Unwelcome warrior: New book details rise and fall of Special Forces leader

Jim Gant and Ann Scott Tyson during a walk through the village of Mangwel, Afghanistan in August 2011. Tyson’s new book details Gant’s combat operations in the area, working with the local tribes against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.  -  Image courtesy of Kaitlyn Kennedy
Jim Gant and Ann Scott Tyson during a walk through the village of Mangwel, Afghanistan in August 2011. Tyson’s new book details Gant’s combat operations in the area, working with the local tribes against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
— image credit: Image courtesy of Kaitlyn Kennedy

Army Special Forces Major Jim Gant was one of the most controversial and influential military leaders of our time. His critical essay, “One Tribe at a Time,” which argued in favor of embedding small autonomous combat units on the ground with Afghan tribes to train, live and fight with them against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, spread like wildfire through the highest echelons of America’s military in 2009 and changed the way we conducted clandestine operations in the region.

He was a highly decorated Green Beret who spent his career leading American troops and training indigenous fighters in some of the most remote and dangerous locations imaginable. He rode on the hood of a Humvee, like a Hollywood action hero, and often found and deactivated improvised explosive devices himself, with little or no personal protective equipment. He was reportedly singled out for “removal” by none other than Osama bin Laden himself.

He was also a man with a lot of personal issues, including untreated symptoms of post-traumatic stress, depression and an increasingly serious substance abuse problem.

The story of Gant’s triumphs and eventual removal from command, as well as the deeds of the heroic Pashtun tribesmen who joined forces with him and his unit, is reported in the new book “American Spartan: The Promise, The Mission, And The Betrayal of Special Forces Major Jim Gant” by Ann Scott Tyson.

Tyson, Gant’s wife and a Pulitzer-nominated war correspondent with a decade of combat experience — whose works have appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal — will visit Eagle Harbor Book Company in downtown Winslow at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 29 to discuss the book and her own experiences living and working alongside the characters depicted within it.

Having met Gant and come to share his vision that Americans and Pashtuns could fight together to bring real changes to the area, Tyson accompanied the soldier to Afghanistan, and risked her own life to remain embedded with the tribes and chronicle their fighting efforts. Writing the book about such personal experiences was a far cry from her usual style of matter-of-fact reporting, she said.

“Obviously it’s a much more long-term project,” Tyson said of this, her first book. “This is not a traditional journalistic account, and I had to go well outside my comfort zone [as a writer]. Narrative non-fiction is a different writing style.”

Tyson said that the hardest part about writing the book was breaking away from the objective style of journalism to show what she truly believed to be right and wrong.

“I discovered it’s much more of a stretch [than] as a journalist, when you have to decide what you really believe in,” she said.

Tyson and Gant, who was retired at the rank of captain, now live together in Seattle.

Gant himself said that he is pleased with the book and, having spent his career living and working within the confines of top-level security, is adjusting to being the subject of such a public project.

“It really hasn’t been that big of an issue for me,” he said. “I’m really comfortable with everything that’s in it. The most important thing is that we went out of our way to not give up or talk about anything that is operationally sensitive, to not impact any past or future operations.”

Gant said he believes that, in general, most Americans have been able to reach a place where they can manage to be against a war of which they may disapprove, but still support the country’s actual troops.

“I have always been extremely appreciative of the everyday person saying thank you for your service,” he said. “People may question our roles in both of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but we were supported – as a military – by [the] people.”

The book itself has received praise from numerous noteworthy sources, including David Petraeus, the former CIA director and four-star general who commanded the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, who said it was an “extraordinary, gripping book.”

The character of the cynical world-weary combat correspondent, with haggard voice and a perpetual dangling cigarette, is a fictional staple. Tyson’s writing, however, proves that passion and devotion are not devoid from the genre.

“I think one of the messages [of this story] is it’s good to pursue your passion,” Tyson said. “When people identify a goal, they should go for it. It’s worth it. There was tremendous success in Afghanistan, despite the fact that overall if you look at it as a whole it has been bloody and costly. [This is] a side of the war people don’t really know about. It was Jim’s passion.”

Both Gant and Tyson said that there had already been “some interest” in adapting the book to a movie, or possibly assembling existing footage shot by Tyson with interviews to create a documentary.

While the plot undoubtedly has all the earmarks of a good blockbuster: action, romance and interesting characters, they both agreed that they would primarily be concerned with maintaining the factual aspects of the story.

“We’d like to work with people who are committed to the authenticity of the story,” Tyson said.

“We would both want for it to get into the hands of a really good screenplay writer, dedicated to telling the story right,” Gant agreed.


Author visits Winslow

What: Ann Scott Tyson book signing.

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 29.

Where: Eagle Harbor Book Company, (157 Winslow Way E.).

Admission: Free, seating is limited.

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