End of War Reading List: American Spartan

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I’m not going to mince words: I didn’t enjoy reading this. It took me well over a month, and often because I didn’t have the energy to slog through it. In fairness, I might be a bit jaded about the whole thing, reading about places I am currently working around – it can get bothersome.

I’ve written before about the saga of Major Jim Gant, the Special Forces officer known for spearheading the Village Stability Operations (VSO) program in Afghanistan and was later relieved and forced to retire after an investigation into his behavior. Major Gant is also mentioned in One Hundred Victories – another book I read recently about the VSO program.

As Joe Collins points out in his review of the book, the book is important – I’m just not sure that it was very good. It is written defensively and with venom laced words for anyone who stood in Major Gant’s way (top brass, the West Point Lieutenant who wrote the sworn statement that began the investigation, etc.). Ann Scott attempts to write with the detachment of a journalist covering a story that she is an emotional part of, and it doesn’t really work.

The book is fascinating for someone interested in either the VSO program, the intricacies of Pashtun tribal dynamics or what an illicit affair in a war zone looks like.

Major Gant, for his part, is an interesting persona to read about. And as a character study, there isn’t anything better out there (however biased the account may be). Outside of the book, I’ve met people who think he is the greatest soldier ever while others thought he was out of control. I’ve never met him, but from what I’ve read and heard, he is the absolute product of the Global War On Terrorism. A dedicated, motivated leader that tried to – in his words – Win the War – and destroyed himself in the process.

There are some good quotes in the book that are worth highlighting, like this one:

“We will never win in Afghanistan,” he told the team. “But know – now and always – that does not matter. That is an irrelevant fact. It gives us a place to go and fight, it gives us a place to go and be warriors. That’s it.”

The book is full of small windows into Major Gant’s personality and thought process.

Often he told me he wished he had died fighting in Afghanistan.
“Not a cheap death, something hard,” he said. “Then I could have proven to everyone, in that one action, that I am who I say I am.”

After Jim had his Special Forces tab rescinded, he did this. Is this a guy with a good sense of humor or a man obsessed with an idea?:

Jim placed the tab in a small picture frame over a bloodred image of Marlon Brando as the bald Colonel Kurtz. A short time later, Jim shaved his head.

The last couple of chapters are the most fascinating in the book, describing Jim and Ann’s days in Fayetteville, North Carolina, as Jim completely collapses as a soldier and Ann reports it with the detachment of a journalist – one reporting on her own behavior with the subject. It’s odd to read, but fascinating nonetheless.

Anyway, I’m glad to be done with it.

The End of War Reading List

Into the Land of Bones (gift from a friend) – done (Dec. 31, 2013)
One Hundred Victories (recommended by a guy on the ground) – done (March 2014)
American Spartan – done (August 2014)
The Defense of Jisr Al-Doreea (recommended by a couple of friends)
The Massacre at El Mozote (recommended by Matthew Bradley)
Every War Must End (recommended by Jason Lemieux)
Black Hearts (recommended by “Jim”)
Can Intervention Work (recommended by “Lincoln”)
A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency from the Civil War to Iraq (recommended by Robert)
Blink: the Power of Thinking without Thinking (recommended by Laura and a friend)
Friend by Day, Enemy by Night: Organized Vengeance in a Kohistani Community (recommended by Laura)
War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (recommended by Joao Hwang)
Romance of the Three Kingdoms (recommended by Joao Hwang)
The Forever War (recommended by Shelly)
How Wars End: Why We Always Fight the Last Battle (recommended by Tim Mathews)

“On Deck”

The Operators (recommended by Nathalie)
The Liberation Trilogy (recommended by Allen)
The Village (recommended by Robert)
Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop (recommended by “Kyle”)
The Junior Officer’s Reading Club (recommended by “Kyle”)
The Enlightened Soldier – Scharnhorst and the Militarische Gesellschaft in Berlin, 1801-1805 (recommended by Laura)
Storm Troop Tactics: Innovation in the German Arm (recommended by Laura)
Utility of Force; Art of War in the Modern World (recommended by Laura)
The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century (recommended by Laura)
Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power (recommended by Laura)
Brave New World (recommended by a fellow infantry officer)
Sympathy for the Devil (recommended by Wesley Morgan)

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“Above all else, stay alive.”

Lans Staying Alive

In my limited free time, I’ve been replaying Tactics Ogre for the PSP. This is one of my favorite games of all time, if not the number one. I originally played it when I was a teenager for Playstation and then years later when I was in college and working as an intern in Washington D.C., playing it on the Bolt Bus between DC and New York.

I’ve been playing this game on and off for over fifteen years, and I’ve never finished it. The game is non-linear, which I love, and from what I understand, it has multiple endings – none of which I’ve seen. It’s an adult game, with ethical dilemmas that rival modern games like Mass Effect.

One of the things I’ve found intriguing is the character Lanselot’s mentorship to the main character, Denam. On two separate occasions he lectures Denam on the importance of staying alive above all other things. In one of his first meetings with the main character, he says:

“So you’re off to aid one of the Duke’s men. I regret we cannot join you. Above all else, stay alive. Win or lose, while there’s life, there’s hope.”

And then later on, in a quiet moment before one of the game’s pivotal scenes he again advises Denam to stay alive:

“Risking your life is one thing. Losing it is another. The best way to aid your people is to stay alive. See the battle through to the end. And there’s your sister to think of.”

It’s a curious piece of advice in a video game, from a famous warrior. You would expect advice of honor on the battlefield, bravery, or skill. There’s a part of me that thinks the advice might have served as kind of early tutorial in the game. The original Tactics Ogre for Playstation was much more unforgiving when it came to death – if a character was slain in battle he/she was perma-deathed. Lanselot’s advice might have been there to warn the player to protect life, as training a new character was a long and arduous process. The updated version for PSP/Vita still has perma-death, but there’s a timer on the character as in Final Fantasy Tactics.

Still, whether it served as a tutorial for the player or actual advice, it is refreshing to see it.

Is it not true?

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Humanity and Iron Discipline

Therefore soldiers must be treated in the first instance with humanity, but kept under control by means of iron discipline. This is a certain road to victory.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

On the plane ride to Afghanistan I was skimming through the Art of War when I came across that line. Humanity and Iron Discipline popped out to me, and I was struck by how those two ideas juxtapose. My platoon sergeant was sitting next to me and I showed him the line.

He pulled out an ear plug and yelled to me over the roar of the C-17’s engines, “You’re Humanity, sir. I’m Iron Discipline.”

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