Today’s Daily Mail has a good account of the mistreatment of the British marines and sailors who were released yesterday, as well as related sidebars including video of their statements yesterday. The mistreatment they experienced recalled the mistreatment experienced by the American hostages during their 444-day ordeal in 1979-80. Most striking, however, was the compliance of the British marines and sailors with their captors’ demands, especially by contrast with that of the American “guests of the Ayatollah.”
Mark Bowden’s book on the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis — Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America’s War with Militant Islam — has just come out in paperback. Bowden is of course the former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter and author of distinguished books including Black Hawk Down. I spoke briefly with Bowden in November 2005 when the first excerpt of Guests of the Ayatollah ran in the Atlantic. (The Atlantic has set up a special Iran page for excerpts from Bowden’s book and related material.)
When I spoke with Bowden in November 2005 I asked if Iran’s President Ahmadinejad 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. A few of the American hostages have recalled how Ahmadinejad tormented them in captivity.
Reuel Marc Gerecht reviewed Bowden’s book for the Wall Street Journal. Gerecht worked as a CIA agent in Iran; his review was of interest in its own right. Gerecht described Bowden’s book as “a variation of prison literature” and expressed admiration for the fortitude displayed by the hostages over their long period of captivity:
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.
Gerecht expresses special admiration for Michael Metrinko, a man whose name and example we should all know:
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.
At the time of his ordeal in captivity, Metrinko was not a member of the military; he was a State Department officer serving on the embassy’s political side. Even so, Metrinko’s valor seems to contrast markedly with the behavior displayed by the British sailors and marines during their far briefer captivity. Ralph Peters offers a harsh assessment of their behavior in “Brits’ shame blame.”
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