Mark Bowden’s long-awaited (by me) book on the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis — Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America’s War with Militant Islam — was released this past Tuesday. Bowden is of course the former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter and author of distinguished books including Black Hawk Down. I spoke briefly with Bowden this past November in connection with the first excerpt of his book in the Atlantic, and it was evident that his forthcoming book is based on the same kind of exhaustive research that made Black Hawk Down so riveting.
We previewed Bowden’s book in two posts linking to the excerpts that have run in the Atlantic. The December issue of The Atlantic featured an excerpt from the book on the hostages’ Christmas in captivity. The April Atlantic featured a second excerpt as its cover story. The Atlantic has set up a special page for the excerpt, loading interviews adjacent to the text and providing many links to related materials.
At that time I asked Bowden if Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — the president of Iran — was involved in the hostage seizure. Bowden told me that his reporting establishes that Ahmadinejad was one of the central figures in the student group that planned the seizure and took over the American embassy; he was identified as one of the group’s ringleaders by every one of the dozen or so hostage takers Bowden interviewed in Tehran in 2004 before Ahmadinejad became president. Bowden’s book thus could not be more timely. (The Atlantic has set up an Iran page as the hub site for Atlantic articles on Iran. All of the Atlantic’s articles have been moved from behind the subscriber wall, including the excerpts from Bowden’s book.)
Today’s Wall Street Journal carries Reuel Marc Gerecht’s review of the book (subscribers only): “Radical Islam’s eruption.” Gerecht worked as a CIA agent in Iran; his review is of great interest in its own right. Reading the review, I am amazed by how much news Bowden has found to report on this subject, how much we have yet to learn about it:
Mr. Bowden is pre-eminently a storyteller, not a theologian. He has a sensitive eye for both people and places. This talent isn’t an easy thing to exploit with the Iranian hostage crisis since Mr. Bowden is essentially giving us a variation of prison literature, where the solitary internal struggle must compensate for the unchanging scenery. Yet he accomplishes his task sublimely well — the book is suspenseful, inspiring, mordant and, perhaps most of all, affectionate toward those who had to endure such trying circumstances. He shows unfailing respect for the hostages, many of whom gave him extensive, intimate and at times embarrassing access to their memories. Mr. Bowden lets you feel, above all else, the fear and anger of the Americans during their long imprisonment.
This is perhaps the most striking and underreported part of the hostage crisis: how angry the Americans became toward their jailers. Some of the Americans were treated very roughly indeed — periodic beatings, mock executions — and they lived with the constant fear that in the end they were going to die. But the Iranian actions led to ever more American defiance.
John Limbert, an academically trained, Persian-speaking diplomat — who probably has the softest heart for Iran among the hostages — is in solitary confinement in the city of Isfahan, 200 miles from Tehran, after the failed Desert One rescue mission. (President Carter, after long delay, had sent fuel-tanker planes, gunships and helicopters to recapture the embassy; in a night-vision-goggle debacle set into motion by a sandstorm, a helicopter and a plane collided in the desert; the aborted the mission left the burnt remains to be toyed with by revolutionary clerics.) Mr. Limbert has no idea regarding the whereabouts of his compatriots until an Iranian guard, whom he is tutoring in English, asks him the meaning of the words “raghead,” “bozo,” “mother-” and “c-sucker.” “Limbert laughed,” Mr. Bowden writes. “It warmed his heart. Someplace nearby, his captors were still coping with the United States Marine Corps.”
Mike Howland, a Persian-speaking security officer marooned in the Foreign Ministry, starts to wander naked around the building at night, to show his disrespect for those who were keeping him in confinement and to give him an advantage if spotted by bashful Iranian guards. Anticipating an eventual rescue mission, Mr. Howland cleverly figures out a way of sabotaging his guards’ guns.
The most brazen and hard-edged of the hostages is Michael Metrinko, a street-wise former Peace Corps volunteer and Persian-speaking diplomat who declares war on the gerugangirha, the hostage-takers. Using his vast knowledge of Persian culture, psychology and slang, Mr. Metrinko fights back. Beaten repeatedly, held in solitary confinement, hooded, tied up and denied food, he never stops searching for means to annoy and emasculate his captors. At one point he tries to derail the interrogation of an Iranian friend before him by baiting his interrogators to beat him (he succeeds). Even on his last day of captivity, on the bus to the airport, Mr. Metrinko verbally lashes out at a guard’s offensive behavior by making a very Persian reference to the guard’s mother and the procreative act; he is again beaten and then thrown off the bus. (A last-minute intervention by Iranian officials gets him on the plane to Germany.) Throughout, Mr. Metrinko is a proud, outraged man whose anger grows more intense precisely because he loves Iran so profoundly.
To verify some of Mr. Bowden’s reporting, I sent an email to Mr. Metrinko, who is now working in Afghanistan. A short, rough, not particularly handsome fellow, Mr. Metrinko remarked that he hoped that this book, like Mr. Bowden’s “Black Hawk Down” (1999), would become a movie. He really wanted Brad Pitt to play him, since “that’s the way I would really like to remember myself.” Mr. Pitt should be so lucky as to play such a part.
How is it possible that we have not heard these stories before?