Where Youth and Laughter Go. Seth W.B. Folsom. US Naval Institute Press, 2015.
Why It Matters
Where Youth and Laughter Go is not the first Afghanistan memoir published, nor will it be the last. Yet this tome fills a critical gap in the existing literature by providing the voice of a battalion commander. Memoirs tend to either be written by generals defended by the bulwarks of politics and unnamed staff officers or by front-line soldiers with a powerful but narrow perspective. Marine Lieutenant Colonel Seth Folsom, a battalion commander who patrolled daily with his infantry squads, is uniquely placed to bridge this divide. At the battalion level he operated where ‘theory meets practice,’ an often thankless position with limited room to hide.
For soldiers and Marines alike, Folsom provides the perspective of ‘the old man’ that can all too often come across as aloof, out of touch, and slave to the questionable precepts of higher headquarters.
Folsom brings readers inside the mantle of command. Events range from the painful firing of a junior officer to the persistent friction from enforcing rules and the readiness of his Marines without losing connection with them altogether. For civilians, this book sheds light on the tactical nuances of deployed life and the difficulty which higher commanders face when parsing policy dictums into life-and-death decisions. For soldiers and Marines alike, Folsom provides the perspective of ‘the old man’ that can all too often come across as aloof, out of touch, and slave to the questionable precepts of higher headquarters.
Even in 2015, writing continues to shed light upon innovative approaches to the enduring challenges of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. For example, Folsom’s decided to rotate his companies and switch them to different areas of operation halfway through their 7-month deployment. Traditional practice held that troops would take two to three months to adjust to territory in a deployment, reach peak effectiveness between three and six months, and begin to atrophy as their departure date neared. While temporarily setting back established relations with Afghan partner forces, shaking up the cycle with a forced rotation helped stave off this complacency.
One other approach is especially noteworthy: an emphasis on limited, practical force when apprehending targets. Folsom describes apprehending a High-Value Target by simply walking up and zip-cuffing him. “The hasty operation hadn’t taken a team of special operators in black helicopters. All that was needed was accurate target information and a well-trained Marine squad. ” Partisans are eager to dismiss COIN as ‘too soft’ or kinetic action as ‘too violent,’ but Folsom shows that a middle-ground is real and effective.
Some argue that American troops cannot sustain a foreign counter-insurgency campaign and the onus lies upon local national forces.
As with much of the Afghan literature, this book finds itself facing the same set of haunting questions: how can we improve partnership with the Afghan Security Forces, and how can we sustain long-term gains in-country? Perhaps the answer to one solves both, but that answer is not found here either. Folsom depicts a phenomenon familiar to many who served: Afghan policemen stoned out of their mind and unable to patrol, Afghan Army commanders more concerned with personal prestige and bribery than patrolling and protecting their villages. Limited progress was made through ‘pickup patrols’ where Marines showed up unannounced and cajoled ANSF out to patrol. But, echoing the words of many before, “we could do a lot to train the Afghans, but we could not force them to give a shit.”
The latter question of sustaining gains is the ultimate one and, as headlines show the Taliban overrunning Musa Qala in the south again, the answer is as elusive as the ANSF could be. Some argue that American troops cannot sustain a foreign counter-insurgency campaign and the onus lies upon local national forces. But Americans still must train and support these forces to a level of competency before their departure, or they will crumble like in Iraq and Afghanistan. Until we improve foreign training and partnership capabilities, the end result will be the same.
“In the end, neither the Pashtun fighters of the Taliban insurgency nor Al-Qaeda’s shadowy agents of terror defeated us. When all was said and done, we had — perhaps — defeated ourselves.”
Daniel Glickstein holds a Bachelor’s degree in International Security Studies from the Univeristy of Oklahoma and served with the Army National Guard in Afghanistan in 2011. His writings have previously appeared in Parameters Magazine. The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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