Read America's War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History Online

Authors: Andrew J. Bacevich

Tags: #General, #Military, #World, #Middle Eastern, #United States, #Middle East, #History, #Political Science

America's War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History (2 page)

Of Balzac, Henry James wrote, “The way to judge him is to try to walk all round him,” undertaking a preliminary survey to reveal “how remarkably far we have to go.”
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The history that follows, an account of U.S. military efforts to determine the fate and future of the Greater Middle East, is itself a preliminary walk around, or through, a comparably large subject. If nothing else,
America’s War for the Greater Middle East
seeks to reveal how remarkably far we have to go to understand what those efforts have produced and what they have cost.

Questions raised by this undertaking will preoccupy—and perhaps confound—scholars for decades to come. I have limited myself to four of the most fundamental, the answers to which lay the basis for further inquiry. First, what motivated the United States to act as it has? Second, what have the civilians responsible for formulating policy and soldiers charged with implementing it sought to accomplish? Third, regardless of their intentions, what actually ensued? And fourth, with what consequences? In short, the book links aims to actions to outcomes.

As an American who cares deeply about the fate of his country, I should state plainly my own assessment of this ongoing war, now well into its fourth decade. We have not won it. We are not winning it. Simply trying harder is unlikely to produce a different outcome. Some may consider this history premature. Yet only by remembering and confronting what we have largely chosen to disregard will Americans be able to choose a different course.

Andrew J. Bacevich
Walpole, Massachusetts
December 2015

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America’s War for the Greater Middle East began with failure in the desert. In no way did this failure compare to the disasters that once befell U.S. forces at Kasserine Pass during World War II or the Chosin Reservoir in Korea. On those earlier battlefields, many hundreds of Americans lost their lives. During Operation Eagle Claw, which began and ended on the night of April 24–25, 1980, U.S. fatalities numbered in the single digits. Even before U.S. troops closed with the enemy, Eagle Claw unraveled—the equivalent of a football team succumbing to defeat even before taking the field.

For those who devised, ordered, and participated in this mission, the resulting humiliation was almost unbearable. Yet humiliation makes for a poor teacher. The lessons that the United States would take from this failure turned out to be the wrong ones. The underlying premise—that the problems facing the United States in the Greater Middle East would yield to a military solution—not only escaped notice but became more deeply entrenched.

Eagle Claw combined modesty of purpose with audacity of design. As America’s War for the Greater Middle East evolved over the next several decades, a succession of presidents described U.S. objectives in expansive terms. Through its use of superior military power, they promised, the United States was going to liberate and uplift. U.S. forces would restore peace and spread democracy. They would succor the afflicted and protect the innocent. They would promote the rule of law and advance the cause of human rights.

Yet participants in the abbreviated campaign that initiated the War for the Greater Middle East set out to do none of these things. They sought merely to rescue.

The previous November, a group of young Iranian radicals, fueled by revolutionary fervor, had seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and taken American diplomats and other officials captive. Efforts to negotiate the hostages’ release had proven futile. Now, having apparently exhausted all other alternatives, a frustrated President Jimmy Carter ordered America’s warriors to give it a try.

The plan developed by U.S. military officers and ultimately approved by the president himself was nothing if not complex. It allowed little room for chance or error.
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Eagle Claw was to begin with a rendezvous in the dead of night, six air force C-130 transports flying out of Masirah Island near Oman linking up with eight heavy-lift helicopters from the carrier USS
Nimitz
sailing nearby. The place chosen for the rendezvous, dubbed Desert One by the Pentagon, was an uninhabited spot in the Iranian outback, as flat as it was remote.

The C-130s carried fuel and a contingent of elite commandos and army rangers. At Desert One, after taking on both, the helicopters would transport the commandos to a staging area near Tehran. A rescue plan as daring as the 1942 Doolittle Raid and several times more intricate would then unfold.

Whether that plan could possibly have succeeded is a moot point. It never got past phase one. Bad luck intervened, its impact magnified by human foibles and frailties.

Desert One turned out to be insufficiently remote and not especially accommodating. As the aircraft began arriving at the site, so too did unwelcome Iranian company. First came a fuel truck, probably involved in smuggling, which U.S. troops hastily engaged and destroyed, although the driver escaped. Then came a bus loaded with civilians. These the Americans detained. The security essential to success was being breached. Meanwhile, as aircraft landed but kept their engines running they stirred up a powdery dust that dangerously compromised visibility.

Worse still were the equipment breakdowns. Although eight helicopters had launched from the
Nimitz,
a cracked rotor blade forced one to land en route. A second experienced navigation problems and turned back. At Desert One, hydraulic failure rendered a third inoperable. The mission required a minimum of six flyable helicopters. With only five remaining, there was no way to proceed other than by seat-of-the-pants changes to the carefully calibrated plan. This the swaggering, irascible commander of the commando task force balked at doing. Instead, with Washington concurring, he scrubbed the mission. As quietly and as quickly as possible, all parties would go back to where they came from. No harm, no foul—so far at least.

Then disaster struck. Prior to departing Desert One, all remaining operable aircraft needed to take on fuel. During the refueling operation, in the dark and dust, the rotor of a hovering helicopter clipped a stationary C-130. The chopper slammed into the cockpit of the cargo plane, and both aircraft burst into flame. Those able to evacuate the burning aircraft did so. But in the ensuing chaos, America’s War for the Greater Middle East claimed its first casualties. Eight Americans were killed, with several others badly injured. The survivors climbed aboard the remaining C-130s and hastily departed the scene, abandoning helicopters, documents, classified gear, and the remains of their comrades.

On the morning of April 25, a somber President Carter appeared on national television to inform his countrymen of the rescue attempt and its ignominious conclusion. While attributing Eagle Claw’s disappointing outcome to “equipment failure,” Carter forthrightly shouldered responsibility for the mission’s collapse. “It was my decision to attempt the rescue operation,” he told the nation. “It was my decision to cancel it….The responsibility is fully my own.”
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