Mark Bowden graduated from Loyola College of Maryland, where he currently teaches creative writing and journalism. He is a national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, was staff writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer for over two decades, and has written for publications including The New York Times, The New Yorker, Sports Illustrated, and Rolling Stone. Among Mr. Bowden's books, several of which have been turned into films, is Black Hawk Down, which won the National Book Award and was awarded the Overseas Press Club's Cornelius Ryan Award. Mr. Bowden addressed the Middle East Forum on his book, Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America's War with Militant Islam (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006), on April 19, 2007. The following is a report on his briefing that appeared in The Bulletin.
When A Reporter Is Just A Reporter
by Patrick Barron
April 19, 2007
Mark Bowden, author of the popular book and movie Black Hawk Down and the highly acclaimed Killing Pablo, spoke to members and guests of The Middle East Forum recently about his new book Guests of the Ayatollah.
Speaking at the law offices of Pepper Hamilton in Center City, Bowden gave a highly interesting and entertaining talk about the cultural differences that led up to America's first clash with radical Islam - the Iranian seizure of our embassy in Tehran in 1979 - and the experiences of the hostages and their captors.
Bowden has interviewed personally many of the hostages and some of the Iranian hostage takers, plus many American officials from that time. I enjoyed his talk immensely, but I was struck how easy it was to spot when he moved from reporting, where he is a master craftsman, and into analysis and opinion, where he is less adept.
I have not read either of these books, but I am certain that the reader would find Guests to be a fairly factual account of what happened. This is the mark of a good journalist.
Bowden told us amazing stories from his many interviews, such as a thumbnail sketch of the failed American rescue mission. He also explained the political forces that acted upon the Carter administration and caused it to feel that there really was nothing that could be done. Most important of these were the fear that escalating the crisis might bring in the Soviets and start World War III, and the fact that our military really had no capability to rescue the hostages, who were being held in the middle of a huge city hundreds of miles from our nearest bases and fleet.
But during his talk, one could easily discern when Bowden veered from reporting to inserting his own judgment and analysis. He was excellent at telling us what DID happen and less astute when he told us WHY it happened and even less so when he told us what SHOULD have happened.
For instance, Bowden told us that the Carter administration handled the situation rather well by refusing to escalate the crisis militarily. Well, that is a value judgment that others may debate. As one attendee stated in the Q&A period, the U.S could have punished the Iranians militarily rather easily and that we played into the Iranians' hands by placing the welfare of the hostages above all other national interests.
This is a lesson that we should have learned from the many Israeli experiences. In the ensuing decades, Iran has been responsible for mayhem worldwide, from funding and arming Hezbollah in Lebanon to the recent capture of the British sailors and marines. It is certainly arguable that an overwhelming military response in 1979 to an attack upon our embassy, which was an attack upon American territory under international law, might have prevented these warlike actions and even caused the Iranian people to discard the reign of the radical mullahs.
This is all speculation, of course, but the point is that Bowden was merely speculating, too. He is not an expert in international affairs and admits to being completely ignorant of America's military capability, telling a humorous anecdote that he had to admit in a talk to Army officers that he didn't know what a Bradley Fighting Vehicle was. This admission early in his talk indicated to me that Bowden was just a reporter, a good reporter, but just a reporter nevertheless.