Army Col. Leland Holland would sometimes talk about his 444-day hostage ordeal in Iran “like it was a good old fish story,” says his son, John. But other times, recalling how he was beaten with rubber hoses and telephone books, he’d get angry. The memory of picking a lock with a paper clip, making his way to the roof, and breathing fresh air could bring him to tears. Three times after Holland retired from active duty, his family found him kneeling in the corner of the basement, face to the wall, hands clasped together over his head as if handcuffed, reliving brutal interrogations in his nightmares.
Ben Affleck’s celebrated film Argo has spotlighted a wacky CIA scheme that enabled six U.S. Embassy employees to escape postrevolutionary Iran disguised as a Canadian film crew. Holland was part of a far less fortunate group, the 52 Americans who didn’t make it out when militants stormed the embassy on Nov. 4, 1979, and were held hostage for more than 14 months—until Jan. 20, 1981.
Argo has been showered with honors, most recently the Oscar for best picture of the year that it picked up Sunday evening at the Academy Awards. It is historically inaccurate, and it ignores a larger tragedy to focus on a sliver of success associated with a humiliating chapter in the nation’s history. But give Argo its due. The film is serving to remind Americans of a time, a place—and a debacle—during a pivotal moment in the saga of the Iranian hostages.
“I’d still like to see somebody do some physical time themselves for what they did.”—John Holland, son of ex-hostage Leland Holland
The former hostages and their advocates are mobilizing for a new Capitol Hill push that they hope will be the final chapter in a 33-year quest for relief and justice. In a few weeks, members of Congress will receive a packet of information that includes powerful statements and videos from the ex-hostages and their survivors. Some will be telling their stories publicly for the first time. One of them is Steven Lauterbach, whose written account opens with this sentence: “I slashed my wrists while in captivity in Iran.”
These Americans were among the first victims of Islamic terrorism, yet, unlike subsequent victims, they have never received the satisfaction of a court judgment against a state sponsor of terrorism or financial compensation drawn from its assets. For decades, they have tried and failed to navigate a web of conflicting legal opinions, court reversals, and changing U.S. policies toward terrorism. And for decades, they have been thwarted by the 1981 Algiers Accords, in which Tehran agreed to release the hostages and President Carter agreed to bar lawsuits against Iran by them and their families. One Congress after another has been unable or unwilling to surmount executive-branch intransigence and court rulings that have kept the accords in force. The Supreme Court last year killed the possibility of suing under current law, leaving Congress to deal with the issue.
With its suspected march toward nuclear weaponry and its broad sponsorship of global terrorism, Iran presents the United States and the world at large with problems much more urgent than tying up the loose ends of a 1980s crisis. Yet the dark details and long-term effects of the hostages’ captivity—illness, depression, nightmares, flashbacks, divorces—are bound to add immediacy to their cause, as is their advancing age (a dozen of the 52 have since died).
Nor does it hurt that the cinematic spotlight on Iran has coincided with two related tragedies. Argo opened a few weeks after murderous militants attacked another U.S. mission, this one in Benghazi, Libya, igniting intense concern on Capitol Hill about diplomatic security. The movie hit theaters the same month that one of the 52 former hostages, ex-CIA agent Phillip Ward, killed himself. He had returned from the ordeal covered with scars from torture, a reclusive, alcoholic ruin who couldn’t hold a regular job—couldn’t even hold a cup of coffee because his hands shook so badly. “He took his life; but, in reality, his life was taken from him 33 years ago in Tehran, Iran,” lawyer Tom Lankford, who has been trying since 2000 to win justice for the former hostages, wrote in a Roll Call tribute to Ward last fall.
“RAPED OF OUR FREEDOM”
Lankford has lived intimately for years with the disquieting tales of former hostages and their families. He punctuates his conversations with graphic images and details: the cells fouled with excrement, the diplomat’s wife who still has anxiety attacks, the retired Air Force colonel who in his nightmares hears the hoses being forced down the throats of Iranian political prisoners as they were suffocated outside his cell.
Most of the former hostages functioned well in productive careers after they returned, including Holland, who died in 1990, and Tom Schaefer, who remains haunted by the suffocations. They and many others became public figures, giving speeches and media interviews about their experience. Yet few, if any, of them escaped life-altering changes wrought by 444 days of terror, boredom, hope, and hopelessness.