The Only Thing Worth Dying For:
How Eleven Green Berets Forged a New Afghanistan
By Eric Behm
Harper, $25.99, 375pp.
Review by David Forsmark
If you Google “Karzai” and “corruption,” you are given somewhere around 6,650,000 results. In fact, when you Google the name “Karzai,” Google’s autocomplete function gives you “Karzai corruption” as the 4th choice.
But you can complete the search parameter for “Karzai courage” without Google’s autocomplete ever kicking in– even when you get as far as, “Karzai courag.” And the search results tend to be either articles that encourage the President of Afghanistan to show some, or are at least 5 years old.
But as Eric Behm’s terrific new book, The Only Thing Worth Dying For: How Eleven Green Berets Forged a New Afghanistan, illustrates, the warriors of the Special Forces A-Team ODA 574 would offer a completely different assessment.
It’s also hard to find a good word from President Obama about Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai. Before his visit this week, the Administration treated Karzai with the contempt they usually reserved for right of center Israeli Prime Ministers. But while Hillary Clinton had kind words for the Afghan leader, Obama, in the words of ABC’s Jake Tapper, delivered his smiles through “clenched teeth.”
Obama’s media microphone have picked up the refrain, using words like “puppet” and acting as though Karzai played no role in the liberation of his country other than acting as our surrogate after we did all the hard work. Chris Matthews, (ever on the lookout for the Vietnam or Watergate comparisons which are the touchstone of his life) recently compared Karzai to South Vietnamese President Diem.
I wonder if any of the cavalier commentators have a clue that Hamid Karzai went into the Kandahar region solo– while the Northern Alliance and Special Forces A-Teams waged war in the north– to rally tribes and towns against the Taliban. Or that Karzai put himself in such danger that Delta Force had to rescue him; and later assured victory in the south and probably headed off a civil war in Afghanistan by going back with an 11-man Special Forces team and routing the Taliban while uniting the tribes to the liberation cause.
More importantly, I wonder if Barack Obama knows it.
Behm does a nice job with the warrior camaraderie of the Special Forces Team in the book’s subtitle; but the central relationship in The Only Thing Worth Dying For is between Hamid Karzai and Army Captain Jason Amerine, commander of OD-574. Together, they form an almost (but not quite) Washington and Lafayette team, as Karzai rallies the populace and Amerine calls in the heavy firepower.
Unfortunately, thanks to the success of the Horse Soldiers in the North, the same Army brass who had to be cajoled– if not tricked– into letting the Special Forces handle the war in Afghanistan, decided it was time to get involved and share in the glory.
Just as victory was almost in hand, Amerine was saddled with a dozen rear-echolon types who arrived in camp, outnumbering the members of OD-574, themselves. The Pentagon was nervous at just how much the War in Afghanistan in general– and the effort concerned with Karzai who was on track to be the next leader of Afghanistan in particular– was being managed by captains and non-coms.
All the while assuring Amerine that he still had control over the operation on the ground, the brass couldn’t resist taking their own turn at calling in air strikes, while the frustrated Amerine tried to decide if it was worth the trouble—or even possible—to reign them in.
The devastating result, however, gives new insight into why Hamid Karzai might have a particular aversion to collateral damage and misguided airstrikes.
The book also puts the Karzai presidency in context. By showing the fragility of the alliance among the tribes, and the light touch required from Karzai to make it happen, one can’t help think that the very qualities that the Obama Administration is ripping Karzai for today are what make a central government in Afghanistan—for all its admitted weakness– even remotely possible.
Karzai was selected by the international community and a coalition of Afghans precisely because of his light touch, along with his credibility on the ground. A heavy-handed effort at “reform” is likely to not only fail, but lead to a splintering of the coalition, if not outright rebellion in the wild outlying regions. One could argue that Karzai has been exactly what we needed him to be, rather than what utopian perfectionists pretend he should be.
Some might perceive some irony in the title, as the heavy price paid by OD-574 was not caused by the enemy. The press and politicians seem to treat “friendly fire” casualties as somehow more of a waste than a noble sacrifice. But professional soldiers know they are an inevitable part of the chaos of combat—no matter how avoidable they seem in hindsight. Behm—and the Green Berets—appropriately honor their dead in the same way they would had they been killed in a massive Taliban counter-attack.
Victor Davis Hanson regularly writes that one of the great strengths of the United States military is the ability of the soldier on the ground to make combat decisions. A Special Forces master sergeant has more authority to call in an airstrike, for instance, than a Russian full bird colonel. The Only Thing Worth Dying For offers a prime example of that attribute—and a cautionary tale of what happens when the warriors on the scene are not given enough autonomy.
The Only Thing Worth Dying For is not as action-packed as Horse Soldiers, or Kill bin Laden, nor is it as controversial as Jawbreaker; but it stands with those three fine books as a must read for anyone who wants to understand the war in Afghanistan.
Best of all, it’s also a terrific story of valiant men at arms, and exceedingly well told.
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