Mini-Book Review: Yon – Danger Close

Yon, Michael, Danger Close: The Michael Yon Story, Apple Pie Publishers, 2000, 400 pp.

Over the last decade, Michael Yon has emerged as a pre-eminent American military blogger. His photos from Iraq and Afghanistan appear occasionally in print media. Fox News will interview him and reprint his articles on their website. He’s heard on radio periodically with personalities like Dennis Miller and Hugh Hewitt. It’s in the blogosphere, however, that his impact has been the greatest.

He specializes in combat reporting and by some accounts, no journalist (professional or otherwise) has spent more time embedded with US and Allied combat troops in Iraq and Afghanistan than Mr. Yon. His travels with the military have also taken him to the Philippines, and training environments throughout eastern and southern Asia. His blog posts are illustrated by digital photography of a very high caliber. His insights into events, tactics, and troop morale are deeply informed by his earlier training as a Special Forces soldier. He knows the physical and mental challenges of combat, first-hand. He knows the sounds made by different weapons and their significance in the midst of the battles he witnesses. He’s often able to ask questions and evaluate troop conditions in ways that would escape a non-vet. And he’s drawn a dedicated following on Twitter and Facebook, especially amongst the families of troops that he spends time with. In many ways, he’s a unique voice and a unique set of eyes in the combat zone. The personal risks he takes to be with the troops are frightening, even second-hand. And his battles with army “public information officers,” over what he’s seen and what he believes, are almost as legendary as his combat reports. He speaks his mind bluntly and has paid the price for it a number of times. He gets booted out. Yet he keeps going back.

The sum total of his independent efforts has been a series of compelling and often harrowing pieces of online photo-journalism, supported largely through reader contributions. For the last few years, I’ve made periodic contributions to his blog’s Tip Jar, and sponsored the purchase of a box of his latest book (Moment of Truth in Iraq: How a New ‘Greatest Generation’ of American Soldiers is Turning Defeat and Disaster into Victory and Hope) for subsequent donation to the troops. I felt it was the least I could do to support a kind and quality of journalism I wasn’t seeing anywhere else. From time to time, Michael Yon mentions his personal history on his blog but his background is largely hidden. The audience must often read between the lines.

I’ve always been curious about how he had the motivation and confidence to take on the challenges of combat reporting, sponsored only by his readers. Fortunately, inexpensive copies of his autobiography are widely available through used book websites.

Danger Close is his personal story from childhood up to the time of his assignment to the 10th Special Forces Group in Europe in the 1980s. It covers his childhood in Florida, vacations in the southeastern United States, and completion of high school. Yon joined the Army directly from high school with the aptitude necessary to apply for Special Forces. First he would complete Basic Training and Advanced Individual Training (AIT) … then onward to Special Forces pre-selection, and Phase I, II and III of the Selection Course. The autobiography concludes shortly after his completion of German language training at the Defense Language Institute facilities at the Presidio in San Francisco.

Soon after completing his Special Forces Selection course and receiving his green beret, he was involved in a bar fight lasting only a few seconds. It left Yon’s antagonist dead and Yon charged with second degree murder. That event forms the skeleton upon which his entire autobiography is hung. The ups and downs of Yon’s young life could hardly have been more extreme.

The first thing that becomes clear is that the Michael Yon of Danger Close is a very different person and a very different writer than the man posting articles in 2010. His autobiography is pre-9/11, pre-Iraq and Afghanistan. It stops before providing anything more than trivial details of his operational responsibilities in Europe during the last days of the Cold War. So it is partly a child’s story and largely a teenager’s story, reflected upon by someone in their mid-thirties. Mr. Yon’s childhood wasn’t easy, especially after the early death of his mother. And Mr. Yon’s experience with the US Army, right out of high school, are probably replicated by thousands of young men and women every year. What makes the story unique is Yon’s own personality and upbringing, and the way he coped mentally and physically with the extreme adversity that was part of his military training.

So current readers of Michael Yon’s work have a mental adjustment of their own to make. You’ll learn a tremendous amount about the man’s history and how he came naturally to his curiosity, courage, and cantankerous manner. But you’ll read about it by listening to an author intent on sorting out his own personal demons, irrespective of the audience. This is Michael Yon reviewing his early life like a man running his fingers over Braille type. Nothing of significance or dramatic tenor appears left out. It’s not a story of “how I ended up on patrol in Afghanistan” but rather “how I ended in Special Forces after a tough childhood.”

It is also, in many ways, Creative Writing 101. The experiences of his life that were most intense (physically and emotionally) are recounted with as much vitality as he could manage. He and his editors then faced the challenge of knitting all those recollections together into a coherent story. They succeed but not without a lot of effort. And, one assumes, a lot of writing and re-writing. Having been through the grind of such writing exercises myself, I know how hard it can be.

Building the story of one’s childhood, adolescence and young adulthood around a tale of legal jeopardy isn’t unheard of but it is still a technically challenging writing project. It probably isn’t the preferred choice for a novice writer. Rather than simply foreshadow the murder charge and then march uninterrupted from the beginning of his life to a climax, Yon chooses to interleaves the events of the fight, arrest, arraignment, and proceedings throughout. At the same time, he “flashes back” in the latter half of the book to his childhood and youth. The reading experience is therefore a bit jarring but the reader of 2010 has to adjust for a Michael Yon many years removed from the more polished writer of today.

I think Michael Yon (circa 2010) would return to the subject wielding a red pen more aggressively. An author who’d fully digested the course of his life would lend more stability of tone to recollections. As it stands, the book pops and explodes with passion in unpredictable moments. Occasional tangents on military tradecraft will fascinate aspiring young people but often let Yon’s broader story lose a bit of steam.

