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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The End of War Reading List: One Hundred Victories-Special Ops and the Future of American Warfare

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This is another book that wasn’t on the original list, but it’s relevant and was recommended to me by someone on the ground. One Hundred Victories (by Linda Robinson) is about ‘Village Stability Operations‘ (VSO), which is one of the principle missions of special operation forces in Afghanistan. The author tells the story of of the VSO mission in Afghanistan and in attempt to make the book more palatable to generalists, she wraps it all up in the final chapter on what the future of war might look like.

One Hundred Victories will appeal to anyone interested in what special operation forces are currently doing in Afghanistan, classic Special Forces missions, and to those who may interact with the VSO mission at some point in the future (SFAAT staff, infantry uplift personnel, CA/MISO, etc.). Outside of talking to those who have done a VSO mission, there really isn’t much else to read on the subject other than some articles on Small Wars Journal or whatever is out there in open source (not much). Right now, this is the definitive book on the VSO mission.

In terms of narrative, the author bounces around from team level stuff outside the wire to big boss decisions being made at headquarters. With the exception of some of the notable Generals, there are no ‘characters’ that are followed from start to finish. The bulk of the research comes from team embeds and interviews that the author conducted over the course of a few years. There are some familiar names that pop up through the book who are associated with the VSO missions. Notably, MAJ Jim Gant, the author of ‘One Tribe at a Time‘ and profiled in the just released book ‘American Spartan’, and SSG Robert Bales, the American soldier who murdered 16 Afghans in 2012. SSG Bales was assigned to a VSO team as part of the the aforementioned ‘infantry uplift,’ the pairing of conventional infantrymen to a VSO team to augment security.

I only highlighted three things as I read through the book. The first, mentions a friendly-fire incident:

“A US soldier from a conventional unit was killed at Sar Howza one night in a friendly-fire incident. He approached on of the local police checkpoints and was mistakenly shot by an ALP policeman.”

The Afghan Local Police (ALP) is the program that the VSO mission is all about. It is a ‘bottom up’ recruitment, training, and fielding program that develops a local security platform. It is separate from the Afghan National Army (ANA) or other security programs.

The second thing I highlighted was in reference to MAJ Gant:

“Finally, a young conventional infantry lieutenant attached to Gant’s ad hoc team decided to blow the whistle after being asked to falsify a situation report. “This is just not right,” he told Gant’s superiors, adding that things were out of control in the camp. The command ordered a “health and welfare” inspection of Gant’s camp in early March 2012. It appeared that Gant had been living out some kind of a sex-, drug-, and alcohol-fueled fantasy, becoming, as one officer put it, “a legend in his own mind.” Alcohol and steroids were found in his hooch, along with large quantities of Schedule II, III, and IV controlled substances and other drugs. Classified material were also found unsecured in his quarters, a violation compounded by the fact that Gant had been keeping a reporter-turned-lover at the camp, moving her around to prevent his superiors from learning of her presence.”

Lastly, on human terrain:

One special operations officer confided his dismay at seeing a terrain model in a senior general’s office in Afghanistan that was festooned with labels such as “block,” “attrit,” and “isolate” — a pretty clear indication that the general viewed the contest as a fight over physical terrain that could be addressed with a conventional scheme of maneuver.”

For a review of the book in the New York Times, click here.

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)
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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Book Reviews: The Things They Carried and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson. America!
Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson. America!

I finished two books over the past week: The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. The first is a classic that I just never got around to reading until now and the second is what I hope might become a new classic.

The Things They Carried, like many good war stories, blurs the line between what is real and what is fiction, and in doing so comes closer to telling the truth of “what it’s like” than any straight telling of the facts ever could. Some of the stories are so fantastical that they seemingly cannot be true, yet they tell something deeper about war and soldiering in combat that just could not be told any other way (the improbable story of Mary Anne Bell, for example – the peppy girlfriend of a soldier who flies to Vietnam to be with her boyfriend and instead becomes consumed by the war, teaming up with a team of hardened Green Berets and going on ambushes).

