Where Youth and Laughter Go: An Interview with Seth Folsom

Where Youth and Laughter Go: With "The Cutting Edge" in Afghanistan. Seth Folsom. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2015.

Enough time has passed—if just barely—for us to have committed the sin of citizenship and forgotten a war. Seth Folsom’s Where Youth and Laughter Go, though now just four years removed from the U.S. surge in Afghanistan and the 2011-12 deployment of 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines (3/7), revisits that crucible of combat.

The narrator is stoic. Folsom, the battalion commander, walks the reader through the preparation for deployment and then literally walks the reader through months of foot patrols as seen through the eyes of the infantry squads under his command. There is surprisingly little combat, at least in the way one might imagine, but there is no shortage of violence. Instead of active firefights, the reader witnesses adaptation and innovation as the Taliban and Folsom’s marines duel in the deserts and canals of Sangin with IEDs and HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System). It is a brutal exchange paid for in the lives and limbs of both Folsom’s marines and the Talibs.  Folsom strikes a tone, that if the reader listens intently, is both heart-warming and heart-wrenching.

Folsom is to be credited for patrolling daily with his men, exposing himself to the same dangers and hardships. This is something often lost beyond the company command level, but through his efforts he gains an appreciation for both the enemy and the terrain that cannot be gleaned from patrol reports or the study of a map. This personal experience makes a difference in the story, blurring the line between memoir and a first-person, battle narrative. Folsom carries this weight with ease and has produced a unique piece of literature in the process.

If you are looking for heroic last stands and a first-person shooter narrative you should not waste your time with Folsom’s book. Here you will find a battalion of marines quietly struggling against an unseen enemy while the Afghan citizens they are there to protect silently look on. Reading Folsom’s narrative is like travelling back to the future for anyone who has ridden the counterinsurgency carousel and sought the brass ring of stability.

Folsom—to his great credit—lasts nearly two-hundred pages before he concedes he cannot make the Afghans care in the same way he does; in a way that brings him closer to home and the Afghans closer to what the U.S. would describe as a stable peace. The foreshadowing in the final 100 pages gives the impression that Folsom has traveled to 2025 to write his memoir, as if he knows something we do not.

The truth is that he just wrote what he knew to be true, and in the fullness of time, his personal truth has become reality—not just in Sangin, or in Helmand, but in much of Afghanistan.

We see it all:  flaring Afghan tempers, complicit government officials, stoned Afghan National Army soldiers, maddening shuras that devolve into finger-pointing and shouting, a prelude to the pernicious “green on blue” attacks that would hobble the surge. The end of the book is unsatisfactory and unsavory, but not because Folsom cannot write or writes poorly, but rather because he sees what can only be seen from Sangin. He sees what we cannot.

Be warned, the battles do not end when Folsom and his marines come home. Anyone who has felt the uneasy press of a crowd, heard the unmistakable crump of an IED, smelled the fear of the wounded, watched helplessly as insurgents plant IEDs, or tasted greasy lamb and pale green tea will revisit those experiences with Folsom as he grapples with the unease he feels in his own country and his own home. This is perhaps the most personal part of the book, that which lays bare the struggle of coming home and adjusting to what was once considered normal.

This book is worth revisiting. America faces weighty decisions in the years ahead, and Folsom’s experience is instructive. There are limits to what can be done. If you debated the strategy of the surge, or if you believe it didn’t last long enough, or if you believe we ought to go back again, you should read this book.

This isn’t your first book. Can you tell us a little bit about how you came to writing?

I’ve been doodling since I was a kid, but until I wrote The Highway War my writing had always been just scraps of personal and fictional stories. I didn’t begin journaling seriously until I was a lieutenant on my first deployment in 1997. I kept a daily journal during the 2003 Iraq invasion, and my Marines noticed I was always writing in it. As the invasion progressed, several of my men said, “You should write a book about us.” Months later, after I had returned home, I revisited my Iraq journal and was surprised that there was a story there—the story of my men and the role they played in developing me as a leader in combat.

Writers are often voracious readers, but books are conspicuously absent from your narrative. What did you read in preparation for your deployment? What did you read during it? Perhaps most importantly, what did you read when you came home?

