In this sometimes poignant and always compelling book, Nate Self relates his harrowing and life-changing experiences as an Army Ranger platoon leader in Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks. It's a story that's been told in The Wall Street Journal, on NBC's "Dateline" and elsewhere, but never in such depth or within the context of his life and faith before and after what has come to be known as "Rescue on Roberts Ridge" --- the mountaintop battle of Takur Ghar in March of 2002.
As a West Point graduate, a young husband and an expectant father, Self was grateful to God for the life he had at Fort Benning, Georgia, in the summer of 2001. He had returned from a deployment to Kosovo the year before and was glad to be back on U.S. soil. But everything changed on September 11th; from that date on, Self knew that he and his men needed to be in a constant state of readiness for the call that was sure to come --- the call to deploy to Afghanistan to hunt down Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda forces.
And the call did come. Within three months, Self found himself in the midst of the battle of his life and for his life --- and for the life of his men. Self devotes nearly 100 pages to a detailed account of the battle of Takur Ghar, a battle that never should have happened. Flying in a Chinook helicopter on a nighttime mission to rescue a missing soldier (Neil Roberts, after whom "Roberts Ridge" was named), Self and his platoon were shot down after apparent miscalculations and miscommunication exposed them to the enemy as daylight broke. An intelligence report indicating that al-Qaeda had tripled its forces --- heavily armed with the very best weapons and equipment --- in the area failed to reach the commanding officer.
There's little question that Self's minute-by-minute narration of the 12-hour battle is warranted, and much of it is helpful in understanding the trauma the author suffered in the months and years that followed. I suspect that anyone with a military background or an interest in the military will be able to follow the course of the battle, because the writing is clear, visual and compelling. I had trouble keeping everything straight --- who was where, who was shooting, who was being shot, and all that --- mainly because of my lack of familiarity with weapons as well as military strategy and lingo. Still, I came away with a big-picture sense of what ensued. Other militarily-challenged readers, especially the squeamish, may be tempted to skip this section entirely, but they would do well to at least skim it to get an idea of what Self witnessed and experienced.
Seven men died during the battle; those who survived credit Self with the fact that they're alive today. But some 14 months after Roberts Ridge, Self's life began to unravel. He had been deployed to Iraq, and suddenly the impact of Takur Ghar overwhelmed him. By the time he returned to the U.S. seven months later, he was a changed man --- and not for the better. Within a year, he would retire from the army that he had once been so eager and so proud to serve in. He was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and its attendant symptoms --- survivor guilt, suicidal thoughts and hopelessness, among others.
Throughout the book, Self's writing is intensely personal and introspective. The chapters leading up to the battle are particularly well-written; it's here that the author shows himself to be a true wordsmith. For the most part, the book as a whole is a page-turner.
Military-oriented readers will get a great deal out of this book, but general readers shouldn't ignore it. TWO WARS offers tremendous insight into the horrors of ground combat, the state of our military preparedness and the effect all of this has on the surviving soldiers.
Reviewed by Marcia Ford on May 28, 2008