Small Wars Journal

The Rise and Fall of Major Jim Gant (Updated: Now a Book Review Twofer)

Tue, 04/15/2014 - 7:00am

The Rise and Fall of Major Jim Gant by Joseph Collins, War on the Rocks Book Review

Whether you are interested in an unusual love story or in how the United States fights protracted wars, Ann Scott Tyson’s American Spartan is an important book. It artfully tells the story of the author and her now-husband, Major Jim Gant, a tough warrior-hero-thinker, who not only was one of the authors of the theory of Village Stability Operations in Afghanistan but became a pioneer practitioner, living among the Afghans in Konar Province for nearly two years.   In the end, the Taliban tried very  hard to kill him, and none other than Osama bin Laden identified Gant and his 2009 article, “One Tribe at a Time,” as a threat to the global jihad, at least according to the author. In the estimation of General David Petraeus and others, Major Jim Gant was the “perfect counterinsurgent.”

Major Gant, however, was also a psychologically wounded warrior and not fit for combat.   A multi-tour combat veteran, he had severe and apparently untreated PTSD before his final deployment, the result of too much close combat on previous tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.  How long can one ride on the hood of a Humvee, drawing sniper fire and scouting for and finding IEDs?  He was well into drug and alcohol dependence before he deployed.  His condition became worse as his tour progressed.  Indeed, he increasingly became the centerpiece of battles against his twin demons:  the Taliban and his superior officers.  His attitude about war and warfare went off the deep end, and he imagined himself a reincarnated Spartan…

Read on.

‘American Spartan’: Book Review by Gary Anderson, Washington Times

… I greatly admire anyone who can accomplish a dangerous mission without getting his people killed. In this, Maj. Gant performed brilliantly. His Village Stability Operations efforts harkened back to the original roots of the Green Berets by living with and fighting side by side with the Afghan tribesmen, particularly their “malik” (leader).

Maj. Gant appeared to be on his way to great things in the special operations community, but somewhere along the way, things were going badly off the track. A combination of years of combat stress and probably traumatic brain injury had caused him to lose his moral compass…

Read on.


Outlaw 09

Thu, 04/17/2014 - 2:10am

In reply to by LPierson

LP---that is what is so sad in the Ukrainian issue---when we decided to pivot out of Europe it was done in a speech that caught the Europeans off guard---again no direct face to face discussions.

When NSA hit the news especially with their activities in Europe who by the way has a far different view of personal privacy honed by the Gestapo, SS and the Stasi experiences---not a personal face to face meeting.

When the f... the EU hit the Europeans again not a face to face discussion.

And when we unilaterally decided to withdraw all out combat power due to the "cold war" being over again no direct conversations and we then wonder why the Europeans are not so motivated by our leadership.

The same thing goes for now USASF and UW---in the mid 70s it had to survive the drastic cuts being imposed by regular Army while regular Army had the rouge image of it but forgot 70% of hard intel came from it PLUS an unusually large number of CIA directed and successful foreign relations events--again regular Army forgot that.

It is as if the institution is deathly afraid of UW again out of the "rouge" fear not fully understanding their own history and the successes of that history.

But to me as a highly decorated SF VN vet who worked long and hard in the UW world and know it works as both a strategy and as a real effect on the ground I get highly agitated when an equally decorated SF soldier is dropped like a hot iron because they did not forget his moving the goal posts with his release in 2009 of his article which they definitely did not like.

I watched in 71 when SF threw out a MoH winner who was struggling because he was wounded defending SF and the US and USASF did not look good then.

What is interesting though is if one looks at the Brennan visit to the Ukraine Putin got the message ie I have shooters who are good at UW and we understand UW and then the Daily Beast article on the use of UW in the Ukraine if Russia comes in and presto the roaming armed group activities slowed markedly.

Also and Dave is totally correct in this if there is a national UW strategy it gives the decision makers a wide range of options---but that requires military senior leaders, USASF senior leaders and the NCA who can think in UW term-but more importantly act in UW terms.


Thu, 04/17/2014 - 1:26am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Outlaw 09: Yes I noted we offered up similar points in principle. And COL(R) Dave Maxwell even offered parallel thoughts in his 12 Aug 2013 article in "War on The Rocks" regarding UW.

I am convinced, at this point in my life, DOD wants VERY little to do with UW.

