February 23, 2017
(+++) THE INEVITABILITY OF HEROISM
The Chosen Few: A Company of Paratroopers and Its Heroic Struggle to Survive in the Mountains of Afghanistan. By Gregg Zoroya. Da Capo. $27.
It is as certain that there will be heroes in war as that there will be cowards. The political rationales for war are many: expanding or protecting territory, imposing ideology or religion, obtaining resources or preventing others from using them, and more. But the methods of war are singular: send people, mostly young and mostly men, to kill other people, mostly young and mostly men, using whatever forms of death-dealing are most efficient in a given age. War is thus an ultimate crucible of personality, with the absolute certainty that some of those on the front line will die – and the equally absolute certainty that some will prove cowardly in the face of imminent death, while others will prove valorous. Therefore, as long as there are wars – and there is little evidence that there will ever not be wars – there will be fodder for books such as Gregg Zoroya’s The Chosen Few. The specifics chronicled will differ from book to book, but the form of the storytelling – indeed, the transformation of chaos and terror into narrative – will remain essentially the same.
Zoroya, a specialist in war coverage for USA Today, gets the formula right and employs it with skill in his story of paratroopers who moved into a remote and largely lawless part of eastern Afghanistan in May 2007 for what seemed a fairly routine mission to support the shaky Afghan government – but who ended up trapped almost from the start, and had to fight their way through three significant battles and substantial loss of life before some of them, the survivors, could leave the area safely. The story is a complicated one that will mainly interest those who find the minutiae of war enthralling. The men’s final battle, at Wanat, was extensively reported, but it may be little-remembered today, since it happened in July 2008 and there has been so very much more that has occurred in the world, and in wars, since then. The two earlier battles, one at an outpost called Ranch House and the other involving an ambush, received little to no media coverage, even though, in the second of them, every single member of the patrol was either wounded or killed. Zoroya, certainly an expert on digging out information on these obscure parts of a war of which most Americans are at best dimly aware in the first place, plays up the heroism of the paratroopers (who really did nickname themselves the Chosen Few) and certainly explains why so many were killed or wounded in action: of the 75 or so members of the group, 56 received Purple Hearts.
Zoroya also does a fine job of humanizing the men, his contrast between the two Medal of Honor winners, Ryan Pitts and Kyle White, coming across especially well. In all, Zoroya interviewed 42 members of the Chosen Few for this book, and his sympathy and empathy and understanding of them – along with his ability to get to the heart of the grinding everyday reality of men under near-constant bombardment, sniper fire and the ever-present threat of death – are everywhere apparent. It is clear that Zoroya admires the men and is glad to have the opportunity to rescue their heroism from obscurity. But it is worth pointing out that it is an everyday sort of heroism during warfare – to a greater degree than is typical, for sure, and with more casualties and more honors handed out to survivors than usual, but nevertheless the same circumstances that members of the United States’ all-volunteer army face every single day, somewhere in the world. This sort of story should by all rights be exceptional, and certainly Zoroya indicates that there is much exceptional about the Chosen Few and the combat they endured. What is missing here, though, and is missing from so many other books that explore wars and the people who fight them, is any sense that this horrible everyday reality is exactly what war is about – it is what war is supposed to be. The enemy – the Taliban, in this case – has its own good reasons for trying to exterminate the heathen foreigners from the land that the Taliban is meant by Allah to rule; this is never stated, but surely it is essentially the rationale of those who tried for 15 months to destroy all the Americans in this one part of the Afghan mountains. For their part, the Americans have every reason to back and try to strengthen a non-Taliban government that, despite enormous corruption and imperfections of all sorts, is at least something of a bulwark against worldwide Islamic murder cults. But for those who chronicle the enormous hardships and heroism of warriors, the rationale for putting them in constant jeopardy, for demanding of them sacrifice after sacrifice – including the ultimate one of their young lives – is almost beside the point.
The Chosen Few is not a geopolitical book or, indeed, a political book at all. Its unerring focus on the enormous bravery of so many members within a single company of paratroopers succeeds in establishing these men as everyday, under-appreciated heroes of far, far greater value to their country than, for example, entertainers and sports figures who receive constant attention and huge amounts of money while denigrating the society that makes their success possible and the people who literally die to maintain that society’s integrity. In the long run, The Chosen Few is an upbeat, even celebratory book, yet deeply depressing at the same time – because the sad reality is that there are many, many, many more stories like this out there at all times, and neither Zoroya nor others who report on war will ever write the vast majority of them. And those responsible for creating the circumstances faced by the Chosen Few are highly unlikely ever to read about them, and even less likely to take their heroism and sacrifices to heart.