The Horror, the Horror
American Spartan: The Promise, the Mission, and the Betrayal of Special Forces Major Jim Gant
By Ann Scott Tyson
William Morrow, 384 pages
Nearly 13 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq have produced many stories of heroism and selfless service among American troops. There have also been a few stories of stupidity and even criminality. No stranger story has emerged from the past decade, however, than that of Major James K. Gant, an Army Special Forces officer whose exploits in Afghanistan have been compared to those of T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) and Colonel Kurtz, the renegade Special Forces officer played by Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now (derived from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness).
Repeatedly decorated for heroism and congratulated by his superiors on his pathbreaking work reaching out to the tribes of eastern Afghanistan, Gant was ultimately stripped of his coveted Special Forces tab and kicked out of the Army at a reduced rank after being found guilty of a bevy of offenses. Those included having his reporter-girlfriend, Ann Scott Tyson, of the Washington Post, living with him and his team in a small Afghan village.
In American Spartan, Tyson, who has since left the Post and married Gant, tries to rehabilitate her husband’s reputation and indict his superiors for “betraying” him (as the subtitle has it). It is a fascinating and improbable story that she has to tell, and it is to her credit that she does not stint on recounting Gant’s many woes and foibles along with his bravery and dedication. If this book were to be made into a movie, Gant should be played by Matthew McConaughey, because he recalls no one as much as “Rust” Cohle, the troubled but brilliant police officer that McConaughey played in HBO’s TrueDetective.
Jim Gant first enlisted in the Army as a private in 1986 and soon became a Green Beret, a member of the U.S. Army Special Forces. He served in the 1991 Gulf War but did not see real combat until the 2003 Iraq War, by which time he had gone to college and become a Special Forces officer. Influenced by Steven Pressfield’s popular novel Gates of Fire about the Battle of Thermopylae, he had become a devotee of Sparta’s warrior ethos. “It spoke to me like the Bible,” he said of Gates of Fire. As a sign of his newfound enthusiasm, he had the Greek letter lambda, standing for the Spartan homeland of Laconia, tattooed on his left forearm.
His philosophy, as expressed to his men, was this: “I believe war is a gift from God…I am not a patriot or a mercenary. I fight to fight…I believe if you want to kill, you must be willing to die. I am willing to do both, whatever the situation calls for.” This was a far cry from the more politically acceptable mantra favored by the modern U.S. Armed Forces—that, as Douglas MacArthur put it, “the soldier, above all other people, prays for peace for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds of war.” Gant loved war with reckless and self-destructive abandon.
In 2007, leading a team (call sign: Spartan) advising an Iraqi National Police battalion, Gant proved himself as stout a warrior as any of his ancient heroes. One day, his Humvee hit an IED, flipped over twice, and burst into flames. He was knocked unconscious and barely saved from certain death by the Iraqi police he was mentoring. Yet 11 days later, after being released from the hospital, he returned to the scene of the attack and taunted the insurgents via loudspeaker, telling them to bring out “your whore daughters and your whore mother” so he could make love to them properly because “I’m sure you guys really don’t know how.”
As this episode shows, Gant is the type to go looking for trouble. He would rather clear IEDs by hand than wait for explosive-ordnance disposal teams to arrive, and he would sometimes ride on the hood of his Humvee, where he was completely exposed to attack, so that he could better spot hidden bombs.
By the time Gant got home in July 2007 after 13 months in Iraq, he had a Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest decoration for “gallantry in action”—and a massive case of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). He drank all day and barely ate. He became addicted to Percocet and used cocaine. He cut himself and had trouble sleeping because “nightmares made him cry out and sit up in bed.” He was even hearing voices in his head.
“Jim scared a lot of people,” Tyson admits. Not she; a veteran war correspondent and mother of four, Tyson had become as used to combat as Gant had. Separated from her then-husband, she fell for Gant, who was in the process of getting divorced from his own wife. In a disturbing show of devotion, he wrote “I love you Meena” (his pet name for her) in his own blood on an Afghan scarf.
In October 2009, Gant wrote a 45-page paper called “One Tribe at a Time” advocating tribal engagement as a cornerstone of American strategy in Afghanistan. The paper caught the attention of such senior commanders as General David Petraeus, and before long Gant was put in charge of a tribal-engagement team tasked with testing his ideas in the field. (Why he was allowed to deploy despite suffering from myriad mental problems is a question that goes unaddressed in Tyson’s book, but it should be examined by the appropriate authorities.)
