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Posted on Jan 27, 2006 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

Robert’s Ridge – Book Review

By Brian King

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Roberts Ridge : A Story of Courage and Sacrifice on Takur Ghar Mountain, Afghanistan
Malcolm MacPherson
Delacorte Press (August 30, 2005)

This story should be made into a movie. Not because it is exciting, or gripping, or powerful, or realistic. It is certainly all of those things, and a real page-turner in book form. Instead, it needs to find a mass media outlet so that the man on the street knows what allied armed forces are going through in the wastelands of the War on Terror. As a tribute to the writing style of Malcolm MacPherson, I was easily able to visualize all the action throughout the story, adding to vibrancy of the battle – and further reinforcing my belief it would transition into an excellent story on the big screen.

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Much as Blackhawk Down told the gritty and largely overlooked story of Delta and Ranger soldiers in Mogadishu in 1993, this book sheds light on a multi-agency force of SEALs, Rangers, and Air Force troopers all working together to extract their trapped comrades in a hostile environment. Rather than the shanties of the "Mog," this story takes place on a snow-strewn summit deep in the mountains of Afghanistan during the highly publicized Operation Anaconda against al Qaeda in March 2002.

During that operation, al Qaeda foot soldiers were allowed to congregate in the Shah-e-Kot valley, one of the traditional Afghan strongholds surrounded by tall mountains. The plan was to use friendly Afghan forces to push the al Qaeda forces into a trap – to be hammered by waiting US forces. As part of this operation, a SEAL team was to be inserted by Chinook helicopter on one of the peaks (Takur Ghar) to set up an observation post and help control the battle below. As the team was about to land, they noticed what appeared to be tell-tale signs of enemy activity on the surrounding landscape. However, before they could abort, they were hit by RPG fire – knocking Navy SEAL Neil Roberts off the lowered rear ramp and ten feet down into the snow. As the helicopter peeled off for an emergency landing…Roberts got up, alone, and began fighting for his life against an unknown number of enemy combatants.

And then things REALLY go crazy from that point on. Over the course of the next 17 hours, several rescue attempts are mounted on the same peak, C130 Spectre Gunships are called in, F-16′s dump bombs almost on top of the rescuers, and Predator drones cooly provide video feeds of the action for military command centers from the Persian Gulf to mainland USA. The convergence of so much technology in such a small space makes for some tense moments – and there are many lessons about the limits of technology which emerged as a result of this particular engagement. As has happened from the time men first picked up a stick to fight their neighbor, much of this 21st century battle came down to man fighting man close enough to see the whites of their eyes…

MacPherson draws on extensive first person recollections and interviews regarding this encounter, including a very rare sanctioned interview with the leader of the SEAL team on this mission. The resulting detail really shows, as we are put into the fray by entering the minds of the men who suffered through this high-altitude rescue and extraction. All of it is believable, and even the incredible heroism of the day comes across in the "just doing my job" tone which leads one to respect these men even further. This book is not a glorification of war at all, nor is it an anti-war vehicle. Instead, it illustrates the mindset of these brave men who are just there doing their duty – yes to fight terrorists such as al Qaeda – but more often to preserve the life and freedom of their fellow soldier. Indeed, many lives, ordnance, and equipment could have been spared if Roberts had simply been left to die on his own. US soldiers don’t think like that – it was never a question of whether they were going back for him. And that is what makes this story so tragic, yet so inspiring. In an age of smart bombs, aircraft carriers, and satellite imagery, battles are still fought and won by honorable men giving everything they have to help the man next to them survive so they can go home to see their family again.

Interestingly, Join Special Operations Command (JSOC) commissioned an officer to report on the events of this engagement so that lessons could be learned, the facts could be told, and the families would know exactly what their loved ones had been through. The level of research and detail was instrumental in helping MacPherson put together the deeper story of the men behind the battle. This report is included in the appendix, and the lessons drawn are interesting in and of themselves. In short, it illustrates the need to keep US soldiers sharp on how to fight with sticks even though they have the most advanced technology in the world backing them up. In this battle, men in "pajamas" were able to go toe-to-toe with the US fighting apparatus because of the limitations of allied equipment.

Overall, this book reads very fast, and is well worth the time spent sitting in on a sliver of these men’s lives. The book itself is a worthy investment as well – a portion of the proceeds go to the Special Operations Warriors Foundation, which provides money to cover the college education of the great men and women who fall in the Special Operations service.

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