Monday, December 10, 2012

A Deeply Insightful Memoir from Pakistan's Badlands - "Ask Forgiveness Not Permission" by Howard Leedham

I love it when individuals whom I know and respect write books that make a difference.  "Ask Forgiveness Not Permission" is just such a book.  Howard Leedham, a much-decorated British Commando - helicopter pilot, clearance diver, special ops officer - was tapped by the U.S. State Department to run a special program in Pakistan.  There was a pressing need to try to seal the porous border with Afghanistan being utilized by narco-terrorists.  Al-Qaeda and Taliban were using opium trade profits to finance terrorist activities.

In this memoir, Leedham does an excellent job of describing step-by-step how he himself was prepared for the task of training up a team of 50 Pathan tribesman to serve as the backbone of an operation that would utilize helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft operated by the Department of State's Air Wing to improve security on the Pakistan side of the Afghan border.  He also is very clear and fair in giving credit to the fighting spirit and teachable mindset of the Pathan warriors whom he trained, under the enlightened leadership of Pakistani General Sadaqat Ali Shah.

Without resorting to bitterness or undeserved bureaucracy bashing, Leedham is very open about the difficulties and frustrations of trying to cobble together a complex operation involving several nations and numerous departments and contracting entities.  The creativity that Leedham and his team employed in making sure their Pathan warriors were properly equipped is Exhibit A in making his case that the doctrine of   "Ask Forgiveness Not Permission" was the right way to go in the unforgiving world of the Hindu Kush.  It is also not surprising, while ironic, that the most difficult hurdles that Leedham and his team had to clear in accomplishing their mission came from fighting internal and internecine battles rather than battling external enemies on the borderlands of Baluchistan and between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Much of the reading that I have done about the complications of U.S. and British troops working alongside Iraqi or Afghan warriors is the strikingly different attitude towards the gap that exists between officers and their enlisted troops.  In the West, the officer is charged with the responsibility to care for his troops, to equip and train them to accomplish their mission and to do everything possibility to bring them back home safely.  The officer does not eat until his troops have eaten and leads from the front whenever appropriate.  In Leedham's words to his Pathan troops: "I will not ask you to do anything that I would not do myself."  In the cultures of Southwest Asia, the officer corps are set apart, living very different lives than those of their troops, often taking the best food and equipment for themselves, even taking a cut of their soldier's pay.  One of the remarkable accomplishments of the year that Leedham spent in training and leading these 50 special Pathan troops was that fact that he was able to inculcate into the minds and spirits of the Pakistani officers more of a Western approach to caring for their soldiers.  This is an example of "winning hearts and minds" at a very significant level.

Perhaps the most impactful aspect of this fine book is Leedham's transparency when discussing his own reflections and struggles at the end of the year that he spent away from his family.  It would have been easy for him to write the story of what happened in Pakistan and to tell a very credible story keeping things at a strictly professional and military level - but it would not have been as powerful a book.  The fact that he shared the pain of seeing his marriage disintegrate and himself struggle with post-deployment depression and despair makes the book a powerful weapon - both for helping and giving permission to returning warriors to be honest about their own struggles, and also to help those of us who have not been to war to understand the depth of the struggle of the warriors whom we wish to support.

I will let the author speak for himself here at his most transparent and vulnerable moment.  The context is that Leedham has returned to the U.S. and the troops he had trained were sent on a mission under Pakistani leadership.  The result was the death of one of the Pathan warriors, and Leedham surmised that had he himself been there to lead the operation, perhaps that soldier would still be alive.  Classic survivor's guilty:

"My feelings of guilt were overwhelming.  The General had been right.  I should have gone on that operation. If I had done so, I would have negotiated with the idiot of a local commander in order to get my way [to conduct the operation at night rather in the daylight.]  I knew that if I'd been in Turbat, Iqbal would still be alive.  At that moment, I felt I would have to live with the guilt of his death forever.

My journal entry that day read: 'More pain, more hurt, I'm nearly at the end of my tether; am thinking about ending it all.'

. . . So the mindset and resolute decision to get the hell out of life if the situation dictated was one I had accepted and lived with for a year.  I suppose, I was still in that mindset during this first week at home [during which his wife had asked for a divorce], but the entire contemplation was in response to the prospect of losing my family and my questioning the point of life itself.  Given what I'd gone through the decision seemed so very matter of fact.

It is though, in reflection, a period of intense vulnerability and is a crucial 'preventative medicine' phase that is often tragically omitted by the families who end up mourning combatants who decide to take their own lives when they return to shattered homes or relationships." (Pages 317-18)

This book, therefore, is appropriate reading for the warrior community and for all of us who care about seeing these men and women make a successful  transition back to "The World."

We owe Howard Leedham a debt of gratitude - for his courage on the battlefield and his courage in the literary battlefield.

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