Sunday, April 23, 2006

The Desert One Debacle and the start of the Reagan Era

The only difference between this and the Alamo is that Davy Crockett didn’t have to fight his way in” – Delta Force intelligence officer Wayne Ishimoto.

Twenty-six years ago, on April 24, 1980, President Jimmy Carter gave the green light for Operation “Eagle Claw”, the plan to rescue the American hostages being held in Iran.

In this month’s Atlantic Online, there is a riveting interactive article authored by Mark Bowden (author of Black Hawk Down, Bringing the Heat, and Killing Pablo) about the ill-fated mission.
It called for a nighttime rendezvous of helicopters and planes at a landing strip in the desert south of Tehran, where the choppers would refuel before carrying the raiding party to hiding places just outside the city. The whole force would then wait through the following day and assault the embassy compound on the second night, spiriting the hostages to a nearby soccer stadium from which the helicopters could take them to a seized airstrip outside the city, to the transport planes that would carry them to safety and freedom.

Now, I’m not a military man, and I take nothing away from the extraordinary bravery, professionalism, and superb skills of the men involved… but I’ve worked as a systems analyst for years and have become well-acquainted with Murphy and his Law. Even I can see all of the high-risk, multiple points of failure here. Even if the rescue team had managed to make it into Tehran, it is hard to imagine how it could have been accomplished successfully.

I remember this day and this incident very well. At the time, I was safely isolated from such things as a junior at Babson College. We were just finishing up classes for the year, and our fraternity, Zeta Beta Tau, held an evening ceremony to initiate its pledges into the brotherhood. We held a theme-party afterward as we were accustomed to do; this one ironically dubbed the “End of the World Party” (See photo. Note the snippet of writing on the chalkboard - “For the great day of His wrath has come, and who shall be able to stand”). How little we knew.

In the small hours of the morning, one of the brothers came down and related to us the news he had heard on the radio about the failed mission. We were stunned and sobered by the news, literally and figuratively. The next day in the papers, and on the television news, we saw the pictures of the wreckage, the charred bodies of the pilots, and the malevolent Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gloating and chortling as he actually handled the bones and remains of the dead American servicemen.

It was at this point, that we noticed a sea-change in people’s thinking, on campus and around the country. Babson College is a business school, and Democrats were hard to find there as a general rule of thumb anyway, but there were in fact some of us with enough youthful idealism and loyalties shaped by ethnicity and upbringing to be partial to that party anyway. There had been a great deal of frustration with the “malaise presidency” of Jimmy Carter, to be sure, but this incident was the last straw. There was a widespread feeling that America had pretty much lost its edge. How could a country that spent billions on national defense every year botch a mission because of a lack of durable and serviceable helicopters? People turned with a vengeance on the feckless, hapless Carter, who had been confounded by an old man who seemed to do nothing but issue fatwas while sitting on his prayer rug all day. When Iranians took to the streets and chanted "Death to America", we didn't take them seriously. What could they do to us? We never dreamed we'd be facing the danger we see today.

Ronald Reagan wasn’t elected until November, but that April, for better or for worse, was the real beginning of the Reagan era and the real end of the New Deal era. If the mission had been successful, who knows what would have happened next? How different a country would this be? How different a world?

Word of the catastrophe reached the White House just before the force left the ground in retreat. The president was in his study, surrounded by his advisers, still absorbing the shock of the abort decision. He received a call from General Jones. “Yes, Dave.” Jordan watched the president close his eyes, and then Carter’s jaw fell and his face went pale. “Are there any dead?” Carter asked.The room was silent. Finally the president said softly, “I understand,” and hung up the phone.

He calmly explained to the others what had happened. The men took in the awful news quietly. Then Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, who had submitted his resignation earlier that day because he objected to the mission, said, “Mr. President, I’m very, very sorry.” Jordan ducked into the president’s bathroom and vomited.

America’s elite rescue force had lost eight men, seven helicopters, and a C-130, and had not even made contact with the enemy. It was a debacle. It defined the word “debacle.”


Liam said...

I was only 13 when that happened, but I remember it well. Your description of the whole experience is very well done.

I admire Carter, probably more for what he did after his presidency than during it, although I'd still rather he'd won in 1980. One thing I do remember is how he came on television and took full responsibility for the mission and it's failure--during an election year. So far from what we have now.

Jeff said...

Hi Liam,

Thank you for posting.

I still voted for Carter in 1980 anyway, even though I had a very strong urge to go with Anderson. Remember him?

I think Jimmy Carter is a man of deep faith, and I admire what he has done with Habitat for Humanity, but I can't say I've been a big fan of the freelance diplomacy he's done on his own initiative the last few years. Plus he was never one who was great for listening. Always had to be the smartest guy in the room.

(an aside... Like George Bush, he drives me crazy when he says "nucular", but he ought to know better, because after all, he was a "nucular" physicist) ;-)

I can't recall his appearance after the failed mission, but I'm sure he took the heat. I have a friend named Harvey who says to me "When Harry Truman left the White House, he took the sign that says 'The buck stops here' with him", although we both agree that JFK took it on memorably after the Bay of Pigs fiasco (even though the blame probably lay much more heavily on CIA men Dulles and Bissell).

It's a pervasive thing now today, isn't it, and not just in politics, for accountability to be pushed down to the lowest levels instead of upward? "Stuff" rolls downhill. All of these guys are so handled by spin doctors and marketing men, no one is going to take responsibility for anything. They just bull their way through it.

When I was in High School I worked with a tough city kid on a summer-job program. He said to me:

"Never admit when you're bagged!"

"Why not?"

"It just gets you into more trouble."

"What if you're caught red-handed? What if they've got you strung up in a bald-faced lie?"

"All the more reason not to admit it! Once you admit they've got you, you're dead. Your punishment will be much worse than if you fight it. Never, never, never admit when you're bagged..."

I wonder if he grew up to work in Washington.

So far from what we have now.

Well, you can say that again, and for the purposes of full disclosure, I voted for "W" twice. I have voted Republican in every presidential election since 1984. Once I got some awareness on the abortion issue, I became a staunch anti-communist, anti-abortion, pro-defense Reagan Democrat... I am seriously uneasy, however, about the direction in which we are currently headed. As for admitting mistakes - It is one thing to say that most of the world's intelligence agencies thought that Iraq had WMD, and it is another to say that if you had to do it all over again, that you would do the same thing. The latter rings patently false.

Liam said...

Yes, I think though our voting histories are quite different, we can both agree that their in a general lack of responisbility in our society right now. I'm not particularly enthused with the Democrats I vote for, even if their supposed stance on policies is closer to what I believe in than the Republicans. I think our country has, as a result of consumerism to a certain extent, developed a two-year-old mentality: instant gratification and a rejection of sacrifice and responsibility. The amount of money in politics right now is disturbing, but what's more disturbing is that a 20-second commericial of a candidate from either party standing in front of a flag actually influences how people might vote.