Salted with Sharks

Book Review: “Horse Soldiers,” by Doug Stanton

In Book Review, Culture Bluffs on February 21, 2017 at 6:27 pm

Book Review of Horse Soldiers by Doug StantonBy Charles W. Buck

No—this is not a review of the old John Wayne cavalry movie of a similar name. This is about a book by a writer from northern Michigan—Elberta country. It is a war story. It is a story of exceptionally brave people. It is not all about men, although some very tough men are core characters. The events in this book are now more than 15 years old, yet it will provide any reader with a better understanding of a place still struggling with a daily reality and way of life shaped by those events, in ways almost unimaginable here in our bucolic existence.

The author, Doug Stanton, is a neighbor from Traverse City. He is a strong presence in our literary environment, having founded the Traverse City National Writers Series the same year this book was published, in 2009. His research is superb and he has used those skills to put together this true account of heroes in our time.

These heroes avoid public notice. One or more could be from Elberta, but you probably would never know. They were from places like “a holler in West Virginia” and “a hardscrabble farm in Minnesota.” But they were all members of the U.S. Army’s Fifth Special Forces Group, the clandestine troops trained to ultimate physical condition, ready in an instant to be inserted into guerrilla warfare anywhere in the world. They were prepared to leave their homes and families quietly, without warning. If they did return, there would be no bands playing.

The Fifth Special Forces Group left just days after September 11, 2001. They were the first responders in the war on Al Qaeda declared by President Bush on September 12. They went to Afghanistan as troops on the ground there, because that is what secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld wanted, and the president approved.

Their mission was to support the tribal chiefs leading an uprising against the Taliban, which included some Al Qaeda forces. They went to direct a massive American airpower campaign against the Taliban, working on the ground, living and moving with the tribesmen in treacherous, unfamiliar terrain. The book describes in splendid detail and with great suspense how they succeeded—first in earning the confidence of battle-hardened warriors and their leaders and then moving into skirmishes and mountainside battles and finishing with a conflagration to wrest control of the key city Mazar-i-Sharif and liberate the oppressed Afghan people.

Their movements required skills for which the Special Forces were unprepared (hence the book’s title): they had to fight on horseback. Some of them had rarely seen a horse, let alone mounted and ridden one into battle. If there can be humor in such dire circumstances, Stanton finds it in the description of their equestrian learning curve in a march across dangerous mountain trails. You will find yourself smiling and laughing while avidly turning the pages to learn what happens next.

Horse Soldiers reached No. 2 on the New York Times Best Sellers list and can be found at the Benzie Shores District Library, in Frankfort.

Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of US Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan. 416 pages. Scribner, 2009

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