American Spartan

Fairfax City Library is my favorite place to find new reading.  I was there in October and borrowed a great book, which I just finished reading.

“American Spartan” is the story of Major Jim Gant, a Special Forces commander who spent years living amongst the tribes in eastern Afghanistan.  Depending upon your perspective (and literary inspiration), Gant was either a “Lawrence of Arabia” who unified the independent mountain clans to defy the Taliban or a “Colonel Kurtz” who lived amongst the savages so that he could elevate himself to a god-like status.

The evidence seems to strongly favor the former.  In fact, General Petraeus — the most effective and visionary U.S. commander in the Middle East — singled out Gant’s unorthodox tactics, including his willingness to live with the Afghanis, learn their language (Pashto), and adopt their native culture (Pashtunwali), as the key to gaining trust and building alliances which could survive in an area traditionally dominated by the Taliban.

Of course, U.S. Army bureaucracy had other ideas.  After living out in the mountains for two years, with a small crew of Special Forces and his own Afghani militia, Gant was arrested and court-martialed for by the U.S. Army for a series of infractions which would appear ridiculous to his Afghani colleagues (and don’t look any more valid on this side of the Atlantic).  He was stripped of his Special Forces tab and kicked out of the Army.  It was a strange and dispiriting end to an endeavor which began with so much promise and, unlike most U.S. strategies in Afghanistan, actually had a vision of ultimate success.

American Spartan is not an objective account of Gant’s career or controversies.  It’s written by Ann Scott Tyson, a war correspondent who lived with him in Afghanistan and is now his wife.  Her role in the narrative is actually critical, as it apparently helped him gain trust with the Afghani villagers (i.e. the presence of Gant’s wife assured the villagers that he was committed to the safety of the community).   To say that this relationship violated U.S. Army protocols would, of course, state the obvious.   And it did help lead to his downfall.  (But now they have the last word).

Again, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in Afghanistan and America’s involvement in a war which now spans generations.  (I’m returning it to the Library today so you can have my copy). Let me know what you’re reading ….

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