Lea Carpenter’s Eleven Days and Aaron Gwyn’s Wynne’s War are the first two contemporary novels to portray United States Special Operations forces at work in the post-9/11 wars. As it happens, both are set in Afghanistan: Carpenter’s featuring a Navy SEAL who goes missing-in-action on a mission that takes place the same night another SEAL team executes the raid that resulted in Osama Bin Laden’s death, and Gwyn’s describing a rogue Army Green Beret “Operational Detachment Alpha” (ODA) mission on horseback across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Carpenter’s novel is not without interest, but concerns primarily the angst of the missing SEAL’s mother while she waits to learn her son’s fate, while Gwyn offers extensive portraits of the ODA on its outpost in Nuristan province and outside-the-wire in search of a Taliban stronghold. Saving discussion of Eleven Days for another post, I’ll claim here that Wynne’s War effectively dramatizes many of the strengths, weaknesses, and persistent questions surrounding Special Operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, while also suggesting the possibilities of fiction for bringing these issues to light.
The role Special Operations played in Iraq and Afghanistan is, we know, “hotly debated,” to use a cliché of student writing. Never fully acknowledged while the wars were raging, a conglomeration of elite units—Green Berets, Army Rangers, SEALs, Delta Force, CIA (or as we were taught to call them “Other Government Agencies” (OGAs)) nightly executed countless raids to seize “High Value Targets” for detention and interrogation. Operating primarily on the basis of signal intercepts of insurgent telephone calls, the raids may well have broken the backs of terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Haqqani network. In other words, they saved American and coalition lives on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan and forestalled terrorist attacks in America and the West. I believe that, but it’s not exactly clear that it is the case, especially since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan can hardly said to have been “won.” Well documented in books such as Jeremy Scahill’s The Dirty Wars (2013) are the negative aspects of darkside operations: Lack of coordination with conventional units. Incongruence with stated counterinsurgency and nation-building goals. Faulty execution that resulted in deaths of innocent noncombatants and seizure of individuals friendly to American forces and the legitimate governments of Iraq and Afghanistan. Divergence of important resources (particularly intelligence and helicopter assets) from mainline units. A general lack of accountability all-around. Speaking from my own experience in Khost province, Afghanistan, I frequently had to do damage control, with limited information, with my Afghan Army partners the morning after nighttime operators laid waste to a kalat, seized an important local official, or shot up Afghan security forces by mistake. These were not once-in-a-while occurrences, either; as Scahill explains, by fall of 2009, General Stanley McChrystal had ordered Joint Special Operations Command—the organization to which special operators of all services reported–to execute at least 90 raids a month in Afghanistan alone.
Whether effective or not, the mystique of Special Operations soldiers and missions dominates popular fascination with the war and, indeed, operates powerfully within the military imagination, too. Every soldier worth his or her salt wonders about the grueling selection procedures and the extensive training programs that turn work-a-day soldiers into Rambo-like purveyors of destruction. Within the range of military units, special forces operate most free of the petty rules and restrictions that make life in conventional units miserable—a freedom flaunted by special operators who appeared to some to spend most of their days pumping iron, firing exotic weapons, and growing beards while line dogs pulled tower guard and rode around in the back of armored vehicles waiting to hit IEDs. Or, as portrayed in Zero-Dark-Thirty, SEAL Team 6—the elite of the elite in the hierarchy of special units, according to their own publicity, at least—barbecued steaks and played horseshoes while waiting for the night’s mission to come down from higher. Grillin’ and chillin’, in other words, and then some killin’.
Gwyn gets a lot of these dynamics into Wynne’s War, even a Green Beret who cooks the best hamburger the protagonist, Elijah Russell, is said to have ever eaten. Russell is an Oklahoman cowboy who gains notoriety by saving a horse caught in a crossfire in Iraq between his Ranger unit and local bad guys. Now famous for his horsemanship under fire, Russell and his best friend Wheels are detached from the Rangers and assigned to an ODA in Afghanistan commanded by a charismatic and ferocious combat leader named Captain Carson Wynne. A two-time high school state champion football quarterback, a Princeton graduate, and a successful Wall Street hedge fund trader before giving it up to become a man-o-war (horse pun alert), Wynne has established what is in all respects an independent command on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Occupy that, brothers and sisters! Barely responsive to his Green Beret bosses, Wynne plans and executes missions as he sees fit, one of which now includes using horses to discover a Taliban lair rumored to house captured American soldiers, stolen Afghan lucre, or both. Snapping his fingers to obtain in a second what a conventional unit full-bird colonel couldn’t requisition in a million years, Captain Wynne has twenty American riding horses, four mules, and two soldier-horsemen—Russell and his battle buddy Wheels—serving in another theater flown in to help execute the mission. The rationale is that horses give Wynne’s ODA quieter, more dependable mobility in tough mountainous terrain than helicopters or vehicles—which is kinda sorta true, but just the kind of quixotic (second horse pun) approach that gives Special Forces a reputation, not for being the best-and-brightest warriors, but for being crackpot dreamers of enormously expensive and non-replicable ways of waging war.
