On December 20, 1989, more than 20,000 US combat troops invaded Panama, in order to capture General Manuel Noriega and carry him back to the U.S. to stand trial for violations of U.S. laws that he purportedly committed while on Panamanian soil.
Noriega is the only officially recognized prisoner of war currently held by our country who is also a convicted felon, having been so sentenced for violating nine counts of drug-connected racketeering laws. Noriega's unusual prisoner status is just one of the anomalies left festering from that 1989 invasion "Operation Just Cause,” which was the first time in 225 years our country decided to enforce its own domestic laws upon foreign soil.
Thousands of civilian Panamanians were killed, injured, or left homeless by this assault. Panama's political stability has been dubious ever since (but then, who are we to pass judgment on that issue?). Meanwhile, the drugs keep pouring into Texas and Florida, states seemingly owned and operated by the sons of George Bush, the man who finally said `no mas” to the ugly, diminutive Panamanian "strong man” and "narco-terrorist.”
So why did we really go into Panama?
Did we do it because Noriega had a face "like someone lit it on fire and then put out the fire with an icepick?” Was it because Noriega practiced Santeria, or possibly engaged in bisexuality, or laundered drugs for the CIA, or snitched for the DEA, or onced waved a machete and said he had President George Herbert Walker Bush "by the balls?'
In a word—was it personal?
Did we do it because Noriega had too much first-hand knowledge about the global shell game of money, weapons and drugs that Oliver North, Elliot Abrams, et al., of the Reagan regime had played in order to crush leftist rebels in El Salvador and Nicaragua? Or was it because the newly-elected President Bush was so hamstrung by both his perceived "wimp factor” and his own knowledge of the shady dealings that he was privy to as a former director of both the CIA and of the South Florida Drug Task Force, that "national security,” i.e., job security for those in power, was at stake, and the "strong man” had to go?
That is to say—was it "Uncle Sam, Cover Your Ass!" time?
Or did we do it because . . . we could. America's domestic drug war was losing ground; Panama was close by and already had military facilities available; and Noriega was feared and hated except by the majority of our own country's DEA agents, who regarded him as the best snitch they ever had. Of course, then there was the Panama Canal Treaty thing that we've been smarting over ever since Carter left office. Military might needs, creates, and finally serves only its own agendas, yet far too often with unsatisfactory resolutions, such as with those achieved by "Operation Just Cause.”
David Harris' Shooting the Moon comes closer to answering all of the questions surrounding the criminal and then military implementation of United States v. Noriega than any book of similar investigative scope. And who better to write about the tragicomedy of military agendas than David Harris, the legendary anti-war activist who went to jail for draft-resistance in the ‘60's?
This brilliantly-researched and superbly-written book plunges the reader into the gritty, fast-paced, winner-takes-all world of international drug cartels, elite anti-drug agents, and Cold War-era political mayhem. In the War on Drugs, heroes become losers and vice versa in the blink of a night-vision camera lens, or with a sudden, ill-conceived order by a federal prosecutor, drug agent supervisor—or by a newly-elected President. To Harris' everlasting credit, he deals objectively and sympathetically with the tough and seemingly tireless DEA agents and US prosecutors who risk losing all for their single-minded pursuit of Noriega's criminal activities. Worse, their biggest obstacles are not international laws or unreliable snitches, but rather their immediate superiors in the Justice Department and their overseers in the halls of Congress who are trying to protect their loyal Panamanian anti-Communist and confidential informant at any cost.
Shooting the Moon has the colorful characters and the almost surreal, calm-before-the-storm feel of the best Miami Vice episodes, but obviously much more factual and insightful, and thankfully without all the brooding narcissism and glamorized violence inherent to that ‘80's TV phenomenon. Harris' book is a must-read for all armchair historians who think they knew all about the 1989 Panama invasion, and for anyone else who must know, such as those who lost family members or friends in the most extravagant and deadly manhunt of the 20th century.
© Copyright 2001 by KNS Maré