14 June, 2018
Note: While I am not sponsored by Doug Stanton, Simon & Schuster, or Warner Bros, I do receive an affiliate marketing payment from Amazon if you buy the book after clicking through any of the Amazon links on this page. I appreciate it if you choose to do so, and I hope you enjoy this review either way!
An excellent, harrowing, true adventure: 12 Strong
I’ve had a great day of working out, writing my novel, studying how to call in artillery fire, practicing CSS at Code Academy, practicing French at DuoLingo, and killing wasps! Wooh!
Today, I want to tell you about a killer book I listened to on Audible last month: 12 Strong: The Declassified True Story of the Horse Soldiers. (Originally titled simply Horse Soldiers, but renamed in the new edition to tie-in with the film.)
The movie adaptation came out earlier this year. which I still have yet to see it, so I’ll keep the focus on the book for now.
September 11th, 2001 …
A date which will live in infamy.
A day of horror and grief for so many thousands of individuals, and for an entire nation- an entire world – which had so recently entered a new and promising century. History with a capital “H” was supposed to be over. Violent events on this scale were supposed to be a thing of the past, relegated to the overflowing dustbin of 20th-century totalitarianism and radicalism.
And yet, on that clear September morning, America was hit, hard. Nearly 3,000 people were murdered. A towering symbol of American economic prosperity was brought crashing down, leaving a smoldering crater in the heart of the nation’s biggest city. The very heart and brain of America’s proud defense establishment was left with a gaping hole in its side, pouring smoke like spilled blood into the blue summer sky. And the daring and the lives of brave airline passengers prevented an equally devastating attack on the United State’s seat of democratic government.
9/11 was and continues to be a new generation’s Pearl Harbor: the biggest attack ever on American soil. But unlike the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor, this devastating and well-coordinated suicide-attack killed mostly civilians, who moments before had been going about their regular lives. It set offices, not warships, aflame.
The Bush administration and the American public soon learned that this insidious attack did not originate with a nation-state, like Imperial Japan. 9/11 was done by a network of radical Jihadist terror cells, known collectively as al-Qaeda, inspired by the most wretched and hateful aspects of the broader Islamic religion, and led by the Saudi construction magnate-turned-terrorist, Osama Bin Laden.
al-Qaeda had operatives all over the world, especially in Muslim majority countries.
The group had killed Americans before, in Africa and in Yemen.
And al-Qaeda, with its “caliph,” Bin Laden, held its main base of operations in the landlocked, war-torn, and savage land of Afghanistan. There were the training camps, there was the money, there were the weapons, and there were the bombs, that would allow Bin Laden and his ilk to continue to stage similar attacks in the future. The JIhadis had the manpower, pouring in from the disgruntled youth of the Islamic world, to fight Holy War against the great “Far Enemy:” the United States of America.
It was self-evident that the smoldering crater in the heart of Manhattan, and all the gruesome trauma and loss it represented, compelled a strong response from the American people.
Bush, from the oval office, in New York City, and in front of Congress, promised that strong response.
It would be up to the American military and intelligence services to execute the mission. To avenge the Twin Towers.
And in that execution, is where the Horse Soldiers enter this story, which Doug Stanton so doggedly researched and now conveys through this book.
The real-life characters who 12 Strong follows are a mix of U.S. Army Special Forces operators, Central Intelligence Agency paramilitary agents, and U.S. Air Force forward observers. They are all elite servicemen, and most of them highly experienced, being in their 30s or even 40s. (Practically ancient in active duty combat arms terms!) They were selected for the mission due to their unique sets of skills.
The Bush administration knew the U.S. and NATO would have to enter Afghanistan and fight the theocratic Taliban government there in order to kill and capture al-Qaeda. But it wasn’t initially clear how exactly this would be done.
As Stanton elaborates, the United States military and State Department had no war plans for going into Afghanistan. After the 1980s, the place had basically fallen off the radar. Now, no one was thrilled at the idea of stirring up the Afghan hornet’s nest. But, the 9/11 attacks and the threat of further al-Qaeda offensives demanded swift and smart action.
So, the administration settled on a “light footprint” approach, utilizing Special Forces (SF) soldiers like Captain Mike Nelson, Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer, and Sergeant First Class Sam Diller. Also known as the “Green Berets,” SF soldiers first fought for the U.S. in Vietnam, and they specialize in operating behind enemy lines, in the hostile wilderness with little food, shelter, or hope of resuppply. They’re trained to fight smart, and to make allies among the local population and friendly indigenous forces.
In other words, SF was the perfect tool to quickly rush into Afghanistan, make contact with the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, and help them run the Taliban out of the country. The terrorist training camps would be dismantled. Bin Laden and his lieutenants would be dead.
Justice would be done.
And it would be done without an expensive and unwelcome large American ground presence.
The Stories Within the Story
Stanton’s book reads like a war movie, in the most welcome sense. It’s descriptive to the senses, it gives flashforwards, flashbacks, and cliffhangers all on the right beats, and we get our anticipated epic victories and sobering losses.
