Friday, January 18, 2008

Jawbreaker by Gary Bernsten

Jawbreaker: the Attack on Bin Laden and Al Qaeda: a Personal Account By the Cia's Key Field Commander

When you think about the CIA and special forces going off to war, a number of movies come to mind. This is real life. And it is different, but better and more interesting.

Gary Berntsen is a CIA officer who was sent to Afghanistan as part of the U.S. response to the World Trade Center attack of September 11, 2001 in New York City. After the attack we see him put together a team (there is already a team in place that is laying the groundwork) to go in. It is a story of people who are realistic and practical, even as they are patriotic. And they run into many obstacles. Berntsen has to deal with prejudice amongst Americans as some of his desired team are Iranian or Arab. Bureaucratic rules cause trouble for him as well as some team members who are not released by their bosses. And finally they make it into Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan they are the small team of CIA agents and special forces personnel who build the alliances with the Northern Alliance to fight the Taliban. They deal with the personalities, the shifting loyalties, the oneupmanship and dealing both sides against the middle that is part of war in the Hindu Kush.

It is realistic in the sense that the job of these highly trained men is to coordinate, join with the local forces, and be the eyes and ears of the U.S. commanders, not to fight. And the protagonists of the book are usually away from the main fighting, even through they are in danger because of the unknowns they deal with. They are aggressive, daring, practical, and wise to the ways of people, as they have to deal with the many motivations among the various military commanders they dealt with.

The other special aspect of this book is how Bernsten deals with his own thoughts about life. At times during the narrative he suddenly starts thinking about his bosses back home or his family for a few sentences, then go back into the narrative. And this is very humanizing, and very familiar (as I did the same thing during my deployment). The scenes in the opening chapters where his wife and grown children have to deal with his going into harms way are refreshingly honest and ring true, and the distractions of having to help them through the U.S. government bureaucracy when they are dealing with unhelpful superiors is also shown.

Definitely recommend the book. To both those who are going to war, to give a feel of what it is like to work with a population whose motives are hard to understand, and their families, to let them know that their worries for those going into harms way are normal.
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