SWJ Book Review: The Wolves of Helmand: A View From Inside The Den of Modern War
Frank “Gus” Biggio, foreword by General Stanley McChrystal, USA Ret. The Wolves of Helmand: A View From Inside The Den of Modern War. Forefront Books, 2020. Distributed by Simon and Schuster: USA. [ISBN 978-1-948677-64-6, Hardcover, 288 pages]. Due to be released on 10 November 2020.
Author Frank “Gus” Biggio has written a book that contributes greatly to understanding the situation facing the US during the crucial “Surge” years of 2009-2010 in Helmand Province of Afghanistan. This book is a raw, unvarnished account of what it was like at the “muddy boots” level to wage a counterinsurgency campaign in a volatile district that eventually chooses hope because of the Marines. It has its tense moments for what it was like on patrol and in combat, but also has its humorous side as well as the humanitarian aspect of being closely engaged with the local tribes in the district. The books gets its title from Chapter 19 “An Honest Man in the ‘Stan” which has a vignette of Gus deliberating with a local farmer about a battle damage claim for a cow that he alleges the Marines were involved in. When asked to produce more than just a cow’s tail as proof, the local stated that “The Wolves of Helmand” ate all but the cow’s tail!
The author had been a Marine Infantry Officer from 1993-1997 and left the Corps to pursue studying Law and working in New York City and then Washington DC. As the events of 9-11 and after unfold, Gus Biggio feels the call to serve and rejoin many friends he had known in the Marine Corps. In 2007, he joined the Marine Corps Reserve unit, Civil Affairs Group (CAG) in the Washington DC area. The CAG provides Marines to maneuver units and headquarters to help build conditions and relationships with the local governments and population. Civil Affairs focused on supporting their maneuver battalion in creating a better environment to alleviate social, political and economic conditions that may have led to the local conflict. This often led to Marines and sailors applying their civilian skills and know how to help provide grants for infrastructure like schools and health clinics, industry and agriculture, advise holding local elections, create good governance and the rule of law. Gus’s Team was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines (1/5) in the Nawa District of Helmand Province, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel William McCullough.
The book is organized into a foreword, thirty-three chapters with four appendices and end notes. The entire book read from cover to cover is a chronological account and narrative of this time. However, the author also intended that each chapter be capable of being a stand-alone story that captures a lesson and informs the reader of his and his fellow Marines and sailor’s experiences.
Over time other accounts of Civil Affairs activities have been chronicled in such books as John Hersey’s WWII Classic, A Bell for Adano, and Vern Sneider’s Teahouse of the August Moon, where GIs of the Greatest Generation collided with local culture to help alleviate their woes. Frank “Gus” Biggio gives that modern look to Civil Affairs in the 21st Century as his subtitle suggests: “A View From Inside the Den of Modern War.”
The way the book is organized with a title for each chapter and a corresponding quote reminds me of War Correspondent Michael Herr’s Dispatches, one of the most famous books about the Vietnam War written in 1977 for the American public to understand the average service member’s tour of duty. My personal favorite section of Gus Biggio’s book is the appendix, “Corps Quotes: Things People Say in a War Zone”. It truly captures the raw unfiltered sad, funny and sometimes outrageous things Marines and Sailors tell each other in times of adversity.
In 2009, Gus said goodbye to his wife expecting their second child, and sixteen month old son as his Team trained and deployed to Afghanistan. His experiences discuss predeployment training with 1/5, deployment via Manas Kyrgyzstan to Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan and then finally to Patrol Base Jaker, held by our British Allies, just prior to Operation Khanjar (Strike of the Sword) by Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Afghanistan (MEB-A) into Nawa, Garmsir, and Khaneshin Districts in July 2009. Operation Khanjar was the largest USMC Helicopter borne Assault since the Vietnam War. In the Commanding General’s words “They flooded the zone” with units to disorient the Taliban and take on a battle of movement whereas the British had been largely static. The first phase of the operation involved combat with any Taliban who chose to stand and fight. The second phase, was after about a month of movement, was to establish Patrol Bases and Combat Outposts near population centers that our Afghan Partners used such as the District Centers, largely uninhabited bazaar areas close to local governmental buildings. For years the Taliban “shook down” locals for “protection money” to live or work in the local area. The Marines presence would prevent that and allow time for local projects to benefit the population. In effect establishing these local relationships, the Marines became “Warrior-Diplomats”. The constant engagement by 1/5 and its Civil Affairs Team built a relationship of trust that is so crucial in Counterinsurgency Operations. It actually fostered the “coming over to the government side” by former local Taliban. It was one of the most pacified areas in 2009 and one of the first areas General McChrystal visited as the new Commander International Security Assistance Force.
