New Book: American Spartan by Ann Scott Tyson

Cross-posted from

American Spartan: The Promise, the Mission, and the Betrayal of Special Forces Major Jim Gant

Was just sent a review copy of American Spartan courtesy of Callie at  Oettinger & Associates which tells the story of Major Jim Gant, the special forces officer and AfPak hand who pushed hard for a controversial strategy in Afghanistan based on arming and training loyalist paramilitaries out of Afghan tribesmen ( or whatever localist network would suffice when tribal identity was weak or absent). I am looking forward to reading this book for a number of reasons.

Long time readers may recall Gant coming to wider attention with his paper, One Tribe at a Time with an assist from noted author Steven Pressfield, where he called for a campaign strategy against the Taliban from “the bottom up” using “the tribes” because the current top down strategy of killing insurgents while building a strong, centralized, state would never work – the war would just drag on indefinitely until the US grew tired and quit Afghanistan ( as is happening….now). Gant, who forged a tight relationship with Afghan tribal leader  Noor Azfal ,won some fans with his paper in very high places, including SECDEF Robert Gates and Generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus who gave him some cover to implement his ideas but he also faced formidable resistance and criticism. Academic experts were particularly incensed by Gant’s broad-brush use of “tribes” to cover a wide array of local networks and Afghan identities and that “tribes” were a term modern anthropology held in deep disdain ( RAND’s David Ronfeldt pointed out that while these networks are not historical tribes they are certainly “tribal” in terms of behavior patterns) while the government of Mohammed Karzai and its American boosters were bitterly hostile to any strategy that might arm locals outside Kabul’s direct control.

  It was also a risky strategy. Loyalist paramilitaries are often very effective in a military sense – as happened in Colombia when the government tolerated and encouraged private militias to make war on FARC and the ELN and badly mauled the Communist insurgents – but they are inherently unreliable politically. Paramilitaries can also  “go off the reservation” – this also happened in Colombia – and commit atrocities or become criminal enterprises or engage in warlordism and have to be reined in by the government. All of these were particular risks in the context of Afghanistan where warlordism and drug trafficking had been particularly acute problems even under Taliban rule. On the other hand, warlordism and drug trafficking has hardly been unknown in the ANA regular units and national police and is hardly the province only of irregulars.

Another reason I am interested in this book is the subtitle’s accusation of “betrayal” which I infer comes out of the long institutional cultural and chain of command clashes of bureaucratic politics between Big Army and Special Forces and Special Operations Forces communities. The long history in the big picture is that many general purpose force commanders do not know how to use these troops to best strategic effect and sometimes resent the autonomy with which they operate ( a resentment returned and repaid  at times with a lack of consultation and ignoring of local priorities in operational planning).

The author, Ann Scott Tyson is a long-time and experienced war reporter who embedded extensively with US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. She is also married to her subject which should make for some interesting analysis when I review the book.

16 thoughts on “New Book: American Spartan by Ann Scott Tyson”

  1. It sounds interesting. These mid-level officers are sometimes the ones who understand the situation best and need senior mentors to protect them from the Big Army types who seem to predominate in Washington these days. I read a similar sounding book by retired Colonel Hammes a few years ago which concerned Iraq and the whole concept of “4th Generation War.” Like Nagl, they rarely get to be general officers and retire as colonels. The same was true of the “Father of Special Forces, Aaron Bank. He lived near me in his old age but I never met him.

    WEB Griffin fictionalized his career in his army series of novels.

    John Boyd was another.

  2. I’ve met TX Hammes and know him slightly from interaction in a group we are both members of – he is a first rate thinker on military issues. Would have made a very good general just as H.R. McMaster has. I think when the rounds of forced separation are done at DoD, just as in the early 90’s, a lot of warfighters and maverick deep thinkers will be shown the door.

    Big fan of John Boyd’s work

  3. A personal friend of mine was retired at Colonel by the Marine Corps after a “damned with faint praise” OER by a dishonest superior. The superior, wing commander of the Marine fighters in Gulf War I, was insulted by the fact that his group commander, my friend, was given a big medal by Bahrain for “saving them from Saddam.”

    The wing commander was later retired after flying his girlfriend around in a Marine Corps jet transport.

    My friend, the most experienced Marine pilot in Vietnam (his flight suit is in the Smithsonian), later got his private revenge by going into business and subsequently selling his corporation for $23 million. He might have made a pretty good general.

    I’m sure there are many more stories. Gary Berntsen’s book, Jawbreaker describes what happened when Big Army arrived in Afghanistan

  4. >>I think when the rounds of forced separation are done at DoD, just as in the early 90′s, a lot of warfighters and maverick deep thinkers will be shown the door.