Outlaw 09

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 7:45am

In reply to by LPierson

LP---you make some interesting comments and actually raise questions in the direction I had initially responded to.

What the current senior leadership thinks of the VSO program is telling and it goes to my comments that they failed to understand just how the CIDG program was run by the 5th SFGA under the auspices of the CIA.

The entire 5th SFGA CIDG program which in the end was highly successful even if we got beat up on--- was fully funded, supported and paid for by the CIA not the regular Army--herein lies the core issue regular Army and SF IMHO did not want to support out of their own funding streams such a large wide spread concept such as VSO which is supply heavy.

Example---every SF soldier in VN who worked in the CIDG program and or special projects got rations paid in order to feed themselves---here is the key to feed themselves not like now where DFACs have Surf and Turf days and nights. My rations of 19 USD got thrown into the pot along with the entire team's amount and one of the team was constantly on the go scrounging for rations any way possible---from weapons trading to swapping and yes even outright theft if need be and yes hotdogs for a week in multiple variations were the standard if nothing came back in from the scrounging mission.

Was this unorthodox yes but effective at feeding a SF CIDG team.

Let's get more onto such items as ammunition and weapons or simple things like sand bags or barb wire---all begged, borrowed, swapped for or stolen if need be---why because regular Army was not responsible for supplies to the program. It was even worse for vehicles and vehicle repair parts--none of which if requested via regular Army channels ever made it in under six months. Yes SF went through the regular Army supply channels with CIA money but it took months for things to arrive--some items I ordered did not make to me until I left 18 months later. We even took off a RO RO Naval vessel 42 new jeeps destined for the regular Army and flew them all over VN to the CIDG camps---why because SF had virtually little to no jeeps in the camps because regular Army could not "find any" to supply us.

That is why the 5th got the rogue image and had a devil to all on the regular Army side attitude--and on the other side yes we worn the Army green but regular Army did everything to let us know in VN who the boss was from Abrams downward---we did what it took to complete the missions.

But when regular Army units were in dire need of support and or rescue the call went out to the nearest CIDG camp and SF responded no questions asked.

To this day one does not see much written on the simple fact that at the height of VN in say 1970/71 over 70% of actual hard intel being provided to regular Army on both the VC and NVA came via SF field teams.

I even remember once that Congress failed to pass a budget and we got a radio call telling us that we had a choice of one round of mortar ammo for the month and if we were threatened with being overrun we would get an emergency resupply---I took an single 4.2 ammo round and said thank you.

Secondly USASF senior leaders failed to understand what it takes at the camp/team level to fight in a UW environment for at least one full year---toll on the personnel and toll on the mind. 5th Group weekly casualty rates have not been seen since VN by any SF Group even by the 3rd in AFG.

Again I ask a simple question if they knew he was personally struggling then why did they not protect the individual and pull him off the line and help in the recovery process or did they really want to discredit him and the program much as they attempted to initially stop it when he released his article which by the way they definitely did not like him doing.

There is much to this story that I am afraid is not being told and it has to do with USASF.


Tue, 04/15/2014 - 11:45pm

Not sure why a Lieutenant had to be the one who brought MAJ Gant down...

I have difficulty with Mr. Anderson's book review. While the language of the review has the same readability for which he praises the book; it is shrill and emotional. I felt I was reading a journal entry of one who was expressing betrayal as opposed to someone really interested why MAJ Gant went off the rails.

Was it Hubris, really, that felled MAJ Gant? Was MAJ Gant just a rogue in-waiting? Or was it TBI? Could it be the multiple tours, combined with the stresses of staff and field-grade command in the combat environments which was fostering undefined and broad end-states? Was it all of the above? And why did "we" allow this to happen?

Maybe MAJ Gant's situation points out to us that the Military, perhaps, isn't really suited to the conduct of the long war which is UW, or UW-like (anyone willing to look at the VSO program as long term FID/IDAD?) Maybe it is true that DOD can only be in a limited and supporting role of UW; supporting those who aren't constrained? Maybe we have too many "crossed arrow wearers" that really don't believe in the prosecution of a UW campaign that can't be fit into a defined time-line. (Maybe UW is one of those doctrinal anomalies that Thomas P.M. Barnett describes as "we really don't want to do this..."?) Perhaps, there were too many eager to allow MAJ Gant enough rope to hang himself.

In any case, in the end "we" failed him. Again, why was it a lieutenant?


