The battle began with a failed attempt to land a small SEAL team on a mountaintop, who would then call in fires on Al Qaeda elements in the valley below as a supporting part of the broader campaign. Due to some initially minor mishaps, the SEALs had to be inserted directly onto the mountaintop via helicopter as dawn was breaking. Unfortunately, the landing zone had not been properly surveilled and a dozen or two Chechens had a small bunker complex right there. The helicopter was ambushed as it was landing, one SEAL fell off the back ramp and was left behind, while the shot-up helicopter limped away. The remnants of the SEAL team went back to rescue the fallen SEAL and were promptly trapped there as well. The SEALs took heavy casualties and the survivors started limping down the mountainside. A Ranger quick reaction force was sent to the same landing zone with virtually no information, and became pinned there with heavy casualties. Eventually more Rangers were sent to relieve the first batch and helped fight off a brief counterattack, but then none of them could be extracted until nightfall. It was a horrendously bad operation from start to finish.
It would probably be both unproductive and inappropriate to “Monday Morning Quarterback” the decisions made throughout the operation, so I won’t do that here, but I will say that the operation can provide insights into some of the problems experienced in modern combat. For example:
* The relentlessly “can-do” attitude adopted by most US soldiers and officers can have disastrous consequences — commanders must afford subordinates the ability to say “sorry, sir, it can’t be done given my resources and constraints;”
* Overly complicated command, control, and communications arrangements can also cause serious problems;
* Murphy’s Law (call it Clausewitzian “friction” at the tactical level if you must) is alive and well, and still fully capable of wreaking havoc on the advanced technologies used by US troops;
* The effects of this friction can be at least partially mitigated by proper intelligence preparation of the battlespace (which did not occur in this instance);
* Technology is wonderful when it works, and disastrous when it doesn’t (but then again, any computer user has already learned that lesson many times over).
So are these problems unavoidable? Are they simply an inevitable consequence of the “American way of war” (if such a thing exists)? I’m not sure, and Roberts Ridge provides no real set of lessons learned, just a cautionary tale of what happens when things go very badly. It is also a tale of unimaginable bravery on the part of most of the US combatants, and, I think, a tale of moral cowardice by some of their military commanders, who failed the men on that mountaintop very badly.
So: it’s a good book. It’s not without its flaws though. I would have liked to have a better sense of the operational context for the events described in Roberts Ridge. Here I am thinking something along the lines of how Mark Bowden began Black Hawk Down: a brief description of the overall campaign, followed by a narrative that provides an overview of Operation ANACONDA. Readers will have to find that elsewhere, as the book plunges into the action as the first helicopter loaded with SEALs is about to take off. While that immediate jump into the action provides an engaging way to start the book, as the various rescue operations unfold, it rapidly becomes clear that the reader needs a better sense of what else was going on simultaneously and why the resources that were allocated to rescue and relief operations were so constrained. Without this information, the reader can only ask why were the combatants so ill-prepared, and why were they allowed to suffer for so long before there were exfiltrated. Better maps would also have helped, as would a list of the individuals and callsigns involved in the operation. The author has provided a brief annotated bibliography that is useful.
The official DoD “executive summary” account of the battle is reprinted as an appendix in the book, but is also available online.
I give his one 3.5 stars out of 5. The book was a quick-read, no real analysis, just a factual account of a small operation that went very, very badly, interspersed with characterizations and backgrounds of many of the key players. Recommended if you are interested in accounts of recent combat operations in Afghanistan.
Review copyright 2011 J. Andrew Byers