BOOK REVIEW: ‘Into the Fire’
INTO THE FIRE: A FIRSTHAND ACCOUNT OF THE MOST EXTRAORDINARY BATTLE IN THE AFGHAN WAR
By Dakota Meyer and Bing West
Random House, $27, 256 pages
Like 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.