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Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America's War with Militant Islam Hardcover – April 25, 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. SignatureReviewed by Philip CaputoWith Iran fingered in the latest National Security Assessment as America's number one enemy, Mark Bowden's new book is particularly timely. Guests of the Ayatollah chronicles the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by student militants, who held 66 American staffers hostage from November 1979 till January 1981, seizing this nation's attention in the process.In the aftermath of 9/11, with wars raging in Iraq and Afghanistan, that event seems to belong to the remote past, but as Bowden points out, it was "America's first confrontation with Islamo-fascism," while the hostages (who were released alive) were "the first victims of the inaptly named War on Terror."Although some may dispute those points, his portrayal of the hostage takers and their fanatical devotion to establishing a religious utopia could easily apply to members of al-Qaeda and other Muslim terrorist groups. Bowden's analysis of militant Islam is clear, current and dead-on. The government of Iran, now as then, is a theocracy with a secular face, combining, he writes, "ignorance with absolute conviction." Anyone who thinks a nuclear-armed Iran could be dealt with through Cold War–style containment should read this book.Guests of the Ayatollah is, however, no academic tome, but a briskly written human story told from every conceivable point of view: the captives and their captors; President Carter's inner circle and Carter himself, struggling to negotiate a release and finally ordering an extremely risky rescue mission; the soldiers of Delta Force, whose audacious attempt failed; Iranian political figures under the thumb of the glowering Ayatollah Khomeini; and a cavalcade of diplomats, journalists, secret agents and barmy peace activists, some of whose actions bordered on treason.The cast of characters would do justice to a 19th-century Russian novel. At more than 650 pages, this wheel-block of a book sometimes suffers from the flaw of its virtues—its scope and ambition. Readers may have difficulty keeping track of who's who, and where they are, as the narrative shuttles among dozens of people in dozens of locales. With detail piled upon minute detail, the passages describing the hostages' ordeal often grow tedious.Bowden, whose Blackhawk Down recounted the American disaster in Somalia, seems most at home when he turns to the meetings leading up to Carter's fateful decision and to the Delta Force mission itself and its agonizing failure. He puts you there, in the Persian desert with Delta Force and its commander, the charismatic and mercurial Col. Charlie Beckwith.All in all, Guests of the Ayatollah is a monumental piece of reportage, deserving a wide readership.Philip Caputo is the author of 13 books, most recently Acts of Faith and Ten-Thousand Days of Thunder.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
From Bookmarks Magazine
Mark Bowden proved he knows how to tell a gripping narrative in Black Hawk Down and Killing Pablo. In this latest book he takes on a story with more immediate topical consequence, with similar results. It's a "painstaking recreation of those 444 days" (Cleveland Plain Dealer), told mostly from the red, white, and blue perspective. Some reviewers knock Bowden for focusing almost exclusively on the American captives and providing little insight into the motives and emotions of the Iranian hosts. Others note a tendency to get caught up in the finer details of the hostage crisis. But the skill with which he tells his story trumps all such concerns.<BR>Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.
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Top Customer Reviews
This book gives a brief background of the events leading up to the overthrow of the shah and the Iranian Revolution in the late 70s. Prior to reading this book, I only knew that there had been a revolution and that it had involved a retreat to a more fundamentalist Islamist state. That was the extent of my knowledge of the revolution. I knew nothing about the crisis itself. "Guests of the Ayatollah" starts with a concise history of shah's rule, the revolution, and America's involvement in putting the shah into power. There is definitely more in-depth reading available on the subject, but the details provided in the book gave me enough background to sufficiently understand the political climate at the time of the takeover.
The book weaves the story of the takeover with the ongoing political change in Iran, the stories of the hostages' experiences in captivity, the failed rescue attempt by a U.S. special forces outfit, and the Carter Administration's response to the crisis. The book jumps around among these different topics, but it's in chronological order, is easy to follow, and is very engrossing.
The only real issue I had was keeping track of the various hostages. The author doesn't provide accounts of all 52 hostages who spent the entire 444 days in captivity. But he follows enough people, who for the most part all seemed to have similar diplomatic roles, that I did get their jobs/titles/responsibilities confused. It turns out that this doesn't matter much - you become acquainted with the hostages throughout the book as they endure their captivity, and the author re-references some of their background details.
Some other reviews of this book have complained that the descriptions about the hostages' daily life got tired and tedious. I did not find that to be the case. I found that reading about how they developed communications systems when they couldn't talk, interacted with the guards, and got on each others' nerves was extremely interesting. Different people responded differently to the captivity, and the ways some of them tried to torment their guards were actually pretty amusing.
The inside account of the Carter Administration's approach to the crisis was also very interesting. I walked away from this book feeling as though Carter made decisions based on what would preserve lives, and not what was politically advantageous.
One final note: I recommend buying this book on an e-reader if possible. I ordered the paperback version, and it's pretty hefty. So I returned it and bought the e-book. The Kindle version was properly formatted and contained all the same pictures as the paperback version. (There aren't many photos in this book. If you are looking for pictures of all the hostages, you won't find that here.)
=== The Good Stuff ===
* Bowden does a nice job of capturing the incident and keeping his own viewpoints in check, at least until the final chapter. He manages to present the views of the Iranian "students", and while I don't agree at all with their logic, I can see how they got to their viewpoint. Bowden also gives a look into Iranian politics, and shows how Iranian, as well as American, politics played into the crisis. As usual, Bowden's works are well researched an carefully related.
* The personalities of many of the main characters are captured quite well. We get a look at what is going on in the minds of Jimmy Carter, Delta Force team members, several of the hostages, some Iranian leaders, and even some of the captors. Bowden avoids getting too caught up in the hero-worship of the former hostages, and gives a fairly unbiased account of some of their strengths and foibles.
* Bowden rewards his (American) readers with a few tales of the hostages' resistance. Even while blindfolded and handcuffed to a chair, some of the captives had a remarkable talent for annoying and challenging their captors. In one particularly memorable incident, a hostage is being led, blindfolded, through a hallway when another captor points a pistol at his head. The hostage is able to see enough through his blindfold to grab the pistol away from the guard, twirl it around, then hand it back to the captor. The hostage pats the guard on the head and warns him against pointing weapons at people he doesn't intend to shoot.
We also hear of one terrorist's later ambition to join the diplomatic corps, and his disappointment that his role in storming an embassy has evidently disqualified him for a career in diplomacy.
=== The Not-So-Good Stuff ===
* The book runs a little long, as did the crisis itself. I enjoyed it, and found it to be complete and thorough, but I could see how some readers might become bogged down in the details. I didn't find it to be repetitive or padded, but in creating a full and accurate account of the crisis, Bowden includes quite a bit of detail.
* I was aggravated by the book-not the way it was written, but the underlying events. I lived through the events the first time, and reading the book just brought back memories of an unhappy time.
* I think the book came up a little short at the end. My own personal opinion is that Carter and Reagan played a masterful game of good cop/bad cop, and used Reagan's perceived militarism as a stalking horse to force a resolution. Bowden sort of hints at this, but doesn't really develop a supporting or conflicting argument.
=== Summary ===
If you a Mark Bowden fan like me, or if you like good quality investigative reporting, this is one of his better efforts. The underlying tale is infuriating, and the book is capable of dredging up bad memories. However it is a very good account of the crisis, and it is well presented from multiple sides. I'd recommend the book to anyone interested in the hostage crisis or American reactions to terrorism.