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New Book: American Spartan by Ann Scott Tyson

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

American Spartan: The Promise, the Mission, and the Betrayal of Special Forces Major Jim Gant by Ann Scott Tyson 

Was just sent a review copy of American Spartan courtesy of Callie at  Oettinger & Associates which tells the story of Major Jim Gant, the special forces officer and AfPak hand who pushed hard for a controversial strategy in Afghanistan based on arming and training loyalist paramilitaries out of Afghan tribesmen ( or whatever localist network would suffice when tribal identity was weak or absent). I am looking forward to reading this book for a number of reasons.

Long time readers may recall Gant coming to wider attention with his paper, One Tribe at a Time with an assist from noted author Steven Pressfield, where he called for a campaign strategy against the Taliban from “the bottom up” using “the tribes” because the current top down strategy of killing insurgents while building a strong, centralized, state would never work – the war would just drag on indefinitely until the US grew tired and quit Afghanistan ( as is happening….now). Gant, who forged a tight relationship with Afghan tribal leader  Noor Azfal ,won some fans with his paper in very high places, including SECDEF Robert Gates and Generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus who gave him some cover to implement his ideas but he also faced formidable resistance and criticism. Academic experts were particularly incensed by Gant’s broad-brush use of “tribes” to cover a wide array of local networks and Afghan identities and that “tribes” were a term modern anthropology held in deep disdain ( RAND’s David Ronfeldt pointed out that while these networks are not historical tribes they are certainly “tribal” in terms of behavior patterns) while the government of Mohammed Karzai and its American boosters were bitterly hostile to any strategy that might arm locals outside Kabul’s direct control.

  It was also a risky strategy. Loyalist paramilitaries are often very effective in a military sense – as happened in Colombia when the government tolerated and encouraged private militias to make war on FARC and the ELN and badly mauled the Communist insurgents – but they are inherently unreliable politically. Paramilitaries can also  “go off the reservation” – this also happened in Colombia – and commit atrocities or become criminal enterprises or engage in warlordism and have to be reined in by the government. All of these were particular risks in the context of Afghanistan where warlordism and drug trafficking had been particularly acute problems even under Taliban rule. On the other hand, warlordism and drug trafficking has hardly been unknown in the ANA regular units and national police and is hardly the province only of irregulars.

Another reason I am interested in this book is the subtitle’s accusation of “betrayal” which I infer comes out of the long institutional cultural and chain of command clashes of bureaucratic politics between Big Army and Special Forces and Special Operations Forces communities. The long history in the big picture is that many general purpose force commanders do not know how to use these troops to best strategic effect and sometimes resent the autonomy with which they operate ( a resentment returned and repaid  at times with a lack of consultation and ignoring of local priorities in operational planning).

The author, Ann Scott Tyson is a long-time and experienced war reporter who embedded extensively with US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. She is also married to her subject which should make for some interesting analysis when I review the book.

13 Responses to “New Book: American Spartan by Ann Scott Tyson”

  1. Dave D. Says:

    Got my review copy last night via UPS – hope to have it read NLT than the weekend. Jim was one of our Tribal Engagement Workshop participants and briefer. Should be an interesting book.

  2. david ronfeldt Says:

    i’ve wondered for a couple years what became of maj. gant and his ideas.  so this book comes as a welcome revelation.
    thanks for referring to my blog post.  i was a keen fan of pressfield’s and gant’s efforts back then (and was pleased that they took an interest in my own writings about “tribes”). i was (and remain) mystified by the official and academic resistance their ideas encountered.  i look forward to reading what the book says about this matter.
    as for anthropology, well:  i suppose all academic disciplines are fraught with controversies about the definition and centrality of basic concepts (e.g., “power” in political science, “class” in sociology).  but anthropology seems the one field where proponents have made concerted effective efforts to discredit and discard one of its traditionally central concepts — “tribes” — evidently for elusive reasons that seem more about academic politics and culture than science. 

