Ann Scott Tyson, American Spartan: the Promise, the Mission, and the Betrayal of Special Forces Major Jim Gant (NY: William Morrow, 2014)
Whether you are interested in an unusual love story or in how the United States fights protracted wars, Ann Scott Tyson’s American Spartan is an important book.. It artfully tells the story of the author and her now-husband, Major Jim Gant, a tough warrior-hero-thinker, who not only was one of the authors of the theory of Village Stability Operations in Afghanistan but became a pioneer practitioner, living among the Afghans in Konar Province for nearly two years. In the end, the Taliban tried very hard to kill him, and none other than Osama bin Laden identified Gant and his 2009 article, “One Tribe at a Time,” as a threat to the global jihad, at least according to the author. In the estimation of General David Petraeus and others, Major Jim Gant was the “perfect counterinsurgent.”
Major Gant, however, was also a psychologically wounded warrior and not fit for combat. A multi-tour combat veteran, he had severe and apparently untreated PTSD before his final deployment, the result of too much close combat on previous tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. How long can one ride on the hood of a Humvee, drawing sniper fire and scouting for and finding IEDs? He was well into drug and alcohol dependence before he deployed. His condition became worse as his tour progressed. Indeed, he increasingly became the centerpiece of battles against his twin demons: the Taliban and his superior officers. His attitude about war and warfare went off the deep end, and he imagined himself a reincarnated Spartan. He told his often mystified soldiers:
Who am I? I am a warrior. My physical, emotional, and spiritual self revolves around being a warrior. 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 … I pray for a worthy enemy…. I believe in the wrathful God of combat. I believe in Hecate (pp. 139-40).
On one occasion, Gant stood in front of a troop formation and ritually cut himself to remember his unit’s dead. One soldier described him as “Dances with Wolves meets Charles Bronson…” (p. 140). In relation to the Afghan tribe with whom they lived, the author concluded: “The message was clear. Jim was fighting not for his country but for his family, his men, and his tribe” (p. 212). (This old soldier found the vision quest, Sparta-babble to be misdirected, dysfunctional, and more than a bit weird. Fighting to fight is not cool or macho; it’s feckless. Uncle Sam pays soldiers to fight for their country, not the love of battle.)
While Gant might have seen his superior officers as an impediment to his warrior quest, the rest of the world should see them as dedicated, decorated Special Forces officers, who, in the main, have walked a mile in Gant’s shoes. Unlike Gant, they remained interested in the general orders that prohibit drinking and sexual relations in the field. They were concerned with the reputation of their storied regiment. They were also interested in spreading Village Stability Operations, and not hunkering down in one area, Gant’s apparent preference.
Gant for his part encouraged his future wife to come to his area of operations, and from time to time, clandestinely engage in combat operations. This is both unethical gonzo journalism and a violation of the laws of war. Gant artfully deceived his superiors about the presence of his lover in the combat zone. For her part, Ann Scott Tyson admitted entering Afghanistan on valid visa, but not one for the work she then set out to accomplish. This grand, lovers-against-the-world escapade enabled her to write this book. The Gant-Tyson affair was stopped when a supporting infantry officer, suspicious of Gant from the beginning, turned him in for smelling of alcohol. Investigators descended on the compound, took Gant into custody, and the author exited, stage left.
The resulting investigation reveals the steamy side of being a “perfect counterinsurgent”: whiskey bottles, pills, and a cozy container-for-two in the middle of an Afghan village. Gant’s case appeared headed for a general court martial, but was wisely downgraded to non-judicial punishment. Still fighting a ghost from the end of the Vietnam War, his superiors wanted to protect the Special Forces Regiment from the reputation of being a rogue outfit. The fate of the Village Stability Operations also hung in the balance. They believed strongly that Special Operations did not mean special ethics or legal shortcuts.
In the end, Major Jim Gant was severely reprimanded, removed from the Special Forces Regiment, stripped of his Special Forces tab, retired from the Army at the rank of Captain, and charged a six-figure fine that will be extracted over a lifetime of smaller retiree paychecks. Major Gant — sick, worn out, charismatic, and crazy brave — ultimately defeated himself with the help of loyal junior officers and NCOs, who would follow him anywhere, but could not tell him where to stop.
Major Jim Gant, however, had more enablers than those brave souls who fought with him. 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? His post was visited many times, even by Senators. But no one looked into how the people really lived there. Gant conducted his own Potemkin Village Stability Operations tour, and the VIPs saw what they wanted to see.
The story of the American Spartan tells us a lot about Village Stability Operations, designed to work with tribal elements to build Afghan Local Police (ALP) units. Started in 2010, this program had great potential, but, as this book points out, people are one of its weak points. The Afghan government interface was weak. Gant’s team was well prepared for all that the mission required, but other teams were not. Gant taught himself the Pashtun language and wondered why so few Green Berets, more than a decade after the war began, spoke the language of the tribes. His replacement team leader wanted to know where the mess hall and gym were in the Afghan village where they were going to live. That leader’s new team came in wearing Kevlar — physically and mentally — and never connected with the local Afghans. They failed quickly. Other observers saw a limited talent pool available to deal with Afghans at the Gant level of proficiency. Andrew Exum, a two-tour combat veteran and then a mainstay at the Center for a New American Security, wondered: “I just don’t see how the United States can back a strategy that is predicated upon being implemented by geniuses”(p. 74).
Citing Army experts, Tyson notes that today, there are 25,000 ALP in local areas, policing about 20 percent of the Afghan population (p. 347). Under the watchful eyes of Green Berets and other special operations personnel, the program has been successful. It is not clear if Village Stability Operations will continue to be a success without the presence of U.S. special operations personnel. Like most aspects of Afghan security, time will tell what lasts and what fades, what remains constant and what changes direction.
When we ask ourselves why Major Gant fell from grace, we also have to look in the mirror. The all-volunteer Armed Forces — active and reserve components — are not made for a decade of large-scale, protracted warfare. That fact, however, did not and will not stop us from engaging in protracted warfare. 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. On the jacket of Tyson’s book, Gunner Sepp, himself a former special operator, writes: “There are many stories here. One of the most troubling is about what happens to elite troops after their country has kept them in combat for more than a decade.” Jim Gant’s fall is an object lesson for America and a warning to our nation’s leaders. It will also be a blockbuster movie that probably will not be as good as the book.
Joseph J. Collins is a retired Colonel who teaches strategy at the National War College. A former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, he has been writing about Afghanistan since 1980.
Photo credit: Luc Galoppin