Thursday, May 1, 2014

"American Spartan" Review

Aristotle defined "tragedy" as an arrangement of incidents simulating real-life. Based on a chain of cause-and-effect incidents, they culminate in a climax that purges the readers of emotions like pity, fear, and outrage by bringing those feelings to the fore through the story. Complex tragedies, he said, are not just simple changes of fortune brought on by a singular catastrophe, but a reversal of intention and the eventual recognition of this reversal. Sophocles captured this in Oedipus Rex and Antigone, Mike Rowe humorously captured these concepts out of narrative structure in his experience of lamb-castration, but Ann Scott Tyson found a real-life, Aristotelian tragedy in the heroic story of special forces Major Jim Gant.

The ethics of the book are complex and contentious on all fronts, not the least of which being the romantic relationship between the author and the subject, but the events are deeply informative, vivid, and heartbreaking. More important still, they are accurate. As the story moves forward, the official answer to Gant's question, "are we really trying to win?" becomes more clear, as does the price of being passionate and being right in a bureaucratic world like the United States military. The well-written story brings much needed self-knowledge to what's really going on in our wars abroad, and how our own government threatens to lose the war against Al Qaeda and its kind that has been fought so bravely and so selflessly by our Green Berets and the Afghans fighting with them.

Major Gant was deeply inspired by Steven Pressfield's novel Gates of Fire, the story of Thermopylae that moved Jim to take on the Spartan warrior as part of his identity. But Pressfield in turn was inspired by Tyson's account of Gant, saying "if you read only one book this year about war or politics, read American Spartan." Between the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq--with or without our presence--and the expanding bureaucratic government in the world of healthcare, economics and data-collection, such a poignant and prescient account could not be more important, and I agree wholeheartedly with Pressfield.