    According to Col David Hackworth, something similar happened in the 50’s during the drawdown from WWII and Korea. Many of the most experienced mid level officers and NCO’s were let go. This had a huge impact on institutional memory regarding how to fight and win in the field, at the infantry level. The guys who knew how to ‘poop and scoot’ and take a hill, the NCO’s, weren’t there to train the guys who went on to fight in Vietnam. The mid level guys who knew from experience how to deploy, supply and lead big units were also culled out.

    Arguably, there are wider lessons here for any organization, especially large ones. If you’re going to reduce personnel, cull generously from the bottom and the top, cull carefully from the middle. Those in the middle are the folks actually doing the work and keeping the organization running.

  5. “If you’re going to reduce personnel, cull generously from the bottom and the top, cull carefully from the middle.” But it’s the so-and-sos at the top who make the decisions. And anyway, we all know that Middle Management is just a hindrance.

  6. “According to Col David Hackworth, something similar happened in the 50′s during the drawdown from WWII and Korea.”

    I was a huge fan of Hackworth even though we disagreed about Serbs in the 90s. He was driven out of the army after Vietnam and was so angry he moved to Australia for years. Some thing similar happened to Richard Marcinko .

  7. I have read the arguments about keeping the Vietnam war to small units of Special Operation troops and they all sound pretty good. Unfortunately, we seem to try to combine the larger forces (at their insistence), with the smaller tactics of the long beards. Everybody wants to get in when the going is good, and now everybody wants to get out – except the special forces who made real friends in the area. It is no way to run a war.

  8. Of course, if a war is not worth fighting it is not worth fighting well. A war of occupation in Afghanistan was a thoroughly stupid adventure whereas a punitive expedition might have made sense. Though perhaps much of the purpose of punishment could have been achieved from the air.

  9. ” A war of occupation in Afghanistan was a thoroughly stupid adventure whereas a punitive expedition might have made sense. ”

    This was also true in Iraq but the idea that Iraq had been secularized enough by Saddam to consider a democracy was worth trying. Eventually, it was botched by the State Dept although it has been achieved in Kurdistan. Read Michael Totten’s Where the West Ends. Jay Garner was the guy who managed the US presence in Kurdistan but was excluded from Iraq proper.

  10. I’ve always thought that the best way to handle Afghanistan was to secure Kabul maybe, and keep a small Special Forces element handy to thump the obvious and obstreperous Talibunnies, work deals with the local village powers to offer education and bennies to the intelligent and ambitious, and otherwise let the place alone. A light hand, and a small, proactive force; Afghanistan is what it is. The pictures of the place – and the women, especially, from the 1960s and 1970s are heartbreaking, though – and another reason for damning the Russian Commies to the seventh circle under the pit for overthrowing the Afghan government in the 70s. While the then-existing government may not have been all that and a bag of chips … Afghanistan was doing better than they had been before or since.

  11. Afghanistan in the 50s looks like heaven compared to now but that was always Kabul. Even the king was called The Mayor of Kabul. I wanted us out several years ago. in fact it was 2009.

    Iraq was always a better bet than Afghanistan because it is a rich country and had a modest middle class already. In fact, I think Iraq has a good chance to become the most successful Arab state. On the other hand, I think Afghanistan is a very risky situation.

    During Afghanistan’s golden age which consisted of the last king’s rule, the country consisted of a small civilized center in Kabul while the rest of the country existed much as it did in the time of Alexander the Great.

    I was wrong about Iraq but it was still possible until Obama pulled everybody out with sof agreement.

  12. “Saudi Arabia today remains the location where more money is going to terrorism — to Sunni terror groups and the Taliban — than any other place in the world,” testified Stuart Levey, Treasury undersecretary.

    That was the real problem right there wasn’t it?
    We started a war against the wrong country. 15 of 19 hijackers and their ringleader were Saudis, along with their logistical support.
    The old saying is ‘know your enemy’ but before that you have to
    know who</B your enemy is.

    How much more damage are they still doing to us… the Boston Bombers, Jihadis in Syria, and Gods knows who else.

  13. This a little OT. I was given a copy of “The Generals” by Thomas Ricks. Does anybody know anything about it? From what I know Ricks is a looney lefty.

  14. The Generals is pretty good. My review of is here. He hates Bush and loves Obama, which makes me question his judgement a bit. Especially the latter. I wasn’t that enthusiastic about Bush. It is along the lines of “Dereliction of Duty” but has a more general sweep. A lot of it is about World War II and Vietnam and here I agree with him.

    His Iraq criticism is not valid, I believe.

  15. Michael: Thanks for the quick reply. I guess I will put it in the bookshelf that holds my 200 or so yet unread books here in my study, which number does not include the 145 books on my Amazon wishlist.

    As to Ricks, I was under the impression that he was a standard issue Wallaceite Democrat. They have severely distorted ideas about Vietnam and George Bush, to name but two things wrong with their Weltanschung. To correct them would be an excessive amount of work.

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