The fog of war is a concept that has long been used to describe the uncertainty and lack of clarity that attends combat. Soldiers, as well as their commanding officers, find that war gives off this mental fog, creating "exaggerated dimensions and unnatural appearance," in the words of the great military thinker Carl von Clausewitz.
What we've realized in modern warfare, and maybe most painfully since Vietnam, is that the fog of war extends long after the battle has been concluded, seeping into the public discourse on what actually happened, tainting the accounts and even causing us to lose sight of why we were fighting in the first place.
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It's precisely this kind of after-battle fog that has blurred and distorted both the war in Iraq, which is in its "drawdown" phase, and the war in Afghanistan, which still rages and where the fog of war is still causing dangerous confusion.
The recently released book "The Only Thing Worth Dying For" (Harper Collins) is one of the few – if not the only – accounts of the Afghanistan war that clears away the political mists. It does so by providing a clear, honest and faithful account of exactly what happened on the ground in Taliban country, just weeks after 9/11.
The book's author, Eric Blehm, tells the story of a team of 11 Green Berets who used the unusual amount of strategic responsibility they were given to begin chipping away at the Taliban's southern stronghold. Without much of a plan coming from the political echelon, the team, called ODA-574, led by a young captain named Jason Amerine (who now teaches at West Point), managed to form a rag-tag army of anti-Taliban freedom fighters who were able to pull off the impossible.
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It was in the Battle of Tarin Kowt – which Blehm recounts with dazzling clarity, relying on testimonials from the elite soldiers themselves rather than turning to media reports or second-hand accounts – that the Green Berets were able to turn the corner and gain the initiative.
When ODA-574 went into Tarin Kowt in the early winter of 2001, they were facing long odds. They had been assured that they would have a force of 300 local fighters available who could help drive the Taliban out of the geographically strategic village. But, as American soldiers across the globe have discovered, the situation on the ground did not quite agree with the one on military planning paper. So, ODA-574 did what American Special Forces do best: they made do.
The story of how just 11 Green Berets defeated a ruthless force like the Taliban is awe-inspiring – and it goes to show that the elite unit's motto, "To Liberate the Oppressed," is much more than just a slogan. But the bigger idea that readers of Blehm's "The Only Thing Worth Dying For" will gain from reading the book is that not only is the war in Afghanistan winnable – when it's fought by superbly trained men who believe in what they're fighting for – but that it needs to be won.
The inhabitants of Tarin Kowt, like the rest of Afghanistan, were essentially besieged by Taliban fundamentalists until that November of 2001. While the war-wary Afghan villagers did not welcome ODA-574 when the men arrived, once the Taliban's oppressive Islamist regime had been driven out of the village, and then the region, the situation had changed, and the American soldiers ended up being treated like Pashtun royalty.
With mounting calls for the U.S. to withdraw from another war before it's won, it's important that the American people get a chance to sees not just how winnable the war is, but what's at stake if we lose it. More than American pride and prowess, and even our own safety from terror, it's the lives of millions of Afghan civilians for whom victory is only another word for survival that are on the line. If we can clear away the fog of war to see anything, let it be that.