This quote from the widow of Special Forces engineer sergeant Matthew McClintock has been haunting me over the last couple of days as I watch events unfold in Afghanistan. “Mick” was killed during his tour while trying to secure the medevac of one of his comrades. I’ve never been to Afghanistan, but I have always been a staunch supporter of the missions deployed there. When Canada sent a contingent of Canadian soldiers from the “Vandoos” (the legendary Québec’s Royal 22e Régiment) to Kandahar, I drove with my wife and daughter to Québec City to applaud them on their departing parade. As we hold our breath in expectation of what will happen in Afghanistan, I have a hard time coming to terms with recent developments.
Just last week, I finished reading Jessica Donati’s excellent but tragic book Eagle Down: The Last Special Forces Fighting the Forever War (PublicAffairs). Her exposé is depressing, to say the least. Over the last couple of years, Washington sent the best of the best, the Special Forces, under the guise of “a training and assistance mission” in order to maintain deniability. In reality, they were there in combat mode, although denied certain tools to accomplish their mission properly, such as not authorizing air strikes that could have proven crucial at certain times, or that “no GPS-guided parachutes [which could efficiently deliver supplies in combat zones, ensuring they would not fall into enemy hands] were left in the country because the US military was no longer supposed to be in combat.” These guys fought an enemy that proved adept at using clouds to articulate its strategy (no air support can be offered when skies are not clear, therefore denying Special Forces with much-needed air support). When you ask people to do such a crucial job, the least you can do is give them the tools to do it.
But what impressed me most in Eagle Down is the resilience of the men Jessica Donati writes about. Whatever blow combat operations deal them, they never feel sorry for their fate. They keep pushing on. And this is a recurring theme in all the books I have read about Special Forces. Under Jessica Donati’s pen, we read about Caleb Brewer who lost both his legs in Afghanistan. He could have spent the rest of his life mopping about his tragic condition. Equipped with prosthetic legs, he became a trainer through CrossFit. And he started helping others. Being myself a type 2 diabetic, I was touched to read that one of his trainees, a 65 years-old diabetic amputee, got rid of the disease thanks to Caleb’s help. What an inspiring story. And there’s Hutch (Major Michael Hutchinson) who went through the ordeal of being almost accused of a war crime even though the bombing of a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital was caused by an “error on the tracking system”. After receiving a letter of reprimand (for something that was not his fault), he was re-assigned to Afghanistan in 2018.
I might never fully grasp what composes the mettle these men are made of, but I sure know these modern-day gladiators deserve much more support and credit than what they get. And it is encouraging to read a book like Eagle Down that contributes to doing just that.
I don’t know how many times Jessica Donati accompanied Special Forces soldiers on the ground, but she brings you right by their side when they are ambushed by an insider attack, planning an operation, when they fight for more than 24 hours without sleep or doing everything possible to ensure the survival of a badly wounded comrade. You can’t help admiring these men who bravely fight against barbary, a barbary which is sometimes just only a few meters away from civilization as the events unfolding right now in Afghanistan demonstrate.
Apart from those Special Forces soldiers and officers (and their tremendously brave families) who courageously consented superhuman sacrifices – sometimes the ultimate one – I admit that the leader who impressed me the most in the entire narrative was National Security Advisor, retired General H. R. McMaster.
Almost in a prophetic way, considering what is happening at this very moment, Jessica Donati mentions that “He thought, probably accurately, that the Afghan government would quickly collapse without significant US backing, leading to the same chaos that had allowed the Taliban to rise in the 1990s after the Soviet withdrawal.” How right he was.
It was perhaps inevitable for the Taliban to take back power in Afghanistan, a country where we invested so much hope, along with tremendous blood and treasure. But the recent decision of the Biden administration to cut and run certainly gave them a boost.
Nevertheless, one thing is certain. Contemporary Armed Forces will always need Special Forces – whether they are Green Berets, Navy SEALS or others – to do the heavy lifting where the odds are against them and ultimately against us. As events unfold, the world is not becoming safer. It is ever more important to know more about those who are called upon. Even though the stories detailed are oftentimes painful to read – like when a courageous fighter dies literary in painful agony under your eyes – they are nonetheless essential to bring awareness about the importance of making sure our statesmen / stateswomen and governments never renege on their responsibilities to provide them with all the support they need, financially, technologically, logistically, and morally.
For the time being, Eagle Down will rank among the most impactful books I have read about military affairs. A terrific book, written by an engaging author.
Jessica Donati, Eagle Down: The Last Special Forces Fighting the Forever War, New York, Public Affairs,2021, 320 pages.
I would like to express my deep gratitude to the publicity department of PublicAffairs books for their precious and generous assistance in providing me a copy of this amazing book.