Stanton offers plenty of backstories to flesh out the lives of the “Horse Soldiers,” (so named for their famous equine riding with their Afghan allies,) including how they grew up, their relationships to their wives, and how they prepared for their deployment. The narrative often zooms in on a particular aspect of a character’s motivations or concerns, leaving us more invested in the next action scene.
And there is plenty of action. The team of a dozen SF soldiers participated in frontline airstrike targeting, mounted charges, and close-quarters firefights with their Afghan hosts. This is the action of the first phase of the 17-year-old American war in Afghanistan: legions of anti-Taliban rebels charging, on horseback, into the enemies’ well-equipped lines of trenches and tanks, while orbiting American B-52s and F-16s provide devastating satellite-guided ordinance from above. This stunning mismatch of technology is rightly dubbed by the U.S. soldiers involved “the Flintstones meeting the Jetsons.”
Stanton also provides a great deal of context to the struggle on the Afghan side, starting with the immediate aftermath of the Soviet War. He describes in awful detail the daily carnage inflicted by the Taliban on the country’s various non-Pashtun ethnic groups, and on any Afghan deemed an infidel. The punishments to women, in particular, are especially brutal. As readers, it’s refreshingly easy to root for the people fighting against the kind of guys who stone, de-hand, and decapitate people in crowded stadiums as a prelude to soccer games, or who assault men simply for daring to not grow a beard.
The colorful portrait of the Northern Alliance General Abdul Rashid Dostum is interesting, as well: a Muslim who drinks, a warlord who fights for peace, a tribesman who craves connection with the modern world. He proves to be an indispensable, if challenging, ally to the small American force in 2001/2002, and every scene of him interacting with his American allies is engaging.
Like any good war movie, 12 Strong has an action-packed climax: the December 2001 “Battle of Qala-i-Jangi.” This was an uprising of Taliban POWs, intermingled with al-Qaeda operatives, who smuggled handguns and grenades into their prison quarters, and then fought a savage battle against their Afghan guards and American adversaries. It’s an extremely trying combat, taking place at a time when the Afghan war looked to be nearly over. It led to the first death of an American in combat in the war, and the disturbing discovery of a captured terrorist of American origin, John Walker Lindh, who betrayed his country to join al-Qaeda.
I don’t want to spoil too much for people who don’t already know the real-life story. But, Stanton’s telling of the battle, based on heavy research and interviews with the veterans involved, is a compelling story of American bravery and the continuing savagery of war in the 21st century.
There’s a lot I didn’t talk about, in the interest of space as well as time. 12 Strong is exciting and engaging, but it is also well over 16 hours long in audio form, and a lot happens. I’ve barely touched on the record-setting high-altitude Blackhawk and Chinook flights by SF aviators around the treacherous peaks of the Hindu Kush, or the Wild West-like mood of the whole adventure, complete with horseback rides along narrow canyon ledges and capture of ancient mud forts with nicknames like “The Alamo.”
I think whether you’re a veteran yourself, someone who knows a veteran, someone in-training for the service like myself, or simply a person who likes military history and contemporary true-stories, you’ll find things to appreciate in this book.
For me, I was struck not only by the individual skill, bravery, resourcefulness, and dedication of my country’s servicemen but by the sheer strangeness of the war. Afghanistan is a country the United States didn’t want to get involved with in the first place. And then, when we did, it wasn’t with infantry and armor divisions rolling in WWII style: it was with tiny teams of elite operatives; warrior-diplomats who built their success not only on firepower, but on coalition-building at the grassroots level. The 2002 victory over the Taliban regime belongs to America’s Afghan allies more than to America itself. The Afghans formed the ground forces, and they paid 99.9% of the cost in blood.
Of course, we have to recall what happened later in Afghanistan: the Taliban resurgence, the shift of focus to Iraq, the endless troop deployments, the suicide bombings…it all puts 12 Strong in sobering perspective. We didn’t win entirely in 2001/2002. Not by a long-shot. The war isn’t over. While it’s impossible to say for sure without an Alternate Universe Hopping Machine, maybe things cohave’ave been different. Maybe if we (the US and NATO) hadn’t poured so many more troops into Afghanistan and made our presence there permanent, if we hadn’t tried to build a centralized government in Kabul contrary to the entire socio-poltiical nature of Afghanstian, maybe then, we wouldn’t be in such a mess there now. Maybe keeping our presence small, limited to CIA agents and spec ops, so that we could be mere enablers for the anti-Taliban, anti-Qaeda forces, would have achieved our objectives of vengeance and homeland security at an acceptable cost.
But, that wasn’t the question for the horse soldiers. And this book is their story. It’s not a pretty story, most of the time, but is at the same time a gritty, inspiring, and riveting one. If you have any interest in looking back to the earlier days of the long War on Terror, when success seemed just one cavalry charge or one bomb-strike away, I highly suggest you check this book out. The Audible version, I can personally say, is great.