Documents the post-September 11 mission during which a small band of Special Forces soldiers captured the strategic Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif as part of an effort to defeat the Taliban, in a dramatic account that includes testimonies by Afghanistan citizens whose lives were changed by the war.
While the U.S.'s lack of preparation and intelligence prior to the start of the war is apparent throughout, the Special Forces troops helped the Northern Alliance take control of Afghanistan. The epilogue explains how it was then lost when the U.S. stopped using the tactics that had worked in the first place, it was also critical of the methods used in Iraq.
One issue I had with the book was Stanton often ascribed words or thoughts to people he was unlikely to have interviewed. In one case he wrote about something Mike Spann was thinking shortly before he was killed, however from the time he had these "thoughts" until his death a few minutes later, he didn't speak to anyone. While in all likelihood Stanton used these for narrative effect, it does make me question what else he may have invented. Regardless, a good book well worth reading.
There is also enough information about the anti-Taliban Afghans to help one understand the ongoing problems that exist today. Though the story paints the Americans as heroes it does not ignore their errors or failures in preparation and supply.
The final portion of the book is most relevant to today's issues. It discusses how many of the special forces soldiers from the Afghanistan victory disagreed in the approach in Iraq and predicted the troubles with insurgents.
This is a must read for anyone interested in 911, the war on terror, or military tactics.
This book was informative in that I learned quite a bit that I didn’t know about the first soldiers who went into Afghanistan. It was nice to not only learn about their preparations for their missions, but also to see what their personal lives were like prior to their deployment, especially in the secrecy of their service (their friends and neighbors not knowing what their jobs were).
If I had no knowledge of the war except for reading this book, it would be easy to think that the book implied that the war in Afghanistan was over and done with after the battles that were summed up in this book. I think part of that is due to the hopeful tone at the end of the book, but really it did seem as if the author was saying, “These battles won us the war,” and that seemed odd to me because the war is obviously not over.
The author has an interesting take on the war in Afghanistan vs. the war in Iraq, and how their progress has been vastly different because of the approach and utilization of the citizens of each country; predicting success or failure based on how our military empowered the people to fight for themselves against those inciting violence. The comparison is being made because the military in Afghanistan tried to work with the rebel forces that were already there, whereas in Iraq the military was disbanded.
It does make sense that a military created from the people themselves would have more support than a foreign army (the difference between countrymen fighting for liberty vs. foreigners seen as occupiers – regardless of their intent to spread liberty among the people). The main problem I have with the comparison in this book is that it is kind of tacked on at the end, and there is not enough time or space to elaborate on the subject. Really, I have to think that a comparison of tactics that have succeeded and failed in both wars could fill many volumes.
Finally, I have to say that there was an overwhelming amount of people followed in this book. Keeping track of the names and personalities was a challenge even with the guide at the front.
Horse Soldiers was certainly an interesting read about how the first US soldiers set up operations in Afghanistan, if for nothing else than to see how woefully unprepared and ill-informed our intelligence community was at that time.
In the midst of it all, and in the aftermath we've just lived through, babies are born, men die, soldiers once victorious are re-deployed and face danger again and again while their families wait, men ready themselves to fight another day, others attempt to gather enough money or power or support to make their way or mark upon the land and those they live and die among.
Four stars because the author doesn't try to fictionalize to make this account of war in Afghanistan more readable. Instead he demands of the reader a full awareness that they are reading about their contemporaries. Not five because not well edited, Not five because the story of the day to day aspects of what it means to go to war on horseback is left untold -we don't know how the men learned to control their mounts or how their mounts were selected, or if they cared for their own mounts, if their horses survived, whether the US soldiers assumed the care of their own mounts, whether they were shod, or into whose care the horses went after the soldiers reached the city or went home. Did the horses too return to future battles til they were dead ?
Now a resident of Traverse City where he grew up, Doug is a product of the Interlochen Arts Academy and the Iowa Writer's Workshop. His first book, IN HARM'S WAY (2001), was an international bestseller. After reading HORSE SOLDIERS, I strongly suspect it will enjoy similar success.
