1980s >> 1987 >> no-997-september-1987

A loose cannon on the gun deck of state

The fantasy of Rambo merged with real life as Oliver North took the stand during the Irangate hearings. Given the box-office success of the film it was perhaps not surprising that Ollie was such a hit with a sizeable proportion of the American people. According to opinion polls at the time, only 58 per cent of the population thought he was telling the truth (nevertheless a better credibility rating than his hapless boss, Ronald Reagan, who only managed to convince 22 per cent of people that he was levelling with them) but that was unimportant compared to his style and the image he projected.

After all here was the real life embodiment of countless celluloid all-American heroes. The super-patriot defending liberty and the American way against the ever-present threat of “communism”: “I saw the idea of using Ayatollah Khomeini’s money to support the Nicaraguan freedom fighters as a good one. I still do. I don’t think it was wrong. I think it was a neat idea”. The man of action who took it upon himself to personally defend America from the evil empire because Congress, the State Department, even the Pentagon and the CIA. were too clogged up with lily-livered, dithering bureaucrats to “get things done”. The veteran of Vietnam who believed that loyal soldiers like himself had been winning the war but had been stabbed in the back by politicians in Washington, and were now suffering the same fate in Central America. The upstanding Christian and family man whose wife. Betty, is his “best friend” and who is able to resist the temptations posed by his attractive secretary. Fawn Hall: “Ollie North has been faithful to his wife since the day he married her”. The controlled and disciplined serviceman with the penetrating gaze, who only hinted at the passion that motivated his actions by the catch in his voice as he spoke of his love of his country and by the misty look in his eyes as he told of the security system installed to protect his family from the terrorist. Abu Nidal. The defiant patriot who. while admitting to lying, shredding documents and engaging in cover-up, nevertheless managed to persuade people that he was doing it. not for personal gain but for the greater good: “I did a lot of things and I want to stand up and say that I’m proud of them”. The man who was bewildered by the accusations now being levelled at him: “I realise that there’s a lot of folk around that think there’s a loose cannon on the gun-deck of state at the NSC. That wasn’t what I heard when I worked there. I’ve only heard that since I left. People used to walk up to me and tell me what a great job I was doing”. A man who was now prepared to vindicate himself by telling all: “I came here to tell you the truth, the good, the bad and the ugly. I am here to tell you it all”. It was an impressive performance. But although this was real life we had, nonetheless, entered the realm of fantasy and myth.

Firstly there is the myth of patriotism; the myth that persuades workers that they have a country that is worth defending, fighting and even dying for. In fact the working class, world-wide, has no country. Despite differences of nationality, culture, race and language we share a common interest as workers. That potential for global working-class unity is constantly undermined by the propaganda that teaches us to regard “foreigners” as the enemy, whether in economic or military terms, and encourages us to give unthinking allegiance to a nation-state whether it is America, Britain, Russia or wherever, in which we have no stake and which is run, not in our interests but in the interests of the small minority who own and control the means of producing wealth and the weapons of destruction. It is these people who, by invoking patriotism through the use of national flags and anthems, uniforms and pageantry, persuade workers to go to war with each other, to maim and to kill.

The second myth is that of America as the “land of the free”. Margaret Thatcher, in a recent visit to America, contributed to this myth when, in a pep talk to the American people, she described the US as “the flagship of freedom and she must sail into the sunset”. The metaphor might have been a little obscure but the message was clear: Americans are a free people and only the American system — a combination of free market capitalism, the rugged individualism typified by Oliver North, and “democracy” — can protect that freedom and that of the western world from the evils of “communism”. Oliver North apparently believed this myth to such an extent that he thought that any means — whether illegal or not, sanctioned by Congress or not — should be used since they were justified by the end.

But the American people, like workers everywhere, are not “free”. They are chained by necessity to wage slavery, forced to sell their ability to work in order to live. Some are wealthy, many live in poverty and insecurity. None experience the true freedom that can only come when workers are in control of their own lives able to make decisions for themselves about all the things that affect their lives; when we work voluntarily for the good of the communities of which we are a part, rather than to profit the capitalist class. In this society of true freedom there will also be real democracy, rather than the sham that exists in America and other capitalist countries today, where workers are given the vote but that is the extent of their influence. Instead, power is handed over to politicians and leaders who, while paying lip-service to the idea of democracy, then engage in the kind of sordid political horse-trading that the Irangate enquiry has brought to light.

The third myth is that of the “hero” — the individual engaged in a selfless struggle, unconcerned by fears for his or her personal safety, to defend liberty, country and family. Oliver North played this part to perfection even though what he was actually talking about bore no resemblance to the myth. What he actually described was an ill-conceived (even in capitalist terms) plan to sell arms to Iran, even though America had only recently taken a stand against countries which supported international terrorism, in order to secure the release of American hostages and thus improve the political standing of the administration — nothing terribly selfless about that. At the same time the profits made on the arms sale (or “residuals” as North termed them) were to be used to fund the Contra guerrillas, by all accounts a ramshackle bunch of drug dealers, mercenaries and reactionary desperados. But North was not acting entirely from principled motives in this regard since substantial sums of this money managed to find its way into his bank account and apparently paid his grocery bills. Finally, the image of Oliver North, the hero, begins to look even more tarnished when we remember that his decision to come clean and tell all only came about because he was promised limited immunity from prosecution.

Oliver North’s testimony contributed to a myth accepted by both the Senate investigation committee and a majority of people in America, who do believe that America is the land of freedom and opportunity, the best of all possible worlds, under attack from “communism”. While the details of North’s testimony — who knew what, and when — were examined, and questions were asked about the legality of some of his actions, no-one questioned either the system or the ideology that creates characters like Ollie. A system that concentrates economic, political and military power in the hands of a few people who use it to defend their interests both at home and internationally and an ideology that encourages belief in heroes — whether it’s North or Reagan, Rambo or Superman. Many American workers no doubt believe that North was justified in engaging in illegal, covert actions, some may even regard him as a hero for precisely that reason, but North, the fantasy hero, and the actions of others like him, could lead American workers into a bloody war, whether it is in Central America or, as looks more likely, in the Middle East. (It would be irony indeed if the Arms North sold to Iran were now to be used against American ships in the GuIf). It is unlikely that even those who are attracted to the fantasy North represents would welcome the real life experience of another Vietnam.

Janie Percy-Smith