Let me be clear about what I’m writing here. This is not only a story about disgraced U.S. Army Special Forces major James Gant. This is also a story about a story about Jim Gant.
On March 24, David Wood at Huffington Post published a glowing profile of Gant that carefully, even elegantly, talks around the shocking reality of Gant’s rise and fall as a commando officer in the Afghanistan war.
Gant had invited his girlfriend Ann Scott Tyson, a Washington Post reporter, to accompany him and his team on secret missions in a remote province in eastern Afghanistan in late 2010. And according to Wood quoting Tyson, Gant armed Tyson, teaching her to use “almost every weapon” in the Special Forces inventory.
Gant and Tyson, who are now married, lived close together in Afghanistan while unmarried—a big no-no by Islamic standards. Gant also kept alcohol in Afghanistan, where drinking is illegal. And he had unauthorized drugs and unsecured classified documents.
This long list of violations got Gant fired, demoted and kicked out of the Army. Tyson wrote a hagiographic book about her disgraced husband called American Spartan. I have not read it.
In his Huffington Post profile, Wood helpfully promotes the book and attempts to rehabilitate a rogue officer who clearly possesses essentially zero regard for Islamic customs, military regulations and common sense.
Gant, Tyson and Wood’s combined tale is a cautionary one about military hubris, cultural insensitivity, unsafe firearms practices and, on top of everything, piss-poor journalism.
‘I came here to kill’
Gant is by all accounts a brave and aggressive soldier. The Army awarded him the Silver Star—the nation’s third-highest honor—for his role in a brutal gun battle in Iraq in 2006. “I came here to fight,” Gant said at the award ceremony. “I came here to kill the enemy.”
He echoed that sentiment in an interview with Wood. “I am in a group of outliers that really, really, really enjoyed combat, to include killing—to hunt another human being down and shoot him in the face,” Gant said.
Deploying to Afghanistan after his stint in Iraq, Gant realized killing wasn’t enough. “If all you’re doing is killing, and you’re not gaining security, something is wrong,” he told Wood.
As commander of a Special Forces team in restive Kunar province near the border with Pakistan, Gant helped stand up local police units. That meant working alongside men who occasionally might align with the Pakistan-based Taliban.
In his 2009 monograph One Tribe at a Time, Gant appealed to the U.S. military in Afghanistan to adopt what the Army calls “Foreign Internal Defense.” That is, sending in small teams to train local security forces, building security from the village level up—a practice that Army Special Forces and their predecessor commands have been honing since World War II.
Wood’s article makes it sound like Gant is wholly responsible for convincing Washington to give Foreign Internal Defense a real chance in Afghanistan. Gant himself seems to want that credit, if his disclaimer in One Tribe at a Time is any indication.
“Although I credit the U.S. Army Special Forces for the training I have received and the trust of its commanders,” Gant wrote, “nothing in this paper reflects the ideas and thinking of any other person or organization.”
Tyson first met Gant at his 2007 award ceremony and, in 2010, wrote about him for The Washington Post, describing the officer as “the Green Beret who could win the war in Afghanistan.” That article celebrates Gant’s “intense” personality, his many arm tattoos and his love of children.
As a journalistic profile, Tyson’s 2010 piece actually isn’t bad. It’s what happened next between Tyson and Gant that should raise eyebrows. “Spending time with him, she began to share his vision,” according to HarperCollins, Tyson’s publisher. “Risking her life, she accompanied him to Afghanistan to cover the story. And then they fell in love.”
It should go without saying that a reporter should resist “shar[ing] vision” with a subject—and should also try not to fall in love with them. But hey, the heart wants what the heart wants. The problem is that Tyson continued writing about Gant in a journalistic capacity even as she was falling for him—and Wood seems okay with this.
And of course Tyson’s publisher is on board. “Lawrence of Arabia meets Sebastian Junger’s War in this unique, incendiary and dramatic true story of heroism and heartbreak in Afghanistan written by a Pulitzer Prize–nominated war correspondent,” is how HarperCollins describes Tyson’s American Spartan.
Almost sounds like journalism, doesn’t it? So does Wood’s profile.
Tyson took a leave of absence from The Washington Post and joined Gant in Kunar in late 2010, ostensibly in order to write American Spartan. But Tyson’s experiences with the Special Forces in Kunar were more intimate than a typical media embed—something Wood fails to point out.
Gant taught Tyson to use Special Forces’ weapons, presumably including, at a minimum, assault rifles and handguns. “On missions with Gant and his team, she wore U.S. military fatigues and tucked her hair up under a ballcap,” Wood writes. “Her job in a firefight was to pass ammunition to the turret gunner.”
I’ve embedded dozens of times with a dozen different armies—once even with Army Special Forces. My hosts never offered to train me on their weapons. In several firefights, no one ever assigned me the job of handing out ammo. I never wore military fatigues, in part because I didn’t want anyone to mistake me for a soldier.