  3. Matt B. Says:


    I have not read this book and do not plan to.  Tyson’s credibility with regard to the subject material is nil, after shacking (caving?) up with this married man for many man.  I would only commend you to Linda Robinson’s book, “One Hundred Victories” which has a much more accurate and less favorable, but far from complete account of bringing Gant back to some kind of reality.  Here is another, less favorable critique of Gant’s original paper: http://easterncampaign.com/2010/01/18/petraeus-and-mcchrystal-drink-major-gants-snake-oil/.  Let us say as charitably as possible that he not only dug his own grave, he was lucky to have powerful allies who kept him from significant and deserved jail time.

  4. Matt B. Says:

    Sorry, meant to say “many months” not “many man” for Tyson’s period spent in Afghanistan.  The treatment of her absence by the Washington Post was amusing if nothing else during the time.

  5. Deep Throat Says:

    Your banner quote attributed to James Madison is most apropos with regard to the impending release of “American Spartan” by Ann Scott Tyson.  I too am eagerly anticipating an opportunity to read this book.  I fully intend to write my own review of it given that I am privy to a first-hand account of the “betrayal” of Jim Gant.  Upon hearing this story I was moved to conduct an aggressive “open source” survey of all things relative to Gant.  Mr. Ronfeldt, there is a rationale behind your wonderment at Mr. Gant’s and Ann Tyson’s disappearance (the Twitter feeds and laudatory articles appear to have stopped around 2011/2012).  Based upon a survey of the articles chronicling this inexplicable yet remarkable rise, I believe that Mr. Gant was married with children at the time most of them were written.  As a result of my research, I am now under the impression that Gant is now married to his former “biographer.”  Hmmm…that’s a shocker.  It is difficult to not judge a book by its cover.  I will comment further once I have read the book.  In a superficial sense, Gant’s “radio silence” (at least as far as blogs and fawning biographies are concerned) is reminiscent of the many MACV-SOG teams deposited “over the fence” in Laos that never “made commo” after their insertion into the veritable front yard of the PAVN.  
    Interestingly, the first person that came to mind when reading Ms. Tyson’s 2010-era narratives about Jim Gant was SFC Jerry Shriver.  Shriver was a Recon Team Leader or “One Zero” with MACV-SOG who achieved mythological status within his own short lifetime.  His milieu, not unlike Gant’s imitation of it, was predicated on an over-the-top familial bond with the Cham Montagnards that augmented his team.  Numerous published accounts exist of Shriver supporting the families of his Montagnard fighters out of his own pocket.  I certainly credit the man for that.  While gallant and absolutely fearless in battle, Shriver was variously described as a “loner” or possessed of a brooding personality.  He appeared more at ease in the company of his Montagnard contingent than among anyone else.  In other words, he didn’t even “fit” into the typical settings in the atypical world of MACV-SOG.  Similarities between Shriver and Gant end at this point.  Jerry Shriver passed from myth into legend in April of 1969 during the storied “COSVN Raid.”  I would encourage you to read about it and judge the tactical feasibility, operational value, or strategic merit of the operation for yourself.  The cachet of “Special Forces” doesn’t make you bullet proof.  While decidedly bold and aggressive, diving headfirst into a NVA/Viet Cong bunker complex/headquarters with limited IPB isn’t exactly sound in my book.  I’m most certain that Jim Gant is intimately familiar with and saw himself as a modern day incarnation of Jerry Shriver on many levels.  Jerry Shriver left at an opportune moment with his reputation, albeit eccentric, intact.  I don’t know how Gant’s story is revealed in “American Spartan.”  The way I heard it, Gant’s biopic in Afghanistan took on the tenor of Marlon Brando’s portrayal of either COL Kurtz or Dr. Moreau. 
