On Nov. 2, by coincidence the liturgical day on which Catholics remember the dead, The Washington Post, following a practice begun in 2003, printed full- page the “Faces of the Fallen,” 45 portraits of the American soldiers and Marines who died in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan between February and April. Their ages range from 19 to 48; more than half were in their 20s. Eleven were killed by makeshift bombs and three by suicide bombers.
The journalistic tradition begun by Life magazine during the Vietnam War and now shared by The New York Times and public television, of asking the public to look the combat dead in the face, is a fleeting wake-up call. Not just nameless foreigners but our next-door neighbors are dying for a cause few understand and fewer feel one way or another. Now come two books full of frontline blood, battles and the human costs of combat.
Ben Anderson, a British documentary maker and war correspondent, spent 13 months in Afghanistan over the course of five years, six with the British army, the rest in two-month stints with three battalions of U.S. marines. His thirst for combat seems unquenchable, perhaps because he knows that the best war journalism comes from those who experience the shock of battle and live to tell about it. The best are also moralists. They seldom preach, but they know moral ambiguity—or sin—when they see it and tell the world.
On the day Anderson arrived in Helmand Province, the British dropped a 500-pound bomb on a building from which Taliban were firing. The bomb killed 30 fighters and 25 civilians, including nine women and three children who had been hiding in a small room. A few days later he attended a meeting of the local elders who raged against the bombings. One man, almost in tears, had lost four brothers; another lost 20 family members. An officer delivered a box of cash, $2,000 in compensation for each family member lost. One Afghan told Anderson that a jet bombed his house and killed eight “martyrs.” When the children helping him dig in the debris got frightened and tried to run away, the plane shot them one by one.
The deaths of civilians is a steady theme in Anderson’s book, along with the fearsome improvised explosive devices; the incompetence of the Afghan soldiers, who often resemble a heavily armed, badly dressed version of the Keystone Kops—on drugs. Many were exceptionally brave, but the desertion rate was 20 percent, sometimes rising to 60 percent for those deployed in Helmand.
Anderson records the voices of the U.S. troops: “I love this stuff, this is what I re-enlisted for. Four deployments now. You can’t keep me down.” Another: “Our families don’t know what’s going on.... America’s not at war, America’s at the mall. No one cares. It’s ‘what’s up with Paris Hilton now?’”
Anderson focuses on kindly, idealistic First Lt. Aaron MacLean. His men have just fired rockets into a house sheltering three families, killing four and wounding seven. Shaken, the lieutenant has read widely about the war and feels obliged to save the Afghans from “these theocratic fascists.” “War is a curse,” he says, but “it’s not the worse thing out there.”
Yes, says Anderson, his experience has provided evidence for pacifism; but he remains convinced that some things are black and white, and that the Taliban “are just evil.” The final chapters recount the battle for Sangin, once occupied by the British, now by the Taliban, a battle won at great human cost with the destruction of homes and a mosque. Anderson asks the commander, Capt. Matthew Peterson, what he would say to those who refer to Afghanistan as America’s longest war. Peterson replies, “So what?” If it takes another 10, if that’s the cost of success, then “Who cares how long it takes?”
If No Worse Enemy reads like a reporter’s notebook, Dakota Meyer’s Into the Fire is structured as a memoir, as told to Bing West, assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration and author of military best sellers. Meyer, a 21-year-old farm boy—whose mother had handed him over to a former husband, who became his foster parent—joined the Marines because he liked to shoot and fight and also, at 17, did not know what to do with his life. Playing high school football he had picked up three concussions and was “bored with academics.”
Meyer bought quickly into the Marine Corps concept of four-man teamship. In sniper school he learned that another human being is like a math problem, a life or death contest where your target is scheming to kill you. His motto, tattooed on his chest read, Vestri nex est meus vita, or “Your death is my life.” A staph infection from a spider bite crippled his fingers and resulted in six months of therapy and a daily reliance on a bottle-and-a-half of Kentucky bourbon.
His sergeant helped him shape up, knock off the bourbon and volunteer for Afghanistan as an advisor. He learned the official counterinsurgency strategy: give Afghans security and project money and build relationships with local officials. But both American and Afghan soldiers warned them: Never assume the villagers are on your side. They have a saying: You can rent an Afghan but you can never buy one. Meyer was friendly with the Afghan children, hoping that maybe someday kids would remember that some Americans were kind to them—though “you don’t help out because you expect something in return.” He hung out with the “Askars” (Afghan soldiers) and, with the help of Hafez, his team’s interpreter, they talked for hours about his Kentucky farm.
The book’s momentum builds toward the battle for Ganjgal, a terraced mountain village above a river bed a few miles away that was an infiltration corridor from next-door Pakistan. Meyer, who desperately wanted to qualify for a Combat Action Ribbon, was furious because the other three members of his team—Lt. Johnson, Gunnery Sgt. Kenefick and Hospitalman James “Doc” Layton—and the combined expedition of Americans ostensibly led by Afghans were going in without him. Meyer was an assigned “advisor” and considered too headstrong to be trusted in combat. Nevertheless Meyer and a colleague determined that if the planned attack went awry, they would rush to the rescue.
In fact the enemy is waiting, the mission surrounded on three sides. By 5:30 a.m. machine gun fire is pouring in. They call for artillery and air support, which is denied lest civilians be hurt. The villagers support the Taliban. At 6:00 a.m. Meyer, though denied permission, loads a truck with a machine gun and other weapons and drives into the fight. He collects the dead, rescues many wounded, one with his legs blown off, and drives them to safety. He kills as many Taliban as he can, then returns several times in a fruitless search for his team buddies, who are trapped in a house. In the end he finds his beloved friends, their corpses piled one upon the other. “I never believed it would end like this,” he writes. He personally puts them into their bags. It is what they would have done for him.
Months later, discharged, Meyer undergoes therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder and returns to the bourbon and a construction job. In despair because he “screwed up big time” by failing to rescue his brothers, he takes his Glock out of his car’s glove compartment and presses it to his head. But someone has removed the bullets.
In August the phone rings. It is President Barack Obama inviting him to the White House to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. In an epilogue, Bing West concludes that this is a story about “grit,” the “invincibility of the American warrior.” He is wrong. It is about much more than that.