12 Strong by Doug Stanton (previously titled “Horse Soldiers) started out really strong, jumping straight into the action. The description of the fortress Quala-I-Janghi, the House of War, really sets the stage for an epic showdown. Events start unfolding, we reach a crisis…and then Stanton throws out an anchor and slowwwws everything way down.
We get a bunch of good backstory on a bunch of guys whose names become hard to keep straight. I found myself constantly flipping back trying to remember who was who. Stanton does not do a great job of sprinkling in little cues or reminders to help us recall whether this guy is the medic with the kids or the divorced weapon specialist or the communications officer with the pregnant wife etc., etc.
I am getting these descriptions wrong. I know I’m getting them wrong. And it’s a disservice to some really badass dudes. But the book just jumps around too much, and doesn’t really make more than a couple of the characters stick.
What it does do is provide a really impressive behind-the-scenes look at Special Forces soldiers doing what they do best. This is a war story, a story about heroism, but it’s also reasonably nuanced. These guys are think first, shoot last types of operators. They are diplomats, advisors, strategists, always looking to fight smarter, not bloodier. They pay attention to cultural sensitivities. They repeatedly tell their Afghan allies, “This is your war, we’re just here to help.” And with the staggering force of U.S. airpower behind them, they achieve an astonishing amount of success.
Of course things didn’t quite work out so well in the end. And while the focus is on these particular events, the book acknowledges the larger context. The epilogue reads a bit like a look at what might have been. The Iraq war, where some of the protagonists would end up suffering death or maiming, is generally painted as a Bad Idea.
It’s interesting to read the reactions to this book. They’re mostly positive, but there’s some criticism from the left, “too much enthusiasm for war,” as well as from the right “why are they acting like John Walker Lindh (the American Taliban) is worthy of any sympathy?” To me it generally trends in the patriotic, heroic direction that one would probably expect.
These really are incredible and impressive events regardless of how one might feel about war in general or the U.S. operations in Afghanistan in particular. And the way Stanton takes a step back at the end to look at the broader picture prevents it from coming off as blindly jingoistic.
Impressive but flawed