Gwyn does very well by his material. Too savvy—he’s a college professor—to write pulp fiction, Gwyn instead pays homage to the real world mission in which Green Berets rode into battle on horses described in Doug Stanton’s Horse Soldiers and literary antecedents such as Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses and Blood Meridian. No one could miss the parallels to Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, either, with Captain Wynne playing the role of Kurtz and Russell that of the half-entranced/half-horrified witness to Wynne’s half-genius/half-madness. Russell, a junior enlisted soldier, is smart and self-assured, but still young and not privy to the insider culture of the older Green Berets, nor does he have access to all the mission information they possess, so he must make sense of things as they come. A scene in which the Green Beret outpost and its adjoining FOB come under rocket fire illustrates (and brings back memories):
It had taken a while, but the hostiles had finally found positions from which they could range in their mortars, their rockets, and Russell emerged from his bunker into a bedlam of scrambling soldiers and smoke. He followed three men down an earthen trench toward the command bunker, which he saw, once he came onto the packed ground at the center of camp, lay in a smoldering rubble of sandbags and concrete and aluminum sheeting. A young soldier sat in the snow with his rifle across his lap like a child’s toy, head shaved, eyes wet, saying “You got no idea. You got no idea. “ There were men already searching the debris for survivors, and Russell fell in and began to heft bits of broken rock toward a pile that was forming several yards from where the bunker had stood. They’d just uncovered the first body when a man in his observation post called “Incoming!” and they dove behind what cover they could find and waited for oblivion.
Scenes in which Russell observes friendly Afghans decapitate an informer and in which Russell first sees combat with the Green Berets are equally vivid and well-described. So too is a romance Russell sparks up with a pretty medic—that she would give herself to him and not one of the brawny older warriors on the COP stretches things a little, but their junior enlisted youthful chemistry seems right once Russell’s expert horsemanship is acknowledged. But Wynne’s War really accelerates and excels once Captain Wynne, Russell, and the other Green Berets leave their compound in search of the Taliban stronghold:
They rode out of camp in the blue light before dawn, thirteen riders, four mules, six riderless horses bringing up the rear in the remuda. It was the first week of March, and there was still snow in the shadows of the trees and in the stony draws on the northern slopes, but by noon the air was warm enough for shirtsleeves. The horses stepped briskly, vapor rising from their nostrils like steam from a grate….
From this point, about halfway through the novel, to the end, the narrative is a pure rush of story-telling bravado, energy, and skill. Wynne’s War is too recently published to give away plot details here, but nothing I’ve read in the contemporary war lit canon matches the last 120 pages of Gwyn’s novel in terms of harrowing escapades, mounting suspense, interesting developments, and tense human drama. The novel’s preoccupation with horses fades, and the real action becomes a series of running fire fights with wily Taliban foes, battles that generate conflict among the Green Berets and increasing moral uneasiness on the part of Russell. Gwyn’s story-telling snap, crackle, and pop supersedes niggling about military details—it’s inconceivable that the Green Berets wouldn’t have “TACSAT” radios and satellite phones to help them out of their jams, for example—and war story and cowboy movie clichés. As a reading experience Wynne’s War goes where no contemporary war novel has yet ventured: extended scenes of soldiers fighting for their lives, each scene placed in order of increasing intensity culminating in the novel’s climactic gun battle.
Wynne’s War may not be the greatest story ever told, but it is way beyond hokum and malarkey. It confounds literary representation of Iraq and Afghanistan in much the same way that Special Operators themselves confounded thinking about how we went about winning the real wars on the ground. Though Gwyn is ultimately skeptical of Captain Wynne’s mad mission, the author’s writing chops enroute to the novel’s denouement render his Green Beret and Ranger characters fascinating and their story enthralling. Gwyn has figured out that war fiction might, just might, contain exciting events compellingly described. More brooding and contemplative war literature will have to account for the energetic new arrival on the scene.
Wynne’s War by Aaron Gwyn. Houghton-Mifflin, 2014