Not a Good Day to Die: The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda

by Sean Naylor

Reviewed by Major Donald E. Vandergriff, US Army
April 24, 2005

Buy at Amazon or Barnes & Noble

Sean Naylor has just published one of the best battle narratives ever written, but more than that, he has written a powerful story of the people behind the decisions and of those charged with their execution. The book is Not a Good Day to Die: The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda (Berkley Books, March 2005), and it is now reaching the larger bookstores.

Buyer beware—Naylor is a good friend. I have enormous respect for his intellect and his strength of character, all of which, I might add, are hidden behind a boyish looking face (which he disguised with a beard during Operation Anaconda) set off with a delightful English accent. But think of Naylor in the same light as how the famous journalist Joe Galloway was portrayed in the movie We Were Soldiers Once and Young—because he is an empiricist who assembles the facts before he comes up with answer. At the same time, Sean is also brave. While working with Army Times in Afghanistan, Sean participated side by side with the soldiers who fought this battle and was on the receiving end of machine gun and mortar fire for much of its second day.

In short, his intellectual quality combined with a great writing style, while also holding respect in the field, places those in positions of power in fear if they have something to hide or don’t like their poor decisions to be placed under scrutiny. At the same time, he garners popular support from leaders of character because of his no non-sense and accurate reporting as a senior writer for Army Times.

As Sean so vividly describes, at dawn on March 2, 2002, America's first major battle of the 21st century began. Soldiers of the 101st Airborne and 10th Mountain Divisions flew into Afghanistan's Shahikot valley and into heavy enemy defenses. They were about to pay a bloody price for high level strategic miscalculations that underestimated the enemy's strength and willingness to fight. Sean’s book highlights that despite a mountain of historical evidence that is now available in the 21st Century via the Internet, our nation continues to make strategic and operational mistakes that, fortunately, an enemy has not yet been able to totally exploit.

The book is one of the finest accounts of modern combat ever. The United States had to depend again on the backs of Army infantryman because of poor strategic, operational and tactical decisions (many of the latter reflecting limited resources, which in turn narrowed courses of action). I keep asking daily why it has to be this way: Why do our politicians and senior leaders not provide the conditions and material our soldiers need to accomplish the tough missions they are asked to perform?

I have seen Sean during lectures about his book get emotional over the fact that the United States had just lost 3,000 of its citizens in the attacks on September 11, 2001, and an opportunity to deliver a decisive blow to the enemy who staged these attacks was squandered due to personal agendas, lack of understanding of war at all levels, and micromanagement driven by an addiction to technology.

The book illustrates that despite being one of the age old principles of war, there was a lack of "unity of command." Yet today’s Pentagon rhetoric says otherwise, with countless words like “jointness” in countless PowerPoint presentations. To prove that jointness worked, and also forced to use every available asset, the Department of Defense threw the SEALS into the land-locked country of Afghanistan. While a several SEAL units performed outstandingly, overall the SEALS were found to be wanting. Again, a strategic mistake, made in the interest of pursuing a personal agenda, led to frivolous use of a well trained asset. This is just the first of many errors that limited what the good people that composed special operations and the light infantry units of the Army could have done.

In fact no "unity of command" existed in Afghanistan, particularly during Anaconda. The Department of Defense refused to commit the forces required to achieve total victory in Afghanistan based on a poor analysis of military history, particularly the Soviet experience in Afghanistan. Plus, the eyes of DoD were already on Iraq, also highlighting that ground cannot be taken and held by precision weapons, only boots on the ground. Instead, they relied and hoped that a hodge-podge of units thrown together at the last would have broken Al Qaeda.

Sean is artful in the way he shows that not only did DoD and General Tommy Franks (who refused to do an interview with Sean) limit the size of the American footprint, so also the Army did not have the fire support needed by the infantry. They also made it almost impossible for Major General Franklin Buster Hagenbeck, commander of the 10th Mountain Division and the ground commander of Anaconda, to win. Hagenbeck was forced to fight with ad-hoc disparate units. He also had to compete constantly with dueling parallel vertical command chains.

Finally, have we learned anything from the mistakes of Vietnam in regards to command and control? General Hagenbeck was second guessed by layers of decision makers up the chain of command. This was a chain of command that operated in a ten-layer force structure evolved from the days of Napoleon, yet no mention is made of its impact when it comes to transformation. The solution is just keep laying more sophisticated and high-tech communications networks over out of date force structures, commanded by people confined by an industrial age personnel system.

Sean shows the impact of what he calls an addiction to technology. Despite the marvels of modern technology, a ground battle cannot be run from thousands of miles away. Nor can people sitting at desks in the Pentagon replace or second guess the decisions of ground commanders. If they don’t like what ground commanders are doing, then they should follow the lead and example of President Abraham Lincoln, who would give his ground commanders the resources, the mission and the latitude on how they were going to defeat the Confederates. But he would not interfere with the tactical or operational details—trusting their supposed professional judgment. Lincoln just kept firing commanders until he found one that did what he wanteddefeat the enemyand, his name was U.S. Grant. Today, with the CNN effect, strategic leaders bind themselves in a zero-defect mentality and feel the need to get involved in every detail to avoid any mistakes. Thus, decision cycles are slowed and opportunities blown.

Readers will not be disappointed by Sean’s book if they liked Mark Bowden's Black Hawk Down. Both books are superb accounts of heart-racing battlefield actions. It would appear to me that the Army would be smart to take Sean’s book, as it did Black Hawk Down, and make it one of its premier must-read books by placing it on every required reading list from the Army Chief of Staff to that of service schools.

The 1993 street battles in Mogadishu, Somalia, and the March 2002 assault on hundreds of al Qaeda fighters and other jihadist guerrillas in Afghanistan's Shahikot valley had almost too much in common: ad hoc mixes of foreign, conventional and special operations forces, confusing command-and-control regimes, an underestimated and determined foe, poor battlefield intelligence, and downed helicopters with wounded soldiers whose predicament threatened to foil the entire mission.

Fortunately for our nation, the other similarity between these books is the story of American battlefield valor, ingenuity, tactical leadership, and martial prowess. At the end of the day in this battle, infantrymen, special operators, aviators, and their Afghan tribal allies got the job done and broke the back of last significant pocket of al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan. It was leadership that held the day as Sean tells the story of the “black” special operations forces reconnaissance missions just preceding the landing of Hagenbeck’s infantry. They were launched by an officer who—insisting on doing so against the wishes of his chain of command—probably saved the whole operation from disaster. But unfortunately, good tactics cannot amend poor strategy.

Major Donald E. Vandergriff, United States Army, teaches military science in the Military Science Department and leadership in the Masters of Leadership Excellence program at the Center of Professional Development at Georgetown University.  He is also a professor at the American Military University.  He may be reached at 202-687-7065, or via email at , or .

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