Commentary Magazine


More on Bowden

As I mentioned in a previous post, I recently finished reading Mark Bowden’s Guests of the Ayatollah, the definitive account of the 1979-1981 Iranian hostage crisis.

Among other things, it serves as another reminder, as if any were needed, that no matter how nicely (or not) we treat prisoners captured in the Global War on Terror, our enemies will seldom reciprocate. The embassy workers seized by the Iranians were repeatedly beaten, coerced into signing statements denouncing their country, paraded before the world’s TV cameras, and threatened with execution—all war crimes, all expressly forbidden by the U.S. armed forces interrogation manual, and all made even worse by the fact that the victims were not combatants but embassy personnel with diplomatic immunity. They were also denied adequate quarters, exercise, letters from loved ones, medical care, and other comforts that detainees at Guantanamo take for granted.

Of course the prisoners held in earlier wars by the Japanese, North Koreans, and North Vietnamese endured far worse. Read Faith of My Fathers by John McCain and Mark Salter, for an account of life in the infamous Hanoi Hilton. The book’s descriptions of torture are as harrowing as its accounts ofPOW resistance to torture, including that of McCain himself, are inspirational.

While the bravery of the Vietnam War prisoners is well-known, until Bowden’s book came along I had not been aware of the heroism of some of Iran’s hostages, in particular a 34-year-old political officer named Michael Metrinko. (He is now a retired Foreign Service officer who has worked in recent years in Afghanistan and Iraq.) A former Peace Corps volunteer and fluent Farsi speaker, Metrinko turned out to be the biggest thorn in the hostage-takers’ side. Bowden’s accounts of his exploits are awe-inspiring.

Metrinko spent days tied to a chair and many months in solitary confinement in a “tiny storage room . . . with no fresh air and no companionship.” Yet when the hostage-takers tried to play nice for the cameras and stage a Christmas party for the hostages, Metrinko (unlike most of his fellow hostages) refused to be part of the propaganda show. When his jailers brought Christmas dinner to his cell, he refused a plate loaded with turkey, cookies, and other goodies that he badly wanted. Writes Bowden: “Metrinko marched down the hall and dumped the contents into the toilet. He made sure the guards saw him do it.”

On another occasion, the authorities brought to his cell an Iranian acquaintance of Metrinko’s in an attempt to prove that he was an American spy. Metrinko refused to be questioned about his relationship with the Iranian. “I’m not going to answer questions from anyone wearing a dress,” Metrinko told a mullah. “Shut up, you motherfucker,” one of the jailers told Metrinko. Metrinko: “You are the motherfuckers! The real motherfucker is Khomeini. Fuck him and fuck you all”—an outburst for which Metrinko was beaten.

Metrinko’s inventiveness at insulting his captors in their own language knew no bounds. He told another jailer: “You know the imam is not a man . . . The Ayatollah Khomeini, he is not a man . . . He does not have a wife . . . The only pictures I have ever seen of the ayatollah with anyone else are always pictures of him with a small boy beside him.” Bowden writes: “The guards caught his drift; he was suggesting that their imam was a pederast. Metrinko was grabbed by the hair—it had grown quite long—and dragged from the room. The angry guards took turns kicking and punching him . . . Then they locked the door and left him there and refused to bring him food for three days.”

Not even the prospect of release could still Metrinko’s obstreperousness. On the bus taking the hostages to the airport in 1981, one of the guards shouted for the hostages to stop whispering to one another. Metrinko responded in Farsi, “You shut up, you son of a Persian whore.” The bus halted and Metrinko was dragged out for another beating. Only the intercession of a high-ranking guard made it possible for Metrinko to be put on the plane with the other hostages.

Metrinko and some of the other hostages were real heroes who have never really gotten the public recognition they deserved, no doubt because the country wanted to forget this whole disgraceful episode. Bowden’s book provides a welcome opportunity to remember the good along with the bad.