Monday, March 28, 2011

Book Review: Roughneck Nine-One by Frank Antenori

Having recently finished SOG, but finding that book somewhat depressing and tragic, I hesitated to read another book about special operations forces, even one that dealt with a heroic victory against superior numbers and resources. But I was intrigued enough by Roughneck Nine-One to read the introduction while at the bookstore, and the author's summary of the action seemed positive and upbeat enough that I decided to give it a go and pay out.

I'm glad I made that decision. Although you'll grit your teeth like I did at some of the bureaucratic and leadership frustrations Antenori and his team experienced, you'll also grove on the positive, can-do will-do attitude these operators had from day one. Antenori, a veteran of Afghanistan and a number of other operations, decided early on that he would not run from a fight, even one against a numerically superior foe, and his team captain and fellow team members agreed with him. Thus, their team motto, "Nine-One Don't Run", was born.

I want to pause for a moment and look at this a little closer. A few years ago I took a military history class for the hell of it, mostly to see if I liked going back to school, and one thing that came up in discussion was the misconception that "Americans are risk-adverse in war". This notion was apparently something born, I guess, from the Vietnam war, and supposedly carried through to this day. My professor did his best to argue against that theory - that the American people may be risk-adverse to war, but the military was not. Furthermore, that there was a difference between "taking risks" and "being stupid".

American combat doctrine is filled with risk-taking and aggression. The fundamental philosophy of destroying the enemy through advancing under a process of fire and maneuver is inherently risky and aggressive, but it's how we helped break the stalemate of the Great War, it's how we took the beaches of Normandy and pushed through to Berlin, it's how we jumped from island to island in the Pacific and twenty years later, it's how we would send patrol after patrol into the jungles of Vietnam, hunting for the enemy so we could bring down the pain. It's how we planned out the Song Tay Raid, the Hatchet Force assaults launched against enemy targets, the SEAL team recon missions deep into the heart of the Mekong Delta. That military aggression is what drove Anthony Swofford and his fellow Recon Marines into the lion's den during the first gulf war, disappointed that he never fired a shot in anger the entire time. And when the second Gulf War rolled around a decade later, the next generation of Recon Marines in their over-burdened Humvees would barrel through enemy-occupied territory, daring the enemy to reveal themselves by firing at them so the Marines could tear the enemy apart with automatic weapons fire.

When Sgt. First Class Antenori and his team made the decision to never run from a fight unless they were in danger of being wiped out, this decision was not made out of reckless bravado, but in the spirit of the aggressive American fighting man. Antenori knew his team had the training, the weapons, and the resources to bloody the nose and halt the advance of an enemy much larger than his team, and that his mission, above and beyond the specifics of any individual operation, was to seek out and kill the enemy whenever he was encountered, to capture and destroy the enemy's resources, and find and exploit intelligence assets. In short, Antenori's mission was to bring the fight to the enemy, using their mobility, aggression, weapons and training to, as he puts it, "eat the elephant one bite at a time".

Truthfully, I found the battle to be, if anything, a little bit anti-climactic. There are certainly tense moments, an increase of the "pucker factor" as Antenori puts it, but without giving away any spoilers there is never really a moment while reading the book that I was thinking "Oh man, they are toast!". The men of Roughneck Nine-One were cool under fire, performed their tasks admirably, and even when the enemy brought superior weapons to bear and attacked with main battle tanks and armored personnel carriers, the team knew what to do and handled the situation like pros.

In fact, the most depressing and disheartening part of the book is Antenori's disgust over the performance of their company leader, a man referred to only as "Major X", who refused to "let slip the dogs of war" and allow his teams to finish out their assigned tasks for fear that a casualty so late in the mission would tarnish an otherwise superbly executed operation. Without exception, every individual warrior under Major X's command was furious; as several of them put it, "We didn't join the Special Forces because we were afraid of getting hurt."

Roughneck Nine-One is a fast, enjoyable read; I finished the book in two days. It's a great account of a modern Special Forces A-Team in action, and what they are capable of when put to the test. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about small unit operations during the second Gulf War.


Machine Trooper said...

I'm surprised to hear that your history prof agrees with me. ;-)

You'd never know it from watching popular films representing our history (Flags of our Fathers perhaps being one exception), but even before our Secretary of War was replaced with a "Secretary of Defense," Americans' support for any war effort wanes when our military starts taking casualties.

Jack Badelaire said...

Yeah he was actually a pretty solid guy - definitely not your average "bleeding heart liberal academic" like you'd normally find. I disagreed with him on some things, but overall it was a really good course. Bought him a bottle of Jameson as a thank-you for getting me back into the rhythm of schoolwork again.