When hero­ism stood down Tal­iban

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - Re­viewed by Gary An­der­son

LINTO THE FIRE: A FIRST­HAND AC­COUNT OF THE MOST EX­TRA­OR­DI­NARY BAT­TLE IN THE AFGHAN WAR By Dakota Meyer and Bing West

ike fel­low Medal of Honor win­ners Alvin York and Audie Mur­phy in World Wars I and II re­spec­tively, Sgt. Dakota Meyer is a South­ern farm boy who al­ways has been good with a ri­fle. Like them, he al­ways has been some­thing of a mav­er­ick as well. He has strong opin­ions and tends to be reck­less and in­no­va­tive. All this stood him well in the bat­tle of Gan­ji­gal in Afghanistan’s deadly Ku­nar River Val­ley.

The bat­tle of Gan­ji­gal was a deadly am­bush sprung by the Tal­iban on an Afghan pa­trol ad­vised by a team of U.S. Marines and sup­ported by a U.S. Army pla­toon.

The pa­trol had been or­dered and or­ga­nized by a U.S. Army bat­tal­ion. The mis­sion was ill-thought-out, badly equipped and poorly man­aged by the bat­tal­ion’s lead­er­ship.

The Afghans and Marines paid the price. Only Sgt. Meyer’s ac­tions, along with those of a coura­geous driver and an Army cap­tain, pre­vented a de­feat from be­ing turned into a com­plete mas­sacre. As it was, Sgt. Meyer’s team was nearly wiped out, with many Afghans killed as well.

Gan­ji­gal was a bat­tle that never should have hap­pened. It was a mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion of coun­terin­sur­gency doc­trine by a staff that had read the doc­trine but did not un­der­stand it.

The pa­trol was sent into a vil­lage that clearly was hos­tile to do a “key leader en­gage­ment” with peo­ple who had no in­ter­est in be­ing en­gaged. The pa­trol was or­dered into a dead-end sub­val­ley made for an am­bush with­out proper equip­ment or a clear ob­jec­tive. In coun­terin­sur­gency op­er­a­tions, you do not do “drive-by” vis­its — you ei­ther go to stay or you don’t go at all.

Sgt. Meyer was not with his team when it en­tered the val­ley of death. Like John Wayne in the John Ford clas­sic “Fort Apache,” he prob­a­bly was left be­hind with the sup­port ve­hi­cles be­cause he loudly protested the stu­pid­ity of the mis­sion. Sgt. Meyer liked to fight, but as the only in­fantry­man on his ad­vi­sory team, he re­al­ized the id­iocy of the whole en­ter­prise. When the in­evitable am­bush oc­curred, he led the res­cue at­tempt. Five times he charged into near-cer­tain death in an at­tempt to res­cue his bud­dies. Al­though he failed, he killed a lot of Tal­iban fight­ers in the ef­fort. He has never for­given him­self for the loss of his team­mates, and he never sought our na­tion’s high­est honor.

I sin­cerely hope this book project is a cathar­sis for Sgt. Meyer. The fact is, his higher head­quar­ters planned a poor mis­sion and did not prop­erly sup­port it when trou­ble oc­curred. The pa­trol should have re­ceived far more fire sup­port than it got. Sgt. Meyer earned the Medal of Honor try­ing to save his friends. He won’t for­give him­self, but Congress and the pres­i­dent dis­agreed. He is wrong, and they are right. Sgt. Meyer has no rea­son to apol­o­gize.

Wil­liam Swen­son, the Army cap­tain who fought with Sgt. Meyer that day, did not re­ceive an award. Sgt. Meyer thinks that is be­cause the cap­tain wrote a bru­tal af­ter-ac­tion re­port that has since em­bar­rassed the Army lead­er­ship. To his credit, Sgt. Meyer has ar­gued up the chain to the pres­i­dent to give Capt. Swen­son the credit he de­serves.

Bing West, Sgt. Meyer’s part­ner in the book project, took it on re­luc­tantly. Mr. West is a for­mer Marine with con­sid­er­able Viet­nam ex­pe­ri­ence. He has be­come the Marine Corps’ bard of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as an em­bed­ded re­porter in some of the most bru­tal fight­ing. He fi­nally bowed to Sgt. Meyer’s in­sis­tent re­quest that he help tell the tale. Mr. West is adept at piec­ing to­gether the chaos of com­bat and mak­ing sense of it. In a post­script, Mr. West of­fers some in­sights into what the bat­tle should teach us about Afghanistan. If Pen­tagon of­fi­cials do not read the whole book, they should fo­cus on the post­script.

The les­son of the Bat­tle of Gan­ji­gal is that in the age of in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy, we have lost a key el­e­ment of Amer­i­can suc­cess on and off the bat­tle­field. When face­less man­agers many miles away from the scene de­cide they know bet­ter than the op­er­a­tor on the ground, some­thing has gone badly wrong. It hap­pened to the mil­i­tary in Gan­ji­gal, and it hap­pened to the State Depart­ment in Beng­hazi, Libya. The lead­er­ship rot started at the high com­mand in Kabul with Gen. Stan­ley A. McChrys­tal, who is­sued overly re­stric­tive rules of en­gage­ment, and it per­ni­ciously seeped down­ward. Sgt. Meyer and his com­rades paid the price. Gary An­der­son is a re­tired Marine Corps of­fi­cer who has served as an ad­viser in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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