    Several years ago, much was made of Gant’s paper “One Tribe at a Time” which espoused a “Shriver-esque” integration with indigenous forces and personnel.  While novel with regard to the pedantic thinking of the regular military establishment, fundamentally it isn’t anything new or radically different than the engagement strategies pursued by 5th SFG and MACV-SOG in Vietnam.  We all know what happened there and I offer that the Montagnards and Nungs were more loyal and less fractious than Pashtuns.  While I would agree with portions of Gant’s proposals for very limited objectives, I was somewhat surprised to see such praise lavished upon a rehash of 5th SFG TTPs from Vietnam.  General Petraeus endorsed a paper replete with sentence fragments and incomplete constructs?  However, I am surprised on a daily basis by our collective ignorance and appreciation of history.  I’m further surprised that it took years for the light bulb to apparently go off that integrating with indigenous forces and personnel at the local level might be a viable strategy of “not losing” in Afghanistan.  “Not losing?”  That would be funny were it not for the lives lost for the sake of an unattainable, nebulous construct that is beyond the conceptual grasp of a clannish people living an archaic lifestyle. 
    Nevertheless, there are some fights that are not winnable in the classic sense.  Thus, engagement should never be undertaken in the first place.  Sorry, I’m an American and I culturally identify with Americans even though I can respect, appreciate, and understand the cultures of others.  I’m not obligated to care about the Afghan people.  No degree of “going native” is going to change an established set of folkways extant for centuries.  In truth, one would lose their identity as an American Soldier if they went “off the reservation” in the fullest sense.  Sporting a pakol and growing a beard that would make ZZ Top take notice does not a Pashtun make.  Limited success might be achieved through cultivated friendships, illicit barter, and donning portions or complete ensembles of indigenous dress.  You are an outsider in costume who will be returning to your homeland in a matter of months.  One might achieve a little more by fully abrogating one’s own identity and values and descending into a gritty world of lies, bribes, and honor killings for the sake of the “mission.”  What mission?  What happens when everyone leaves?  Even with the extreme strategy described above the effort isn’t sustainable through semi-annual or annual RIP-TOAs.  The mullahs are waiting in the wings to bring arrangements back into balance in the natural world of Afghan “tribal” customs.  If one is desirous of becoming a Pashtun “bro” and ultimately living by Sharia law for the sake of the “mission,” be my guest.  Don’t call for extraction when you are ultimately judged to be an outsider.  Upon considering the two years spent in place at the same qualat and getting into the same gunfights with the same “bad guys” week after week, a greater indictment of the failure “Gant’s doctrine” (Huh?) does not exist.  Where was the progress other than a speculative “body count?”  
    Quibbling over semantics such as the difference between “tribes” or “clans” only obfuscates the real story of Jim Gant and the larger folly of thinking that Afghanistan can be salvaged without turning it into a U. S. Territory with a combat outpost on every hilltop in Waziristan manned by Pashtun imitators of predominantly Anglo-Saxon extraction and cultural worldview.  I’d love to see the reintegration training after a decade-long or longer cultural immersion with the Pashtuns.  “Ok, guys you can’t engage in cash bribes at the PX anymore and Fort Bragg isn’t going to sponsor a post-wide buzkashi tournament at Towle Courts.”  I would offer the Afghan people are not unlike the peasant farmers of Vietnam.  They just want a little food on the table and security for their families.  The Communist, Capitalist, or, in this case, Islamic fundamentalist bent of the provider of that security is irrelevant.  While admittedly presumptive, the thought of bringing the shining light of democracy to a dark corner of the world is noble.  However, some places need and want to stay in the dark.  Allow them to do so and determine their own course.         
    There are two sides to every story.  One is soon to be released.  The other story, a matter of record, is evocative of the old adage that “truth is stranger than fiction.”                    