The subtitle of Stanton's new book may be problematic for some. It reads: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of U.S. Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan. And, in a nutshell, it's a good description of the book's content. Because the soldiers described in these pages are indeed extraordinary people who deserve to be recognized. The problem for some more politically oriented readers, however, will be the word "victory." They will argue that the U.S. has not achieved victory in Afghanistan and probably never will.
But this is not a book about politics. This is a book about ordinary people, military men and officers, who have trained hard and dedicated their lives to safeguarding the security of our nation, both here and abroad. They are not political people. They were given a mission, and they carried it out to the best of their abilities, despite extreme hardships and unbelievably primitive conditions. They suffered hunger, thirst, cold, exhaustion, sickness and wounds incurred in battle. Against what appeared to be insurmountable odds, these Special Forces soldiers and Special Ops pilots (and a few CIA paramilitaries) persevered and were indeed successful in carrying out their mission, the taking of the town of Mazar-e-Sharif from the Taliban forces. Working in concert with the combined forces of several Afghan warlords of the Northern Alliance, the SF teams lived in caves or in the open, and ate what their Afghan allies ate - often little or nothing. They traveled on horseback, even though many of them had never been on a horse before. This initially prompted some rather comical scenes reminiscent of episodes from F Troop. But despite the too-small wooden saddles, too-short stirrups, and bleeding sores, they quickly adapted. And once mounted, these few dozen courageous soldiers became the first Americans of the twenty-first century to participate in a cavalry charge, racing up and down ridges against vastly superior Taliban forces as they marched steadily north to their objective of Mazar-e-Sharif. In a strange combination of spaghetti western and Star Wars, the Americans, packing radios, GPS devices and laser sights, called in gunships and pinpointed bomb strikes to put the fear of Allah into their numerically superior black-turbaned enemies.
The story told here covers no more than a couple of months' time shortly after the 9/11 bombings of New York. But, sticking to the style that earned him such success in his first book, Stanton fleshes out the narrative with personal details on all the principals involved, having interviewed the men, their friends, families and superior officers. He was able to do this by gaining unprecedented access to the lives of soldiers who are ordinarily very silent about their activities. Stanton logged literally thousands of miles of travel in the six years he spent researching his story, not just here in the U.S., but also in Afghanistan, where he interviewed some of the warlords involved in the operation, as well as various citizens and shopkeepers of Mazar-e-Sharif, the town liberated from the Taliban in November 2001. You will meet men - and their families - from Alabama, Kentucky, Minnesota, West Virginia, California, Kansas, Texas and Michigan. Any one of them could be your neighbor.
The story reaches a horrific climax in the closing chapters when several hundred Taliban prisoners being held in the ancient mud fortress of Qala-i-Janghi rise up and attack their Northern Alliance jailers, and the SF soldiers are caught in the middle of the ensuing siege and resulting bloodbath.
I am sure HORSE SOLDIERS will have its detractors, people who will argue that invading Afghanistan was not the proper response to the 9/11 attacks. And I would not completely disagree with them. And perhaps neither would Doug Stanton, judging by his epilogue critique of the war as it has been waged since 2001. Stanton's intent, however, was not to justify the war, but to honor the men who followed orders and prepared the way, at great cost to them and to their families. In this he has succeeded admirably.
Here is how Stanton explains his motives, at least in part, for writing this book about a period of just a few weeks which may one day be no more than a blip on history's radar -
"... I wanted to know what it was like to wake in the predawn hours on a tree-lined street in the middle of America and leave for war ... Children's toys fill the cracked driveways of the neighbors' houses up and down the street ... This was the face I wanted to see ... the face of that man, in those private hours."
Stanton found that man - those men - who left for war, and he is Everyman. Yet he is unique, apart. And we owe him.
- Tim Bazzett is the author of the Cold War memoir, Soldier Boy: At Play in the ASA. He lives in Reed City.