Into the Fire: A Firsthand Account of the Most Extraordinary Battle in the Afghan War
By Dakota Meyer
(Random House, 256 page, $27)
THE DOWNSIDE OF JOINING THE ELITE group of Medal of Honor recipients is that the currency to gain admission is generally one’s life. You can win the medal. You can stay alive. You can’t do both. Dakota Meyer, an exception to this rule, is the only Marine in the last four decades to win the Medal of Honor and live to tell the tale. And what a tale it is.
Meyer’s book, Into the Fire: A Firsthand Account of the Most Extraordinary Battle in the Afghan War, is about bravery and bureaucracy. Meyer overflows with the former quality. He overflows with contempt for the latter annoyance. More than occasionally the noncommissioned officer demonstrates his bravery by refusing to cower on the battlefield—or to bureaucracy.
Meyer’s citation notes “gallantry” and “intrepidity” facing “almost certain death” at Ganjgal, a six-hour battle he crashed after being disinvited from a mission to meet the village’s elders. Meyer’s motivation wasn’t to kill strangers but to save friends. He ultimately used every one of the 15 or so tourniquets with which he had set out and dragged numerous wounded combatants from harm’s way. But the remaining team members, those missing, benefitted from neither his first aid nor his heroics under fire. “Ganjgal was one of the deadliest small-arms battles of the Afghanistan war,” Meyer notes, pointing to the six Americans, eight allied Afghans, and similar numbers of enemies who fell on September 8, 2009. “There were no IEDs, no bombs, and very few artillery shells. Bullets caused most of the casualties. Ganjgal was a mountain fight from an earlier century.”
Indeed, the most harrowing hand-to-hand combat on Meyer’s “worst day” might be described as downright paleolithic. As an enemy fighter takes Meyer by surprise, the captured Marine furtively triggers loose a grenade from his M203 (for the uninitiated, essentially an M16 with a grenade launcher attached below the rifle barrel). “The 40-millimeter grenade shot forward the two feet to his armored vest. It didn’t explode. Instead it knocked him back.” Meyer, wondering why he and his combatant weren’t dead from a grenade explosion (thank God for duds), wrestles for his life with the stunned Taliban fighter. He grabs a baseball-sized rock from the ground. “I smashed his face again and again, driven by pure animal rage.” When in the Stone Age, do as the cavemen.
As brutal, but more technologically sophisticated, was the demise of “a bearded, hatless man in his mid-thirties, dressed in brick-red man-jams with a green chest rig full of ammo, running toward the truck and firing an AK at us from his hip.” Meyer recalls how his truck’s driver “hit the accelerator. The truck hit the man squarely in his chest. There was a bump, and then another bump under the tires.” The passenger then instructed the stunned driver: “Back up and do it again!”
Meyer’s physical courage is matched by moral courage unafraid to say “no” to bureaucracy, which partisans of the armed services often forget can make the military every bit a byzantine labyrinth of red tape as the rest of the government. After higher-ups explicitly instructed him to stay off the mission, Meyer, sensing trouble, disobeyed orders to aid his brothers in arms. He explains that “there was a good chance I’d be sent back to the States in disgrace,” should he have stumbled upon a routine patrol rather than the chaotic battle zone he ultimately discovered.
The story of America’s most recent living Medal of Honor winner highlights two contrasting traits found in martial organizations: heroism and C-Y-A poltroonery. Strangely, those putting their lives on the line in battle took more risks than those fearing rank on the line far away from it.
When Meyer’s cohorts call for white phosphorus to conceal themselves from the enemy, skittishness over the proximity of the village, and the fresh fallout over the chemical’s use in Fallujah, prevents the consummation of the call for fire. The Tactical Operations Center (TOC) denies a plea for air support for similar reasons. “The directive from the high command was clear: do not employ ‘air-to-ground or indirect fires against residential compounds,’ defined as any structure or building known or likely to contain civilians, unless the ground force commander has verified that no civilians are present.” The residential compounds contained Taliban fighters firing at Americans, but who could say definitively whether any civilians remained inside? The TOC wasn’t about to take any chances, which meant chancing heightened friendly casualties.
When Meyer’s team calls for a medevac of a wounded serviceman, the TOC inquires: “Is he Army or Marine?” Who cares? He’s American, the embattled befuddled respond. “Repeat, TOC needs to know if he’s Army or Marine. It’s in the regulations.”
Meyer’s heroics were as much a rebellion against regulations and rank as they were a taunt of the Grim Reaper. The corporal displays insubordination more associated with goats than heroes. But in his insolence he paradoxically follows commander’s intent in a way that many of his by-the-book cohorts do not. The outgunned Meyer implores the occupants of a Humvee, “Man your .50-cal!” They respond, “We’re logistics. We don’t fight.” When a dazed first sergeant stubbornly demands to fight on, Meyer insists on his extraction from the battlefield. “No, First Sergeant, you’re not going back in,” the corporal explains. The senior enlisted man maintains, “Yes, I am!” Meyer stands up to him: “No, you’re getting medevaced out.” Meyer proves that an enlisted Marine with no rockers bullying an enlisted Marine with three rockers isn’t always off his rocker. To a female Army captain ensconced in a truck a few feet from an ally Afghan who bled out, Meyer expresses his disgust through a two-word phrase that begins with “f” and ends with “u.”
Meyer’s contempt for desk-jockey officiousness remains after the fog of war clears. “Over one hundred American soldiers, supported by gun trucks and helicopter gun ships, marched up the village,” he bitterly notes of the battle’s aftermath. “Declaring they had come in peace, the Americans handed out Korans and prayer rugs. I hope someone prayed for my team.”
Ultimately, Meyer loses the battle—against the Taliban and the bureaucrats. After dumping a life’s worth of adrenaline in a day, the warrior experiences a traumatic letdown. He discovers the corpses of the quartet he fought to save sans gear and weapons. The grim irony of winning the Medal of Honor through losing his friends wasn’t lost on the Kentuckian when he stood before the president on September 15, 2011. “My country was recognizing me for being a failure and for the worst day of my life.”