What with the lack of real diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran, a significant portion of what I have read in the past couple of months about Iran has focused on the hostage crisis. Back in January, I stumbled across Mark Bowden's article in the May 2006 issue of The Atlantic about Operation Eagle Claw, an ambitious attempt by elite American military units to extract the hostages from the American embassy in the middle of the night:

It called for a nighttime rendezvous of helicopters and planes at a landing strip in the desert south of Tehran, where the choppers would refuel before carrying the raiding party to hiding places just outside the city. The whole force would then wait through the following day and assault the embassy compound on the second night, spiriting the hostages to a nearby soccer stadium from which the helicopters could take them to a seized airstrip outside the city, to the transport planes that would carry them to safety and freedom.

Alas, after losing multiple helicopters to a sandstorm en route that forced them to abort the mission, they experienced an accidental collision between one of the remaining operational helicopters and a C-130 plane which left 8 servicemen dead.

Significantly more uplifting is the tale of the few American diplomats who managed to escape from the embassy, and were eventually spirited out of the country by the CIA with crucial help from the Canadian government. Their cover? A Canadian production team scouting the country for their big-budget science fiction film:
"We have prepared for your escape," Mendez announced during dinner. He then explained the cover story and presented Kirby's drawings, the script, the ad in Variety, and the telephone number of the Studio Six office back on Sunset Boulevard. Mendez handed out the business cards and passports. Cora Lijek would become Teresa Harris, the writer. Mark was the transportation coordinator. Kathy Stafford was the set designer. Joe Stafford was an associate producer. Anders was the director. Schatz, the party's cameraman, received the scoping lens and detailed specs on how to operate a Panaflex camera. Mark Lijek noticed that Mendez wore a distinctively British Harris tweed sport coat, in keeping with his alias as an Irish film producer.

The plot is crazy enough that it could be an actual Hollywood film, as opposed to just a crappy Canadian television movie. If the story of Operation Eagle Claw was made into a film, I doubt it would sell very well - it is like a darker Black Hawk Down, but with less action and no hope.[1]

The one thing that the two stories have in common are the odds. Despite being an hyperpower, America still loves the underdog. The concept is inextricably linked to core American myths - from Lexington and Concord and the Alamo to the modern idea of our technologically, physically, and mentally superior Army of One. The idea that Americans are somehow able to win and succeed when we shouldn't have[2] seems crucial to the very concept of America. From John Winthrop's "City upon a Hill" speech:

Wee shall finde that the God of Israell is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when hee shall make us a prayse and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, "the Lord make it likely that of New England." [emphasis mine]

[1] While losing a helicopter to a steel tube that fires unguided rockets is bad, losing a helicopter to sand seems much more depressing.

[2] This is not just restricted to military matters. I have yet to read in a single history book an account of the Louisiana Purchase or the purchase of Alaska that fails to mention what great deals they were, or how we managed to convince the British that we were willing to fight a war over the Pacific Northwest in order to acquire what is now Oregon and Washington.