A Soldier's Story from the Front Lines of the War on Terrorism

By Andrew Exum. Gotham. 256 pp. $25

When the history of the current troubles is written, it will be built from the memories of people like U.S. Army Lt. Andrew Exum. His trooper's-eye view of the Afghan war is not the story of the biggest battle or the greatest victory, but it nevertheless is a lively account of the fight to wrest high plains territory from the Taliban.

More of Exum's soldiers succumbed to altitude sickness or post-combat stress than to enemy bullets. His platoon of the 10th Mountain Division spent more time waiting for action at Camp Doha in Kuwait than deployed in the field in Afghanistan. Despite the sporadic nature of the conflict, platoon commander Exum brought his men to such a high standard that they became the top-rated unit in the battalion, and his company was regarded as the best in the brigade. These achievements lend credibility to his narrative.

Exum followed a somewhat unusual path to military service. Born in Tennessee, he attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he joined the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) to help pay his tuition, eventually becoming cadet commander of his ROTC class. Lt. Exum went through several phases of Army training after college and was eventually assigned to the 10th Division at Fort Drum, N.Y., from where his unit was sent to the Middle East.

Perhaps befitting a man with his educational background, he has studded his book with literary and philosophical references, including Shakespeare, Vladimir Nabokov, Walker Percy, Somerset Maugham, Jorge Luis Borges, Immanuel Kant and Reinhold Niebuhr. Exum picked up Kant to read during off-duty hours in training (though he gave up on Critique of Pure Reason after 50 pages). The scene in which he tells a fellow trainee, a Navy Seal, that Nabokov's Lolita is about the road trip of a man and his stepdaughter, and then agrees that the book is boring, is quite amusing. Television and movie references also abound. In Kuwait he calls his Humvee "The General Lee" after the car in the TV show "The Dukes of Hazzard."

This Man's Army is also replete with accounts of athletic feats, such as Exum's performing pull-ups after climbing to the top of a derelict 100-plus foot satellite dish in Kuwait. Although less discussion of physical fitness and more commentary on actual events would have been useful, he recounts his troops' exploits at sufficient length to show what the daily campaign was like for American soldiers -- including the cruel hazing of new recruits, because "that's what happens when you give infantrymen a bullshit mission and bore them to death for weeks." Exum's unit was among the first to deploy to Kuwait, less than a month after Sept. 11 and a few days before the United States began bombing Afghanistan. They then cooled their heels at Camp Doha until March 2002, five and a half months later. "Operation Anaconda" finally brought Exum's platoon to Afghanistan, where other elements of the 10th Mountain Division sustained serious losses when U.S.-allied Afghan troops bobbled their mission, and Taliban and Al Qaeda forces proved too much to handle for the Americans of the 101st Airborne Division. Exum saw Afghanistan as the Wild West and Bagram Airbase, where he was stationed, as "the equivalent of an old cavalry post." His platoon went on missions to recover sensitive equipment, destroy enemy caches and participate in the main combat action. His exertions were such that he lost 20 pounds in the month his platoon spent in Afghanistan. He also endured a shocking baptism by fire when he killed an enemy soldier who, in his American clothes, at first glance "looked more like a Vail ski bum than a terrorist." Briefly panicked, Exum wondered, "What if I had just killed an American soldier? Some Special Forces operator or CIA agent operating deep behind enemy lines in civilian clothes?" An examination of the corpse put his fears to rest.

Unlike U.S. soldiers in Iraq, many of whom have faced year-long tours and extensions, Exum's platoon returned to the United States after little more than six months abroad. Forces of the 10th Division went back to Afghanistan later, minus Exum, who had been reassigned to lead a Ranger unit. His military career was cut short by a serious knee injury suffered, ironically, when he was playing street hockey with buddies on base after his unit had returned from Afghanistan. "In the end there is one thing I am sure of," he concludes. "No matter a war's outcome the soldier never wins. . . . After the shooting stops, how does the soldier settle back into society and modern civilization?" In Exum's case, perhaps by writing a book as worthy and uncommonly powerful as this one. *

John Prados is an analyst with the National Security Archive. His current book is "Hoodwinked: The Documents That Reveal How Bush Sold Us a War."