Book review: This Man’s Army

Back in 2004, my editor at Gotham gave me an advance copy of this to read on one of my trips to New York. I started reading it in the Port Authority bus terminal while waiting for the trusty NJ Transit 312 to take me back to Atlantic City, and didn’t put it down until I finished it, somewhere south of Tom’s River. I think that says it all. This was a fantastic story, one that all Americans should read, particularly as we consider our commitments to a military presence in both Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s still relevant in 2008, as we are in the midst of another election cycle where the war is a rightfully major issue.

The global war against terrorism was the major issue of the 2004 presidential election, and while rhetoric was plentiful, reasoned discussion was scarce. What began as a police action to support the war on terror in Iraq became hopelessly politicized. As such, public discussion of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan became proxy political battles; partsans of John Kerry insisted that the sitting president had bungled the wrong war at the wrong time, while advocates of President Bush argued that only he could manfully prosecute the fight against terror. Anyone watching cable news during the 2004 election season was treated to dueling pundits repeated this two mantras, as if that might make them objectively true. This may have been cathartic for over-stressed pundits, but it hardly raised the level of knowledge of this crucial issue.

People who seriously care about the war on terror and are interested in how it is perceived by the young people fighting it would do better to read Andrew Exum’s This Man’s Army.

In this autobiography, Exum shares with the reader the experiences that led a young man from Tennessee to the Shah-e-Kot valley in Afghanistan. While at the Univeristy of Pennsylvania, Exum enrolled in the Army ROTC, and after his graduation with a double major in English and Classics, he served at Fort Lewis, Washington, and went through the Infantry Officer Basic Course before meeting the challenge of United States Army Ranger School.

Ranger School, as one can see in this narrative, is a physically and mentally draining multiphase exercise that weeds out the weak and unfit. Exum spends a great deal of time discussing the challenges of Ranger School, which is entirely appropriate; 95% of the US population could probably not pass the initial physical fitness tests of “Zero Week,” which are a prelude to the actual training itself. Exum, then, relates to the reader what was needed to pass Ranger School.

After Ranger School, Exum was assigned to the Tenth Mountain Divison at Fort Drum, New York, and his story continues, as he relates the details of his first command, until it is shattered by the events of September 11, 2001. Exum’s division is then sent to the Middle East–at first Kuwait, as the first conventional unit to deploy as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.

From there, Exum and his platoon eventually are sent to Afghanistan, where they fight in the front lines against the Taliban. It is here that This Man’s Army truly shines, as it tells the story of the war against terror as seen by an intelligent, articulate young officer.

Bottom line, this is a great read that should appeal to anyone with an interest in what’s really happening on the ground in Afghanistan, or comparative military history.

Originally reviewed November 2004.

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