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No Way Out: A Story of Valor in the Mountains of Afghanistan

No Way Out: A Story of Valor in the Mountains of Afghanistan
by Mitch Weiss and Kevin Maurer

List Price: $16.00 
Hardcover: 336 pages
ISBN: 0425253406
Publisher: Berkley Trade
Publish Date: December 31, 2012

Reviewed by Bob Seals

The Silver Star is our nation’s third highest award for valor. As per regulations, recipients of the award must distinguish themselves by extraordinary heroism during armed conflict. To date, after a decade of combat in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, the United States Army has awarded some three hundred Silver Star medals to soldiers. For ten of these prestigious awards to be earned for one engagement indicates a level of heroism rarely seen during the ongoing War on Terror. Furthermore, such a high number of decorations for valor can, at times, indicate a mission gone wrong. This is the case very vividly described in the recent book published, No Way Out: A Story of Valor in the Mountains of Afghanistan, by the noted authors Mitch Weiss and Kevin Maurer. The book is a quick, gripping read but one that is deadly serious and should serve as a sober warning to all Special Operations commanders contemplating sending men into a high risk operation in any theater of operations.

No Way Out begins with an opening character sketch of the Army Special Forces Detachment Alpha (SFODA) members dreading a mission that no one wanted to execute. Operation COMMANDO WRATH was to be a multi-SFODA combat advisory mission with Afghan Army Commandos to capture or kill a high-ranking commander of the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG) in the inhospitable mountains of eastern Afghanistan. Involving a risky, daylight air assault landing into a stream crossed valley followed by a steep climb up rocky slopes to the target village, COMMANDO WRATH had the potential to be a rather epic event, one that could be either a successful Point Du Hoc-like assault or a disastrous withdrawal from Dieppe, albeit on a smaller scale.

The book itself is written and laid out in a rather unique manner. The authors organized their material into five sequential parts: Pre-mission, Contact, the Ledge, Escape, and Aftermath, with 93 separate chapters, some as short as one page of text. Each chapter tells the story of an individual U.S. Army SFODA member before, during and after the intense Afghanistan engagement. This writing technique, somewhat reminiscent of S.L.A. Marshall and his pioneering oral combat interviews, allows the authors to move and narrate across the intense battlefield giving the reader an understanding of how flawed a concept Operation COMMANDO WRATH was that cold April day in 2008. Just how bad the mission concept was can be gauged by the Afghan Army Commando Commander’s comment after the concept of operation brief, “This is not a good plan my friend.” The actual mission turned out to be walking into an enemy buzz saw as the allied forces encountered hundreds of well-armed and trained insurgents holding and fighting from the high ground, with some 70 close air support (CAS) missions flown in support of the pinned down friendly forces during a six hour period.

Apart from the gut-wrenching combat described, the book is also an accurate depiction of the numerous joys and frustrations of a typical Army SF Foreign Internal Defense (FID) mission in a third-world nation. FID, as illustrated in the book, is mostly difficult, dirty and unglamorous work where one is often more of an elementary school teacher than combat advisor, but this mission, along with Unconventional Warfare (UW), is the heart and soul of SF, vice a cinematic “Act of Valor” Direct Action (DA) existence.

Both authors are skilled in their craft and No Way Out reflects this fact. Mitch Weiss, currently the editor of the Charlotte Observer newspaper, is a 2004 Pulitzer Prize recipient for investigative reporting, and Kevin Maurer is an experienced observer of Army and Joint SOF overseas operations. For Mr. Maurer this is his second book about Army SF, following the well-received Lions of Kandahar, with an additional book soon to be published. Maurer is also the co-author of the recently controversial US Navy SEAL book about the Osama Bin Laden raid, No Easy Day. In all likelihood his access to any Special Operations units is now effectively over.

Ultimately this is a disturbing book. The book is written for the general public; however, and military historians of the future will lament Maurer’s continued lack of footnotes, sources and an appendix in his work. Additionally an operational timeline of the engagement would have been most useful to follow the intense combat described. That stated, the book does amply illustrate the incredible professionalism and courage of the Special Forces Detachments and their Afghan Army Commandos who scaled up those rugged mountains in the Shok Valley of eastern Afghanistan in April of 2008; however, the book should also serve as a sobering warning of the dangers associated with violating standard operational planning doctrine and forcing even a highly trained, equipped and supported Army Special Forces unit to execute a poorly conceived combat operation they did not plan. No Way Out should be required reading for all Army Special Forces leaders at every level.

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