Review - Eagle Down: The Last Special Forces Fighting the Forever War
By James King
“Sir, we bombed a hospital.” On October 3rd 2015 a United States Air Force AC-130 conducted an air strike in support of US Special Forces under attack in Kunduz, Afghanistan. Mistaking the building below for a Taliban stronghold, the AC-130 instead hit a Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders) hospital in the heart of the city, ultimately killing 42 people. Wall Street Journal reporter Jessica Donati takes a gut wrenching look at this attack and much more as a part of her inside account of the battle to regain control of the Afghan city of Kunduz and the greater Helmand province in her new book, Eagle Down: The Last Special Forces Fighting the Forever War.
Ms. Donati follows several different Special Forces Operational Detachment-Alphas (ODAs) from 2015, when President Obama announced the end of the combat mission in Afghanistan, throughout the presidency of Donald Trump. Unlike most books of this type Donati does not focus solely on the tactical fight. She instead shifts focus from members of an individual team, to their families at home, to the generals overseeing operations, to the policy makers in Washington DC directing strategy. This interconnected narrative attempts to give the reader an understanding of how decisions made in the Pentagon and the White House touch an individual family through the actions required of their loved ones in the fight.
The book centers on an Army Special Forces officer, Major Michael “Hutch” Hutchinson, commander of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group stationed at Ft. Bragg North Carolina. Hutch in his fifth combat deployment, fourth overall to Afghanistan, would be responsible for seven Special Forces teams across seventeen provinces or almost half the country. Hutch’s decisions that set in motion the AC-130 attack on the Kunduz hospital and the resulting aftermath are the anchor point of this book’s narrative.
Ms. Donati weaves together a story of chaos on the battlefield. Chaos that ultimately results in the misidentification of the hospital as a Taliban strong point. She swings the focus of the story from Hutch and the decisions he has to make, to the hospital and after effects of those decisions. On the ground at the hospital is Doctor Evangeline Cua a surgeon working for Medecins Sans Frontieres who has to overcome the horror of being on the receiving end of an air strike to try and save not only Afghan civilians but some of her friends as well.
Leaving Hutch for a time to deal with the repercussions of his decisions, Ms. Donati delves further into the Special Forces teams by following Caleb Brewer an 18F Intelligence NCO (his rank is never given) from Tucson Arizona. Caleb’s ODA is a part of Bravo Company 1st Battalion 19th Special Forces Group a unit of the Utah National Guard. A team that was well versed in mountain operations, a skill they assumed would make them ready for a deployment to mountainous Afghanistan. Unfortunately things don’t always work out the way they should and the team trained and ready for mountain operations was instead sent to Helmand Provence, a flat desert region pockmarked with farmlands.
Unlike Hutch, this was Caleb’s first deployment as a member of Army Special Forces. He and his team were sent to Camp Antonik in Helmand to partner with Afghan security forces. His newness to the mission resulted in Caleb arriving in 2015 excited to be in a position to make a difference. His excitement quickly turned as the reality of his situation began to set in. Soon after their arrival, districts around Helmand were falling to Taliban control leaving Caleb and his team surrounded by the enemy with the specter of possible insider attacks by their partner Afghan forces they had not had time to build trust with hanging over their heads.
The title of the book comes from a radio code term used by the ODA belonging to CPT Andy MacNeil meaning that one of the team was Killed In Action. Andy’s team saw themselves as “firefighters” being sent from one hotspot to the next by the commander of the Special Operations Joint Task Force. Ms. Donati follow’s this team on an ill fated mission in the town of Sangin in Helmand province. A mission that will see the use of the code “Eagle Down” which will have a ripple effect throughout the team.
While the preceding sounds like your typical fare for the genre of modern military history, Donati however does two things with her book that sets it apart from others. First, is her jumps from the grit of the action in Helmand to the decision makers back in the Pentagon and the White House. These jumps to what troops often refer to as “echelons above reality” bring a new perspective on the impacts of the decisions made by national leaders. It brings to life the impacts troop reductions and restrictions on air support have on the soldiers on the ground in a way not seen in many books of this type.
The other thing that Ms. Donati does different than most books of this genre is bring the reader into the homes of those overseas to see how these deployments effect those left behind. As with the jumps to the strategic decision makers, the reader gets to see how the decisions and actions on the ground in Afghanistan effect the wives, girlfriends, and children of those who answer the call to serve their country.
Ultimately this book is about tragedy, the tragedy of loss, the tragedy of bad decisions, and the tragedy of futility. But it is also a book of survival, perseverance and personal strength. More importantly it’s a book that doesn’t pull any punches. If you are looking for a story that depicts Green Berets as comic book super heroes then you came to the wrong place. If, however, you are looking for an unvarnished depiction of the successes, failures, and losses of men who have put everything on the line for the things they believe in then Eagle Down is for you.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the US Government, DoD, or US Army