After some bureaucratic back and forth, Gant and his small team were eventually sent to the village of Mangwel in insurgent-infested Konar Province, near the border with Pakistan, an area where he had previously served in 2003–2004. Gant and his men lived without the sort of amenities that U.S. troops have become accustomed to on large Forward Operating Bases where gigantic gyms, post exchanges, and chow halls are the norm. They had crude outhouses and no running water, they slept on cots inside canvas tents, and they ate beans, rice, and flatbread. Instead of complaining about such conditions, Gant embraced them. They enabled his men to live closer to the people they were seeking to recruit as Afghan local police. Upon first arriving in Mangwel, he told his team: “We need security…Your top priority is to set up a heated tent for the arbakai (militia) so they can rest as comfortably as you did last night.” He believed that true security lay not in putting up blast walls (the approach favored by most U.S. commanders) but in tearing down the cultural barriers that separated him from the Afghans.
Gant embraced the local Pashtuns and their unsparing code of honor—Pushtanwali, similar to the code of ancient Sparta. He became so close to village elder Noor Afzhal of the Mohmand tribe (whom he called “Sitting Bull”) that he was inducted as an elder of the tribe. Thanks to this relationship, Gant was able to mobilize dozens and then hundreds of Afghan local police to take back the area from the Taliban. Starting with the Mohmands, he gradually worked his way out to recruit neighboring tribes. Few if any other Special Forces officers had as much success recruiting Afghan local police or setting up so-called village-stability operations—and Gant did it with a team composed largely of regular soldiers not Green Berets.
And then Gant’s world came crashing down. In March 2012, his Special Forces superiors relieved him from command and lodged a variety of charges against him. Many claims, among them that he had misused government funds, turned out to be entirely unfounded. Like other hard-charging officers, Gant had used the money at his disposal to get the job done without waiting for bureaucratic permission, which would never have come in time; but neither he nor his men pocketed any funds. Other charges were true. Gant regularly drank alcohol in violation of General Order Number 1, although Tyson argues that such practices are commonplace among Special Forces in the field. One element of Gant’s rap sheet was unique: Tyson’s living with him for part of his time in Afghanistan.
Tyson claims that her presence was beneficial because it showed the tribes that Gant trusted them enough to bring his “wife” (as he called her, even though they were not yet married) to live with them. She was also able to communicate with local women, which Gant and other male soldiers were strictly forbidden to do. But there is no doubt that Tyson’s presence was a violation of all regulations and common sense. Gant assumed an insane amount of risk by secretly living with his girlfriend, especially since the Taliban got wind of her presence. One can only imagine what a nightmare it would have been if she had been captured or killed. Tyson herself crossed journalistic lines by sleeping with a source and becoming part of the story she was covering.
Perhaps the biggest cost of their unusual living arrangement was that, as Tyson herself acknowledges, Gant “bore the overwhelming responsibility of having the woman he loved in a war zone.” This was yet another burden added to his already fragile psyche. Tyson writes that after Gant had spent nearly two years in Afghanistan, his “nerves were frayed.” He could sleep only “with the heavy use of sleeping pills, usually mixed with a little liquor.” One night he wandered into his team’s operations center, picked up a rifle, stuck the barrel in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Luckily for him, the rifle was unloaded, but this incident suggests that, contra Tyson, Gant should have been relieved of command earlier than was the case.
Unfortunately, the more conventionally minded advisers who replaced him effectively destroyed the tribal militia Gant had mobilized. They insisted on wearing full body armor to eat with the Afghans and generally showed they did not trust them as Gant had. Sensing the lack of faith, the Afghan militiamen went home and a promising initiative was squandered.
Tyson’s recounting of her husband’s story is a bit disjointed, especially in the beginning, when she hopscotches between Gant’s experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, his early years, and her own experiences. The narrative picks up steam as the book goes along. By the end it makes for gripping reading. You are often left wondering: “What crazy thing will Gant do next?”
Jim Gant had much the same strengths and weaknesses as such unorthodox British officers as Lawrence and Orde Wingate: They were geniuses at unconventional warfare in no small part because they were so unconventional themselves, to the point that their sanity was sometimes in question. The challenge for the U.S. military is to cultivate such eccentrics while at the same time reining in their excesses. That is a difficult balancing act, but essential so long as the United States needs to harness local proxies, including tribal fighters, to oppose al-Qaeda, the Haqqani Network, the Taliban, and other enemies in unstable and chaotic lands where we have no desire to place our own troops in large numbers.