Signals of Strength

Charlie A. Beckwith and Donald Knox: Delta Force; Harcourt Brace Jovanovich; San Diego.

This warrior’s account will leave its mark above all as hero­ saga in a land by no means lack­ing in heroes but oblivious and often antagonistic to their deeds. Nor will it be forgotten as testimony in a vituperative contro­versy about American military will and competency. It will also be seminal as documentary about an emerging form of Amer­ ican defensive action, counter-terrorism. Due to intensifying global terrorism, this force may prove increasingly the defense of U.S. Citizens abroad and, alas, within this country. Military historians will be well served by retired Colonel Charlie Beckwith and author Donald Knox’s detailed recounting of the genesis, nature, and ill-starred mission of America’s first behind-the-lines unit, Delta Force.

The formation of Delta Force was impeded for 14 years by a succession of military bureau­crats who were basically uninterested in Beckwith’s plan. They seem to have been absorbed with old habits and lacking in vigilance and vision. One can only be wary of these encrusted tendencies, recalling Edward Teller’s observation that “de­fense requires ingenuity, ever more ingenuity.” The idea for the force derived from Beckwith’s combat experience and his admiration for the British Special Air Service (SAS), a commando elite in which he participated as an exchange officer. Beckwith’s resolve to forge a standing rescue force was especially fortified when he commanded a Green Beret rescue mission of enemy­ monitoring civilians at Plei Me, under savage attack by the North Vietnamese Army. 

The unit’s members were oftenintroverted, self-subsistent, and perservering—and able to “take out” enemies without pause or remorse. Their preparation included exercises in storm­ing mock terrorist strongholds with maximum aggression—in seven seconds. Delta Force was put to a real test, known as Operation Eagle Claw, in which it was to evacuate the 52 U.S. Embassy hostages in Iran in 1980. Beckwith describes the landing at the Iranian staging site, Desert One, the sandstorm that crippled Navy Sea Stallion helicopters intended for transport, the excruciating decision to turn back because of inadequate airlift, and the blazing collision of refueling aircraft in which eight perished.

On another level Beckwith’s story must be viewed as prime testimony in the controversy stemming primarily from journalist William Safire’s charge of “Beckwithism” (i.e. the “loss of nerve” and “excess of prudence”), which Safire claims influenced the aborting of the mission. However, Beckwith’s testimony clearly shows that it was judicious not to go forward with only five of the original eight helicopters for two reasons: a heavy airlift requirement necessitating no less than six vehicles and the realistic fear of further malfunctions in the heat of escape from Tehran. Safire, the armchair scribe bolstering his case against a man of action, selectively implies the loss of merely one, not three, helicopters. Furthermore, he ignores the fact that Beckwith earlier requested—and was refused for valid reasons—more than two backup helicopters. Beckwith’s history of valor further demonstrates that the disaster of Eagle Claw was not the result of pusillanimity: he fought with distinction in Korea and was almost killed in Vietnam. While the commander’s bravery is dramatically evinced through­out the tales of his military struggles, its heroic but unflamboyant counterpart, prudence, is also to be noted. Meticulous planning and rehearsal of mis­sions, reliance on reconnais­sance, attention to the perils of transport of men and supplies in combat—these and other cauti­ous habits temper his fearless­ness. They also bespeak his regard for human life.

Toward the end of his life Douglas MacArthur warned of an approaching time when Americans might no longer fight for their country. Yet this predicted ascendance of antiheroes will remain uncertain while defenders like the men of Delta Force remain.


Of Metaphysics and Moon Launches

Percy G. Adams: Travel Literature and the Evolution of the Novel; The University Press of Kentucky; Lexington, KY

The American moon-landing in July 1969 remarkably dem­onstrated both what technology can and cannot do. It can put a man on the moon; it cannot make meaningful any journey whatever, even one concluded with the high-sounding declaration ‘That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” For although science can measure travel, make it faster, longer, and more com­fortable, and can even predict its physical consequences, only metaphysics—not science—can give the movement of a person from point A to point B any cognitive significance. When society once possessed a communal metaphysics, travel had meaning, not only for writers depicting fictive cosmic motions (such as Dante celebrating his ascent through the ”blessed Spheres” or Milton portraying the flight ofSatan through Chaos) but also for less gifted mortals as they made their pilgrimages to Rome, Canter­bury, or other religious centers, or even as they made the universal pilgrimage from cradle to Divine Judgment When Judeo-Christian metaphysics lost its credibility for the educated elite, the journey, any journey, had to find a new ground for meaning.