Thu, 04/17/2014 - 1:10am

In reply to by Pol-Mil FSO

First SOF (Thus first USSF) imperative: "...Know your operating environment..." MAJ Gant did have this one down. What ended up badly was his personal situation and circumstances.

Don't kid yourself, even the State Department picks sides. And then wears two faces when trying to explain that it isn't.

Outlaw 09

Tue, 04/15/2014 - 1:17pm

In reply to by Pol-Mil FSO

Core question is always in an UW environment---was it in the end successful or a failure for that particular area/region/valley?

If VSO was to be done successfully as envisioned out of the VN CIDG
program every camp fought for it's own area as the camps were so far apart-much as in AFG--but in the end it was highly successful exactly for that reason and it successfully transitioned over 70 BNs of Rangers and RF/PF troop units to formal government control during the final transition.

In the end is that not what the VSO/ALP is all about---think local act global but under government control.

Pol-Mil FSO

Tue, 04/15/2014 - 1:08pm

I have to disagree with a fundamental premise of Gant's philosophy - that it is useful or even feasible to pick sides in tribal disputes. These disputes usually have a long history of which outsiders are unaware, and the pro-government vs. anti-government orientations of these groups are almost purely transactional and usually transitory at best. Combine an innate cunning with years of experience dealing with foreign soldiers and any tribal elder in Afghanistan can spin a tale that tells us what we want to hear. If one wants to see a good example of how picking sides ends up badly, I would point to the current Provincial Chief of Police in Kandahar.


Sun, 08/03/2014 - 10:56am

In reply to by Bill M.

Back in '06 when discussing the difference between MTTs and ODAs (the gist being why have MTTs when we have ODAs that do combat advising), a young CPT pointed out the difference....MTTs advise conventional forces, ODAs advise unconventional forces. Makes sense to me.

If this is what ODAs are primarily designed to do (and I believe they are), then maybe it is time to put the SF elements, with their IW/ UW expertise, under the CIA, and leave the train / advise / assist (TAA) of conventional host-nation forces to the conventional Army.

I agree with you, Bill. Sometimes, talented soldiers come with odd quirks but still manage to do great things for our country. Perhaps the CIA is better suited to manage such people.

Bill M.

Sun, 08/03/2014 - 9:36am

In reply to by Morgan

Begs the question of whether or not SF and the associated UW mission should remain the military, or fall under the CIA or a new organization along the lines of the OSS? Not defending or attacking Gant, I think it is pretty well known in SWJ circles I disagree with his assumptions and that tribe versus tribe, and village versus village, in Afghanistan only takes us further away from our desired end state. Nonetheless he is an unorthodox warrior, and unorthodox methods are frowned upon in a highly legalistic/over regulated military system. UW more than any other mission set I can think of requires that we implement the mission command concept and leave considerable latitude on decision making to tactical leaders. For that to work it requires we spend more time developing our junior leaders (training and education), and ensuring they understand the commander's intent (which in this case I think, obviously opinion, Gant failed to do).

As for our extremist views on alcohol and women, God help us President Lincoln didn't relieve GEN Grant for drinking, and that subsequent Presidents didn't relieve Ike and MacArthur for having a fling on the side while deployed forward. We need to get to evaluating the total man, and not condemn someone in their entirety for being human. If that individual happens to be a genius at war I personally don't care if he hits the bottle or has a lover on the side. We're too quick to purge talent, and talent almost always seems to come with personality quirks, to conform to PC standards.


Sat, 08/02/2014 - 1:06pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

I just finished the book. Though I knew it was written by his now-wife and is likely biased in Gant’s favor, it has an air of accuracy that is difficult to ignore. Very good read.

Outlaw touches on this: if USSF, whether in the 60s or today, are supposed to be the experts at, & best able to execute, “unconventional” warfare, how can one justify punishing Jim Gant for doing exactly that, and succeeding in the process? I realize that practices like having your civilian girlfriend with you in a combat zone, using medications, and drinking alcohol are no-no’s in today’s deployed Army. But if one is expected to execute “unconventional warfare”, shouldn’t it be expected that its practitioners go about it in unconventional ways?

Outlaw 09

Tue, 04/15/2014 - 1:21pm

Dave---you might not like the following comment but after this following paragraph taken from the article one must ask the current SF senior leadership---do you really really want to make the shift to UW because in fact true UW demands if it is to be successful a totally different mindset other than the current one in USASF.

