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 tells him:
“Go outside the camp, rummage around, clear the enemy out of there. Then, obviously if you can do that, you can hold the camp.”
I said, “Sir, that’s not a good idea.”
He said, “Major, I’m ordering you.”
He complies with the order but only half-heartedly, because his genius as a combat officer abided in his capacity to stay just half crazy.
He returned to stateside and got the chance that had always been his dream: he was assigned to develop an elite corps refined and brutal enough to deal with terrorism. When the time came for the hostage adventure, Beckwith’s troop was all the army had available.
I trust that it is not mean-spirited to observe that, while Beckwith was working himself down to bone and muscle, William Safire had been successively peddling washing machines and Spiro Agnew, and then as a columnist dispensing the wisdom acquired in such engagements with reality.
The Iran mission was always implausible, but it was not quite impossible; and, out of his need to prove the worth of his dream, Beckwith released the gauge of his psyche up to the three-fifths-crazy point and took the job. When the two helicopters didn’t show, he screwed up to the three-quarters-crazy level and accepted the risk of approaching Tehran by daylight with a conspicuous, noisy, and hostile formation.
Then he found that he would be short a sixth of his transport. He called the base and suggested that the mission be scratched. The voice at the other end said: “Consider going ahead with five [helicopters].”
Charlie Beckwith was back in Vietnam. “Ain’t no way,” he replied. Far along the road to craziness though he had gone, he drew the line at lunacy. He was still in touch with the concrete; you are loony only when your mind is possessed entirely by abstraction.
To blame Beckwith for doing what he had to do is not just to disdain someone altogether better than oneself; it is to announce one’s own arrival at enslavement by the abstract. William Safire has achieved the columnist’s apotheosis, which is to be just as crazy as whoever happens to be running your country when it sends its soldiers to “rummage around.”
December 22, 1983