Clearly though, from childhood, Michael Yon was an unusual person. He was intelligent, audacious, small but feisty (out of self-preservation), and not very interested in fitting into a structured educational environment. If we can take his autobiography at face value, he was as skillful at getting into trouble as he was in getting out of it. Explosives, for example, were a teenage enthusiasm. Most of his adventures qualify as adolescent pranks however, and the focus of his life appeared to be outdoor activities with beloved grandparents and weight-lifting.

Yon’s childhood in Florida with a loving family and the dissolution of that family after his mother’s untimely death is recounted in the first person, even in the vocabulary and thoughts of a young child. His father’s remarriage and business failures led to a rapid decline in family fortunes. Yon became subject to physical and mental abuse and the details of his early life are very much geared to daily survival. His older brother had a mean streak that manifested as regular beatings for Michael. Like many dysfunctional families, outsiders were unaware of what was happening at home however Yon’s grandparents provided a respite from the family home.

The autobiographical details of the author’s life oscillate between the descriptions of intense emotions (loneliness, fear, anger, an unwillingness to quit) and the adventures of a boy in suburban and rural Florida, hunting animals for sport and food and observing the natural world.

As the years progressed and Yon left high school for the military, it was clear that the obstacles of his youth, and his physical conditioning were essential to his continued success. Yon’s descriptions of the various training exercises he experienced are memorable. Learning about dozens of weapons from around the world … jumping from airplanes and helicopters in the dark … living off the land while avoiding the enemy … precision navigation through the bush while avoiding capture. It certainly seemed like an adrenaline-pumping lifestyle. Blessed with good luck, intelligence, physical abilities, and audaciousness in dealing with the whims of Army life and bureaucracy, Fortune smiled on the young man during the rigors of his training.

Until a fateful night in a Maryland beach bar when Yon and his friend from the Special Forces Selection course were targeted for harassment by an obnoxious and mentally unbalanced drunk based on their close haircuts. Despite asking for help from the bouncers, somehow Yon became the focus of the larger man’s aggression. When the man closed in on Yon and threatened to kill him, Yon parried the first blow thrown and hit the man with three or four bare-handed blows to the skull. Yon ran from the bar, worried that the bouncers would blame him for the fight (and thereby risk his budding military career). What he didn’t realize was that the man was fatally injured. Yon’s Special Forces buddy rushed to lend first aid to the fallen drunk but by then the deed was done and the “killer Green Beret” was lose in the community. The story of how Yon was hunted, jailed, bailed, and finally vindicated by the courts goes a long way toward explaining his touchy relations with life and authority ever since. As a nineteen year old, he experienced how quickly life could change from exultation to despair.

Conclusion and Recommendations

For those familiar with Yon’s writing in the last few years, Danger Close is quite a departure from expectations. Published in 2000, the book reads like a polished college creative writing project … as if there would never be another book … so everything about the man’s life to that time was wedged in around the smaller but significant thread of his legal troubles associated with the bar fight. All the Yon passion is there, plus plenty internal pain that’s only hinted at in his blog postings. On the one hand, the book seems to have reviewed too much of his life to effectively frame his manslaughter charges. On the other hand, the book stops unexpectedly as Yon wraps up his language education and takes a vacation in northwest Canada. Did the printers run out of paper or did the author’s friends bring out the hook? It’s a mystery.

We’re now used to a terser, more focused writer in the wilds of the Third World. And a writer whose efforts have been widely lauded. Michael Yon should no longer feel like he has to make something of himself. Driven he may be, but forsaken he’s not. Ten years after the writing of this book, there’s so much more to tell in “The Michael Yon Story.” A second installment of his autobiography would benefit from both this experiences and his experience as a writer.

As for recommended readers for Danger Close … anyone who’s a real Yon fan will want this book to get a better sense of the author’s background. It’s a quick read and if particular parts aren’t of interest, they can be easily skipped.

Any young man with aspirations for an elite infantry career (Rangers, SEALS, Special Forces) will find a lot of useful information in the book … though they’ll have to wade through Michael Yon’s childhood to get there. Again, it’s not difficult to identify the content of interest. The Army does find a way to winnow through young men and identify those with the physical and mental toughness and the personality to succeed in different military environments. In Special Forces, it’s clear that intelligence, attention to detail, and innovative thinking are strongly encouraged. Young men with a greater appetite for day-to-day structure and a by-the-book solution to problems will likely look elsewhere in the military.

Yon is a product and exemplar of the Special Forces ethos. Here’s someone with no professional credentials or financial support, who strikes off into the unknown and learns as he goes. Despite the odds, he’s nonetheless created a portfolio of very memorable photos and articles describing life amongst modern combat troops. Self-starting and flexible. Self-confident and inquisitive. Yon’s autobiography explains a lot about what he brought to the Army and what the Army brought out of him.

1 thought on “Mini-Book Review: Yon – Danger Close”

  1. Yon is the most reliable source on Iraq and, to some degree on Afghanistan, although he has been more harassed by the Army there. If you read any of the other good Afghanistan books, like Gary Berntsen’s “Jawbreaker”, you learn the difference between Special Forces, who are fighting that war, and the “Big Army” whose task seems to get in the way. I think it was Berntsen, although I’ve read a half dozen books on the subject, who described how the Special Forces, fighting on horseback alongside the Northern Alliance, had defeated the Taliban only to be ordered to “shave and get into uniform” once the Big Army arrived. I think Yon has had a lot of trouble with the Big Army and, from the sound of his life story, that would be expected.

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