Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Review of “Not A Good Day To Die” by Sean Naylor

Several of my friends have told me that if I want to begin to understand the role of Special Forces and Special Operations, I must read “Not A Good Day To Die.” I finished reading this book several weeks ago, and am able now to take the time to share with readers of The White Rhino Report some of my thoughts. The subtitle of this book is “The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda.” Sean Naylor, winner of the prestigious Edgar A. Poe Award, does a masterful job of bringing the reader into the chaos that enveloped the soldiers fighting in Afghanistan’s Shahikot Valley.

The primary take-way for me, as I reflected on what happened during Operation Anaconda in 2002, was that the pattern seemed all too familiar – a pattern of systemic miscommunication and flawed decisions made far from the battle field. Many of these decisions and orders placed in grave jeopardy the lives of those fighting on the ground and in the air. Throughout my reading of Naylor’s descriptions and analysis, I was reminded of the landmark study by my friend, Dr. Scott Snook of the Harvard business School faculty. Dr. Snook, a decorated combat veteran and expert in organizational behavior, wrote the book, Friendly Fire: The Accidental Shootdown of U.S. Black Hawks over Northern Iraq, an analysis of an incident that occurred at the end of the first Gulf War. Dr. Snook not only highlights the systemic failures that led to the needless shootdown of two Black Hawks, but points out that similar dysfunction can be identified in any organization.

Naylor summarizes concisely the chaos that developed in the Shahikot Valley:

“The small, enclosed battlefield meant the calls for fire often outnumbered the number of airplanes that could safely be flying bombing runs over the valley simultaneously; the icy relationship between Mikolashek and Mosley, who should have been working hand in glove, trickled down to their staffs; the Mountain staff’s failure to anticipate the likelihood of ferocious resistance on the enemy’s part meant they had given only cursory attention to close air support issues; and the Combined Air Operations Center staff had grown used to controlling air strikes from their base in Saudi Arabia, rather than yielding authority to the ground commander, as called for in joint doctrine. As ever in combat, it was left to captains and sergeants to bear the consequences of mistakes made by generals.” (Page 272)

The author continues his observations and conclusions with these thoughts:

“But the lack of clear guidance about who was in charge of the recce missions being launched from Gardez now began to reap disastrous results . . . This critical moment in Operation Anaconda was to be no exception. Just 1,000 meters away at the safe hose, helping to coordinate the preparations for Operation Payback (not scheduled to launch until 2:20 a.m.), was Peter Blaber, a man whose entire career had prepared him to make the kind of decision Hyder now faced, a decision upon which would hang the fates not just of Hyder’s men, but of others as well. Blaber had spent weeks immersing himself in the tactical situations that confronted recce teams in the Shahikot. He was also still – officially - the officer commanding the reconnaissance effort in the valley. But Hyder chose to ignore him and instead seek guidance from the Blue TOC, which was almost 100 miles away and staffed with Navy personnel who had never been anywhere near the Shahikot." (Pages 308-9)

I closed the book after reading the last pages and found myself balancing competing emotions. On the one hand, I was proud of the men who had fought bravely in carrying out their assignments as part of the complex Operation anaconda. On the other hand, I was angry at the seemingly chronic failure of senior leadership to exercise proper command and control. Perhaps this kind of confusion, chaos and mismanagement is an unavoidable consequence of the “fog of war,” but it seems that our men and women who put their lives on the line deserve better support.

The book is a tribute to our fighting forces, as well as a cautionary tale. I recommend it to anyone who wants to understand the complexities of fighting battles under extreme duress and in the most inhospitable of landscapes – both topographical and bureaucratic!



Ellis Reyes said...


One of the enduring questions that I have about the army, or any organization for that matter, is why they would put one of their most highly trained leaders in the field (in this case special ops superhero Lt. Col. Pete Blaber)and then NOT trust his judgment.

That hubris costs lives in the military and careers in the civilian sector.

Thanks for your fine posting.


PS: I worked for/with Pete Blaber 20 or so years ago when he was a Lieutenant in the 2d Ranger Bn. It does not surprise me that his career has taken the shape that it has. He was an original thinker and that did not conform to the rigid structures and SOP's of the new Ranger Regiment.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the superb summary of the battle, I'm reading your insights and perspectives on the eve of my book being published on 2, Dec. Your points on hubris, and listening to the guys on the ground are central to the section of the book devoted to Anaconda. My overarching lesson/take-away from the battle is this--It's not reality unless it's shared. Sharing information creates a shared reality, not only does it make the whole wiser than the individual parts, it also serves as and effective system of checks and balances to correct misinterpretations by individuals who don't have all the pieces of the puzzle. AFO was a boundaryless organization, we had no boundary's to sharing information--both outward and inward, it was above all else, the reason why we were able to accomplish so much with so few.

