Special Ops Bro-Hymn: Ross Ritchell’s The Knife

The KnifeUS special operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have been given fictional portraiture in Lea Carpenter’s Eleven Days and Aaron Gwyn’s Wynne’s War, but Ross Ritchell’s novel The Knife is the first to depict in detail the nighttime raids that have emerged as the signature American military tactic of the wars. Ritchell, a US Army 75th Ranger Regiment veteran, has placed his story about a special operations squadron in a mythical War on Terror battlespace called “Afghanipakiraqistan”—the scenes set in urban areas recall Iraq, while those set in desert mountains evoke Afghanistan. The unit—also vaguely described, but by some clues perhaps a US Army Special Forces “Green Beret” team–deploy on a moment’s notice to avenge the massacre of a sister unit. Immediately upon arrival in theater they are propelled into action to kill-or-capture the leaders of a terrorist enemy cell called al-Ayeelaa. Most of the narrative is told through the perspective of an operator named Shaw, but the thoughts and actions of several other members of Shaw’s unit as well as a variety of local Afghanipakiraqistan minor characters are also portrayed independently. Shaw and his team are full of swagger, confident and righteous in their certainty that they are just the men to eliminate the “[b]ad fuckers” of al-Ayeelaa. “Well, now they’re fucked,” Shaw’s commander briefs the men, speaking of their insurgent foe, but as events play out the special operators underestimate al-Ayeelaa, and Shaw’s faith that he is mentally tough enough to withstand the vicissitudes of the warrior “way of the knife” is undermined.

Many aspects of The Knife caught my eye in regard to my own experience in Afghanistan’s Khost and Paktya provinces. There, at least three Special Forces “Operational Detachment Alphas,” a Ranger regiment task force, a CIA-sponsored Afghan militia, and who-the-hell-knows how many other operator-as-fuck contingents vastly complicated my life as an advisor to the Afghan National Army. Explaining to my ANA counterpart why a mullah had been snatched in the middle of the night or the cousin of an ANA officer had been killed on a raid on a suspected bomb factory were several-times-a-week occurrences. The conversations were never pleasant and rarely did I have enough information to be convincing. I was high enough up the chain-of-command to gain some insight on the missions of the special operators in sector, but definitely not on the inside of their decision-making processes. The little I saw, unfortunately, convinced me that their actions were not very integrated in a comprehensive and united effort to support the legitimate government of Afghanistan and defeat its enemies in my area of operations. But I knew far more about their screw-ups—and I was privy to a few doozies—than I did their successes–they may well have saved my life many times over–so I was and remain relatively sanguine about the fact that the dark-side half of the wars has emerged as their most compelling storyline. It’s not as if the efforts of those of us who rambled around Khost and Paktya in the daylight trying to do good—Embedded Transition Teams, Provincial Reconstruction Teams, Agribusiness Development Teams, Brigade Combat Teams, battalion battle-space-owners, and the like—amounted to much, right? So why not give props to those who attacked very directly men-and-women in possession of guns and bombs and with malice toward Americans on their minds?

The Knife confirms the methodology of the midnight raiders: Pass the day pumping iron, shooting at the range, and watching videos while waiting for higher headquarters to send down cell-phone intercepts that confirm the location of evil-doers. Raids based on tips by so-called reliable, friendly informants could easily go awry, but phone intercepts were very precise. When one suspected insurgent called another to say, “Bring the cabbages and the carrots to my house now,” you knew they were talking about bombs and rifles, not produce. The operators would get the word at 0-dark-thirty, jump on helicopters, fly into the night, and execute a raid to kill-or-capture “high value targets” and grab all the weapons, cell phones, and hard-drives they could find: “Jackpot!” and “Touchdown!” in military code word terminology. Then back to base in time for omelets-to-order breakfasts at the team house or camp dining facility.

One scene in The Knife makes a pointed statement about the new way of special operator war. An old-school mission that has Shaw’s team walk dozens of miles through the mountains by night and sleep in their own piss and shit in hide positions by day in order to recon a remote village is a fiasco. On the infil Shaw kills a young boy who compromises the team’s hide position, and when they get to the village they find it abandoned. The boy’s death and the fruitless mission stand in contrast to the less wasteful, less complicated economy of midnight ops. Raids demand little preparation—actions on the objective are by SOP or improvised—and the teams themselves do little to collect, collate, or disseminate intel that contributes to a clearer picture of the enemy situation in sector. The operator way-of-war also requires no engagement with local populaces other than at the point-of-a-gun and little interaction with host-nation military forces save for token efforts to put a “local face” on missions by bringing along a few host-nation soldiers given limited roles. It is waging war reduced to simplicity, and as I’ve suggested above, possibly its most effective, nervous-nelly fretting about “collateral damage” aside.

