by Michael Hirsch
New York: New American Library, 2003. Pp. 320.
Illus.. $24.95. ISBN:0451209834
Michael Hirsch's None Braver: U.S. Air Force Pararescuemen in the War on Terrorism is an engaging work of military journalism. Hirsch, a Peabody Award winning documentary filmmaker and Vietnam veteran, has chosen an unusual subject for his study of combat in Afghanistan: the U.S. Air Force's Pararescue Jumpers, or PJs.
Hirsch has written an earlier book on the PJs, Pararescue: The Skill and Courage of the Elite 106th Rescue Wing. Most readers will be familiar with PJs from either reading or seeing A Perfect Storm. The bravery and skill of the Search and Rescue crews of the 106th were prominently featured in both. Unlike the rest of the U.S. Military's Special Forces troopers, PJs find regular, hazardous employment in peacetime operations. Jumping out of a helicopter into treacherous stormy seas to rescue civilians from sinking ships is a not uncommon example of a non-combat Search and Rescue operation. Those volunteering to become PJs must pass a grueling 10-week indoctrination course where the failure rate regularly exceeds 85%. By comparison, the SEAL school's failure rate is 75-percent. Those who pass indoctrination go on to training in advanced combat medicine, HALO parachute jumping, SCUBA diving, mountaineering, special tactics and everything else a man with the primary mission of rescuing injured, downed pilots might need to be able to do to get the job done.
The book provides an enlightening look at what may very well be the most dangerous combat mission of all: to save the lives of fellow soldiers. Whether it is fighting the grizzled veteran muhajadeen of the Taliban, parachuting into a minefield, or offering to hike off the peak of a 10,000-foot high mountain through enemy territory just to lighten the load on an overburdened helicopter, the seriousness with which these men take their mission is readily apparent. While no planes were shot down in Afghanistan, the PJs did find themselves entering enemy territory to rescue crews from crashes, and also going into combat situations where ordinary combat medics could not. Hirsch's retelling of the PJ missions is thrilling.
None Braver also provides some insight into what was going on in the rear. Highly motivated and engaged in a dangerous profession, the PJs spared no effort to make their quarters in Pakistan and Uzbekistan as comfortable as possible. The tales of improving the facilities and "acquiring" creature comforts strike a light and amusing chord. Weighing heavier is Hirsch's attitude towards heavy military bureaucracy and incompetent leadership. His experience as a Vietnam veteran shows strongly in his contempt for bumbling, self-absorbed, careerist officers. It begins with a Colonel (but still just a petty bureaucrat) who spitefully torments Hirsch and his Air Force "minder" upon arrival in the theatre, merely because she had not been informed of their mission. From there, the matter escalates to his damning criticism of interservice rivalry that risks the lives of the men in the field, and to the incompetent planning and execution of Operation Anaconda. Hirsch shows the bitterness of a man who once wore the uniform and feels very poorly used by his superiors.
If this book has a failing, it is that the reader has a hard time connecting with any of the personalities in it. None Braver does cover several operations in Afghanistan, and only a few soldiers appear in more than one. However, other similar works must overcome that hurdle and still allow the reader to develop a better feel for the subjects of the story. This book is about true stories, real people, and the reader should have real feelings for them. Hirsch's prose is too dry to give me any feeling for the CSAR crews. He duly catalogues the backgrounds of his characters, but in most instances this is done in such a way as to lack any real feeling. The book connects one much better with the PJ community than it does with individu