Monday, April 05, 2010


In case you couldn't tell, I'm a fiction kind of guy.  My reading is dominated by novels.  Most of the non-fiction books I read are professional software books, read for business reasons at least as much as for pleasure.  Of course, I don't have anything against non-fiction, but I tend to be drawn more towards the imaginative stories and inventive worlds of novels.

A manager recently lent me "Where Men Win Glory."  I'm 99% sure that I never would have picked this up otherwise.  It's the story of Pat Tillman, the former NFL player who volunteered for the US Army after the September 11th attacks, and was later killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan.  I felt like I already knew the story, and knew that it was a depressing one, so what was the point?

I'm really glad that I did read it, though.  It's a surprisingly gripping, fascinating story.  Even though you know how it ends, there are a lot of surprises in there, most of which have to do with Tillman himself.  He seems like a fascinating character, very admirable, and full of contradictions.

The book is narrated down parallel tracks, with the author interleaving the story of Tillman - his youth, sports career, friendships, marriage, etc. - with the story of the Taliban and their allies.  I've previously encountered much of the information presented here, but he lays it out in a very clear, compelling, and incredibly distressing way.  You learn how the government of Jimmy Carter - which I have usually viewed as the most moral of all our modern presidencies - clandestinely lured the Soviet Union into invading Afghanistan, then Carter and Reagan used the CIA and its Pakistani allies to deliver training, small arms, and shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile launchers to the Islamic Mujahadeen.  It's distressing to think that the cave systems that have sheltered Al Qaeda from the US were originally built with American support.

I hadn't previously been too aware of the time period between the withdrawal of Soviet forces and the consolidation of the Taliban.  This period is lucidly described, and the Taliban actually comes off as a little sympathetic, at least in comparison to their enemies.  The Taliban follows a ruthless moral code, but the rival warlords seemed to have no morals at all, and couldn't provide even basic stability for their citizens.  We also learn how specific fighters, such as Haqqani, were lieutenants in the CIA's anti-Soviet campaign, and later became heads of the major networks responsible for killing Americans today.  In all, this thread of the book helps de-mystify the history of the Afghanistan war and show why it's as difficult as it is.

The book isn't a screed, but it does have a point of view.  The author straight-forwardly describes how Bush and Cheney manipulated the media and the American people into war with Iraq, without devoting much space to defending their actions.  This helps make the book compelling: there are good guys, and bad guys, and guys who fail to stand up for what they should.

In the second half of the book, the Tillman/Taliban thread is joined by a third one, this time depicting the military as an institution, and specifically how bad decisions at the top can lead to disaster on the ground, and how it tends to cover up embarrassing incidents.  One of the most shocking sections in the book describes the Jessica Lynch encounter, which Tillman was peripherally involved in.  Like almost all Americans, I know the name of Jessica Lynch, and the broad outlines of her story (she was captured by the Iraqis, and we were initially told that she had acted like a female Rambo, but we later learned that it wasn't as heroic); however, I don't think I've ever heard all the details about what exactly went down.  It's practically a horror story, and Lynch's tragedy was dwarfed by the far worse events of that fight, all of which were caused by bungling.

Even now, it's kind of hard for me to believe just how bad things got.  It wasn't just a single mistake: instead, a series of a half-dozen or so failures all chained together to cause a disaster.  That's what bothers me the most: if anyone along the line had made a better decision, the outcome would have been much better.  The problems started when a lightly-armored supply convoy took a wrong turn in a road in the early days of the Iraq invasion.  Hours later they were still going.  Instead of skirting a major enemy city, they drove right into it.  They didn't realize their error, and crossed the bridge into the city, past the astonished Iraqi army.  Only later did they realize their error, and turn around the convoy.  By now they were in Ambush Alley, a highly vulnerable location; the soldiers had not been equipped or prepared for heavy combat, and in the resulting mess Lynch and several other soldiers were captured, while others (including the officer who made the wrong turns) escaped.

Lynch's story actually ends well, if a bit farcially.  She was badly injured in the attack and taken to an Iraqi hospital.  The nurses there donated liters of their own blood in order to save her.  They nursed her back to health, then loaded her in an ambulance to drive her to an American base.  When American soldiers started shooting at the ambulance, though, they turned around and took her back to the hospital.  Later on, Special Forces mounted a rescue, which was delayed for 24 hours so a camera crew could be put in place.  They encountered no serious resistance from the hospital, and Lynch was back in US hands.

