Book Review: No Way Out

May 19, 2012

Raleigh News & Observer

Written and researched with evident care, “No Way Out” is a fine example of contemporary war reporting that reveals much about the war in Afghanistan by focusing on one particular battle.

Operation Commando Wrath – or the Battle of Shok Valley – took place April 6, 2008, in the Nuristan Province of Afghanistan. A joint operation between Afghan army commandos and U.S. Special Forces, many of whom were based out of Fort Bragg, the objective was to kill or capture a notorious insurgent commander whose career dates back to the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.

Everything went wrong, though, as the joint attack team was almost instantly ambushed in the treacherous Shok Valley, terrain so perilous that historical invaders like Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great are said to have avoided it. Pinned down on a small rock ledge by machine-gun and rocket-propelled grenade fire from hundreds of enemy combatants, the soldiers fought for more than seven hours before making a narrow escape.

“No Way Out” begins by profiling nine U.S. soldiers in the hours before the mission. These beginning chapters acquaint us with these soldiers as individuals and offer a terrible sense of foreboding. The team leaders, we discover, had deep reservations about the planning of the mission and the quality of the intelligence used to justify it.

The book’s middle chapters detail the battle itself, with startling detail and graphic descriptions. Several U.S. soldiers were gravely wounded, and many Afghan commandos died. The battlefield narrative is taut and dramatic. In one harrowing snapshot, the team’s lone medic tends to multiple wounded team members, packing blood coagulant into one soldier’s open abdominal wound as bullets ping off the medic’s helmet.

Because we are already acquainted with these soldiers, their families and even early childhoods, the battle scenes have an awful weight to them. When one scout takes a bullet in the pelvis, it’s not just another Special Ops soldier. It’s Staff Sgt. Dillon Behr from chapter six, the Bible college dropout who wanted to become an actor.

The authors, both veteran war correspondents, reconstruct the battle with frightening clarity. It’s apparent, by the end, that a massacre was averted by the narrowest of margins and by the most courageous of individual actions. Eleven soldiers would be awarded Silver Stars, the most given to any one unit since Vietnam.

The book’s final section, “Aftermath,” may be its most compelling. Here we learn the fates of the various soldiers – many of whom were interviewed in person after their return to Fort Bragg to receive their Silver Stars for their valor. We also get a glimpse into the machinations of the military PR machine.

Soldiers knew going in that the planning of Operation Commando Wrath was deeply flawed. It’s interesting to read what Weiss (a former business editor at The Charlotte Observer) and Maurer discover about the official U.S. Army record of the incident. The military historian assigned to write the official report concludes that the operation was a tactical disaster from its inception, carelessly planned and based on dubious intelligence. He tells his boss that the mission had the potential “to have the entire chain of command relieved.”

The official report has never been released to the public. The authors interviewed more than 60 people and reviewed hundreds of pages of documents, but their request for the official report was denied – apparently, the document is “still in draft form.”

The insurgent leader targeted by the raid remains at large and is one of the major players in the Afghan war, now in its 11th year.

The authors conclude with the book’s sole instance of direct editorializing, calling the Battle of Shok Valley a cautionary tale: “Be careful what you ask soldiers to do, because they will die trying to accomplish their mission.”

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