David Hackworth on Oliver North
Source: Playboy, June 1994, v41, n6, p90(5).
Title: Drugstore Marine (Oliver North)
Author: David Hackworth
Electronic Collection: A15456160 RN: A15456160
Full Text COPYRIGHT Playboy 1994
LET ME TRY to describe Oliver North in a few fast bursts. He's a jackass. He is so preposterous that there is a temptation to laugh at him. He's smarmy, a flatterer, a brownnoser. He's also a twisted impostor, a drugstore Marine with an apparent compulsion to bullshit just about all the time. But while he tries to fool people with his fantasies, he is also very easy to fool. He boasts that he was a can-do guy when he was in the White House, but the record spells no-can-do. North did terrible damage to the U.S. until he was caught. One thread runs through his performance--getting conned. The Iranians conned him, the contras conned him, the crooked arms dealers conned him and even Manuel Antonio Noriega conned him.
North is also one of the most dangerous men in America today. I've talked with him only once, by telephone on Michael Jackson's radio talk show on KABC in Los Angeles. I had done my homework and wasn't surprised when North put on his usual act. By the time I debated him I had talked with dozens of Marines and soldiers who knew him, as well as with former National Security Council staff colleagues. I had seen him on countless TV shows, had read about him in several books and hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles. "Does Oliver North Tell the Truth?" was the title of a June 1993 investigation in Reader's Digest. The writer, Rachel Wildavsky, presents a watertight case, providing names and dates and plenty of reasons why the answer to the headline is no. My own sources confirmed or amplified what Wildavsky reports: North "could not be believed--even under oath." One of his former colleagues is quoted as saying North "had trouble distinguishing between what was true and what he wished to be true."
In almost 50 years of being around soldiers, I have bumped into my fair share of bullshitters, but Ollie would have to take the first-place ribbon. His record shows that he is totally untrustworthy.
During the radio show I asked him to clarify a few of the contradictory stories he has told about himself. North bobbed and weaved and said that if we could get together he would explain everything. I don't want to go near the guy, and he can't make facts disappear by trying to flatter me. At the end of the show he said, "I'm under posttraumatic stress disorder from this interview." The fact is that North is the sort of guy who cringes at the truth.
His relationship with Ronald Reagan, for example, was close, according to Ollie. Part of his line is that he persuaded Reagan to invade Grenada in 1983 and that he and Reagan watched the live broadcast of American students returning from Grenada and kissing the tarmac. According to Ollie, Reagan emotionally embraced him. Evidence says that North was never alone with Reagan and that he did not even see the president on the day the students came home. Reagan himself has accused North of making various "false statements."
North was convicted on three different counts: for helping deceive Congress about the Reagan administration's trading arms to Iran for release of hostages, for destroying documents and for illegally accepting a home security system that was paid for by a government contractor (Richard Secord), whom North had brought into his operations. Now he claims he was "exonerated," which is another lie. An appeals court threw out the convictions on a legal technicality.
During the radio show he called his house in Virginia a "plain old farm." Some plain old farm. It cost more than $1 million and comprises nearly 200 acres and a large stone house in one of the plushest areas of Virginia. He ignored my mention of its worth and said, "We have succeeded with a business that I started." True, he did start a business, Guardian Technologies, which manufactures bulletproof vests, but the major sources of his wealth are well known. Within a year of his appearance before Congress, North started what has become a successful fundraising effort (more than $23 million so far) of which he has been the chief beneficiary. The money he received has also funded his campaign to be the Republican candidate in Virginia's Senate race this year.
If you think he did a lot of damage as a light colonel with a record on contempt for the law, imagine the trouble he could get us into as a senator and later as President North. Then he wouldn't merely disregard our Constitution--he could burn it.
He probably would not be our first psychopathic president, but he would be the most dangerous.
North has a magic mouth. He's part natural politician and part huckster. He could sell camel shit back to the camels. He has the aura of a savior and he instinctively plays to his audiences. He wants to be looked upon as a military hero, the hairy-chested underdog who can save our country, a kind of leader stud who will follow the example of other warriors who continued to serve and defend our country after they took off their uniforms. North is a perversion of that great tradition.
He was not faithful to the Marine Corps, nor to his country, nor to his God. When he became a Marine he took an oath to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic" and to "bear true faith and allegiance" to the Constitution "so help me God." He then proceeded to lie under oath to the Congress and generally treated the Constitution and other laws as obstacles.
What is scary is that North's propaganda has worked on a whole bunch of people whom he has successfully exploited. The perception of many of his devoted flock is that only a strong leader can stop America from being flushed down the toilet.
Like Ross Perot, North is a lightning rod for many people who are dissatisfied with America. But North is a lightning rod that is not grounded, and that kind can start fires. He calls himself a conservative and talks about traditional values, but in fact he has flouted most of them. He should instead call himself a chameleon.
The fact that North invokes a war-hero image offends me and disgraces all the brave warriors who serve our country with honor, not deception. North is the sort of guy who could give war stories a bad name.
I've spent a lot of my life defending America with either rifle or pen, and I view Ollie as I would a defective weapon system that will blow up when things get hot.
Besides shredding evidence, North shredded the trust that soldiers hold close to God, country and their fellow men. Trust is the glue that causes units to be cohesive and to accomplish the impossible.
Part of North's spiel is that he was a warrior who followed the orders of his masters--the lowly, good Marine who was the fall guy for the White House ratbags.
Nazi generals used the just-following-orders plea when they explained their mass murders. The Uniform Code of Military Justice protects American soldiers from obeying unlawful orders.
There is no sign that Oliver North has changed his mind about our Constitution. If he were elected I have no doubt he would do a constitutional bypass, in the interest of efficiency, on the document that efficiently guarantees our freedom.
North exaggerates his experiences in a way that makes real warriors gag. Lines in his standard speech include references to Marines who "died facedown in the mud" and remarks such as "this old Marine is prepared for the mission ahead." Sanctimonious shit.
North offended many Marines when he showed up for the congressional hearings with his uniform and medals. It was as if he had donned a costume designed to prove he was a hero, and to win sympathy. To the civilian eye, that splattering of fruit salad seemed to confirm the myth he had already spun about himself with the Washington press corps: that he was a leatherneck who had plenty of experience leading men in combat where people get the medals that count.
His Silver Star is no big deal by the standards of the Vietnam war. In Vietnam a total of 21,630 Silver Stars were awarded to Army personnel. Marines received more than 2500. I have nine altogether (five from Korea and four from Vietnam) and gave back a tenth because the action that I was cited for never happened. All too often in Vietnam, officers got medals just for showing up. North also won the Bronze Star. There were 720,000 awarded by the Army during the Vietnam war. No one can count the stunning acts of heroism that was obscured by the excesses of the medal count. Many Vietnam veterans got medals, but most don't try to exploit them or make more of them than they are worth.
Retired Major General John Singlaub, a man well-known for his physical and moral courage, said, "To people all over the world Ollie North was a hero. But I knew better. There was a wide gap between the media image of Ollie North--the honest, loyal Marine--and the sordid reality of his true character and performance."
Let's keep things in perspective. In 1968 and 1969 North spent 12 months in Vietnam. During the first nine months he skippered a rifle platoon on a tough I Corps battlefield and was wounded twice. He was not short on guts or leadership ability and his men rated him as a gung ho and caring leader. For his last three months in Vietnam North was a staff officer, away from combat, with mostly administrative duties.
Between 1969 and 1974 he spent most of his time in offices and classrooms and on training assignments. In late 1974 he again took charge of troops when he became a company commander, as a captain, on Okinawa. Just 29 days into the assignment, North--described to me by a follow officer who saw him at the time as an "emotional wreck"--surrendered his command.
He returned to the U.S., where he spent as much as three weeks at Bethesda Naval Hospital for some deep-shrinking by psychiatrists. The episode is shrouded in mystery. North himself is vague about it in Under Fire, his autobiography published reports that parts of his medical record were expunged. Meanwhile, there have been published reports (which North never legally challenged) that provide details about the apparent nervous breakdown. In one account he ran around naked, babbling incoherently and waving a .45 pistol.
I asked him about his emotional problems on the radio and he did not want to talk about them. Voters in Virginia should ask him about this and demand to see his Marine medical record. Watch him say it's secret because of national security. Hell, he may believe it himself.
North never afterward commanded troops. For the rest of his career he was a staff wienie--and by all accounts a good one, if sometimes overzealous.
"You had to keep an eye on him or he would get everyone in trouble," an officer who worked with him told me.
He tirelessly shuffled papers, taught classes and for the last five years before Iran-contra exploded, worked as a presidential advisor on national security matters. In the White House his dangerous and destructive fantasies took on the hallmarks of megalomania, perjury, double-dealing and gullibility. He was still a serving Marine, but he wore civilian gear and his weapons during those five years were a word processor, a file cabinet and one mean shredder.