USASF can recreate itself in the UW world, teach UW, train UW, and act UW--but it takes a particular mindset if a UW team to be successful at UW and if one looks between the lines of Jim himself he was in fact in the tactical zone needed for a functional UW program to be successful---but when the rest of the organization is just going through the motions to reach the end of a deployment, trying to protect itself from outsiders, or just going through the motions of "thinking they are in UW" one must ask itself as an organization why are we taking tax payers money and for what if we cannot protect one of our own?

I inherently remember the critical comments being made by many who were in USASF that totally rejected his article "One Tribe at a Time" in 2009 as being a failed piece of intellectualism---and those were the mild comments.

Many of those comments were not particularly friendly and some questioned his motivation and thought processes concerning the article.

Just a side comment ---Jim had reached out to me during that debate as I seemed to be next to Jim about the only one who defended it as I recognized the CIDG program hidden in the article and the potential it had when he wrote about it.

Now everyone is trying to recreate the boat from 2009 and claim it is a roaring success of some kind.

This paragraph actually scares a former SF vet because it was the same exact mindset ---but on the part of the regular Army ---that tore apart SF after the VN war---so was USASF really protecting one of their own and or at least trying to help one of their own or--- where they far more into protecting the institution? In my former SF days the institution was only as successful as the personnel who drove the success---people were the key and that seems to be missing in all the articles being written about Jim.

That is the core question to be asked as taken from the paragraph.

The resulting investigation reveals the steamy side of being a “perfect counterinsurgent”: whiskey bottles, pills, and a cozy container-for-two in the middle of an Afghan village. Gant’s case appeared headed for a general court martial, but was wisely downgraded to non-judicial punishment.

This is the core question---- "Still fighting a ghost from the end of the Vietnam War, his superiors wanted to protect the Special Forces Regiment from the reputation of being a rogue outfit."

The fate of the Village Stability Operations also hung in the balance. They believed strongly that Special Operations did not mean special ethics or legal shortcuts.

This paragraph to me as a former VN SF vet depicts just how this current SF senior leadership never seems to understand the massively successful history of the 5th SFGA---if they had then why was there no thoughts given to the CIDG program in say 2003 or say 2004 ---but in 2009 it was being rejected out right as not being capable of brining success to AFG when Jim released his article.

Was the current SF senior leadership more worried by the "rouge past of the 5th" than say true "success" in an UW environment---come on.

A second core question also arises and this one is more serious---where was the senior leadership when a Silver Star recipient was mentally and physically struggling after the large number of deployments?

USASF in the mid 70s also threw out SF members (who had served with me in VN) who were struggling with PTSD, drugs, and alcohol-- but that was because the entire Army had no support programs in place for soldiers/or their families and it was a true waste of great soldiers because of it---but in 2010-2013--- what we had no programs in place?

By the way one of those thrown out in 1971 was a MoH winner from my team ---a medic who had been seriously wounded in a major firefight and could not shake the pain killers after recovery and who later died in a motorcycle accident riding high in California-what a waste.

So maybe there are some of us old line UW SF veterans that better understand Jim and the environment he was in than does the current USASF senior leadership. Again it goes to the question protect the person or the institution?

Or maybe some of us old line UW types believe USASF senior leadership simply cannot make the transition to true UW as practiced by USASF until 1979 because of their mindset as reflected in the handling of Jim.

It was important in the old SF days to protect your people and senior leaders did that by leading from the front and often working together with the teams---do not know how many times in Company A 10th in Bad Toelz the European Commander would swim with us the long long miles that combat swimmers put in the pool in a day or he would ski at the front of a team for hours on end on a cross county ski trip--but he led from the front, motivated all,and shared his thinking. He knew the strength of the teams and when they were hurting or even slacking--and he knew that for the entire Company A.

Trust and loyalty. But again this generation of SF is not that of the 60/70s.

Where was that interest in Jim's condition? Where attempts made privately with him---one never hears about it if it was in fact attempted.

Punishing someone for trying something when the war is basically lost sounds strange to me. Guess every failure needs in the end a scapegoat.

Dave Maxwell

Tue, 04/15/2014 - 7:05am

I know people are tired of reading reviews of this book. However, this one is worth reading as it is the most balanced objective review and analysis of Jim Gant's story.