Given the lackluster results of the U.S.-initiated wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Americans might want a military officer willing to break the rules to accomplish something on the ground in such faraway places. That someone might have been Army Green Beret Major Jim Gant, who was credited with winning his slice of the Afghan war in northeastern Kunar province until his career derailed after a love affair with a newspaper reporter who quit her job to live with him in Afghanistan.
The tale of Gant and former Washington Post reporter Ann Scott Tyson, is detailed in her recent book American Spartan: The Promise, the Mission and the Betrayal of Special Forces Major Jim Gant. She came to know Gant— who some described as “Lawrence of Afghanistan” for adopting local customs and exchanging his Army uniform for traditional Afghan garb, along with a full beard—while covering the war for the Post.
Gant, who won a Silver Star for valor in Iraq in 2006, had achieved notice for detailing his thinking on how the U.S. could prevail in Afghanistan in a 2009 paper, One Tribe at a Time. A copy had been found in Osama bin Laden’s quarters following his killing by U.S. forces in 2011, Tyson writes. There were notes in the margins about the difficulties al Qaeda was having in Kunar province, believed written by bin Laden. A second document, from bin Laden to his intelligence chief, named Gant, and said he “needed to be removed from the battlefield,” according to Tyson.
Tyson first interviewed Gant when the Army awarded him that Silver Star, and wrote about him in a 2010 profile for her newspaper. The headline declared him “the Green Beret who could win the war in Afghanistan.”
Although each was in a failing marriage, the couple decided to live together amid Afghanistan’s mountains for nine months starting in mid-2011. Gant was running the war his way and “indulged in a self-created fantasy world” that mixed booze and drugs, according to the Army. He kept his relationship with Tyson hidden from his superiors. "We both knew that there was a lot of risk in doing what we did. And I would do it again," Gant tells ABC News. "It was extremely unconventional, yes, to say the least."
Gant’s extremely unconventional approach to war—and his unusual living arrangement with Tyson—led the Army to relieve him of command in 2012 after a freshly-minted lieutenant from West Point complained.
“There is a belief [in the Army] that you went COL Kurtz and went totally native,” an Army comrade wrote to Gant after he returned to Fort Bragg, N.C., according to Tyson’s book. Colonel Walter E. Kurtz was the rogue Green Beret officer played by Marlon Brando in 1979’s Apocalypse Now.
The Army—which had praised Gant’s approach to counter-insurgency by grooming local tribesman into police forces to oppose the Taliban—turned on him after internal investigations revealed some of his unusual counter-insurgency methods. Gant dealt with his PTSD and traumatic brain injury with alcohol, supposedly banned in Afghanistan for U.S. troops, and prescription drugs. And he endangered his troops, according to the Army:
During your time in command, you purposefully and repeatedly endangered the lives of your Soldiers…You painted inappropriate and unauthorized symbols on Government vehicles, painted the symbol on your vehicle a different color, then challenged the enemy to try and kill you without consideration to your Service Members’ lives or well being. You sent `night letters’ to the enemy, further drawing dangerous attention to yourself and subordinates. These are the same Soldiers that you have the duty to properly train, mentor, lead and most importantly, defend.
Yet Gant never lost a man, Tyson wrote. The service didn’t think much of his arrangement with her, either: “By providing his paramour unimpeded access to classified documents in a combat zone, MAJ Gant compromised the US mission in Afghanistan.”
Lieut. General John Mulholland, then-commanding general of the Army Special Operations Command (now the deputy commander of U.S. Special Operations Command), acknowledged Gant’s "record of honorable and valorous service" in a career-killing reprimand in July 2012. Gant’s conduct was "inexcusable and brought disrepute and shame to the Special Forces" and "disgraced you as an officer and seriously compromised your character as a gentleman." He retired as a captain. The couple married last year.
But it wasn’t only Gant’s relationship with the Army that raised questions. Among reporters, so did Tyson’s relationship with Gant.
David Wood, a Pulitzer-winning veteran military correspondent, wrote a profile of the couple for the Huffington Post when Tyson’s book was published in March:
A once-promising strategy for stability in Afghanistan ended badly two years ago, along with the career of its author and chief proponent, Army Special Forces Maj. Jim Gant. His gripping story is detailed in a new book, American Spartan, by Ann Scott Tyson, the former Washington Post war correspondent who interviewed him for an admiring story in late 2009. They fell in love. Tyson eventually joined Gant in an Afghan village, where he built a reputation mobilizing local tribes against the Taliban. A tough, wiry Special Forces soldier, Gant was decorated and recommended for promotion over 22 continuous months of combat in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011. But in the end, the iconoclasm and disdain for military protocol that enabled Gant’s success were instrumental in his eventual downfall.
Another veteran military reporter, David Axe, took issue with Woods’ story on Medium’s website:
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…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.
But Gant’s real legacy isn’t so much about Afghanistan. It’s about the willingness of the U.S. military to tolerate officers who will challenge training and tradition in hopes of finding a better way to prevail. How far Gant crossed that line—and if it warranted the punishment he got—will be debated long after the final U.S. troops have left the country he tried to help.