No wonder men love it so. The last fifth of Ritchell’s novel casts a gloomy pallor on the first four-fifths, but for the most part The Knife is a big, fat wet kiss celebrating special operator culture and tactics. The operators seem enormously pleased with their self-images as swashbuckling rogues who have killed many times with impunity. Huge quantities of dip—the American soldier’s khat—and whatever meds the team doctor supplies keep them completely jacked or pleasantly buzzed or sedated, as needed. Freedom from equal opportunity briefing political correctness, reflective safety belt idiocy, guard duty boredom, and other regular Army horseshit allows Shaw and his team plenty of time for uninhibited sexist banter and horseplay, as well as weight-lifting and target shooting, which is a good thing, because those pastimes are part-and-parcel of the special operations way-of-the-knife. Ritchell’s narrative implies that all the conventional Army soul-of-the-warrior-killing-stuff is directly related to the tactical feebleness of conventional unit presence patrols, key leader engagements, and host-nation development missions: a military and a means of waging war for women and sissies and a waste of time. If an operator momentarily succumbs to thoughts of home or misgivings about shooting a child, there’s always another team member with whom he can exchange a few platitudes such as “I’m getting too old for this shit” and then bro-hug it out. A riotous squad-bay practical joke and another big chaw later, the warrior is right as rain and back in the fight. In this light, the death of friends and remorse about killing are not brutal consequences, but as beloved an element of the way-of-the-knife as dip, night vision devices, and bushy beards.

Ritchell tells his story briskly. Early scene efforts to paint Shaw’s team as colorful raconteurs and masters of insult stumble, but Ritchell’s ear improves noticeably as the novel progresses. A line delivered by an operator before the final mission, “Well. This’ll be an interesting night. I’m gonna go take a shit,” seems to channel the right measure of soldier linguistic flair—it made me laugh, anyway. Descriptions of team work-and-living spaces are detailed and interesting, and descriptions of combat are page-turners. The Knife is narrated in that terse, just-the-facts style that gets the job done of writing a novel from start to finish without being absolutely horrible, if falling far short of the highest levels of imagination and insight the novel also makes possible. Note the short sentences and extremely basic sentence patterns of the following passage:

Shaw shot out of bed, rattled. He hadn’t even felt the beeper vibrate in his pocket. It glowed with a 1 and headlamps started popping off in the tent. They hadn’t been in bed for more than a few hours. Shaw looked at his watch. Not even 0900 hours yet. He still hadn’t brushed his teeth from the long walk. He could taste too many days of chaw and dirt and Skittles and filth. His breath smelled like something had died in his gut.

Ritchell either idolizes Hemingway, or his prose has been hammered into lean, mean fighting shape by his MFA instructors and publishing house editors. Not that that’s a bad thing; it stands a better chance of being popular than any prose style I would favor more. My thoughts about The Knife—subject, theme, and style—it seems clear, then, are as ambivalent and conflicted as my thoughts about the real-life special operators I met in Khost and Paktya. Honestly, however, in the new world of war, anything’s better than asking conventional line units to battle highly motivated irregular enemy forces while simultaneously trying to prop up feeble nation-states, and the only other option, short of not fighting, is to bequeath the effort to those who believe whole-heartedly in the idea that they are “special.” The Knife offers a pretty clear picture of what we’re going to get when we do.

Ross Ritchell, The Knife. Blue Rider Press-Penguin, 2015.

4 thoughts on “Special Ops Bro-Hymn: Ross Ritchell’s The Knife”

  1. Heh, it’s always entertaining to hear you take on the Special Ops myth. Sometimes I think the general public assumes that is 90% of what the wars have been.

    Lauren Halloran reviewed ‘The Knife’ on the Mil Spouse Bk Review back in May if you want to see what she thought: http://militaryspousebookreview.com/2015/05/12/wishing-it-was-you-glad-it-isnt-lauren-halloran-discusses-the-special-ops-myth-the-discomfort-of-war-in-ross-ritchells-the-knife/

    If only the world could just bro-hug away all its problems!

  2. Wow. Absolutely great post and review, Pete. Like Andria, I’m glad to see you taking on some of these narratives. As a lowly transportation corps soldier at Fort Stewart, I did some idolizing of those guys in 1/75, and as I transitioned through Bagram, I was kind of awed by those guys with the bushy beards and fancy rifles. I knew there was a flip side to it that I sort of saw articulated in the “your velcro and your dip” line in ZDT, and more fully spelled out here in your review. FWIW, I also just read Sean Naylor’s amazingly well-documented nonfiction history of JSOC, and it’s fascinating in its big-picture detailing of the command’s internal squabbles and power struggles.

  3. Thanks, Mike. I’ll look for Naylor’s book and will also plug Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars, which is very critical of JSOC. Stanley McChrystal’s memoir My Share of the Task and umpty-ump SEAL memoirs also offer inside looks at the rise of JSOC and operator culture and tactics from a more positive perspective. You aren’t the only one awed by the men with bushy beards. One of the best passages in Dirty Wars recounts President Obama’s amazement at the SEAL team deadly efficient takedown of the Somali pirates dramatized in the movie Captain Phillips, an event that made the president ever eager afterwards to find a special operations solution to any military problem that comes along.

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