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.”