Just over 31 years ago, a much bleaker dawn greeted Americans awakening and getting ready to go to work than was the case Monday morning. Back in 1980, the U.S. military had just been humiliated at Desert One, deep inside Iran, trying to rescue the 52 hostages that had been held by Iran for six months. The U.S. military was forced to scrap the mission when too many helicopters broke down. A subsequent collision during their retreat left eight American corpses on Iranian sand. Pictures of their charred remains soon flashed around the world, photographic evidence of U.S. fecklessness.
“Never again!” a not all-together sober John Tower, a Republican senator from Texas, barked at me from inside the door of his Capitol rotunda hideaway. I’d spent hours trying to locate the Lone Star state’s leading hawk as a D.C. correspondent for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. But he wasn’t interested in a longer interview, and slammed the door.
Tower’s mood was pretty much everyone’s on April 24, 1980. Operation Eagle Claw was an ambitious mission in which a flock of things could, and did, go wrong. The lack of cooperation among the military services reduced any chance of a successful outcome. But that mission — flying into a sovereign state’s capital to rescue hostages — was far more challenging than finding, and killing, a single terrorist.
But Eagle Claw’s painful failures led to the creation of the U.S. Special Operations Command, and Seal Team 6 — the unit that led Monday’s successful raid on bin Laden. Better aircraft and communications also boosted the chances of success. So did the fact that the troops involved have been at war — a war precipitated by their target — for nearly a decade. Many blame bin Laden for the deaths and horrible wounds among their comrades, and for the family birthday parties, school plays and graduations missed back home. There are warranted smiles among the members of SEAL Team 6. It’s a safe bet that they’re replaying the mission over and over again in their minds: Did I fire the round that killed bin Laden?
To be sure, any military operation like the one in Iran 31 years ago, or the one in Pakistan early Monday, can quickly go off the rails. But soldiers — and SEALs, too — make their own luck. They trained hard, planned well, and achieved success. So as someone who spent too many grim months reporting on the errors and snafus that led to the debacle in the desert, I propose a toast to the men and women who got bin Laden. Something tells me no one would lift his glass higher than Charlie Beckwith, the Army colonel who led the failed 1980 mission. He did a lot before he died in 1994 to try to ensure it would never happen again. So a second toast: to Army Col. Charles “Chargin’ Charlie” A. Beckwith.