Gus Biggio covers both phases of Khanjar, with Chapters 5 through 28 detailing the struggle to gain a “security bubble” around the District Center and Bazaar to the loss of Marines to combat and IEDs. His most poignant chapters are Chapters 14 “The Cost of Conflict” and 15 “Conversations With God”. During this period, 1/5 lost four Marines. Sergeant William Cahir on August 13, 2009, who was Captain Biggio’s Team Chief was lost to a sniper’s bullet in clearing operations North of Nawa during Operation Eastern Resolve II, prior to the Afghan Elections. Bill Cahir was an exceptional Marine. A former staffer of Senator Ted Kennedy, then a career journalist he joined the Marine Corps Reserve at age 34 after 9-11. He served in Operation Iraqi Freedom in Ramadi in some of the toughest fighting in Iraq, before returning to civilian life where he ran as a Democratic candidate for Congress in PA. He did not win the election, but decided to deploy again at age 40, to Afghanistan to assist the younger members of the unit. Bill’s wife Rene was expecting twins when he deployed. It was a very deep loss for 1/5, the CAG and MEB-A. Bill Cahir’s Alma Mater, Penn State University founded Cahir Corps which is a student run organization of volunteers to alleviate poverty and homelessness in the community, in memory of Bill. Gus also writes of Lance Corporal Donald J. Hogan of Alpha Co. 1/5, who was walking point and saw a kite string go taut signaling a command detonated IED in their path. LCPL Hogan shouted a warning to his squad mates, and ran to push down the closest Marine to the IED. He did not survive the blast, choosing to warn his friends first. LCPL Hogan posthumously received the Navy Cross, our nations 2d highest award for valor. His parents, Jim and Carla Hogan founded a non-profit called “Socks for Heroes” to supply deployed troops clean socks which are essential for infantrymen. They also support Marine families with grants and feed deploying Marines. They continue to honor his memory in this way. Gus Biggio also tells us about LCPL. David R. Baker a native of Ohio from Weapons Company 1/5, who was also lost to an IED. He is remembered by his family and fellow Marines in the book From Yellow Ribbons to a Gold Star: Biography of a Hero LCPL David R. Baker. On November 10, 2009, 1/5 was getting ready to commemorate the Marine Corps Birthday when one of its own, LCPL Justin J. Swanson was driving an armored HMMV when it struck an IED. LCPL Swanson was from Anaheim California and has been memorialized at Camp Pendleton with the 5th Marines Memorial and with Street Banners in his hometown honoring his memory and sacrifice.
The individual Chapters recount small stories of interactions with locals. Each chapter has a corresponding quote that provides insights into the vignette described. Chapter 19 “An Honest Man in the ‘Stan” actually recounts Captain Biggio paying half the funds to a local man, Mohamed Watik who wanted to build a bridge to cut down on travel time for locals. When Mohamed returned for full payment in what Gus considered a short time to complete it, and with no proof, Gus accused him of not completing the job until he could see it himself. After taking a patrol to verify, Gus was amazed at the solid bridge built and felt bad for criticizing Mohamed. So he invites him back to the Patrol Base and fed him before paying the final amount. As Gus apologizes to Mohamed as he gets up to leave, Mohamed tells him “Oh Sahib, I don’t blame you. I wouldn’t Trust an Afghan either.” Through these nuanced stories Gus paints a picture of a society struggling after 40 years of war. He also describes what it’s like for the deployed Marines and Sailors as well as their families. He also discusses in Chapter 30 “What’s it Like To Go To War” with his friends back home, and readjustment in Chapter 31 “Going Home”. Chapter 30 is the current veteran’s experience of civilians never exposed to trauma asking combat veterans questions which the veteran may not be ready to answer.
The author also discusses how the situation has rapidly changed since 2009-2010 in Helmand Province. He closes his book recounting all the interactions with the locals which builds hope for the younger generations. “Afghanistan was not perfect when I arrive there in early 2009 or when I left later that same year. And those Marines, it’s far from perfect today. But we Marines serving with 1/5 did our part when called, and we did a damn good job. I won’t speak for those Marines but for me, it was worth it.”
This book is highly recommended for the training of Marines and sailors in Civil Affairs and Counterinsurgency. It should be considered for use by the Marine Corps Civil-Military Operations School and the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School Civil Affair’s Course. The US Agency for International Development should also consider it for professional development. Marine Corps University should nominate it for inclusion in the Commandant’s Reading List. As a former Team Member of MEB-A, I found his work thorough and compelling. We need to capture the history of such work as the need for Counterinsurgency and Civil Affairs capabilities may be in our future again, although DoD has moved on to Great Power Competition. The political, social and economic conditions that exists in Afghanistan exists in many other spots on the globe today.
About the Author
Reviewed by Colonel Wm. Preston McLaughlin, USMC Ret. currently a Board of Directors member for the Center for a Secure Free Society, and previously an Adjunct Professor at the Daniel Morgan Graduate School of Washington DC. In his 27.5 years of active duty he served in Assault Amphibian and Marine Corps Security Forces units. He is a Foreign Area Officer for North Africa after serving in the Military Observer Group in the UN Mission in The Western Sahara (MINURSO). He is a Combat Veteran of Operations Desert Shield/Storm and Operation Enduring Freedom. He has commanded from the Platoon to the Regimental level. His last assignment on active duty was as the Chief of Staff for 2d Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Afghanistan 2009-2010. His education includes a BA in Political Science from The Citadel, a Masters in Military Studies from Marine Corps University, an MA American History from GMU, and a Masters of Strategic Studies from the US Army War College. He is a Joint Qualified Officer graduate of the Joint and Combined Warfighting Course. He is a recipient of the Dr. Elihu Rose Award for AWS, MCU. He has previously served as Associate Professor and Acting Chair of the National Security program; and on the faculty of the Amphibious Warfare School, Marine Corps University; Program Manager at the Krause Center for Leadership and Ethics; and Adjunct Faculty at The Citadel, The Military College of SC.