A Firsthand Account of the Most Extraordinary Battle in the Afghan War
By Dakota Meyer and Bing West
Random House, $27, 239 pp.
Does this sound familiar?
1. A group of Americans on a diplomatic mission to reach out to Muslims are pinned down by al-Qaeda and come under overwhelming fire.
2. They repeatedly call for support fire missions, which are denied because they cannot absolutely guarantee no civilians are in the area.
3. A frustrated American warrior disobeys orders to go on what appears to be a suicide mission to try to save them.
4. The pinned down Americans are wiped out because supporting fire missions are denied them.
No, this is not a rush-to-press account of the recent disgrace in Benghazi, but if you think Libya was a unique screw-up during the Obama administration, Into the Fire — the story of the Battle of Ganjigal, by Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Meyer and war correspondent extraordinaire Bing West — will change your perception.
As Benghazi and Ganjigal show, it’s the unwritten policy of the Obama administration that civilian lives come before the lives of American soldiers, even when there is only a slim chance bystanders will be killed.
I first learned of Meyer’s story while reading West’s masterful The Wrong War, a scathing critique of how the Afghan war has become more of an ill-conceived welfare plan than an anti-terrorism fight.
Among that book’s most gripping chapters is the story of the ill-conceived and ill-fated Operation Dancing Goat (which I’m sure is informally known as goat-something-else among those who participated). Here, the rules of engagement and brass with no respect for the enemy’s capabilities nearly led to a disaster that would have been much worse but for the unbelievable heroism of one Marine, Dakota Meyer.
But Into the Fire, despite its subtitle, is more than just an account of that fateful day. Meyer sets the stage by telling of his complete tour in Afghanistan, recounting the successes and failures of training Afghan troops to take over their own security, and of the incredible strictures placed on American combat forces by their own command.
Time and again, Meyer was constrained from engaging enemy forces by casualty-shy commanders who forgot the age-old maxim: force projection is force protection.
But even more frustrating were the rules of engagement that all but forbade contact with the enemy if civilians were part of the context, thus giving Taliban and al-Qaeda forces the incentive to surround themselves with innocents.
On the fateful day, the Marines were assigned to attend a shura (think powwow, with tea as the peace pipe) with an imam for whom they recently had built a mosque. Despite objections that the plan opened up their east flank — the flank that directly led to Pakistan, where Taliban and al-Qaeda were holed up— the Marines were sent anyway, with a full complement of Afghan soldiers and border police.
They were ambushed by a large force, but even while Marines and Afghans were being gunned down, they could not get approval for a fire mission from Army artillery commanders.
Dakota, who had been left behind as a punishment of sorts for actions considered overly aggressive by the brass, sat in frustration back at the base listening to his comrades, both Army and Marine, beg for artillery and air support but denied at every turn.
Finally, Meyer recruited Gunny Juan Rodriguez-Chavez for a rescue mission. With Rodriguez-Chavez driving a HUM-V and Meyer fully exposed while manning the turret, they drove into the gauntlet, not expecting they would survive to return.
It was the first of five forays against overwhelming odds that Meyer would make that day. And if being exposed to enemy fire in the gun turret doesn’t impress you enough, Meyer also spent a fair amount of one mission on foot. His weapons included not only the HUM-V’s heavy mounted gun but also a variety of rifles and grenade launchers. In one face-to-face moment while trying to rescue a fallen soldier, he killed a terrorist by bashing his head in with a rock.
Meyer and Rodriguez-Chavez saved dozens of lives that day. Unfortunately, the Marines from their unit, as they discovered on Meyer’s fifth and last mission of the day, were overrun and killed.
Meyer doesn’t brag about his exploits or characterize anything he did as particularly brave; his overriding emotion in the book is frustration, not self-congratulation. In fact, he finds particular irony in the fact that he received his country’s highest honor for what he considers the worst day of his life.
I leave to Bing West, who put it best in his account of the battle in The Wrong War:
For a man to charge into fire once requires grit that is instinctive in few men; to do so a second time, now knowing what awaits you, requires inner resolve beyond instinct; to repeat a third time is courage above and beyond any call of duty; to go in a fourth time is to know you will die; to go in a fifth time is beyond comprehension.
Myer’s performance was the greatest act of courage in the war, because he repeated it, and repeated it, and repeated it.
After the goat … rodeo … was over, Meyer, a man any platoon would want to have as part of its fighting force, had to be removed from the battlefield. His rage at what had happened was just too great.
In fact, Meyer left the Marines when his tour was up, and was working construction when he got the call that he had been awarded the Medal of Honor. Dakota politely asked to be called back on his lunch break.
Meyer is very honest about the mental toll the battle took on him, including a suicide attempt that only failed because of a pistol misfire. It was not the killing that bothered him so much, but the loss — and the rage at the lack of support.
At Dakota’s Medal of Honor ceremony, President Obama said, “The story of what Dakota did … will be told for generations.”
The story of what command is reluctant to do under Barack Obama — from Afghanistan to Benghazi — should be told for just as long.
The Battle of Ganjigal was not well publicized even though Meyer became the first Marine since Vietnam to be awarded the Medal of Honor non-posthumously and Rodriguez-Chavez received the Navy Cross. For the Army, it was mostly about investigations of why the FOC denied fire support.
The book argues convincingly that Army Captain Will Swenson, who took command under fire of the units on the ground and called for fire support, also should have been awarded the Medal of Honor. The Army supposedly “lost” the paperwork, but in the publicity surrounding Dakota Meyer and this book, the packet has been “found.” Perhaps another hero will receive his due.
Into the Fire is the To Hell and Back of the Afghan War. Like Audie Murphy, Dakota Meyer fearlessly took on overwhelming odds by commandeering a mounted gun. But by undertaking not one but five suicide missions in one day, this stubbornly ferocious Marine is in a league of his own. Mark him down as a first-ballot inductee in the Badass Hall of Fame.
Also at PJ Lifestyle from David Forsmark: