

"That's right, King."
"Opinions is good enough," said Donkey Dick impatiently. "Opinions is like assholes, ever'body's got one. Give us your fuckin' opinion, Slator, and we'll give you ours."

Before Slator had a chance to speak, the Deuce King said, "It's a little more complicated than that. After all, saying it's our opinion people screwed up in Grenada and Panama might sound like we're saying they did, in fact, screw up. And we can't say that, because we don't know for certain. But it's tough to find out what truly happened, when the Navy has a policy not to comment on SEAL operations. When they're asked about SEAL ops, Navy PAO pimps like to say things like `SEAL operations are totally blacked out' or `We're not real forthcoming about SEALs because of the nature of their work.' That's what they tell the papers."

"If that's so," Donkey Dick wanted to know, "how come we read about the successes - like when SEAL Six rescued the governor general in Grenada? We hear about that, but we never hear about it when SEALs die. Why's that?"

"A good question, and I don't know the answer. Hell, I don't think the Navy to this day has told anyone the true story of how Spence Dry was killed during that POW fiasco in the Gulf on Tonkin. How long ago was that? Eighteen years? And what about the clusterfuck on the Van Sat? Neal, Boston, and Dan Mann killed, everybody else on the boat wounded: sixteen SEALs, one-half of our Nha Be detachment wiped away in a few moments of idiocy. Then there was the lunacy in the T-10 area that killed Antone and our VN SEAL."

Donkey Dick said, "C'mon, King. Don't get started on how our mates got killed in 'Nam. We wanna hear about Panama. You was gonna tell us about Panama, Slator."

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