Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America's War with Militant Islam
By Mark Bowden
Atlantic Monthly Press, $26, 680 pp.
Mark Bowden, author of the definitive tale of urban Third World warfare, Blackhawk Down, now brings us Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America's War with Militant Islam, a superbly readable and surprisingly suspenseful account of the 1979-80 Iran hostage crisis.
Bowden persuasively argues that the American domestic political consequences of the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran have overshadowed its importance as the opening salvo in the current war with radical Islam.
For Guests of the Ayatollah, Bowden conducted hundreds of interviews with participants, Americans and Iranians alike, and read dozens of their memoirs. The result is a detailed, personal account that reads with the immediacy of a novel. As he did with Blackhawk Down, Bowden takes a historic event, puts the reader in the middle of the action and captures its essence in a synthesis that goes beyond merely transcribing the details of what occurred. Fans of Jay Winik's April, 1965: The Month that Saved America and Stephen Ambrose's Band of Brothers will love it.
A master storyteller, Bowden starts his narrative in the middle of the action, as a few Iranian "student" organizers plan to escalate a mass protest into a takeover of the American embassy. On the fly, he details the planning behind the group, and the inspiration they drew from the American protest movement of the 1960s; initially they try to reassure their captives by saying their invasion is merely a "set in."
Some of the embassy intruders, Bowden reveals, were educated at American universities by professors who steeped their charges with anti-American rhetoric, with which the captives would be berated ad nauseum for the next year and a half. The "students," it turns out, were not just Islamists, but garden-variety leftists as well. The embassy in Tehran was taken over by little Ward Churchills with prayer rugs.
The most prominent - and irritating - captor was Nilufar Ebtekar, who was dubbed "Mary" in Western press interviews. Educated in America, she emerged as a spokesman for the radicals who presented a reasonable, well spoken image to the camera. But on a daily basis, she harangued the hostages with the usual leftist cant about America's many colonial and racist sins.
Finally, one exasperated hostage - defense attaché Col. Tom Schaefer, who was tired of hearing about the "racist" decision to use the atom bomb to attack Hiroshima and Nagasaki - hit back with a retort. "They started it, we ended it," Schaefer said.
Ebtekar was baffled by the response, having never heard of Pearl Harbor - to the delight of the hostages among whom the story was surreptitiously circulated. Like POWs, the forcible isolated hostages communicated with secret notes, tapping code and any other way with which they could get away.
Iran was still turbulent after the revolution removed the Shah, and it was not yet sure whether the ayatollahs or a secular government would become the dominant force in the nation. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini originally condemned the takeover of the embassy, which Western nations - and Jimmy Carter - took as an encouraging sign. Government leaders promised that the situation would soon be under control as well.
Then Khomeini reversed himself, undercutting the civil authorities and using the popularity of the students within Iran as a rallying point for his radicalism. Like Mao, Khomeini used a student rebellion he fostered to complete his assumption of total power (he even called it a "cultural revolution" at one point). The Tehran takeover set a precedent for Islamist groups worldwide on how to intimidate and bully secular Islamic governments.
Bowden primarily tells his story through the eyes of three groups of people: the hostages, the administration officials working for their release, and the members of the newly formed Delta Force, who were tasked with rescuing them against overwhelming odds.
Among the most memorable of these figures are:
Political officer, Michael Metrinko, a Farsi speaker who should have been a spy and had better connections in the Persian community than any of the CIA people. Despite his satisfaction at the Shah's fall from power, Metrinko was openly belligerent to his captors from day one and even provoked a beating on the bus ride to the airport during their release.
Charge d'affaires Bruce Laingen, an anti-Shah senior career diplomat who was initially sympathetic to the revolution, who got a big dose of reality when he found out what it was like to be ruled by it.
Kathryn Koob, a cultural officer who used the year and a half while surrounded with fanatics committed to their version of Islam to re-immerse herself in her Catholic faith.
The former hostages are non-judgmental about how any of their counterparts dealt with their captors. The Marines, for example, insulted and taunted their captors at every opportunity (when they asked to use the restroom, they said they had to "take a Khomeini"), while others wrote letters mouthing the students' propaganda line.
The hostage situation became emblematic of what was viewed as the haplessness of Carter, and as Bowden shows, not always with justification. It was true that unlike Reagan, who "understood the world stage," Carter's hangdog look and unshakable belief in the reasonableness of all human beings were completely off kilter for the situation.
But Carter comes across surprisingly well in many ways, and in Bowden’s telling was the opposite of Bill Clinton. He could look hopeless while really doing everything possible, while Clinton could seem in command while actually doing nothing beyond holding a press conference.
