- - Tuesday, April 15, 2014


By Ann Scott Tyson
William Morrow, $27.99, 384 pages

On a cold November morning in 2011, I was sitting in my office on a forward operating base in the Bala Murghab district of western Afghanistan. I was the senior adviser for a civilian interagency district support team and had just finished my evaluation of our situation. It was grim.

We were partnered with a Marine Corps Special Operations Team, an Italian Alpine unit and a small regular U.S. Army detachment trying to subdue the only Pashtun-majority district in western Afghanistan.

The Italians and the Army were mentoring a regular Afghan army battalion, and the Marines were trying to put together detachments of Afghan local police in a program called Village Stability Operations. President Obama had put a limit on the time we had, and it was running out. I estimated that it would take at least 18 months to stabilize our valley. By my estimate we had about 10 months at most before our transition; we actually had less than that.

Across the country, in the Konar region of eastern Afghanistan, Army Special Forces Maj. Jim Gant was making similarly grim calculations and coming to much the same conclusion: Time was short, and by his estimate, drastic measures were needed. How he tackled the problem is the subject of Ann Scott Tyson’s gripping book, “American Spartan.” Miss Tyson is an accomplished war correspondent; she is also now Jim Gant’s wife. Miss Tyson eventually came to Maj. Gant’s Konar headquarters and became his partner in his effort to pacify Konar. In the process, Miss Tyson unapologetically lost her journalistic objectivity; however, it gives her the material for a gripping and highly readable book.

Maj. Gant is a legitimate war hero. In Konar in 2003, he became legendary among the local population for his love of the local people, and they returned his affection with fierce loyalty. Later, he earned the Silver Star for heroism in Iraq, leading yet another Special Forces team. Returning from Iraq, he distilled his theories on counterinsurgency into a monograph titled “One Tribe At a Time: A Strategy For Success In Afghanistan” that was read by both Gen. David H. Petraeus and Adm. Eric Olson, who was then commander of the Special Operations Command.

They both supported allowing Maj. Gant in trying out his ideas, and he eventually was assigned back to the Konar area to rejoin the Afghan villagers that he had come to think of as his brothers.

I greatly admire anyone who can accomplish a dangerous mission without getting his people killed. In this, Maj. Gant performed brilliantly. His Village Stability Operations efforts harkened back to the original roots of the Green Berets by living with and fighting side by side with the Afghan tribesmen, particularly their “malik” (leader).

Maj. Gant appeared to be on his way to great things in the special operations community, but somewhere along the way, things were going badly off the track. A combination of years of combat stress and probably traumatic brain injury had caused him to lose his moral compass.

Since Iraq, Maj. Gant had been drinking heavily. Although he never drank in front of the Afghans, the consumption of alcohol is a blatant violation of General Order No. 1 for military personnel in Afghanistan. He and Miss Tyson had become lovers; she joined him in Konar, and they shared his quarters. This is another serious violation of General Order No. 1.

The American military in Afghanistan and Iraq doesn’t allow booze, sex or dogs. Neither do the Taliban or al Qaeda. I’ve often wondered what they are fighting about.

However, the hubris that comes with flaunting orders and getting away with it, combined with the isolation from higher headquarters, led to other irregularities. Maj. Gant was headed for a train wreck. It came in the form of a newly joined lieutenant who was offended by Maj. Gant’s freewheeling style, which violated all of the rules he had learned at West Point.

As one officer would later put it, Maj. Gant had “gone Kurtz,” in reference to the rogue colonel in “Apocalypse Now.” The lieutenant’s complaint led to investigation that ended Maj. Gant’s career and cost him his coveted Special Forces tab.

“American Spartan” is not meant to be a balanced account, but it is a brutally honest one. Maj. Gant became a deeply flawed human being. I agree with Miss Tyson that Maj. Gant is a superb American warrior; but in the end, he became a poor soldier. Afghanistan has plenty of warriors. All Afghan males think of themselves as such.

Without discipline, a military unit is just another militia, and Afghanistan has too many militias already.

Gary Anderson, a retired Marine Corps colonel, is an adjunct professor at George Washington University. He has been a State Department adviser in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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