On PBS, what really happened in Panama HTC


April 09, 1991|By Michael HIll

It is eerily appropriate that PBS' Frontline series scheduled the documentary "War and Peace in Panama" for tonight.

This hour, which will be on Maryland Public Television, Channels 22 and 67, at 9 o'clock, looks at Operation Just Cause, the invasion of Panama by United States troops that deposed dictator Manuel Noriega in December, 1989, and conditions in the Central American country since.

The footage and interviews resonate with the recent and current images of our latest military incursion, that into Iraq. Indeed, since Panama was one of the dry runs for the Pentagon's clampdown on a free-roaming press, many of the pictures shown, and the story told in interviews, will be new to most in the television audience.

As in the scenes from Baghdad when coalition jets roared in over the Iraqi capital, there is spectacular footage of Panama City as the U.S. troops began their operation, tracer fire painting their dotted arcs in the air as explosions littered the ground with their destructive brilliance.

Interviews with officers, other soldiers and journalists show that the invasion was fairly well planned, but certainly had its snags, something that rarely made it out from under the clamps of military censorship at the time.

Bombs missed their targets. The quiet of the morning after the invasion, when all objectives appeared met, proved to be illusive. There was more fighting to come.

If anything, "War and Peace in Panama" paints an even more grotesque portrait of Noriega than that portrayed by the American government at the time.

For instance, it claims that despite threats of an invasion, Noriega was drunk when it came. He desperately tried to return to his headquarters, which was under heavy attack, to retrieve a good luck charm.

And Noriega's army is portrayed as somewhere between incompetent and cutthroat. One soldier tells of being discovered wounded and having a Panamanian soldier put a gun to his head and fire point blank. The new U.S. Army helmet saved his life.

But, besides the story of a quick, overwhelming strike against a ruthless dictator, "War and Peace in Panama" has a more disconcerting harmony with the current scenes coming out of Iraq and its neighbors.

For instance, this documentary reminds us that a few weeks before our troops went in, a group of Panamanian officers followed the advice our leaders were given and tried to overthrow Noriega. Getting scant support from the United States, they failed and many were executed.

Today in Iraq we are hearing of the death and destruction being visited upon those who are following the advice of our leaders and trying to overthrow Saddam Hussein. They complain of lack of backing from the U.S.

More importantly, "War and Peace in Panama" looks at what has happened to the country in the year since the invasion and finds that not everything is coming up roses.

Unemployment is up. The looting that overtook Panama City in the days after the fighting has left it looking like a place out of the Old West as storekeepers took law into their own hands. They have not relinquished it to a police force they do not trust, in part because in a hurried attempt to restore order, the U.S. armed many of Noriega's former troops

Most importantly, what "War and Peace in Panama" explodes is the popular myth that appropriately applied violence is a quick and neat process, as precise as a laser-guided smart bomb.

Whether via capital punishment, some thug making Dirty Harry's day, the invasions of Panama and Grenada, or Operation Desert Storm, we like to believe that the violent act solves all problems. In the case of Panama, democracy was restored and the United States could go about its business.

But the pictures in this documentary of heartbroken parents finding their daughter's body in a mass, unmarked grave, or the commentary that the government installed by a U.S. invasion is not one interested in making Panama a strong, independent country, but one whose basic approach is to lean on the United States for support, shows that many problems remain after the shooting stops.

And so the pictures on the news of hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming out of Iraq, many of them dying on their long, hard marches, belie the yellow-ribbon-waving belief that the massive application of force has cleaned the slate in the Mideast.

In fact, violence is one of the most complex of human actions, often leading to resentment and retribution, just as World War I helped to lead to World War II which in turn helped to foster the ethnic battles currently gripping eastern Europe.

"War and Peace in Panama" reminds us that we still don't know the final results of Operation Just Cause, nor, for that matter, of Operation Desert Storm.

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