I mostly read after-action reports (AARs) about 3/7’s 2010 Sangin deployment and AARs from the two subsequent infantry battalions that had been there between October 2010 and September 2011.  I also read quite a bit of counterinsurgency writing, especially David Kilcullen’s The Accidental Guerilla. During the deployment itself I typically read fiction, Stephen King in particular, because I grew up with his books and they actually put me at ease. After the deployment, when I wasn’t consumed with required reading for my classes at the Marine Corps War College, I read books like Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars, George W. Bush’s Decision Points, and Robert Gates’ Duty. After my time in Sangin I had a deep desire to understand how the decisions were made at the highest levels that sent me and my Marines to Afghanistan.

Reflecting on your experience, is there something you wish you had read or known before going?

I wish Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Little America had been published before I deployed. Reading it might have prepared me a bit more for the resentment the Afghans seemed to feel for the Americans, especially with respect to our efforts at transforming their governance and economic development.

How did Sangin change you as an officer and as a person?  How did this affect your writing?

I don’t know if Sangin fundamentally changed me as a person. The experience certainly gave me a greater appreciation for my family, especially my wife, who is a leader in her own right and a strong role model for my two daughters. It also drew me closer to my daughters, whom I thought about each time I agonized over the plight of the young girls in Sangin. As an officer, I certainly emerged from Sangin with a rediscovered love and respect for my young grunts. Walking in their footsteps in Sangin, watching them effortlessly shoulder enormous physical and emotional burdens, was one of the greatest honors and privileges I have ever had.

Your participation in patrols with your squads is commendable. Putting yourself at risk and in harm’s way certainly influenced your decision making. With that said, your decisions were not always popular, nor were you. Your relationship with your core group of advisors was solid. Has your relationship with your men—though you are no longer in a command position—improved with time and distance?

Being an officer and a commander is not a popularity contest. Going into the deployment I knew many of my decisions would be unpopular; it comes with the job. In that vein, two things my regimental commander in Afghanistan, Colonel Eric Smith, said stuck with me the entire time in Sangin: "Give your Marines what they need, not what they want," and "Many of your Marines will likely end up hating you for the rest of their very long, long lives." The funny thing is, I think a lot of the Marines—the seasoned non-commissioned officers in particular—resented me patrolling with them because they thought it meant I did not trust them. In reality, it was just the opposite; one of the many reasons I patrolled with them as often as I did was because I trusted them with my life. In the end, though, it seems like time has healed a lot of wounds which were rubbed raw by the time 3/7 returned home in 2012. Since the book’s publication I have heard from many 3/7 Marines who told me they gained a greater understanding of my decisions and thought processes after they read the story.

Your father, a retired Navy officer, visited your wounded Marines at Walter Reed and reported back to you, sometimes daily. How did that affect your relationship with him? With your Marines?

I have always had a strong relationship with both of my parents, and the work my father did with my wounded Marines and their families only brought us closer together. After all these years and all the visits he made, he feels like it was a true calling for him. I agree. The 3/7 Marines who were aware of what he was doing at the time—especially the officers and senior non-commissioned officers in charge of the wounded—were grateful that someone back home was genuinely looking after their men. Often, in other units, once a wounded Marine had been evacuated from the battlefield his comrades never heard anything about him again until they returned home. My father’s routine updates ensured the 3/7 Marines knew about the incremental progress their wounded comrades were making back home.

We often hear about the role that religion plays in this conflict, yet it seems to be oddly absent in your book. Do you think we’ve overplayed the role of religion in the war in Afghanistan? Is it really a driver of the conflict, or is it presented by the west as an explanation, one that is actually hollow?

Islam was simply a part of life in Sangin, and perhaps we did overplay its role in the early years of the war. What ended up being more important to us on the ground was the role the Pashtun culture and the Afghan tribal culture writ large played in the actions and mindsets of the Afghans in our district. The individual Taliban fighters in Sangin were not fighting the Americans and the Afghan National Security Forces because they wanted an Islamic caliphate in Afghanistan—they were fighting us because we were trying to take away their power. And while I think it is pretty clear that we are indeed at war with Islamic extremism, it is also important to remember that the key word is in that phrase is ‘extremism.’  