The gutting of the CIA under Admiral Stansfield Turner was a contributing factor for which Carter must take responsibility. Metrinko was one of the few Farsi speakers in the embassy-and he wasn't even with the agency. While Bowden doesn't belabor the point, every time Turner shows up in the book, he makes a statement or prediction that turns out to be the opposite of reality.
The Tehran crisis became emblematic of America's military impotence, and that is something that cannot be primarily laid at the feet of Carter. The loss of Vietnam was a huge factor in making thugs around the world consider America a juicy target; and that happened long before the Carter cuts which, as Reagan also emphasized, were largely in strategic forces.
To his credit, Carter had authorized Col. Charlie Beckwith to form Delta Force and had assigned Delta from day one with planning a rescue operation. Carter gave Delta top priority and everything it was possible to give. However, a unit like Delta was a brand new thing in the U.S military and contrary to what was then the doctrine of the Pentagon brass.
The incident at Desert One, where a helicopter crashed into a C-130 transport plane, killing 8 rescuers and ending any hopes of a military rescue, was not, as some say, the result of faulty equipment in a hollow military. It was a case of the wrong equipment - navy helicopters in a desert environment - and a brand new unit which was very good at what it could do, but which did not yet have the logistical support needed for a mission this complicated in a location this remote.
Whether the release of the hostages was delayed to spite Carter or because of the fear of Reagan, Bowden makes the case that it was a little of both, as Carter and Reagan were the perfect "good cop, bad cop" combination. There is a lesson for today's liberals here. Sympathy for the devil will get you nothing. The Carter administration - and Carter himself - were not unhappy to see the Shah fall and had similarly yanked the rug out from Somoza in Nicaragua.
But the radical revolutionaries who fight to establish totalitarian regimes do not make such subtle distinctions between Americans. They hated Carter because he was the American president, no matter how much he tried to appease them; they even hated him more than Reagan, who was rhetorically blasting away at them during his campaign.
The media was permanently changed by the hostage situation. It not only directly gave us ABC's "Nightline," but it also taught the networks that crisis TV could be a profitable enterprise. The 24-hour news cycle and the rush to get any and all rumors on the air so that any ongoing situation can get its own logo and viewer base got a real boost.
One interesting sidelight: not only were the students leftists, but they were embraced by American lefties who then, as now, couldn’t repress sympathy for a movement which is the most illiberal in the world. Bowden also resurrects some long forgotten Jane Fonda-like churchmen who made publicity visits to the hostages, toadied to the radicals and acted as though the hostages really were favored guests.
While they were initially led by William Sloane Coffin, head of the National Council of Churches, Father Darrell Rupiper probably comes off the worst, as many of the hostages are convinced he purposely turned over to the captors a note passed to him by Marine guard Kevin Hermening about the real treatment the hostages were getting.
Ironically, while the Iran hostage crisis may have inspired Islamist movements worldwide - though their tactics seem almost old fashioned compared to the savages who behead people on the Internet these days - the results in the United States were definitely not to the Islamofascists' long term interests. The hostages were definitely a contributing factor to the election of Ronald Reagan, which led to American victory in the Cold War and a buildup of American forces.
Also, the experience of the hostage crisis gave us the current superb military Special Forces we have today. The shock of the failure and the helplessness to mount such a mission was what it took undue decades of doubt in the Pentagon at the need for elite units to have a prominent role in our force structure.
Bowden also informs the reader with the lives of the hostages after their return. It's no surprise, for instance, that, since his experience, Michael Metrinko has spent much of his life in the Middle East, both in and out of the State Department. It is a pleasant surprise, however, to find that Joe Subic, the man considered the weakest link by the other hostages, has had a distinguished career in the military and as a policeman and is currently serving in Iraq.
Nilufar Ebtekar is now vice president of Iran, and the world knows that another planner of the takeover, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has graduated to holding the world hostage in a nuclear showdown.
Bowden points out that the people who ultimately suffered the most, however, were the Iranian people themselves, because Khomeini used it to consolidate his revolution which has been a disaster for Iran. Bowden tours the country as part of his research and finds as much support for George W. Bush as for Ahmadinejad.
Bowden's coda to the book is awfully optimistic. He calls Islamofascist terrorism "the death throes of an ancient way of life," and even says that it "will wind up little more than a footnote in the long and colorful history" of Iran. Before you scoff, remember that 26 years ago, the idea that Communism was on its last legs and would only need a little push was only being proposed by one prominent American. Thankfully he was President.
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