However, things didn't go so well for the rest of the fighters.  After the broken supply convoy escaped, the Marines showed up.  They were astonished to find that they weren't the first forces on the scene.  They learned about what happened, and determined that in addition to their objective of taking two critical bridges, they would also look for survivors.  The orders from headquarters came to split their forces.  If there's one lesson that I've learned from "Where Men Win Glory," it's that you should be really, really careful about splitting forces.  In this case, the first group of Marines proceeded to enter the city, then decided to skirt Ambush Ally by driving around it to the east.  Unfortunately, they drove over a thin layer of soil that covered a swamp of sewage.  They broke through the crust, and spent most of the remaining battle stuck in the muck.  Worse, the command vehicle was trapped under a set of power lines, and so its radio was unable to communicate.

There were two other sections of Marines.  One consisted of heavily-armored Abrams tanks, which were designed to take enemy fire and lead the way in an assault.  Another consisted of lightly-armed and more maneuverable transports which would bring up the rear.  Because of the attack on the supply convoy, the first section was ordered to search the city for survivors.  The second was ordered to proceed to the main objective of capturing the second bridge.  The leader on the ground was shocked that his lightly-armed and vulnerable forces were being forced to enter the most intense part of fighting without support, but was told to carry out the plan.  Of course, they did come under attack, and eventually hunkered down north of the bridge.

This book has done a lot to help me understand what's meant by "Cloud of War."  It's easy for me, sitting in my living room seven years later, to marvel at the disaster that was taking place, but I have access to all the information about what everyone was doing.  Of course, every individual there could only see what was in front of their own eyes, and could only hear what was being broadcast on their radio (assuming that others weren't jamming it with their own broadcasts).  Due to a series of tragic miscommunications, bad assumptions, poor judgments, and failure to follow standard operating procedures, the Air Force came to believe that those besieged Marines were the enemy.  The American soldiers react in disbelief and fury once A-10 Warthogs start strafing their positions and firing missiles.  They eventually break for it, fleeing south back towards Ambush Alley, pursued by the air forces, which destroy several of their trucks along the way.

Finally, at the end, everything is cleared up.  The Abrams tanks return from their rescue mission, and quickly turn the tide of battle back to the Americans.  At the end of the day, 18 Americans have been killed.  Many of those deaths are from friendly fire.

As horrifying as this is, it's just the first phase.  He spends pages describing how the official reports were massaged, statements crafted, and internal investigations derailed to keep anyone from looking bad.  Which is understandable - it's awfully embarrassing when something like that happens, and is not the kind of message you want to send during wartime.  (It was also really dispiriting to read that, prior to the convoy entering the city, the Iraqi army and the Fedayeen had been nervous about the forthcoming invasion, worried about the overwhelming superiority of the Americans.  When their first encounter with the Americans showed them to be confused, poorly equipped, and cowardly, turning tail and running once they came under fire, it emboldened them.  "This is all that they are?"  It breaks my heart to think that, if not for some mistakes early on, "Shock and Awe" might have actually worked, or at least worked better, and the city could have fallen without such heavy losses.)  Still, stuff like that gets me really worked up.  We live in a democracy, the citizens are ultimately responsible for all decisions, and if we don't have access to accurate information we can't make informed decisions.  This tendency to cover things up, whitewash problems, and apply spin doctoring to every incident, would all play a major role in Tillman's death a year later.

The author isn't content to merely weep and say "This was a tragedy."  One of the things that I respect most is his determination to describe exactly what went wrong, and who was responsible.  On one page he shows Pat Tillman's chain of command, a vertical list of about 20 names that starts with George Bush and ends with the private who Tillman was supervising.  On the Lynch incident, he shows how big policy decisions being primarily driven by Rumsfeld - specifically his emphasis on speed over all other factors, and his need to protect political capital instead of just making the best decisions for the combat situation - filtered down into bad priorities for the war's commanders, which ultimately led to suicidal orders given to individual soldiers.  Similarly, when it comes to the Tillman incident, he goes so far as to name the specific private who most likely fired the gun that killed Pat - even though he was only one person out of perhaps ten who were firing at him.  He mentions which people seem to have been unfairly disciplined as scapegoats for the tragedy, and which people have gotten off scot-free, and which managed to cover it up and were promoted as a result.

In case you can't tell yet, this can be an incredibly depressing book.  I think it's also a really important one, too.  Like I said, there's a lot in this book that I wasn't aware of before, even though I tend to follow the news more than most people.  It can be hard for us to face our mistakes, both as individuals and as a nation, and stories like this might help us to decide what we can do differently in the future.

And, the book isn't entirely depressing.  Most of the uplifting stuff is about Pat.  We see all his warts, all his own bad decisions, but are left with an overall impression of this driven, curious, extremely honorable man.  I now realize that losing Pat was an even greater loss than I had thought before, but take a small amount of comfort in realizing that he left behind a great example for others to follow, as well as a warning about our institutions.

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