The following book review is a special for BlackFive readers provided by Elise Cooper. You can read all of our book reviews by clicking on the Books category link on the far right side bar.
American Spartan by Ann Scott Tyson, wife of former Major Jim Gant, can be read as three different chapters in their lives. The policy chapters concentrate on what is needed for a successful strategy in Afghanistan; the cultural section is seen through her eyes regarding the Afghan villagers, and the last part of the book deals with Gant’s feeling of betrayal by his commanders. In order to best understand the criticisms and the feelings of Gant/Tyson, blackfive.net interviewed those involved.
The book delves into the policy issues based on Gant’s paper, “One Tribe At A Time,” which applies the Foreign Internal Defense approach to Afghanistan. He calls for sending US Special Forces to train and empower the local Afghan villagers to defend themselves, while the Americans become culturally assimilated. In the book Gant was quoted, “Relationship building is the weapon, time is the bullet.” He explained to blackfive.net that those who criticized him for trying to take credit for creating this strategy are simply wrong. “All I did was to look at the history of Special Forces, what was done, and the readings of T. E. Lawrence. I asked myself why aren’t we doing this in Afghanistan. I never said this strategy was developed in my head. Unfortunately, the entire second chain of command was not supportive and enthusiastic about this strategy. I felt there was a betrayal by those US commanders, towards the Afghans, because they wanted to pull out.”
The problem with this portion of the book is that any discussion on strategy should include the pros and cons, especially since many non-military experts will be reading it. Bing West, American military author and former Assistant Secretary of Defense believes “sooner or later Gant was going to come home to America. Substituting Americans does not solve the problem and in some ways can make it worse. If they become reliant on him, when he leaves it will fall apart as was the case.” Similarly, Pete Hegseth, a former army counter insurgency instructor in Afghanistan noted, “At this point of time in Afghanistan it is too little and too late. It is very difficult on a large scale. You can’t take a regular troop soldier because there is a need for training on the culture, the language, and in Special Forces tactics. The theory is sound, but the political reality is just not possible.”
Tyson defends her position because she sees this book as more of a “narrative, non-fiction, and military biography. This is about a man, his mission, and the biography of an Afghan tribal leader. It is not an academic or journalistic book on military strategy. I was there as an author who used my skills and experiences from being a reporter in war zones. There were two drafts of the book. Because I was so engrained as a reporter to keep myself out of the picture I was uncomfortable talking about myself. But my editor explained to me in order for the readers to really get to know the Afghans I needed to put more of myself into the story. I rewrote it so readers could understand the Afghans through my eyes. It was a sacrifice I made to reach people.”
This leads to the cultural part of the book where she discusses how she and Jim became “a family” with the tribe. For example, she explains that even as an American woman she had to adhere to the rules of wearing baggy clothing, walking behind Jim, and acting demurely around Pashtun men. A quote from the book exemplifies this point of Gant considering himself as part of the tribe, ‘”Father, without you, there is no me, I told Noor Afzhal.’ (the village elder)…The message was clear. Jim was fighting not for his country, but for his family, his men, and his tribe.” She also wrote, “Jim had become more Pashtun than the Pashtuns,” in explaining the cultural attitude of honor and disgrace. Retired Colonel Joseph C. Collins regards this as “misdirected, dysfunctional, and more than a bit weird. The American army should be about American interests.”
The latter part of the book has Tyson criticizing Gant’s commanders for what she sees as a betrayal. His command was terminated for violating military regulations including possession of alcohol, prescription drugs, keeping classified information, and becoming romantically involved with the author Tyson while on a mission in Afghanistan. She noted to blackfive.net, “The command turned a blind eye because they know that drinking by Special Forces teams is rampant. Before Jim was pulled out his commanders had written him a glowing evaluation and gave him an incredibly demanding new mission with a new tribe. They recognized his knowledge of the area, his skill, and his ability. They cannot have it both ways.”
However, none of the former military people interviewed believed Gant received a raw deal. Eventually he was reprimanded, removed from the Special Forces Regiment, stripped of his Special Forces tab, fined, and retired as a Captain. West told blackfive.net, “Gant engaged in reckless and selfish behavior and as a leader he should have known better. I would have relieved him. What he did was reckless and inexcusable. He crossed the line and he knew it.”
Tyson herself in the book stated, Gant told the villagers “I was his wife… In bringing me to Mangwel, Jim was taking an incredible risk. If any of the tribesmen disrespected me in the slightest, he would be honor bound to fight them, a conflict that could endanger his hard-won relationship with the Mohmand tribe.” She implies that the military were the bad guys, “…to try to escape the US military and disappear into Afghanistan…. I felt giddy. I was escaping the Americans, surrounded and protected by Afghans.” She also describes how the investigation found empty alcohol bottles, controlled medications, including pain pills, steroids, sleeping pills, and most damaging the photographs, “including two in which I was partly nude.”
Gant responded to these charges by telling blackfive.net, “The physical, emotional, and psychological difficulty of conducting this mission was infinitely harder than I thought it would be. I was exhausted on all accounts. I have never said in any form to anyone that I did not accept my punishment or thought it was over the top. What I did say was that they could have dealt with me honorably. I had a face-to-face conversation only when they were telling me I was a disgrace to the Special Forces. I would not have been able to accomplish anything without some alcohol and medications. I worked 20 to 22 hours a day, risking my life and my guys’ life. Obviously you and others thought I was running around Afghanistan with a bottle of Tequila in my hand, which was not the case. I am still a warrior and will be when they put me in the ground. I struggle day to day (he has PTSD and TBI), and see my job as being a good husband and father.”
Concerning the betrayal there are two schools of thought. One is embodied by the military correspondent David Axe who told blackfive.net, “Gant appears to be a reckless loud mouth who didn’t see himself accountable to the US Army command and the American public. He completely disregarded common sense and decency.”
The other point of view is exemplified by Colonel Collins who agrees there was a betrayal, but not in the context of how Tyson writes about it. He told blackfive.net, “I cannot understand how then Major Gant was not seen as a psychologically wounded warrior and not fit for combat. This is a deployment that should have never happened. The commanders who seized on his fresh ideas, skill, and reputation did not look out for his welfare. I wondered, over and over, how he could pass a pre-deployment physical and maintain a security clearance. In a 22-month tour, why were there no visiting lawyers, medical officers, Inspectors General, or no-notice command inspections to catch Gant in the act of being Gant? No one looked into how the people really lived there. The U.S. Government chose to wage large-scale, protracted war in part by grinding down the best and the bravest until many of them died, broke, or fell from grace. However people should understand that the guys who ultimately punished Jim Gant were every bit as heroic and true to the Special Forces creed, and not the high bound bureaucrats as Tyson implies. They just did not go off the deep end and he did.”
Anyone reading American Spartan must realize that it is not intended to be an objective book, but as a defense of Jim Gant’s life and implementation of a strategy he strongly believes in. Gant should not be considered a hero or an anti-hero. It is an interesting read for those who want to understand the Afghan tribes, the Afghanistan strategy, and the fall of a self-proclaimed warrior from the perspective of his wife.