Your book draws its title from Siegfried Sassoon’s famous poem “Suicide in the Trenches.” What is the implication of this poem and how is it relevant to you and the experience you shared with 3/7 in Sangin?

I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.

In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.

The poem describes the desolation of combat, the sense of loss each individual experiences in those circumstances, and the ignorance that people on the home front often exhibit. After 3/7’s first Marine was killed in Sangin, I immediately thought of the poem’s last stanza. The President had announced the end of the surge, and many people were wondering why we were still sending Marines to Afghanistan. They had no idea what the hell was going on in places like Sangin. As our deployment unfolded and I watched the Marines grapple with the loss of their comrades, I also began to understand the loss that the Afghan children were experiencing as the war waged around them. In many regards, the campaign in Sangin devoured the last remnants of youth and innocence among the patrolling Marines and the impoverished Afghan children.

From your perspective how has the conflict changed in the years since you wrote Where Youth and Laughter Go?

It has scaled down dramatically. Our counterinsurgency campaign transitioned to security force assistance and advising, and in the process the Taliban overran the Sangin District not long after the Marines finally left. As far as I can tell, the Sangin I described in Where Youth and Laughter Go no longer exists; the district has essentially returned to the state it was in before 2006 when the British Army arrived there to pacify it. It is, in a word, disheartening.

What are the positive memories you carry with you from the time you spent with the 3/7 in Sangin, those things you never want to forget?

The team we built in 3/7 was phenomenal. I was blessed with extremely capable non-commissioned officers, senior non-commissioned officers, and officers, and the level at which they operated—whether it was outside the wire or on my staff—was remarkable. The teamwork, professionalism, and sense of common purpose was inspirational to watch, and most of the time that was all I had to do: sit back and watch them work their magic. The most positive memories I will carry with me, however, will certainly be all the patrols I did with the Marines and Sailors in the battalion’s rifle squads. The degree to which I got to know those young men after walking alongside them so many times renewed my love and respect for our infantrymen. As I said in my book, 3/7’s grunts were giants, larger-than-life characters who taught me more than I taught them.  By the end of our deployment in Sangin I felt unworthy of the men I commanded.  

How did your peers and superiors respond to your decision to patrol daily with your men? In retrospect, would you do anything differently?

It didn’t bother my peers at all; as far as I know, the other battalion commanders were doing the same thing I was. After all, I learned that technique from my friend and mentor Colonel Tom Savage, 1/5’s battalion commander and my predecessor in Sangin. The battlefield in northern Helmand Province was so dynamic that it practically required battalion commanders to be on the ground with their grunts on a regular basis. My superiors periodically expressed concern that I was outside the wire so much, but to their great credit they let me do what I felt I needed to do. Looking back, I wouldn’t do anything differently. It took years for me to realize something a colleague later told me: by routinely patrolling with my Marines I was simply following the moral imperative of leadership by taking the same risks I demanded of my men.

You hint at how being a known and prolific author came up when you assumed command of 3/7. Has that changed how you are received in the Marine Corps?

Not so much. There are those who know I have written books and those who do not. The most grief I get from my Marine peers is when I either make an unforgivable grammatical error or unleash a string of my seemingly uncontrollable profanity. The response I typically get is a generally good-natured, “Man, I thought you were a published author.”

What are you writing these days?

Mostly my résumé. I have been a Marine for twenty-two years, and as much as I love what I do I also know the ride will end for me sooner rather than later. With that said, I’m not ready to quit yet, and I’m not ready to quit writing about Marines. The stories I have told about my Marines and Sailors really amount to just a couple of small tiles in the great mosaic of this Long War. I hope there are more to come.

Seth Folsom is also the author of The Highway War: A Marine Company Commander in Iraq and In the Gray Area: A Marine Advisor Team at War. He plans to donate profits from Where Youth and Laughter Go to veteran support organizations. The views he expresses are his own and not necessarily those of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of the Navy, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: The aftermath. Marines from India Company’s 1st Platoon, resting in the courtyard of a wealthy Afghan’s compound, grieve after the death of LCpl Jordan Bastean during Operation Southern Strike. (Photo from author’s collection)