No single work can do justice to the complexity and horror of war, but "Apocalypse Now" comes close. Set in the Vietnam War, the film – with its meditations on madness, spasms of violence, and depictions of how civilization breaks down on the front lines – echoes throughout the pages of American Spartan, a new memoir by former Washington Post and Christian Science Monitor military affairs reporter Ann Scott Tyson.
The book is a portrait of Army Special Forces Major Jim Gant, depicted as a masterful philosopher-warrior drummed out of the service by feckless bureaucrats. Befitting the gravity of its subject, it takes readers into some very dark places. Some of them (post-traumatic stress disorder, the deep sorrow of losing a friend in combat) are clearly planned stops; others (the joyful thrill of killing on the battlefield, an emotionally resonant "everybody was doing it" defense of wartime misconduct) seem to be more impulsive.
"Apocalypse Now"'s Colonel Walter E. Kurtz floats over "American Spartan" like a malignant cloud. Kurtz was determined to beat a vicious and resourceful North Vietnamese-led insurgency by living with natives and leading from the heart of the jungle; Gant follows suit in Afghanistan, becoming a friend, counselor, and surrogate son of "Tribe 33" while battling the largely Pashtun-based Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
Kurtz lost his way and committed atrocities; Gant violated Army rules about the handling of classified information, alcohol, and personal relationships. That last point is a doozy – his love affair (now marriage) with author Tyson played a major role in his discharge from the Army, and as much as "American Spartan" is a tale of military doctrines and complicated tribal politics, it's also a spirited and sometimes frantic defense of both its subject and its author.
Gant, awarded the Silver Star in 2007, is a complicated character with a serious intellectual side. A paper he wrote in 2009 ("One Tribe at a Time") made a positive impression on no less than (now-retired) general David Petraeus, and it remains potent reading.
At the heart of Gant's paper is the idea that power in Afghanistan doesn't reside solely (or even primarily) in the halls of government in Kabul. Tribal leaders command the sort of day-to-day respect that can keep the peace on an organic level or drag an insurgency out indefinitely. Engaging with tribal leaders, particularly leaders from Afghanistan's Pashtun majority, means understanding honor culture, the complicated and central notion of hospitality, and tribal feuds. These are concerns that are both a million miles away from geopolitical objectives such as "stabilizing Afghanistan" and "defeating the Taliban" and inextricably linked with those goals.
Insightful thoughts on counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism burble up throughout the pages of "American Spartan" but rarely knit together into fully fleshed and well-supported arguments – instead, the author spends a great many of her words depicting blow-by-blow accounts of firefights in Iraq and Afghanistan and telling her husband's (admittedly fascinating) life story.
Tyson is at her best when she humanizes Gant and his comrades' time in the field. The reader's mind boggles at the various hats worn by Gant throughout the course of his career: surrogate son, surrogate father, psychologist, fighter, healer, builder, tribal consigliere, scholar, lover, rebel, soldier.
Tyson argues (both explicitly and implicitly) that Gant's misdeeds were ultimately insubstantial and particularly irrelevant when weighed against the service he rendered to his country. "American Spartan" suggests that throwing the unquestionably brave and intelligent Gant out of the service was absurd – citing a front-line warrior like Gant for all-too-human mistakes was foolish. A reader could conclude his expulsion amid the chaos and horror of war was "like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500" (to quote directly from "Apocalypse Now.")
Near the end of "American Spartan," Tyson quotes a superior dressing down Gant, saying: "You used your top cover and access and isolation to live out a fantasy. You lived a movie and not a real movie. You made your own. It was extremely selfish. When I came and visited you I was very impressed, but there were things you said that gave me pause, and in retrospect they should have made me look at your situation differently. You directly quoted Col. Kurtz. Obviously, there was something wrong with you."
Ironically, the tone of "American Spartan" is very much real-life-as-movie – a series of exciting firefights, brotherly warriors, hypocritical higher-ups, and personal demons that seems ready-made for Hollywood. In the process of entertaining readers and defending her family's reputation, Tyson raises a host of serious questions about the nature of war, the many aspects of loyalty, and the price paid by America's front-line fighters. That she cannot also answer those questions is both a blessing and a curse for readers, who must use their own wisdom and knowledge to disentangle fairy-tale romance from misconduct, valuable territory from bloody dirt, and honor from shame.
James Norton is a Monitor contributor.