Task Force Violent

Afghan officials inspect the wreckage of suicide bomber's car that targeted Marines in Bati Kot, March 4, 2007 / AP

There is no journalist covering the military I’d rather be reading right now than Andrew deGrandpre. In a five-part series being published this month at Military Times, deGrandpre is re-reporting the story of the infamous "Task Force Violent." That was the nickname the members of the Marine Corps’ first special operations company to deploy overseas (to Afghanistan, in 2007) gave themselves. The deployment ended with the unit being accused of war crimes, brought home early from Afghanistan, and subjected to an official Court of Inquiry.

Anyone who was reading the Military Times in 2008 remembers this unit, because story after lurid story ("MELTDOWN AT ‘TASK FORCE VIOLENCE’: Uncovered—the hidden story of the MarSOC Marines who shamed the Corps" was characteristic) painted them as a trigger-happy band of cowboys who overreacted to an ambush and negligently killed Afghan civilian bystanders. The sources for these stories were often members of the unit’s own special operations chain of command in Afghanistan, speaking on background to Military Times reporters. At a time of peak counterinsurgency theory enthusiasm in the military, these disgraced Marines were held up as Exhibit A in a demonstration of How Not to Fight a War.

What few people know is that the Court of Inquiry that convened in the aftermath of the deployment fully exonerated the members of the unit from any wrongdoing. But for the careers and public reputations of the Marines involved, the damage was done. "Accused war criminal" is a tough stigma to beat in the Internet age, even if the original accusation was found to be baseless. And the original reporting from the Military Times—reporting that, in fairness, was based on the limited information being pushed to the reporters at the time—in no small part contributed to the stigma that has stayed with the members of the unit since 2008.

All of this contributes to the importance of deGrandpre’s extensive, widely-sourced series. The story he tells (two parts have been released, and the remaining three are due over the course of the next few weeks) centers on the events of March 4, 2007, less than a month after the unit deployed to Afghanistan. On that day, a convoy of Marines from the detachment were hit by a vehicle-borne suicide bomber in the Bati Kot district of eastern Afghanistan, and then came under direct fire from multiple directions. The Marines fired back, repelled the attack, and then returned to base. They admitted that on the way back to base they fired disabling shots at oncoming cars, and warning shots to disperse a crowd. These are eyebrow-raising admissions—they would certainly cause me to have questions if I were investigating the case—but they are a far cry from war crimes.

DeGrandpre describes what happened when the unit returned to base:

One of turret gunners who was exposed during the bomb blast sustained a wound to his arm. When they arrived at the airfield, he was taken for medical treatment. Despite the scare, the atmosphere was "jovial," said one of the Marines on the patrol. "Everyone's blood was pumping. We thought we'd done a good thing. We repelled the enemy. We won the gun battle. We protected the convoy." The media was already reporting they had killed noncombatants. As Galvin and his leadership team compiled after action reports for higher headquarters, a TV in the chow hall was airing a report about the incident they'd just survived. The Marine couldn't believe what he was seeing. "And I said: ‘Oh boy. What have I gotten myself into?'"

The Marines were in a high visibility situation: they constituted the first ever deployment of a Marine special operations unit overseas, about which neither the Marine Corps nor the military’s Special Operations Command (SOCOM) was thrilled. The Corps had stubbornly resisted having to contribute troops to SOCOM for years, and the new unit was caught in the middle of numerous bureaucratic struggles in its early days, leaving the deploying Marines short on guidance, resources, and—critically—good will.

This lack of support was emphasized by a bizarre encounter that Galvin, the unit’s commander, recounts having with the commander of the new Marine Special Operations Command prior to the unit’s deployment:

Five days later, after an interview with MARSOC's top officer, Maj. Gen. Dennis Hejlik, Galvin's assignment was official. But something was off, he recalled of their discussion. Hejlik, a prior-enlisted sergeant like Galvin, stressed to his new commander that he was forbidden from ever leveraging the general's name and rank while preparing Fox Company for prime time. Were there any questions, Hejlik asked next. Yes, Galvin said. He had three:

1) What is Fox Company's mission? …
2) To whom will Fox Company report? …
3) Where will Fox Company deploy? …

Hejlik never responded, Galvin said.

Anytime a senior officer tells you that you have his full support, but that you can never use his name in seeking resources or support: run for the hills. While Galvin’s assertion to deGrandpre that he and his Marines had been "set up to fail" may overdramatize the case, it is inarguably true that their superiors had not set them up to succeed.

Following the events of March 4, the Army officer with overall responsibility for special operations in Afghanistan, Major General Frank Kearney, quickly ordered an investigation, and deputized an Air Force colonel, Patrick Pihanna to conduct it. The Army colonel to which the Marines reported, John Nicholson (who is still in the Army, and now a general) gave a press conference in which he said that what had happened the day of the ambush was, "‘a stain on our honor’ and a ‘terrible, terrible mistake.’" The Marines were—in a virtually unprecedented move—yanked from the theater of war and sent home, a remarkable rush to judgment regarding their actions, especially considering what came out later about the nature of the investigation. It was subsequently revealed that the investigating officer had pressured an explosives expert to change his testimony, and that he had not included the expert’s testimony when he refused to comply, among other irregularities.

The fact that the Court of Inquiry eventually cleared the Marines of all charges of wrongdoing never got any attention in the press. deGrandpre is telling a fascinating story of an orphan of a unit unwanted by both its Marine parents and its adoptive, Army-dominated chain of command in Afghanistan. When Afghan elders accused the unit of wrongdoing, the Marines were effectively convicted before they were tried, apparent victims of a hair-trigger mentality that infected the very leaders who were supposed to prepare them for and lead them at war. As members of the unit told deGrandpre:

Throughout the war in Afghanistan, commanders, up to and including the commander in chief, spoke passionately about the necessity of limiting the loss of lives, limbs and property through reckless or otherwise excessive use of force. Yet what happened to the so-called MARSOC 7 — what was allowed to happen — represents a tragic hypocrisy, they say. How in the hell could senior military leaders demand of them such flawless objectivity and restraint on the battlefield only to come after them with such reckless ferocity?

Subsequent installments in the series are due to come out each Wednesday for the next three weeks. I’ll be reading.