Eagle Down’s Gains and Losses

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BOOK REVIEW: Eagle Down: The Last Special Forces Fighting the Forever War

by Jessica Donati / PublicAffairs

Reviewed by Damon Walsh, Chairman, Mission Solutions Group

THE REVIEWER — Damon Walsh is a retired US Army Officer with over thirty years of combined military and defense industry experience. He served as an Infantry and Special Forces officer at multiple levels of command and staff and was selected for duty in the Army Acquisition Corps.  He is currently Chairman of the Board of Mission Solutions Group and is CEO of Marshall Communications Corp at Mission Solutions Group.

REVIEW — Eagle Down by Wall Street Journal reporter Jessica Donati focuses on how the war in Afghanistan looks from a warfighter’s vantage point.  Ms. Donati presents an excellent ground level perspective on the war from the viewpoint of two Army Special Forces (AKA Green Berets) units.  She also weaves in a cursory view of the war’s management from the highest national strategic and political levels although I must admit, I found the tactical part of the story to be richer and more attractive.

Donati offers a rare bird’s eye view of Army Special Forces operators at the tactical level; even with our expansion of media embedding with deployed military forces over the last few decades, it is still remarkable, as she readily admits, for reporters to embed with Special Forces (or any Special Operating Forces for that matter).  Donati gives the reader a detailed chronological history of two operators: one a Major (18A—Special Forces Officer) commanding a B-Detachment in the Kunduz Province in northern Afghanistan, and the other a Noncommissioned Officer (18F—Special Forces Ops and Intel NCO) serving with an A-Detachment in the Helmand Province in the south.

The book provides a compelling and gripping telling of these soldiers’ experiences during a tough year of combat in Afghanistan in 2015.  This took place at a time when US forces were ostensibly “not” engaged in ground combat operations according to the political and senior military leadership at the time.  Donati attempts to dovetail the ground level view with some insight into the political machinations at the National Command Authority (NCA) level but it was clear that her access to NCA level leadership and insiders was much more limited than her access to the tactical players on the ground.  Consequently, the insight at the upper level is somewhat stilted.

Despite a few minor technical inaccuracies in the book, e.g., she confuses her description of a 180A (a Special Forces Warrant Officer and Executive Officer on an A-Detachment) with an 18Z (A-Detachment Team Sergeant), she largely did a good job capturing and conveying the essence of the life of Special Forces soldiers deployed in dangerous places.

On one hand, I found her book to be emotionally challenging given the very hard actions (and sacrifices) the soldiers endured.  On the other, I found her account to offer a disillusioning, maybe even distasteful, view of the senior political leadership as it is portrayed (albeit somewhat shallowly) as monolithically uncaring or ignorant of the impact decisions can have at the pointy end of the spear.  I think the story would have benefitted from a presentation of the political environment that was more thoroughly developed.  Her treatment of this came off to me as having a bias against the political leaders’ management of the war and that underpins most of the discussion around this aspect of the book.  She concludes her preface by offering a 2013 quote from President Obama “ ‘…perpetual war—through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments—will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways,…” as part of his pledge “…to end the war in Afghanistan the following year.” She then says “…that’s exactly what he started.”  As I read the book this theme was readily apparent.

One takeaway for me was a stark reminder of the questions that should always be addressed, in my humble opinion, before committing US warriors to harm’s way:

  • Is what we’re considering (e.g., our interests, the threat, the potential gain for America, the potential cost to America) worth the life of a single soldier?
  • Can we identify and articulate the intent of the venture in achievable goals/end states and communicate the same to those charged with crafting and executing the actions necessary to realize the goals?
  • Are we willing to commit to seeing it through to achieving the intent realized?

If the answer to any of these is “no,” then as a nation, we should not commit our military forces and seek to employ the other elements of national power (e.g., diplomacy, economic leverage, or information).

Applying these questions solely through the lens of Donati’s book, it would be easy to conclude the answers for the United States of America vis-à-vis Afghanistan, were, and are, a resounding “no.”

I would strongly recommend reading Eagle Down if you’re interested in a snapshot of what it’s like to be an Army special operator on the ground, as it is eye opening.  To those unfamiliar with how SF operates, the book is illuminating as it helps to illustrate the difference between SF operations and those conducted by conventional military forces; the latter seeks to largely engage directly with enemy forces while it is the SF mission to live among the population and host nation military forces in unconventional warfare.

For readers looking for a solid snapshot of the view from the individual soldier/tactical unit level, I strongly recommend Eagle Down.  For those seeking a broader understanding of the political ins and outs, you might be better served by seeking sources in addition to this book.  I personally found all of Bob Woodward’s books on wartime behavior during the terms of any of the three Presidents in power since 9/11 to be very illustrative (I’m always stunned by how much access Woodward is given to White House and Pentagon leaders).

This book earns an impressive rating of 3.5 out of 4 trench coats.


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