Operation Screw Up

"Why were they using young guys, young officers?" I asked.
"They said they didn't have enough officers."
"Bullshit!" we chorused.

Slator ignored us and continued. "Perhaps they wanted youthful platoons because youth is superbly conditioned, youth is optimistic and eager, youth is filled with the romance of illusions, youth seldom says no to its elders, or even, `I don't think that's a very good idea, sir'; above all else, youth believes it is invincible. Remember how invincible we felt before we went to the Rung Sat, the Nam Can, the Hon Heo, the Delta, the Cua Viet?..."

"Cut the shit, Slator," said Donkey Dick. "Get on to what happened."
Slator drank. "After the rehearsals in the Panhandle, the platoons flew to the staging area at Howard Air Force Base in Panama. I should point out, SEAL platoons were already in Panama. Had been for quite a while, as part of another rotation. Other more experienced SEALs were also there with our permanent detachment, and a few of these SEALs had been to Paitilla many times. Knew the airfield like the face on their Rolexes, even knew about a small hole in the security fence that the swimmer scouts could use without taking time to cut one. These SEALs tried their best to go on the op with the new platoons, but they were told this was to be an outside job.

"Naturally there were rules of engagement. We know all about rules of engagement, don't we? Rules of engagement have smoked more than one good man. Rules of engagement are traps for the unwary often set by folks who work best in air-conditioned suites, folks who never walk point, folks who declare, `Our casualties were light,' when we die."

"The army set the rules of engagement with a great deal of direction from the State Department, I'm sure. I understand the State Department wanted special rules of engagement for the SEALs, because the SEAL target bordered that wealthy neighborhood. The Union Club, much favored by diplomats, sits like a fortress on the bay about 200 meters southwest of the runway. The tennis courts are even closer.

"Of course, all invasion forces were to refrain from killing civilians and destroying property, to the extent they could. But the mission came first. The army, for example, hit their targets with guns blazing: PDF headquarters, Rio Hato, Omar Torrijos Airport, the prison at El Renacer. They even shot up the hospital at Santa Fe and the Marriott Hotel. Killed a newspaper banana and seriously wounded another at the Marriott.

"Furthermore, after the army got through with the poor neighborhoods in Panama City, it was urban renewal time. And the army let the dignity cheese dicks run wild downtown for three days after the invasion. I hear that small oversight cost a billion dollars or so.

"But the rules of engagement for the SEALs were to be strictly enforced: an absolute minimum amount of property damage and few, if any, civilian casualties. The SEALs could not use mortar support from the patrol boats; the SEALs could not use naval gunfire support from destroyers or frigates, even though these ships easily could have taken station off the airfield at the six-fathom curve or closer, and brought their five-inch guns to bear for direct fire at a range of less than 6000 meters. As we know, because we used them in Vietnam, five-inch guns may not be much for indirect fire at times, but they have a fearsome accuracy when the gunner can see the target and take it under direct fire. And the very best targets for Navy guns are those that extend away from the guns, targets such as roads and runways."

"Fuckin'-A, mate," said Donkey Dick. "Hittin' that runway for them gunners would a been easier than spearin' garibaldi or takin' lobster with a sling."

"The naval gun is certainly more accurate with direct fire than those one-oh-five howitzers I saw the army blasting away with on CNN," the Deuce King added. "And those boat drivers will run their bows into the mud if that's what it takes to bring the guns to bear. Why, I saw the Saint Paul damn near bottom out in the mud north of Da Nang so she could fire her eight-inch guns into Happy Valley."

"So it goes, King. But as I said, this was an all-army and air force show. No Navy allowed."

The Deuce King appeared confused. "But what about SEALs?" he asked Slator. "SEALs are Navy."

"You've been away too long. SEALs aren't Navy any more. SEALs are now part of the U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa. An army lieutenant general is in charge of that outfit."

"Jesus fucking Christ. Whose bright idea was that? That drives a goddamn wedge right between the SEALs and the fleet, our best support."

"But even with the unrealistic rules of engagement," Slator continued, "the outlook was promising. After all, we had our stand-off weapons and excellent marksmen to use them. But at perhaps the last minute, probably after the rehearsals and not long before the insertion, the plan was changed. This was not the last time the plan was to be changed. An army general, under pressure from State, insisted the SEALs not use a stand-off method. Too risky. A stray round or rocket might enter the residential area, damage the Union Club, blow a hole in that expensive Lear jet. The general and the diplomats wanted the plane taken intact.

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