Best Defense

A quick Best Defense interview with Lt. Col. Seth Folsom, author of the new book ‘Where Youth and Laughter Go’

There have been a lot of memoirs about Iraq and Afghanistan. How is yours different?

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Tom: There have been a lot of memoirs about Iraq and Afghanistan. How is yours different?

Answer: Many Iraq and Afghanistan memoirs tend to center around very narrow slices of a unit’s organization. Even in my first two books I focused almost solely on the team and company level. As a battalion commander of 1,200 men and women, however, I was afforded the opportunity to patrol with my various rifle squads on a daily basis. Over time, I developed a close identification with individual Marines and Sailors, as well as a deeper understanding of what the entire unit was doing across the whole Sangin District. While I don’t claim to tell the personal stories of all who served with 3/7 in 2011 and 2012, I provide the reader with an authentic picture of the challenges the Cutting Edge Marines and Sailors faced during our tour together.

Tom: Marines love to read about Marines. But why should others — Army personnel, even civilians — pick it up?

Answer: Anyone — military or civilian — who reads Where Youth and Laughter Go will begin to understand the myriad challenges combat veterans across all services face as they reintegrate into our society. The Marine Corps infantry has a unique culture. It is the very definition of a brotherhood — a collection of individuals from different backgrounds who unite with a common purpose. The grunts pride themselves on their ability to live, talk, and fight dirty, but there is more to them than that. The story of 3/7’s Marines and Sailors in Sangin is the story of what the United States has come to demand of all its young men and women in the wars of the twenty-first century: applying ruthless aggression against our enemies one moment, followed immediately by demonstrating compassion for a people and a culture we do not understand. It is like bending a piece of metal until it reaches its breaking point. The American public, which has genuinely supported its service members for the past fourteen years, is still largely in the dark about the consequences of sending its young men and women away to fight. All military members will relate. And civilians will get a better understanding, which in turn will help bridge the divide.

Tom: When you look at Afghanistan today, what do you think?

Answer: It would be a lie if I said that the Taliban overrunning northern Helmand Province’s district centers does not dishearten me. The United States and our allies — Great Britain in particular — expended so much blood and treasure there. Over the years, each British and U.S. battalion that rotated through northern Helmand made incremental progress at great cost. In three combat deployments to Sangin between 2010 and 2014, 3/7 alone lost thirteen Marines, with several hundred wounded. Yet with our assistance, local security improved, governance and economic development expanded, and the Afghan National Security Forces blossomed. To see the fruits of our labor disintegrating after all of the blood, sweat, and tears shed there is indeed a tough pill to swallow.

Tom: Are you glad you served?

Answer: Absolutely. There is no greater honor for an infantry officer than to command young Marines and Sailors in combat. As insane as it sounds, it was a privilege to walk alongside 3/7’s grunts through Sangin’s minefields. The Cutting Edge Marines brought the fight to the enemy in Sangin, and through their work with the local government and security forces they gave the people there a chance to define their own destiny. The Marines and Sailors stood tall, kept their honor clean, and carried on the historical legacy of their forefathers. Because of the efforts by 3/7 and all the other units that deployed there, Sangin District was a better place — even if only for a brief period. I was just proud to be a part of it all.

Tom: What is your favorite section of the book? Can you share a short excerpt–say a few paragraphs–here?

Answer: The book’s title, Where Youth and Laughter Go, comes from a 1918 Siegfried Sassoon poem that refers to the void all soldiers face in war. The Marines certainly faced it in Sangin — a place where no one left unscathed:

“From the moment we set foot in Sangin it was clear the Marines would constantly walk a fine line, one that separated good from bad, right from wrong. They faced an enemy that hid among the people, the very people we were there to safeguard. The breaking point was never far away, and amid the perils that stalked the Marines at every turn the potential existed for them to snap, to unleash their smoldering anger on the innocents caught in the tug of war with the Taliban. But they never did. The Marines of the Cutting Edge — despite the dangers and sweat-soaked horrors they faced for months on end — became the epitome of “quiet professionals.” Even as they slogged through their impossible mission, they became — as much as it is possible in a war as muddled as the one in Afghanistan — ethical warriors. And as they gradually left their carefree childhoods behind in the hell on earth of the Sangin Valley, they became something seldom respected in the modern age of neutered political correctness.

They became men.” 

Sangin’s youngest residents faced the void too. It is easy to focus only on the Marines and Sailors – to celebrate their victories and mourn their losses. What is often overlooked, though, is the role the Afghan children played in our experience. Throughout Where Youth and Laughter Go their story is intertwined with that of the Cutting Edge. No one who interacted with those children came away unaffected:

“Later, after we had left Afghanistan and returned to our families, I looked back on what my men had done for the children in Sangin. Whether it was patching them up on patrols or reassembling them in the aid stations, the Marines and Sailors of 3/7 were at their finest when they were dealing with Afghan kids. That the Marines hated the Taliban was without doubt. And, truth be told, after all that occurred during two deployments many of the men had grown to abhor Afghans in general. But it was difficult to hate little children. Like me, many of the Marines were fathers, and it is just not in a normal person’s DNA to hate or want to hurt a child for no reason. We knew the enemy fighters had coerced some boys and girls into assisting them, but that was the exception—not the rule. Instead, when faced with the prospect of an ill or injured child the Marines and Sailors never hesitated to do the right thing. They truly cared, even if the children of Sangin didn’t outwardly care back.”

Photo: Amazon.com

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. @tomricks1

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