As I was walking through the ‘Utrecht Centraal’ station, I noticed the typical cart full of books up for grabs (The Dutch have this tradition of leaving books they have enjoyed reading outside their houses, in little birdhouses, or in designated zones in public places like railway stations where you can drop off or pick up books as you walk by). I always glanced through these books, and most of the time, they were books in Dutch being exchanged. However, this time, I stumbled upon “On Wings of Eagles” by Ken Follett, an author I have come to adore for his ability to teach history without making it boring, and I knew I had to take this one home with me.
Set during the cusp of the Iranian revolution at the end of 1978, this account details, in a novel-like fashion, the capture, eventual jailbreak, and flight from Iran of two Americans working in Shah’s Iran. In typical Ken Follett style, the book is written in a narrative format, with the narration shifting between plots that are unfolding across the world and will come together in a grand climactic finale. The author relied on extensive interviews and first-person accounts of all the people involved, either directly or indirectly, in this mission. This helped the author reconstruct scenes as if they were unfolding right in front of our eyes. Although the sheer thrill of the circumstances is enough to engross us in the story, the author’s skill certainly helps us ease into this world even without having any context. However, I will still try to add some context here to ease the readers.
Iran in the end of the 1970s was brimming with civil unrest. The Shah, backed by the Western Powers, especially the Americans, was pushing for reforms, denationalization of the oil industry, and forcibly imposing reforms on a public that was not quite ready for it. This was aggravated by the dictatorial clampdown on civil liberties by the Shah and his secret police, the SAVAK. It is on this stage that the drama unfolds.
Our story begins in Iran with the introduction of Bill and Paul, two Americans employed by EDS to work on the setup of the social security and public health systems in Shah’s Iran. Ross Perot, who founded and runs EDS, regards it more as a family than as a corporation that caters to the whims and fancies of the stock markets and the board of directors. So when Ross Perot learns that two of his employees have been detained by the Iranian government on concocted charges of corruption, he decides that it is indeed time for him to step up his game and be there for his employees and their families.
Based on typical archetypes associated with stories, this book can be classified as a “Quest” where a team of heroes wades through turbulent waters to rescue their comrades from a ‘monster’ of unimaginable and far-reaching power, hell-bent on destroying the individuals he has wrongfully imprisoned. Throughout this journey, our heroes are constantly challenged and have to deal with an indifferent US government, an Iranian government that is strutting around like a headless chicken, various warlords with questionable loyalties, language barriers, and the general chaos of a country on the brink of a revolution. Despite all these setbacks, our heroes finally triumph and are able to liberate Bill and Paul from the Iranian prison and safely repatriate them, thus finishing their “Quest.”
Of the many people involved in the rescue, two of them stand out to me as particularly leader-like. The first one is without fail Ross Perot himself, who goes above and beyond his defined role and ensures that his people are taken care of. He is a man who always has skin
in the game and shows up for his people when they need him the most. This is evidenced many times in the book, whether it’s his visit to the jail in which Paul and Bill are imprisoned or the fact that he chooses to drive through a snowstorm right at the beginning of the book as soon as he gets to know about the illegal detention of his employees. This is a man who you could always rely on to lead from the front. The second person who stands out to me is COLONEL ARTHUR DAVID “BULL” SIMONS, a man of meticulous planning and execution so precise that he leaves no gap for any error. Bull Simons never shies away from pushing back against even his boss if he comes in the way of the plan and always puts the mission above everything. This man is a legend who brought back his entire team alive from Vietnam and is so patriotic to his core that he refuses to charge even a single penny for the rescue mission.
In conclusion, I am sure this is a book that I will keep revisiting often not just for the thrill of a page-turner but for the inspiring leadership of Ross Perot, for the meticulous planning of Bull Simons, for the resourcefulness of Rashid, and for the never-give-up attitude of Bill, Paul, and their co-workers.
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