  6. carl Says:

    So far the criticisms of the book, which nobody has read, include writing style, whether Mr. Gant was a faithful husband and that his ideas weren’t novel. Perhaps people should actually read the book and comment upon the story it tells and the ideas it contains.

    Deep Throat, Taliban & Co are overturning the old patterns of life in Afghanistan, not preserving them. That is why they have had to kill so many elders on both sides of the border.

    And…your comment about something not surviving annual RIP-TOAS betrays one of the grave weaknesses of the American military, personnel policy trumping war fighting. ‘So you say we could win the war by changing deployment times and career patterns? No, no. That will never do.’

    To say that the rural Afghans and Vietnamese don’t care who provides the security is not only western superciliousness it is contradictory. If they don’t or didn’t care what was the appeal of the other side? You can’t have it both ways. They can’t not care and try to change things or fight for one side if they don’t care.

  7. zen Says:

    I have no personal knowledge about Major Gant or his author wife, Oettinger & Associates sends me a lot of books to review, albeit I do not/can’t review all of them. Colonel David Maxwell had a high opinion of Gant as an officer at the time his Tribes paper (which I read then) was making the rounds and Maxwell’s opinion on special forces/FID/irregular warfare issues carries weight with me ( I have not asked Maxwell for an update though). I will be interested in what Dave D. also has to say when he is finished.
    I have not read the book yet, but works of these kind are usually a two-edged sword. As with the Gaddis bio of Kennan where a long association between biographer and subject inevitably impacted the text, you have to accept that a higher degree of bias/subjectivity comes as baggage with the richer amount of details a close relationship yields. Starting out as a diplo historian, I read a ton of memoirs, private papers and diaries/journals where notable people make a case for themselves (or to fool themselves). After a while, you see that they did it as well in their official cables and reports, though more professionally and with greater circumspection than they did privately. Some otherwise over-the-top special pleading memoirs can contain real nuggets of information that only come to light because someone is grinding their axe into the heads of former rivals. The important thing is to retain the critical eye when reading and ( if you are in field) compare with other sources. 
    Will to try to review this one sooner rather than later but the reviews of Don Vandergriff & Fred Leland’s adaptive thinking book and the Giora Romm memoir Solitary have to be posted first

  8. Deep Throat Says:

    The mere fact that we are still engaged in Afghanistan is proof enough that the bulk of Afghan society has not embraced what we would consider an acceptable way of doing business with regard to social, political, and economic affairs.  Regardless, the United States military and the American people were “guilt tripped” over time into a nation building endeavor in Afghanistan.  Perhaps this is an oversimplification, but the military objective in Afghanistan should be to “deny al Qaeda a base of operations or force projection platform in Afghanistan.”  Supporting objectives are “decapitating al Qaeda leadership and dismantling networks” and “establishing conditions that would prevent reestablishment of the above.”  The last one is pretty broad and we’ve accomplished a lot particularly with regard to neutralizing leadership and networks.  The question is a matter of sustainability.  Is Afghanistan worth the effort in terms of establishing a de facto permanent US presence a la South Korea?  Is there even a risk with the Taliban assuming control again?  Al Qaeda is a concept.  It isn’t a place, a country, a capital.  It can strike from anywhere.  Sometimes you must assume risk.  
    Sure, the situation would improve dramatically if there was a 250,000-man coalition (overwhelmingly US of course)contingent with a checkpoint on every corner.  Like the overwhelmingly draft army that was later called the “Greatest Generation,” everyone’s orders would read “for the duration.”  There would be no Christmas leave, no emergency leave because Aunt Peg died, no rotations home, etc.  Without a capital to seize or a figurehead to topple the nebulous objective of “until the threat is eliminated” or “the ideology is stamped out” would be forever elusive.  It would never happen.  Thus, “military personnel policy” and OPTEMPO is a significant factor in the cost/benefit analysis of waging wars.  Is it a weakness?  It depends on perspective.  For the armchair general or politician who never spent one day in Federal uniform it might be.  Then again it may temper or prevent ill-advised foreign policy decisions and intractable quagmires that are difficult to disengage from once committed.  I can almost guarantee you we won’t see another Afghanistan for a long, long, long time.           
    The only reason that the Taliban entered our collective lexicon is the fact that they sheltered bin Laden so long ago.  If 9/11 never happened we never would have had “boots on the ground.”  If the Afghan people can’t come to terms with their own social, political, and economic destiny after 12 years of sustained US assistance in the face of tribal factionalism, clan loyalties, and religious extremism either their model or our model or perhaps both models are flawed and incongruent.  I’m sure there are many good-natured and hopeful Afghans out there desirous of benevolent governance.  I wish them the best and hope for their future.  However, it is way beyond the time for US troops to “pop smoke.”  There is a reason the Taliban gained traction there in the first place.  A significant or influential portion of the population in Afghanistan found appeal in the fundamentalist and anti-western rhetoric for a multiplicity of reasons typically their own personal aggrandizement.  That is ok for that is the way they want to do business.  There is no way every Taliban fighter in the AFPAK border region is some zealot from Saudi Arabia or Yemen. Many I would argue are home-grown Afghans/Pashtuns.  They are still operating after 12 years of sustained effort?  The Taliban have strategic patience that we do not and can not possess in this instance.  
    With regard to “Gant’s doctrine,” I look forward to reading more about it’s application as recounted in the book and cross referencing that with my sources.  While I agree with some portions of the white paper as a means of attaining limited objectives, anyone who finds greater appeal in becoming a 2nd tier warlord who may have to countenance public stonings, arranged marriages, mullah or elder-approved sexual assaults, and the virtual enslavement of women for the sake of getting a “bromance” on with Pashtun tribesmen under the premise of “fighting the good fight” as a “patriot” or “warrior monk” is welcome to stay behind.  However, when your American-inculcated belief system makes you recoil at the thought of an arranged marriage between a 10-year old and a 70-year old and you find yourself PNG don’t call for extraction.  My life or anyone else’s isn’t worth risking for your hare-brained, high-risk COA.  Gant’s paper and doctrine calls for autonomy?  He should generate his own combat power.     

