Into the Fire: A Firsthand Account of the Most Extraordinary Battle in the Afghan War, by Dakota Meyer and Bing West (Random House, 256 pp., $27)
Charles Dickens famously began his classic A Tale of Two Cities with the phrase “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” It is that best/worst dichotomy that dominates Dakota Meyer and Bing West’s new book. It’s a story of men at their best and at their worst, of a military at its best and its worst, and of technology at its best, but mostly at its worst. The result leaves you gaping in admiration at Medal of Honor winner Dakota Meyer’s courage but ultimately sharing in his frustration at the shocking incompetence and timidity of others that made his courage necessary.
At its heart, the book is one man’s story of the Battle of Ganjigal — a horrifying American loss in which a group of American advisers walked into an expected ambush and were ruthlessly cut down, while soldiers far from the fighting dithered, equivocated, and imposed absurd rules of engagement to prevent their pinned-down comrades from receiving the help they needed, when they needed it.
In other words, the world’s most lethal military can always defeat itself.
By now, readers of books about America’s long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are familiar with stories of courage. Legions of books about special operators and Marine and Army units engaged in thousands of small battles up and down Iraq and Afghanistan have somehow made extraordinary courage seem ordinary. In other words, we’re used to hearing that soldiers are brave, that they endure danger civilians can’t comprehend, and that they live by a code of honor that demands they lay down their lives for their friends.
But Dakota Meyer’s story of courage shocks even the most jaded and cynical reader. The crisply written book wastes very little time on boot-camp stories or descriptions of prior engagements. It provides just enough information to set the stage: Meyer is part of a team of advisers assisting and training Afghan infantry — one of the least glamorous and most dangerous combat assignments. He’s the only “grunt” (infantryman) on his small team and as such assumes a role well beyond his rank of corporal. The team — wary of one another at first — grows ever closer through shared hardship. It’s a classic (and classically true) soldier’s story.
But then it all goes awry. Through haphazard planning and truly puzzling passivity (this reviewer’s unit in Iraq would never have simply watched as armed insurgents filtered into a village, much less sent under-gunned and out-manned adviser teams into that same village without strong combined-arms support), Meyer’s adviser team walked straight into a Taliban ambush — with Meyer separated from his brothers, waiting some distance behind.
The general contours of the resulting story are well known from the Medal of Honor ceremony and the accompanying news stories: Defying direct orders, Meyer — with the help of Army captain Will Swenson and a select few additional Americans and Afghans — led a one-vehicle rescue mission into the village of Ganjigal, saving dozens of Afghans and engaging in a shockingly intense and up-close battle with Taliban insurgents. At one point, Meyer kills a Taliban in hand-to-hand combat — with a rock.
It’s the details, however, that stay with you. Meyer chose his co-author well. Bing West is himself a combat veteran, an accomplished and influential scholar of American military history and strategy, and a bestselling author in his own right. (His book The Strongest Tribe is perhaps the best contemporary history of the American victory in the Surge in Iraq.) If anyone knows combat — and knows how to write about combat — it’s Bing West. He gives the reader the right amount of detail without getting bogged down in military jargon, and the conversational prose and multiple maps give the reader a relatively clear sense of a confusing battle. Most important, Meyer and West communicate not just the intensity of Meyer’s efforts to save his team, but also the intensity of his feelings throughout the fight. Nothing — and no one (American or Taliban) — was going to keep him from his team.
By the time the book reaches its tragic climax, the reality of his team’s fate has an impact like a punch in the gut. You feel their loss.
And this brings us to the book’s utterly unflinching honesty. Meyer and West do not hesitate to outline in excruciating detail the incompetence and timidity that cost American lives. There’s much talk stateside of the military’s amazing technology — of the astonishing ability to watch battles unfold in real time and bring ordnance precisely on target to save American lives, kill the enemy, and spare civilians. But this technology has a dark side: The ability to see things in real time can bring an odd sort of paralysis, as decisions once left to on-scene commanders are pushed up to ever-higher headquarters, whose officers watch — sipping coffee — while their fellow soldiers fight for their lives sometimes hundreds of kilometers away.
These decisions are then mired in the bureaucracy of the rules of engagement, rules that in this case seem almost perfectly drafted to give the ambusher an advantage. As a small team of Americans fought and died against an enemy located not just in the high hills around them but also in the house down the street, “the directive from the high command was clear: do not employ ‘air-to-ground or indirect fires against residential compounds defined as any structure or building known or likely to contain civilians, unless the ground force commander has verified that no civilians are present.’”
Such a rule goes far beyond the requirements of the Law of Armed Conflict, far beyond the rules in place in virtually any previous American war, and far beyond the bounds of common sense. In fact, the rule directly incentivizes enemy use of civilian structures and human shields. And in this case, the rule had a deadly impact.
Meyer and his embattled American comrades saw their requests for artillery support denied again and again, and F-15 Eagles roared over the village in a completely impotent show of “force,” unable to drop their bombs. Meyer’s air support through most of the fight was two Kiowas, small and light helicopters with a fraction of the firepower of a true attack helicopter. Their pilots did not lack for courage (and in fact displayed near-reckless bravery), but they simply didn’t have the weapons to turn the tide.
Perhaps most appalling of all, an American quick-reaction force — an entire infantry platoon — appeared to shrink from the fight, seeking (and obtaining) permission from higher headquarters not to move into the village to engage the enemy and rescue Americans under fire. It was only after word of missing Americans “reached a three-star general hundreds of miles away” that a declaration of DUSTWUN (duty status whereabouts unknown) was made, a declaration that implies that Americans may have been captured and mandates an immediate and decisive response. There are few more attention-grabbing declarations in any current theater of war. At that point, Special Operations Command reacted.
But it wasn’t Special Operations Command that recovered the lost Americans. It was Meyer.
The final brief chapters of the book detail Meyer’s attempt to grapple with the loss of his fellow Marines, his brothers-in-arms. His feelings of grief and despair are familiar to all who’ve seen friends zipped into body bags and launched on their “hero flight” home. His friends die, and — despite all his heroism — he feels responsible. In interviews, Meyer famously said that he was being honored for his worst day, and he repeats that sentiment in this book. He made that statement because he feels like he failed, like he let down his team. But Dakota Meyer didn’t fail; many others failed him.
While true and fair accounts of battles are notoriously difficult (the “fog of war” sometimes never truly clears), at the end of the day one is reminded of an ancient legal principle: Res ipsa loquitur, “the thing speaks for itself.” An American adviser team and its Afghan allies walked into an ambush, and as the world’s most lethal arsenal stood largely idle, that team’s rescue was left to a corporal, a few courageous comrades, and a single Humvee.
In other words, Meyer was the best of Marines, Ganjigal was the worst of battles, it was a day of courage, it was a day of foolishness, it was the epoch of honor, and it was the epoch of timidity. And for the reader? It is the season of gratitude, and it is the season of anger.
Dakota Meyer earned his Medal of Honor. And it’s a shame that he had to.
– Mr. French is a senior counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.