Ah, Algeria: thirty-two militants killed in a ill-advised raid of a hostage compound, but at the expense of twenty-three hostages’ lives (as of last count), saving face, posthaste, being judged more important than saving lives. What kind of testosterone-besotted incompetent fourth-raters could botch a “rescue” like that?
Why, our own beloved United States, of course, which once upon a time did something even more splenetically macho, unilateral, and stupid.
It was May 12, 1975. Not a fortnight earlier, the South Vietnamese army in whose cause America had bestowed hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and expended 56,000 lives, collapsed in the field and started randomly killing civilians and each other. A Viet Cong tank crashed through the gate of the South Vietnamese presidential palace in Saigon, immediately re-dubbed “Ho Chi Minh City.” A chaotic helicopter evacuation of 1,000 American diplomatic and security personnel and 5,500 South Vietnamese (supposedly loyal embassy employees and such, but mostly people with the money and savage cunning to bribe or force their way aboard), ended in that indelibly humiliating image of a line of teeming bodies snaking up a ladder to a precipitous shack atop the embassy roof, the embassy grounds having commandeered by what Henry Kissinger had once confidently dubbed a “fourth rate military power,” North Vietnam (now just “Vietnam”).
And two weeks before that, The Washington Post quoted a remark by Henry Kissinger that he thought had been off the record; “The United States must carry out some act somewhere int he world which shows its determination to continue to be a world power.”
“Some act somewhere”: can you smell the liberty?
Then, on May 12, fortuitously, a rusty merchant tin can called the Mayaguez was captured somewhere off the coast of Cambodia, near the island of Koh Tang, having strayed, the new Communist Khmer Rouge regime claimed, out of international waters and into their territory. Cambodia being a nation in chaos (its pro-US government had fallen in the middle of April), communications were sketchy, negotiations difficult, but, as historian Dominick Sandbrook has written “these kinds of situations were hardly unknown and rarely made the headlines. Ecuador, for example, had seized American crews in disputed waters twenty-three times in as many years, and previous administrations had simply paid a fine to release them.”
But Ecuador was not Southeast Asia, and Southeast Asia had just wilted America’s dick.
At a National Security Council meeting, presidential counselor Bob Hartmann told President Ford, “We should not think of what is the right thing to do, but of what the public perceives.” Kissinger, perhaps salivating, said it was time to “draw the line”—and the next night, when no one still knew even where the ship’s thirty-nine crewmen were or whether they were in any sort of jeopardy, Kissinger averred, “I think we should seize the island, seize the ship, and hit the mainland.… people should have the impression that we are potentially trigger happy.”