Anonymous said...

If you are Pete Blaber, I just want to say thank you! Thanks for what you did in Afghanistan and what you did in Iraq. Can you comment on how many AQ were actually on the battlefield?


Anonymous said...

I second Phils comment on Pete Blabers service. I'm in the middle of reading Mr. Blaber's book... I'm a paramedic in the Los Angeles area, some consider Los Angeles to be a war-zone in it's own way. I think that with the lessons that Pete shares in his book I will be better able to manage the "war-zone". I've never been in the military, but the stories that Mr. Blaber shares might have piqued my curiosity enough for me to consider a military career.

MBurkett said...

I loved this book. I would love to see how his lessons have applied to his job in the private sector. I was in the 82nd in the 90's and book brought back vivid memories of the asinine way the military goes about their business. I just read an article on It is almost as if the DOD read his book evidenced by their new strategy in Afghanistan:

G said...

I think the book written by Sean Naylor "not a good day to die", should be voted for one of the best written and best depicted book about the life's of our heroes, American heroes in the battlefiled, overtly or covertly.
These people with the regular Army such as the 10th, 101st and as well as elite commandos like SF, night stalkers, Delta force and the gov agencies are ready and poised to carry out the most toughest and deadlist missions to our enemy, with or withoiut high tech in a very dealy mountain, known to our enemies and unknown to ours. They fought and distroyed the enemy. Was there mis communications and small battlefield area problems with ops and call of CAS yes. Is this the last time things like this will happen? NO. But that does not take away from the wonderful work the author has done. Showing us little by little, page by page, paragraph by paragraph what happened there to our fighting force. The fog of war and intelligence gathering.
I recommend this book to anyone. and While you are at it, read another American Heroic book , teh Unforgiven Minute" and on ebook that you won't put down; " Lone survivor" these are the today's Ameircan heroes and mentors for our kids and the next millenium generation.
I give the book, "Not a good day to die" by Sean Naylor 5/5 stars.
must be read by all, specially all those who want to do operations.

CPT G said...

I learned about the Shah-e-Kot, the Whale and Anaconda Op and then search the book stores. I came across Sean Naylor book and I can't believe the feeling I got. As soon as I opened it and scanned the front and back indices, I immediately discovered I am a fortunate person. I had stumbled onto one of the biggest books I was always in search of. I never knew what it is called; "Not a Good Day to Die". But soon I confirmed to myself; as I turned page to page and a lot of time returned and re-read the pages, and chapters, that this is the best book ever written by a great author, for a great men of war and someone special, our today's hero like many, but just a special person, a person born to have been placed that day that moment in time in that leadership position and the Commander of FAO. I am not an expert by any means and shape, but I believe COL Pete Blaber on that day if having been left un touched and given all the support, he would have completely finished and terminated all the United States Enemies operating in that region. He is one Hero America needed. Sean Naylor's book when referred to by any one else, which I persistently have referred to since I read it after returning from my first OEF tour 2004-2006, has proved to me to be one and only book to show us what happened in those days at Shah-e-Kot. I have read many chapters over and over again and his depiction of our elite forces from military to civilian is so importantly valuable. Mr. Naylor deserves a huge attention by everyone. We are lucky for people like him to shine light on heroes like COL Pete Blaber and his likes.
I can't stop talking about the book, when I meet new soldiers like my recent tour from Jul 2010-Jul 2011, when I hear them say they have never heard about it or when I hear from other infantry commanders dressed as Civil Affair CMOC leaders in today’s OEF Ops, who tell me they are reading the book for 2nd and 3rd time, I get goose bumps. It is then when I realize what is going on. When every intelligent person I met now without any doubt gives their blessing to Sean Naylor and speaks of COL Pete Blaber as an American hero who is still left to be known to all of The Americans. Specially our young ones. Well When I tell our older son currently in Navy Flight School, and graduate of USNA class 2010, and he ensures me that most of his friends, some in the SEAL training are well aware of the book and reading it with great passion, I still left him and his rommate a copy of "Not a Good Day to Die", I continue making sure that our younger son at West Point reads and shares it with his friends.
Thank you for your service, COL Blaber and Thank you for your writing Mr. Naylor, I look forward to read your books in coming years.
I am a CPT in USA Reserve who is looking forward to return to Afghanistan for 3rd OEF tour by mid Sept 2011. Thank you for making this blog available. CPT G