As Percy Adams demonstrates in Travel Literature and the Evolution of the Novel, the novel constitutes one of the most important modern efforts to establish and investigate a new paradigm for the significance of travel. “Few indeed,” writes Adams, “are the writers who do not at some time send their characters journeying.” How­ever, as a modem genre distinc­tively rooted in nominalism and the individual ego, the novel posits its meanings on the shakiest of epistemological foundations. Though Adams in­ sists upon various scholarly qualifications to the designation of Don Quixote as “the first modern novel,” Cervantes’ work nonetheless well illustrates the genre’s perennial dilemma: the crusades of modern man must be defined either by the madness of utter subjectivism or the empti­ness of naturalistic skepticism. Indeed, contrary to the claim made by Wilbur Cross that Sterne set the novel back a hundred years, Tristram Shandy and Sentimental Journey dem­onstrated the intrinsic solipsism of the novelistic perspective more than a century before Joyce and Proust finally arrived at the same.conclusion. In the meantime, the Victorian effort to make marriage th_e metaphysical center of the novel, and there­ fore the sufficient explanation for human movement, inevitably collapsed, on the one hand intoa sentimental formula and on the other into the bleak pessimism of The Return of the Native, An American Tragedy, or Tender is the Night. Thus while popular novels began cruising their readers into the private fantasy of South Sea romance, serious fiction dropped its auditors into the abyss.

It appears, then, that the most promising recent efforts in the novel are those struggling to shift its philosophic base by introduc­ing transcendent and Realist elements. This is clearly the direction that works such as Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Walker’s Love in the Ruins, and O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away are moving, and with such movement all other human movements acquire renewed meaning. (BC)


Fighting for Scraps

Kenn Miller: Tiger, The Lurp Dog; Atlantic/Little, Brown; Boston

In no activity does man so fully demonstrate the ambiguities of his superiority over other crea­tures as in war. Animals kill one another, but only humans do it so efficiently and in the name of morality, politics, or religion. Of course, wartime rhetoric often recognizes the humanity of only one side, reducing the other side to beasts, “dogs” or “swine” typically. Presumably, this makes the killing easier, but it is never the truth. Even when the ideas and government advanced by an enemy’s leaders are brutal and dehumanizing, as in naziism or communism, the common sol­diers who become most of the casualties largely ignore official ideology and fight for more humane reasons, such as simple pride in their unit or loyalty to home and comrades. Those waging war against totalitarian­ism usually share the same pri­vate motives, but may also justly affirm the validity of their national cause.

These were realities ignored by the rabid peace forces during the Vietnam War. Denouncing American servicemen as “fascist dogs,” “baby-killers,” and “capi­talist pigs,” they demonstrated their human superiority by chant­ing obscenities, by waving Viet­cong flags and burning American ones, and by murdering civilians with peace bombs. In Tiger, The Lurp Dog Kenn Miller shows that the men in Vietnam were just that, men, brave men who re­sented the slanders of the super­cilious “peacecreeps.” The only subhuman Miller depicts is a unit mascot, with no perceptible fascist tendencies. In his com­pellingly detailed portrayal of a Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (“Lurp”) platoon, he shows us volunteers who fight with calm skill under fire, not imperialist lackeys, conscience­-stricken draftees, nor blood­ thirsty maniacs.

But if Miller’s characters are too human and too daring to deserve the scornful epithets of the left, they are not worthy of any profound admiration, either. Their commitment seems to be strictly to each other and to their exacting craft, not to America nor to American ideals, which one of the soldiers compares to the tiresome slogans of the North Vietnamese. Family ties are weak or nonexistent, and the only character who expresses strong­ly anticommunist attitudes is a fanatical Cuban. Freedom is not the goal of these warriors, but a burden only to be borne with the distractions of drink, gambling, and prostitutes. Skepticism tinged with bitterness pervades the book: the foxholes are filled with simpleminded agnostics. Eventually, despite their disci­plined valor, all of the major human figures die,with no appar­ent hope that their sacrifice will bring heaven or an improved earth. Only in such a value vacu­um could Tiger, a shiftless but plucky mongrel, become the sentimental symbol of what really endures. Fortunately, thousands of soldiers who de­monstrated just as much bravery and ability in Vietnam as Tiger’s masters understood far deeper values than they or their creator. Whether such men died for these values in Vietnam or con­tinue to contend for them in American military or civilian life, they deserve our deepest thanks. For without such human dog­ faces between us and the Krem­lin, we will all join Tiger in the pound. (BC)