And now he is on a roll as the comeback colonel.
We are lucky to have survived his first effort at shaping policy. He was incompetent. No matter how slapstick some of his antics were--like taking the keyshaped cake and the pistols to Tehran--his incompetence caused grave harm to American national interests.
The record shows him to be an extraordinary sucker. He wants to please everyone and has this thing about being the ultimate insider. Real insiders can smell pretenders like Ollie. They let them inside only when they can use them. And, boy, was Ollie used.
According to one of his colleagues, North boasted that Ronald Reagan "loves my ass."
North certainly brought the power of the White House to his projects. And for some of the worst people in the world it was a lucky day when Ollie walked in. He was an answer to the prayers of sleazebags from Panama City to Beirut. It was as if they had one of their own in the White House.
The Iranians Ollie dealt with were basically the same people who had seized the U.S. embassy and taken hostages in 1979. Most of the world regarded them as criminals. During the war with Iraq the Iranians were having trouble getting arms. But, with Ollie's help, they managed to get tons of weaponry during 1985 and 1986. In return they prevailed upon their allies in Lebanon to turn loose some kidnapped U.S. civilians. North himself, in a message sent to John Poindexter (a message that he attempted but failed to destroy), lays out the chain of organizations from Tehran right down to the hostage holders--a well-known Middle Eastern terrorist group called the Hezbollah.
It was the Hezbollah who carried out the bombing of the Beirut barracks in October 1983, in which 241 Marines and servicemen were killed. Two years later, despite the rhetorical denunciations of all terrorists by the Reagan White House, Ollie did business with them.
So Ollie did succeed in getting people out, right? Yes, except that when three hostages were released, the terrorists simply snatched three others to get ready to bargain for more arms.
"The net accomplishment of North's arms deals with the Iranians was to create a market for hostages," said Tom Blanton, executive director of the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C. The NSA, a nongovernmental library of declassified documents, is the greatest single public repository of hard facts about North and the whole Iran-contra scam. "The market featured prices--a.k.a. ransoms--running from $1 million in cash to as high as $8 million in missiles. That's an incentive for a revolving door."
Remember: the official line was that North and his colleagues worked only with moderates in Iran. The joke back in 1987 was that a moderate in Iran was anybody who was low on ammo. Voters in Virginia should ask him if the people who killed the Marines and sailors in Beirut were moderates.
North also dealt with other people who dwelt in the terrorist sewer. Back in 1987 he testified that terrorist Abu Nidal wanted him dead. It was, North said, Nidal's threats that made him install the security system. Nidal and his associates must have had a good laugh when they saw how North had fooled the American public. They knew about Ollie. Abu Nidal and Ollie bought weapons from the same Syrian arms dealer, Monzer al-Kassar. So did Abul Abbas, the man who carried out the seizure of the Achille Lauro and the murder of Leon Klinghoffer. The terrorist underworld wanted a patsy like Ollie alive and doing business.
It's a good bet that the contras did not get their money's worth out of the weapons Ollie got for them from Monzer al-Kassar. For all the money he raised for the contras, little of it did the grunts in the field any good. They were eating monkeys and suffering supply problems while the Miami leadership team with whom North worked bought expensive suits and lived comfortably.
North's involvement with Manuel Noriega would be funny of if had not damaged the U.S. so much. Ollie regularly kissed the Panamanian's ass in exchange for promises of help with the contras. An American who knew them both said, "To North, Noriega was like Brando up the river in Apocalypse Now. No rules."
Noriega's reputation--as a narcotrafficker, election fixer, double or triple intelligence agent and accomplice to murder--did not deter Ollie. When Noriega got some bad press in the summer of 1986 he went to Ollie and told him he wanted his image buffed up in Washington. In return, Noriega offered to blow up some Sandinista targets inside Nicaragua. North enthusiastically reported all this to Poindexter and, ever gullible, judged Noriega's offer "sincere." Thank God, North got caught just two months later. Voters in Virginia should ask North why he wanted to improve the image of someone like Noriega, who played such a crucial role in shipping cocaine to Americans.
North should not call himself a conservative, at least not in the way my family and friends in Virginia define the word. If he qualifies as the leader of any cause it is the neo-fruitcake movement. I hope the good people of Virginia realize he is the opposite of a patriot and make that clear with their ballots. My family first settled in Virginia in 1622 and my ancestors would spin in their graves if he were to represent the state. I hereby volunteer for his enemies list.