Weaving between time in Vietnam, time before the war, and time after the war, O’Brien tells the story from his omniscient position as a “43 year old writer, twenty years after leaving Vietnam.” O’Brien served in Vietnam as an infantryman which helps legitimize the detailed descriptions of life in Vietnam. One of the strongest parts of the book is dedicated to O’brien’s personal struggle before the war deciding whether to attempt to dodge the draft.

While most of the book discusses O’Brien’s experience in Vietnam, I would classify this as a post-war book. This isn’t a historical recounting of battles or a chronological record of a deployment experience. It’s a looking back at the totality of a war experience and a retelling of that experience after years of thought and analysis. And that retelling has been embellished and filtered to get to a more accurate “truth” even if some of the individual stories are blatant lies.

Unlike Tim O’Brien, Ben Fountain did not serve in the military, which made me skeptical about Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. The author’s lack of military service or experience left me wondering how the story would unfold and I was immediately looking for the author to simply use the story of soldiers to tell some other, “greater” lesson. While it might be argued that this book uses the ‘coming home’ story of a squad of soldiers to paint a picture of modern day America, Fountain gets so much right that to me, it’s a legit post-war story, even though entire thing is a work of fiction.

The gist of the story is this: a squad of infantrymen gets into an intense firefight early in the Iraq War and that firefight is caught on camera by a Fox News crew. The video shows the squad taking it to the enemy and it becomes a feel-good morale booster for a home-front completely cutoff from the reality of the war and starved of any good news stories in the first couple of years after the September 11th attacks. The squad is then sent home from Iraq on a two-week “victory tour” which culminates in Dallas on Thanksgiving Day where the squad will participate in the Halftime Show of a Cowboys/Bears game.

I don’t know how, but Fountain manages to capture both the zeitgeist of what it was like to come home in those early days of the Iraq War and the complete feeling of emptiness that going to war and coming back can have for soldiers. The book will resonate with any veteran that has been to a bar and showered with awkward “thank you’s” as patrons glanced over briefly before turning back to their beers or who were forced to stand up to be recognized at some event, where the act of thanking seemed more a cathartic exercise for the thanker than the thanked.

Billy Lynn’s squad (known as “Bravo Squad” because the media mangled the unit designation – they were part of a Bravo Company) is constantly peppered with questions about what it was like to shoot the enemy in such a non-chalant manner because their exploits became a media sensation. With the exception of a few cutback scenes, the entire story takes place in the less than 24 period that the squad spends in their last day at Texas Stadium for the Bears/Cowboys game. They are shuffled around, moving from their sideline seats, to the owners’ box, to the locker room for an awkward meeting between the soldiers and some of the Cowboys, who begrudgingly sign autographs for the soldiers and some young children with cancer while they get ready for the game. All the while, the squad is followed by a Hollywood agent who is trying to spin their story into a movie. The soldiers, who are being hailed as heroes everywhere they go and who have become celebrities of the week are told they can expect a huge pay-day for the exclusive rights to their story. The rub comes when that “support our troops” attitude meets the reality of people having to lay down real money – a sentiment that has been felt by many veterans who have heard in the same sentence “I support the troops and thank you for your service, but there is nothing I can do.”

Like The Things They Carried, one of the key issues comes when Billy’s sister tries to connect him with an anti-war group that specializes in getting soldiers out of the military. Billy flirts with the idea of deserting, in the same way O’Brien flirted with the idea of fleeing to Canada to avoid the draft.

The central question that hung in my mind as I read both books was “what is the deeper meaning of all this?” It seems that in post-war stories, the author is trying to tease out what the purpose of the war was, not on a strategic level, but on a personal level. What does my service mean for me?  Both books left me wondering what it all means. Neither book provided an answer, and I’m not sure there is one or that one will ever exist.

The New York Times Review of The Things They Carried
The New York Times Review of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

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