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A Hero’s Mission

The composition of the Congress makes it peculiarly ill-equipped to engage a witness like Oliver North, who incarnates the heroic temperament that all but debars a lasting legislative career. A congressman encounters a hero on the benches around him too seldom to acquire the familiarity he needs to deal with a specimen of the breed when he meets one.

North’s inquisitors were, as an instance, comfortable enough when they asked him about the conscious lies he had retailed to the intelligence committees of the Congress. But they shrank from inquiring into the lies he had told himself, and they missed the point about Oliver North, which is that he is the honest fabulist that the hero not infrequently is.

He allowed no occasion to pass without giving testament to his trust in and admiration for Richard Secord, lapsed Air Force major general. It was not a reverence universal among North’s fellow servants, and the witness was called upon to explain why so many of his colleagues fell short of due appreciation of Secord’s high qualities.

There were people who just didn’t like [Gen. Secord], probably for the same reason they don’t like me,” North replied. “When you get things done in this bureaucracy, you step on toes. And he was certainly a man who got things done.”

That assertion passed unchallenged. Oliver North had enforced his sincere illusion that he and Secord were distinguished from the timeservers and toad-eaters around them because they were uniquely men who got things done. But they were not always alone; there were those who knew. One of them was Secretary of State George Shultz, who had put his arm around Oliver North’s shoulder a few weeks before he was fired and “told me what a remarkable job I had done, keeping the Nicaraguan resistance alive.”

I knew what [Shultz] meant,” North said later. “He didn’t have to say, ‘You did a great job on the L-100 resupply on the night of April 9th.’ He knew, in sufficiently eloquent terms, what I had done.”

We are then to take the “L-100 resupply” as a sample of the North-Secord partnership’s singular capacity for getting things done.

It can be presumed that North was talking about the April 11, 1986, mission that was the first launched from the Costa Rican base Secord had constructed for airlifts to the contra southern front, one of the more mythic of the multitude of dots on the map of this pair’s heroic myth.

The vicissitudes of this April “L-100 resupply” are exhaustively documented in the Contrayatollah committee’s files, and one’s first impulse after examining them is to commend the secretary of state for the diplomatic tact of his abstention from mentioning the subject to North.

April 9 had been the target night, but the customary confusions and ineptitudes dictated its postponement for two days. At last the L-100 supply plane was loaded with its ordnance and went off to its rendezvous with the results succinctly reported to Secord by Richard Gadd, his expediter on the scene:

L-100 arrived over [Drop Zone] on time but never saw inverted L or strobe light. They remained in area twenty-five minutes and then aborted. Coordinated with [a contra commander] who says troops saw and heard L-100. I want to try again tonight an hour earlier, but [the American Embassy’s military attaché] has informed [us] that he will not permit another “half-assed” operation. He says we have to establish air-ground radio contact before he will permit op to go forward. This is asinine—no black ops ever use this procedure. The answer is to sort out why [contra] troops did not have signals properly displayed. Also Southern Air Transport wants their bird [the L-100] back.

No pleas availed, and SAT’s bird left its roost and the Secord-North expeditionary force was stranded a while with no consolation except to revile the American embassy, the CIA station chief, and other objects of blame convenient for the man who does things when faced with some otherwise unanswerable proof that he can’t.

Such was the triumph that Oliver North excused a busy secretary of state for neglecting to salute. Ordinarily timid mortals struggle to bury their mistakes; heroes do not just effortlessly forget but transmute them into fresh, shining chapters in the myth. The April 9 L-100 resupply had supplied nothing and no one, and yet it has taken residence in Oliver North’s imagination as a reality that could not be any more securely beyond dispute if it had happened.

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