FOLLOWING MONTHS of futile negotiations with the revolutionary regime in Tehran over the fate of the 63 hostages held in US embassy, on April 16, 1980, a briefing was held in the White House for President Carter and his closest advisors, in which Colonel Charles Alvin Beckwith, commander of the elite Delta Force, laid out his plans for freeing the hostages, which his men had been practicing for months. It quickly became clear that the Carter crowd were not altogether familiar with Delta’s way of doing business. When Beckwith stated his intention to “take the guards out,” then–Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher piped up: “Will you shoot them in the shoulder, or what?”
“No, Sir, we are going to shoot each of them twice, right between the eyes,” came the prompt answer.
“You mean you are really going to shoot to kill? You really are?”
“Yes sir. We certainly are.”
The mission was given the presidential go ahead and code named Eagle Claw. On April 24, eight RH-53 Sea Stallions took off from the USS Nimitz carrying part of the task force, while six Air Force C-130 transport planes with the ground element and fuel bladders set off from an island off the coast of Oman heading for the rendezvous point Desert One.
But then things started to go horribly wrong: the instruments on one of the Sea Stallions indicated that its rotor was losing pressure. The helicopter had to be abandoned. In the middle of a dust storm, the gyroscope in a second Sea Stallion started to malfunction, forcing it to return to the Nimitz. And on reaching Desert One, a hydraulic pump in a third had set out. Six being the minimum number required, this meant that the mission had to be aborted. Because of the sandstorms, the decision was made to destroy the helicopters and fly the men out on the transports. Tragically, to make room for the transport aircraft, a Sea Stallion collided with one of the C-130s, setting fire to both. When the C-130 and its gasoline bladders exploded, those inside who had been wounded or died in the collision burned up. Predictably, Iranian propagandists had a field day.
Eagle Claw is among the operations dissected in Mark Moyar’s brilliant history of the United States’s Special Operations Forces (SOF), Oppose Any Foe, which records their triumphs and failures. A theme running though the book is how presidents time and again have resorted to the SOF, fundamentally a tactical asset, as a magic solution to strategic problems, only to discard them when things don’t go as desired. Moyar draws some vital lessons on how to use them and, just as importantly, how not to.