Col. Charlie Beckwith commanded the Carter administration’s failed effort to rescue the Iranian hostages by force in 1980. He has composed a memoir of that disaster, and it is at once a pity and an offense to decent sensibilities that William Safire of The New York Times should have been the first messenger to bring Beckwith’s Delta Force to the public notice in his column of November 3.
Beckwith landed at an isolated Iranian airstrip with the 120 members of his Special Forces detachment. Six of the helicopters that were to carry them to the covert staging area near Tehran arrived ninety minutes late, which meant that he risked having to arrive there after the first light of day. He determined all the same to plunge ahead.
Already he had to assume that two of the eight helicopters assigned to his mission had been lost or grounded on the way. Then he was told that one of the survivors was too disabled to be trusted further. It had been agreed by all planners that six helicopters were the minimum complement needed to move 120 soldiers and their equipment. At the very best, Beckwith would have to leave behind twenty men from a force already down to the minimum needed to give the mission an outside chance. Beckwith made his judgment. It was to radio back to base: “Delta’s going home.”
Safire reviews this decision with a degree of contempt that only a coward could deserve. “A loss of nerve,” he calls it. “We are not learning the lesson of that defeat; until we do, Beckwithism…will be US military policy, and combat leaders will be trained not to take a risk to win a victory.”
I have no idea of the risks William Safire took when he was in his country’s uniform. Perhaps they were larger than my own. But it would hardly seem to lie honorably in either of our mouths to consign a genuine soldier to the obloquy that generally belongs to a name with ism attached to it.
Beckwith did not arrive at that Iranian desert fresh from Officers Candidate School. By then he had been in service for twenty-seven years. You have to suspect that he reached there half mad; no man entirely sane plays football in the Southeastern Conference.
His special achievement was to live through the army and heroically stay in no worse than the semicrazy condition he brought to it. He makes himself sound like the sort of officer you would hate to be above and would delight to be beneath. His is continually the voice of the field officer who detests the staff more than the enemy it sent him to fight.
The great passages in Delta Force are those where Beckwith remembers the occasions when he was on the radio being shot at and asking for orders from the base that wasn’t. He is in Vietnam being clobbered by two divisions of North Vietnam regulars, and the voice on the radio…
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