Chapter 2


The idea of bandana-and-bandolier-adorned Green Berets and Navy SEALs sneaking through the jungle deep behind enemy lines remains a popular one. But it’s been joined in the collective consciousness by the veiled operator decked out with insectoid panoramic night vision goggles (NVGs) and suppressed weaponry moving through urban strongholds in the dead of night.

The rise of terrorism in the modern sense during the 1970s forced the United States to reconceptualize its approach to SOF. Actually, “forced” is perhaps a bit strong, but it did crack the door open wide enough to allow an indomitable Special Forces officer by the name of Charlie Beckwith to eventually smash through the established order. Despite facing numerous stumbling blocks along the way, Beckwith ultimately triumphed in his campaign to provide the nation with a specialized and exceedingly well-trained counterterrorism (CT) component to combat this new threat.

Closely patterned after the British Special Air Service—a fabled unit in which Beckwith served as an exchange officer—1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta was stood up in the late 1970s.

Delta Force soon faced its trial by fire in the attempted rescue of more than fifty Americans held hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran.

The unfortunate reality of counterterrorism units of this sort—tasked with the most politically sensitive, highest priority, or, frankly, impossible missions (and quite often all three at once)—is that their triumphs typically take place out of sight while their failures are flooded by the spotlight of national catastrophe.

And the unfortunate reality for Delta Force was that Operation Eagle Claw proved to be a leading example of this fate. The audacious rescue plan was overly ambitious in its construction and it devolved into an embarrassment of global proportions. The already aborted operation turned to tragedy when a Marine Corps RH-53 helicopter collided with an Air Force EC-130 transport plane during the attempt to exfiltrate Iran.

The incident not only struck a blow to the United States’s reputation, it also tarnished Delta—who only became publicly known as a result—despite its operators being powerless victims.

Danny Coulson, who would later found the Hostage Rescue Team (HRT), the FBI’s civilian equivalent to Delta Force, compared the reaction to blaming a quarterback for losing the Super Bowl if the team’s bus had crashed on the way to the game.