  9. carl Says:

    Deep Throat:
    Your first paragraph:  The mere fact that you proclaim it don’t make it so.  Afghanistan and environs are complicated places.  The rest of the paragraph is you arguing with yourself and you won.  We did get AQ no. 1 when his host country allowed us to.  And we have killed AQ no. 3 over and over.  No. 2 lives on.
    Second paragraph you continue to argue with yourself and you are still doing well.  You do bring up the personnel system and defend it.  You are the first person I ever heard do that and do it with the argument that the system knows better than the country and it is a good thing they won’t bend.  That is insubordinate in my book but the big green personnel system is about the only thing about the American military that is invincible.  I like you throwing in the good old ‘you weren’t in uniform so you don’t understand’ argument.  That used to be a good one but with each passing year and each expensive failure given to us by the big military,  that argument loses its impact.
    No more small war for a long, long time?  Maybe.  That is at least what the big military wants.  They can avoid failing again longer that way.  The problem is they haven’t shown an aptitude for war period, big or small.  God help us when a big one comes, the multi-stars haven’t.
    Your third last paragraph resurrects an old classic argument from the Vietnam War, blame the South and in this case blame the Afghans.  In both cases the object was to absolve ourselves of blame and responsibility for our failures.  It worked then and, sad to say, heartbreaking in the dishonor it brings to my country, will probably work now.
    Your last two paragraphs are a perfectly constructed straw man, ruthlessly demolished.  If a straw man could disappear in a pink mist, this one would have.  Beige mist I guess.
    I note with regret that  in all your writing there is not one word about how the Pak Army/ISI and the support and sanctuary they provide Taliban & Co fit into all this.  It is discouraging that so many people refuse to acknowledge the sun in the sky in this conflict.  I didn’t say couldn’t see the obvious, only that there is a refusal to acknowldge the obvious.  That is really a necessity though if the party line that it wasn’t our fault is to be effectively sold.  After all it would be an impossible sale if it were acknowledged that the multi-stars and genii inside the beltway have willingly been made monkeys of for the last 13 years.

