INTO THE FIRE: A Firsthand Account of the Most Extraordinary Battle in the Afghan War
>Mr. Lubin is a frequent Gazette and Leatherneck contributor and correspondent. He is the author of Charlie Battery: A Marine Artillery Unit in Iraq.
On 8 September 2009, a force of experienced Taliban, fighting from preplanned positions, ambushed a larger force of Marines, U.S. soldiers, and Afghan soldiers and border police in the dirty little village of Ganjigal. Some 5 hours later, 30 Americans and Afghans laid dead or seriously wounded, the allied forces having been driven from the village. Co-written with Marine author Bing West, Into the Fire is Medal of Honor-awardee Marine Sgt Dakota Meyer’s breathtaking recitation of one of the most vicious fights of America’s time in Afghanistan. It’s also the story of the differences between the fighting spirit of the Marines versus that of the Army, whose adherence to bureaucracy and an appalling reluctance to fight is likely responsible for the majority of Marines and Afghans killed and wounded.
Into the Fire is a well-written book. Like many young Marines who have completed multiple deployments, Meyer has the maturity of a man far older, which, coupled with West’s fine writing ability, keeps the hyperbole in check and lets Meyer’s story stand on its own merits.
A corporal at the time of the battle, Meyer was the junior member of Team Monti, one of the many small Marine advisor teams that made up Embedded Training Team 2–8, attached to the Army’s 1/32d Infantry Battalion in Regional Command-East. In charge of tactics, operations, and weapons training, Meyer worked closely with Team Monti’s Afghan National Army (ANA) counterparts. He trained the Afghans on the M16 and prior to each patrol inspected their guns and radios, approved their schemes of maneuver, and planned their emergency escape routes; the result was a high level of trust between Meyer and the ANA, especially since he spent hours in wide-ranging discussions during their shared nightly dinners.
Previously trained as a sniper, Meyer employs his ability to utilize terrain to explain what the 115-man patrol was about to encounter:
We were walking into a box-shaped canyon surrounded by high ridgelines. The horseshoe-shaped valley provided the ideal shooting gallery for snipers and machinegun crews. I would have planned to go in with heavy guns, armor, and air cover.
Except Meyer wasn’t in command. He was stunned to learn that, instead of the patrol bringing their gun trucks, they were walking into the village, leaving behind their heavily armed HMMWVs. Thinking quickly, Meyer, carrying an M240G and 500 rounds, decided to walk point with his most trusted Afghan on his flank with a squad automatic weapon (known as a SAW). If they took fire, Meyer reasoned, he could call for artillery or mortar support while the ANA suppressed the shooters.
It was a good plan until Meyer was pulled from the patrol and replaced by a logistician, leaving him able to assist his team only by convincing SSgt Juan Rodriguez-Chavez that they might need to drive into the village to haul their team out.
Even before the patrol left that morning, the Army’s tactical operations center (TOC) at nearby Camp Joyce had already begun fumbling the ball. Special forces reported that 32 fighters were moving from Pakistan to Ganjigal with the observation, “Their movement is organized . . . they are utilizing terrain, stopping under cover and hesitating at all open areas.” A few hours later, a drone circling the area observed both a group of Talibs praying on a hillside along with other fighters moving toward Ganjigal, yet the TOC didn’t see fit to pass any of this to the patrol.
West’s writing is superb as he relates Meyer’s atmospherics:
. . . the patrol launches at 0310 and soon their footsteps crunching in the gravel fades away, . . . the lights in the village suddenly blinking out, . . . Meyer encounters villagers fleeing Ganjigal, . . . and in the pre-dawn, he notes how the mullah’s call to prayer is oddly missing.
And then, as a rocket-propelled grenade streaks in and explodes to mark the start of the horrific day, multiple PK machineguns and AKs open up, and Meyer is reduced to monitoring the radio, trying to make sense of the battle and gain some sort of situational awareness.
Into the Fire is an intense book, and Meyer and West do a thorough job debriefing the fight. Monitoring the radio network, Meyer is aware that his team is not responding, and within minutes of the ambush’s kick off, he’s already being denied permission to bring his HMMWV, with its Mark 19, into the fight.
What’s also intense is Meyer’s recitation of the Army’s repeated denials of artillery, mortar, and air support. Citing the offenders by name and circumstance, Into the Fire not only reveals the multiple shabby reasons why the Marines, soldiers, and Afghan troops were deliberately denied the assistance they needed to stay alive, but also that the TOC at Camp Joyce repeatedly lied to them about helicopter gunships’ assistance being only a few minutes out.
Pathetic as it was, it took the TOC an hour to call Dog Platoon, 1/32d, to “prepare to move forward as a potential QRF [quick reaction force].” Meyer relates that Dog Platoon hesitated to move at all. Instead, Afghan Army HMMWVs quickly left Camp Joyce as a QRF—without a single American soldier accompanying them.
It was less than 90 minutes into the battle when Meyer and Rodriguez-Chavez decided to move into the fight and begin to rescue wounded Afghan forces. They were alone; the Army QRF refused to move, claiming it needed orders from the TOC before it would engage. At approximately the same time, the TOC forbade any artillery support, later citing garbled communications, incorrect calls for fire, and a lack of situational awareness from those fighting.
Meyer and Rodriguez-Chavez made multiple trips trying to reach their team, and while under heavy fire, Meyer saved many wounded Afghan soldiers by loading them into a vehicle and moving to relative safety. Meyer also killed a Talib who was attempting to capture him in hand-to-hand combat, soon thereafter discovering that his team had earlier been overwhelmed and killed.
Into the Fire and Meyer deserve additional respect for discussing his post-combat problems that included PTSD, excessive drinking, and a suicide attempt. He details his feeling of guilt in not saving his team, along with his anger at the Army for shamefully demanding the last four digits of Marines’ and soldiers’ social security numbers before they’d approve artillery, mortar, or air support.
Dakota Meyer is the first living Marine to receive the Medal of Honor in 3 decades. While most books would concentrate solely on his actions, Into the Fire excels by explaining why Meyer believes 8 September was the worst day of his life. This is an extraordinary book.