Book Review: On Wings of Eagles by Ken Follett

My reading this book came about as the result of a frustrated search.  For years I have been trying to find a DVD copy of the miniseries “On Wings of Eagles”, which I first watched somewhere in the East and again once in Europe.  It is available on Zone 2 DVD from some company in Germany, but in the United States, to the best of my knowledge, it has been only released on VHS, and these video tapes are now a rarity and very high-priced.  Anyway, who has a video machine anymore?

The miniseries features an old but dynamic Burt Lancaster as Arthur “Bull” Simons, and Richard Crenna as Ross Perot.  It’s four hours long but never lags from the first minutes until the end.  However, it is downright hard to find.

Finally, after several frustrating searches, I decided to give the book a try.  The writer is better known as a novelist, and it reads like a novel, but it was put together after meticulous research and interviews with the main characters.

In short, in the last days of the Shah’s reign in Iran, as revolutionary violence escalates and Americans are leaving the country in droves, an obscure Iranian prosecutor arrests two executives of EDS, Perot’s company, which had a contract with the Iranian government to create a computerized social security system.  Since the Iranian government is collapsing and has stopped paying for EDS’s services the company is preparing to pull out; the prosecutor sets bail at the exorbitant sum of 13 million dollars as a sort of ransom to recoup the government’s failed investment.  Perot tries all sorts of legal ways to spring the men:  teams of lawyers both American and Iranian, intervention of top political and military contacts, endless fruitless negotiations, and even attempts to get the money into the country to pay the bail.  The prosecutor’s hold on the two Americans is relentless and tenacious.  In the end, when all official channels seem to be failing, Perot assembles a team of ex-military men from his own staff to prepare a jailbreak.  To lead the team he recruits “Bull” Simons, a retired colonel who once led a famous mission to free American prisoners in North Vietnam.  The book chronicles their training in Texas, and then their efforts in Iran to free the men.  After the Shah’s government falls and the revolutionaries take over, a mob storms the prison where the men are held and they escape, but then Simons and his team must make a hazardous overland journey through hostile tribal country to the Turkish border and freedom.

It’s a terrific, suspenseful adventure, all the more gripping because it is true.

It holds special fascination for me because only a year before these events took place I hitchhiked through Iran myself.  In a southeastern town my passport was stolen and I had to retrace my steps to Tehran, where I begged on the streets for two weeks before I could come up with enough money for a new passport.  This story is recounted in more detail in my memoir “World Without Pain: The Story of a Search”.  But what I wanted to touch on here is that in my wanderings about the city a young Iranian befriended me.  He took me into the vast underground carpet bazaar and showed me where his relatives worked, and he told me about the revolutionary movement and how audio tapes of Khomeini’s speeches were being clandestinely distributed all over the country and it was only a matter of time before the government fell.  As I read the book I was reminded how close I had been to all the action – and danger, for that matter.

This book is a great read.  It’s the kind of book that’s so exciting and suspenseful that it’s hard to put down.  But more than that it is a tale of common people accepting a call to uncommon heroism, and as a result it is an inspiration to all of us to be more heroic too, in whatever tasks destiny calls upon us to accomplish.

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