  10. Deep Throat Says:

    If I understand your inferences correctly, it appears you feel we have some moral imperative to stay in Afghanistan because we “invaded” the country and toppled the Taliban which had been supported and shored up by Pakistan? It also appears you believe that deploying everyone forward to obviate personnel turnover would be palatable to the American public?
    Of course Afghanistan is a complicated place.  It is the Gordian Knot of international affairs and has been for quite some time.  We only cared about trying to untie it in an effort to get UBL and deny al Qaeda a staging area.  The Pak Army and ISI had a hand in their establishment prior to 9/11.  I agree.  So what?  We should leverage Pakistan as much as possible, but there aren’t many alternatives if they dig in their heels.  I’m a firm believer in surgical drone strikes in Pakistan whether they like it or not and in an extreme sense I would advocate scalding the entire hornet’s nest that is North and South Waziristan.  With regard to the latter, we don’t have the luxury of such an easy COA.  We would lose the moral high ground as tenuous as it is.  Are we equipped with the material resources, manpower, and most importantly, the national will to change the face and culture of a country as complex and in some cases archaic as Afghanistan while pussyfooting around and subordinating ourselves to Afghan cultural sensitivities?  My answer is no.  The military should never have undertaken (or been tasked with) the project of nation building in the first place.  Our departure should be caveated with “time to sink or swim guys, if you pull this stuff again, we are going to show you what war is all about.”  Of course, our moral compass as determined by the people at large and international opinion won’t allow that to happen.  Nation building is a State Department function.  The military (other than SOF conducting FID operations or units conducting disaster relief ops) is not trained or equipped for nation building.  We tried that in Iraq and Afghanistan.  We had a few limited successes.  We had many failures.  We learned our lesson and will not engage in such endeavors in the near future in my opinion based upon the emotional turmoil and political fallout that Iraq and Afghanistan have caused.  There will always be shadow conflicts involving SOF.  Conventional wars a la WWII, Korea, the Gulf are a thing of the past in my opinion.  Nevertheless, we need to be prepared.      
    The personnel system is subordinate to the national will.  That is why the deployment cycles are the way they are.  I’d love to see the recruiting and retention stats when the policy change takes effect announcing everyone in Afghanistan will be there indefinitely and those not there will go there indefinitely.  The national will as expressed by the American public will not allow that to happen.  Why?  The general public does not give a damn about Afghan politics, infrastructure, or clan squabbles.  Your average “Joe” isn’t interested in being away from the wife and kids indefinitely unless he is selfishly using his family as a prop to enhance his image/professional portfolio or worse activities in theater.  Furthermore, he probably doesn’t care about Afghanistan, certainly not enough to stay there forever.         
    Yes, I’m a die-hard neo-isolationist upon reflecting on the last 13 years.  There are hungry children right here in America.  We need to take care of Americans and build infrastructure here.  I don’t have nor does the military have a moral obligation to Afghanistan in my opinion.  We are lending a helping hand in goodwill, but I don’t see an enumerated requirement.   
    I’m not privy to every classified detail regarding the UBL raid, but I don’t think Pakistan approved of it.  With regard to Pakistan, I wouldn’t trust them as far as I could throw them.  I recall Dr. Abdullah’s (former foreign minister of the Northern Alliance) comments shortly after 9/11…”Don’t trust Pakistan.”  Thus, we seem to be in agreement on that point.  All the more reason to exit the country post haste.       

  11. Arik Says:

    To Matt B- the fact that you would recommend Linda Robinson’s account of Jim Gant goes to show how much you know about her and her extremely inaccutate account of Jim Gant. The GOs commenting on Jim and Ann’s relationship had no idea what they were talking about and neither do you. Let me clear up the great misconception that would keep you from reading an amazing book.  Jim and his ex wife were separated in Jan 2009 and divorced in Jul 2010.  While I might find it admirable that you are up in arms about what he may have done to his family, the reality is that he didn’t do anything.  Additionally, Ann will not lose any credibility because she happens to be married to her “subject.”  Her experiences as a battlefield reporter speak for themselves.  Lastly, it might interest you to know that Ann and Jim’s ex wife get along very well and are very good friends.  Now that THAT is out of the way, perhaps you can read the book objectively.  I read it in 12 hours….I didn’t put it down until I was finished reading it. 

  12. Chicago Boyz » Blog Archive Says:

    […] I first posted that I had received a review copy of American Spartan from Callie, it stirred a vigorous debate in the comments section and also a flurry of email offline to me from various parties. Joseph Collins reviewed American […]

  13. Matt B. Says:


    Wish I had seen your comment when made.  I am not sure why you would call Robinson’s account of Gant inaccurate.  The parts of Robinson’s account that I am familiar with from first hand experience are unquestionably true, and if anything, the actual circumstances were much more damning than her account.  I will be the first to admit I don’t know anything about Gant’s relationship with his first wife, but he and his family are the ones that need to live with the situation.  Nothing about your explanation lends Tyson any credibility for her journalistic practice.

    Regardless, Gant failed to follow his own prescription, his ideas were not as knowledge as many claim (especially him), he behaved in unquestionably immoral, unethical and illegal ways, and as Don Vandergriff’s review points out, it was overlooked for a long time by Gant’s immediate chain of command.  The willful ignorance or tolerance of Gant’s behavior by his leadership may be a worthy subject of inquiry as well.

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