A Story of Leadership and War

Much has been written about the war in Afghanistan, from on-the-ground reports of foot soldiers to geopolitical analyses of U.S. government officials. Yet, Lieutenant Colonel Seth B. Folsom manages to find new insights in Where Youth and Laughter Go, a recounting of his experience as a battalion commander in the Sangin Valley. He tells two stories: one of leadership and one of war.

Folsom begins his story as commander of the renowned 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, “The Cutting Edge,” during pre-deployment training in Twentynine Palms, California. He relates his triumphs and failures with surprising honesty, telling the reader about shortcomings in his communications with his senior leadership and about having to take responsibility when a soldier suffers from heat stroke after a training march through the desert is poorly planned and executed. His personal story of trial and error, of constantly adjusting his leadership style is instructive for leadership in any context.

This exploration of leadership continues during his time in Afghanistan but takes a back seat to the events happening on the ground. Folsom’s meticulous descriptions of patrols give a sense of the experiences of an ordinary Marine: the hours spent planning each patrol route and talking through every step of every operation, the practiced response when one of their own triggers an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) buried in the ground, the injury, and the sense of loss when a Marine does not make it. The reader also learns about the perspective of the battalion commander who has to keep his Marines focused on the mission. Particularly inspiring is Folsom’s resolve to patrol with every squad the day after they lose one of their own.

For civilians, the book is an excellent illustration of military structure and decision-making procedures. It shows off video technology that allows Marines to spot Taliban insurgents planting IEDs and helps commanders determine hostile action and hostile intent – requirements for authorizing a strike against the insurgents. The author impresses upon the reader how high the bar is for a decision to strike to be made – absolutely no civilians or civilian objects in the vicinity of the strike area that may end up as collateral damage. By walking the reader through every step of the decision-making process, the author conveys a lot more faith in the validity of U.S. airstrikes than one would expect from reading the newspapers. The reader is left to wonder whether Folsom’s personal standards were unusually high or if the press coverage of U.S. war efforts is massively biased, reporting only on extraordinary events such as the strike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz at the expense of the ordinary.

Folsom’s personal accounts of interactions with local Afghan leaders give a deep sense of the tense relationship. The battalion commander is not just a military leader, but also has “diplomatic” responsibilities in Afghanistan. The lack of ownership on the part of many Afghan leaders, their unwillingness to take responsibility for the security of their own community, their complete refusal to believe that one of their own could be a Taliban fighter despite clear video evidence as proof, are what make Folsom’s story so meaningful. His examples allow the reader to visualize what the broad and unspecific policy language coming from Washington actually means on the ground. More than any testimony that General John F. Campbell, commander of United States Forces in Afghanistan, could give before Congress and more than any Pentagon press release ever could, Folsom’s account provides the reader with an entirely new and very real understanding of the many local problems in Afghanistan that contribute to broader nationwide challenges.

The book, however, has two noticeable weaknesses. One shortcoming is the lack of any big-picture context. As a battalion commander, Folsom is neither a foot soldier nor a policymaker. His role is in the middle of the chain of command, precisely where abstract political decisions made by the leadership in Washington are transformed into tactical actions performed by individuals. Folsom misses the opportunity to connect his own narrow, but very deep, experience of the war to the larger political context of Afghanistan outside the Sangin Valley and Washington’s strategy at the time. Except for the election of the interim District Community Council in March 2012, there is little discussion of what is happening in Afghan politics or other parts of the NATO coalition mission at the time.

Folsom also seems to occasionally get distracted in his storytelling. He is fiercely loyal to his men and many of the incidents he chooses to highlight in this book acknowledge the sacrifices and accomplishments of his Marines. But at times they do so without driving the story forward. On a few occasions he spends several pages describing specific events that have no bearing on the story he is trying to tell. Their sole purpose seems to be to give him an opportunity to praise the performance of his men – an honorable intention, but perhaps one that could have been reserved for the epilogue.

Where Youth and Laughter Go is a compelling read that offers a unique perspective into the war in Afghanistan. Folsom makes his part of the war in the Sangin Valley come alive for the American reader by sharing anecdotes and incidents that occurred during his command. Put together, these experiences tell a bigger story that allows the reader to appreciate the difficulties of a commander who has to reconcile strategic considerations with operational problems on a daily basis. Especially for civilian readers whose main source of information about the war is general newspaper coverage, this book is highly recommended.

Sarah Lohschelder is a MSc Foreign Service/Juris Doctor candidate at Georgetown University. She is a 2016 Defense Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.

Originally published on The Huffington Post.

Image credit: CW3 Philippe E. Chasse/Wikimedia Commons

Charged Affairs is a publication of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Views of the authors do not necessarily represent the views of the organization. All rights reserved.

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