Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Great Hostage Rescues of US Military History

As the USA hastily amends it's account of its failure to rescue the British aid worker Linda Norgrove, perhaps we should remember some of the previous occasions when real life turned out to be a bit different to Rambo.

The most famous failure was Operation Eagle's Claw in 1980, the attempt to rescue the hostages held in the former US Embassy in Tehran. The operation was supposed to begin with a night rendezvous between eight helicopters and six transport planes at a secret place called Desert One. This wasn't quite the remote spot it was supposed to be and the first thing the US special forces had to do was detain a bus load of Iranians who'd been driving past.

The bus was followed by another lorry which refused to stop. The Americans decided to stop it
anyway by firing an anti-tank rocket at it. Unfortunately it turned out to be a petrol tanker and the resulting explosion lit up the desert from horizon to horizon. The driver, a smuggler probably, miraculously survived and legged it into the desert.

Undaunted the team planned to carry on, but they were already two helicopters down due to mechanical failure and the pilots, having flown through a sand storm at ultra low level, were bushed. They all agreed to call it a day, but as one of the choppers took off it stuck a tanker plane resulting in another huge explosion and the death of eight men. The surviving Americans quickly skedaddled in the surviving aircraft leaving debris scattered across the desert and a party of extremely confused bus passengers.

Had it not all gone wrong so quickly the plan was to fly the assault force 1000 miles to Tehran where they would sneak into town, rescue the hostages, bus them across the city to a sports stadium to be picked up by the choppers again, flown another 400 miles to an Iranian air base that had hopefully been captured by paratroopers and then finally fly out. The Iranians were, presumably, just going to stand by and watch. When told of the plan after his eventual release one hostage remarked "Thank God for the sandstorm."

For the elite of the US armed forces the rest of the 1980s was not a great decade either. Delta Force, the hostage rescue team at the heart of Eagle's Claw, was soon mired in financial scandal including the purchase of a number of sports cars, supposedly for the purposes of covert reconnaissance. That might have been a bit of fun at the tax payers expense, but more serious stuff was going wrong. When Reagan decided to invade Grenada a team of Navy SEALs parachuted into the sea to help - and all drowned. It turned out the week they'd been due to practise this insertion technique they'd all bunked off.

The 'hostages' on Grenada, the students at the medical school, all came through more or less unscathed. They actually never saw a Grenadan soldier and the only danger came from the US Navy who decide to shoot up their campus before the troops landed.

The 1990s weren't a startling success either. There were no famous hostage rescues, but a group of Rangers and Delta Force almost became hostages themselves when their mission to kidnap Somalian warlords went wrong. The story has since been Hollywoodised, but the opinion of America's greatest infantryman, David H Hackworth, of the plan was that there wasn't one things wrong with it - there was everything wrong with it.

Quite how the War on Terror has been going this last decade or so is somewhat harder to say. The most famous hostage rescue of the Iraq War was that of Private Jessica Lynch. Allegedly captured, and raped, by dastardly towel heads after putting up a heroic resistance and being horribly wounded, she was liberated by brave special forces before the wicked Arabs could do anything worse to her.

Eventually the truth came out. Lynch had been in a convoy that got lost, and she had been in a minor road accident. The battle she allegedly fought in, and won a medal for, happened whilst she was out cold and the hospital she was sprung from was not only unguarded, but the medics had been trying to hand her back to the US Army for two days.

What else the cream of the US army has been up to is a little unclear given the secretive nature of their work, but what we do know is that Osama Bin Laden is very much alive and Linda Norgrove isn't.

None of this means that US Special Forces are incompetent (although many of their officers certainly have been) it's just that war tends to be more Laurel and Hardy than Rambo. Laughing at men who put their lives on the line may be a little mean, but it's generally a better strategy than believing the Hollywood hype and sending in the Marines.

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