Because I’m not one. It seems that in the company of a warrior she greatly admired—and was growing to love—Tyson forgot that she’s not a soldier, either.
The Pentagon doesn’t authorize journalists to participate in combat. When reporter Michael Yon, himself a former Green Beret, picked up a rifle and opened fire to help protect a wounded American soldier in Iraq in 2005, it whipped up a bureaucratic shitstorm inside the Pentagon—and what one news report described as “a stern reprimand from the Army” for Yon.
But Wood gives Gant a pass for more or less enlisting Tyson. “They argue in the book that her presence was a useful link to village women and helped cement ties between the Americans and the Afghans,” Wood writes.
It doesn’t occur to him that, in fact, the mere presence of an unmarried woman in a formal setting might be highly offensive to conservative Afghans.
Besides arming his girlfriend journalist, Gant broke lots of other Army rules in Kunar. He drank alcohol and took sleeping pills, painkillers and “other pharmaceuticals,” according to Wood. Gant kept classified documents in his room, in violation of specific government guidelines for securing secret information.
“Yes, I broke those rules and I never say I didn’t,” Gant told Wood. “But I mean, we’re not talking rape, murder, stealing property.”
Wood seems content with Gant’s rationalizing. After all, in Wood’s estimation, Gant and Tyson did extraordinary things in Kunar. “They’d visit villages and listen respectfully to the elders’ ideas—a time-consuming tactic not always practiced by other American soldiers,” Wood writes.
Only that’s exactly what countless American soldiers routinely have done in Iraq and Afghanistan for a decade or more. I’ve sat in on literally hundreds of those meetings. Does Wood seriously not realize how widespread the practice is?
Not so fast
Gant isn’t the military genius that he, Tyson and Wood would have you believe he is. Foreign Internal Defense was an established doctrine before the 46-year-old Gant was even born.
The former major didn’t invent counterinsurgency practices such as soldiers meeting with village elders. Nor is Gant responsible for America’s increasing reliance on secretive Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan and other conflict zones.
In fact, the very first U.S. troops in Afghanistan in late 2001 were Army Special Forces. These Green Berets trained and led local forces, just as Gant did in Kunar in 2010.
More broadly, in 2004 the administration of then-president George W. Bush authorized the so-called “Al Qaeda Network Execute Order,” a legal justification for a major expansion of U.S. special operations all over the world.
Pres. Barack Obama’s administration inherited the spec ops order and expanded on it in Afghanistan and a dozen other countries. In celebrating Gant’s supposed achievements, Wood leaves out this important context.
To Wood, Gant is the reason America sent commandos into rural Afghanistan to work with the tribes. To Wood, Gant’s successes excuse his excesses. And to Wood, it was a travesty that the Army yanked Gant out of Afghanistan in March 2012, demoted him to captain and compelled him to take an early retirement.
“On the basis of what Gant considers trumped-up charges of drinking, keeping drugs, living with Tyson and endangering the lives of his men due to his disregard for standard military procedure,” Wood writes, “in March 2012 Gant was plucked from his American and Afghan team and flown back to the states, where he received a severe, career-ending reprimand.”
The Huffington Post writer clearly sides with Gant’s explanation for his career’s abrupt end. “At the heart of the military’s discomfort, Gant believes, was his insistence that he could trust his life, and those of his men, to the tribal Afghan fighters he’d trained and armed,” Wood writes.
Wood insists that the Foreign Internal Defense strategy in Afghanistan “ended badly” along with Gant’s career two years ago.
Only that’s not it at all. Even after firing Gant, the Pentagon still relied heavily on Special Forces to wage the Afghan counterinsurgency campaign. Since at least 2011, the military has planned to maintain thousands of Green Berets and other Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan past the late-2014 deadline for the withdrawal of conventional troops.
No, the Army was uncomfortable not with village-centric Foreign Internal Defense, but with Gant.
Of course, Wood would have you believe that Foreign Internal Defense is actually impossible without Gant … or someone just like him. “The iconoclasm and disdain for military protocol that enabled Gant’s success were instrumental in his eventual downfall,” Wood claims.
Then how is it that literally hundreds of Special Force soldiers have quietly rotated through FID assignments in Afghanistan in the two years since Gant’s implosion?
Most Green Berets don’t take their girlfriends, booze and drugs to war with them. They certainly don’t need lovers and gullible reporters to write elaborate defenses of their combat records.
Gant is no hero. His behavior in Afghanistan was unacceptable. And no hagiography—by his wife or by Wood—can redeem the man’s shameful legacy.
Wood actually gets it right when he quotes a 2012 letter to Gant from Lt. Gen. John Mulholland, then-deputy commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command. The romance, boozing and drugs, Mulholland told Gant, “disgraced you as an officer and seriously compromised your character as a gentleman.”
That, and not Gant’s supposed genius, should have been Wood’s lede.