Medal of Honor citations have grown prolix over the years. They were once remarkable for their brevity: “Capture of flag.” “Gallantry on the skirmish line.” “Bravery in action.” Some have an elegance amounting to found poetry: “Handled his battery with greatest coolness amidst the hottest fire,” reads that of William B. Avery, who won his medal at Tranter’s Creek, N.C., in 1862. No matter their length, however, citations routinely fail to address what military historian John Keegan, in his analysis of battle narratives, thought of as the many hows and whys.
Perhaps courage is ineffable; no amount of detail can adequately account for its manifestation. Yet a few citations, like that of the Civil War bugler William J. Carson, were clearly written by someone with a dramatist’s sensibility: “At a critical stage in the battle when the 14th Corps lines were wavering and in disorder he on his own initiative bugled ‘to the colors’ amid the 18th U.S. Infantry who formed by him, and held the enemy. Within a few minutes he repeated his action amid the wavering 2d Ohio Infantry. This bugling deceived the enemy who believed reinforcements had arrived. Thus, they delayed their attack.”
In claiming that Carson acted “on his own initiative,” this citation strikes a key note, elsewhere expressed by phrases like “without orders” and “voluntarily,” signaling that these meritorious acts of valor originated with the individual soldier or sailor as opposed to being simply a byproduct of another’s command.
One of the most recent citations, that of Marine Sgt. Dakota L. Meyer, who earned a Medal of Honor for his actions during a 2009 engagement in Afghanistan’s Ganjigal Valley, sounds the note once again, describing Meyer as having “seized the initiative” when he and another Marine, leaving the rally point where they had been posted, drove their vehicle through an exposed wash five times under heavy fire to retrieve wounded Afghan soldiers and to search for an ambushed team of U.S. advisers. The battle, which resulted when a “key leader engagement” went terribly wrong, forms the centerpiece of Meyer’s account of the incident, “Into the Fire,” co-authored with the military affairs commentator Bing West.
“How long do you do nothing while your friends are fighting for their lives?” That’s the question framing Meyer’s decision to head up the trail toward the team — his team, on which another Marine had unexpectedly replaced him before the mission. This act wasn’t simply a matter of seizing the initiative; Meyer clearly understood it as “disobeying a direct order.” And while he worried that he would “be sent back to the States in disgrace,” he also seems proud of his penchant for insubordination.
From the outset, Meyer enjoys the role of cheeky maverick: “Hard-headed,” impatient with what he deems slackness or foolish orders, he is never shy about expressing discontent. He is also a trained sniper, a weapons expert “looking for a fight” in which to exercise his skills. That combination — West calls it “nature” and “nurture” in his epilogue — ostensibly prompts Meyer to a disobedience that saves the lives of numerous Afghans yet comes too late to rescue his team, all of whom are killed.
“Into the Fire” anatomizes a poorly planned, inadequately resourced mission that was subsequently the subject of military investigations. Meyer faults a scheme of command and control that gave too much responsibility to an untrained Afghan commander, rules of engagement that made it exceedingly difficult to call in fire support, and woeful communication between operators on the ground and the tactical operations center miles away. In the ensuing chaos — in the apparent absence of authority — he attempted to exert some control over events.
Obedience has never been a favorite American virtue. Schooled in revolutionary heroism, we prefer defiance. But Meyernever examines the stakes of celebrating disobedience in an institution predicated on its members’ obedience of all but unlawful orders.
Readers in search of tactical detail will find much to satisfy them in this book. Those interested in larger strategic, political or existential truths will be frustrated. Meyer’s criticisms are consistent with West’s indictment of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan in “The Wrong War,” but observations like “Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight; bring a cannon” and “If people like you, generally you like them” do not amount to trenchant commentary.
Although West claims that “Into the Fire” focuses on “the character growth of Dakota Meyer,” there is but passing introspection here. Early on, describing his killing of an insurgent, Meyer is clearly intoxicated by his capacity for violence: “I fire burst after burst, walking the tracers up the slope. I hit his legs first, then his back. I keep shooting until I’m tearing up a corpse. I rip through two hundred rounds.” This is not the same man who subsequently finds himself in a PTSD clinic or who holds a bloody accident victim in his arms by the side of a road and earns “release. It felt very good to help save someone.” But the book offers too little insight into the hows and whys of Meyer’s transformations.
Meyer writes that he won his medal “for being a failure and for the worst day of my life” because he could not bring his team home, yet that elemental tension remains largely unexplored. West characterizes “Into the Fire” as “a testimony to the invincibility of the American warrior.” No warrior is invincible in the face of war’s violence, an independent force, obedient to none.
INTO THE FIRE
A Firsthand Account of the Most Extraordinary Battle in the Afghan War
By Dakota Meyer and Bing West
Random House. 239 pp. $27