This Man’s Army: A Soldier’s Story From the Front Lines of the War on Terrorism, by Andrew Exum

Published in 2004, this book covers the experiences of a young man from Tennessee as he joins the Army, becomes a lieutenant, trains as a Ranger, and serves in the 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan. Andrew Exum, the author, is the lieutenant.

It’s a brief book, easy to read. Exum offers an honest glimpse into the daily life of a company-grade infantry officer in the Afghan War. He does so with balance, careful not to portray the US military as the perfect embodiment of good or evil. You get a strong sense of the positives of the American military, including the dedication of soldiers to one another, their seriousness of commitment to doing a job, and the bravery of doing their duty half a world away. On the negative side, the reader cringes at some of the displays of officers more interested in personal gain than in victory.

Before examining the leadership points of the book, there were several points that jumped out at me. First, in looking at the current Iraqi situation, it’s clear from Exum’s book that the key issue is the Iraqi army and police forces. Exum describes extensive involvement in Afghanistan by local people. The Northern Alliance was an existing armed force that proved valuable in defeating the Taliban. Second, the nature of guerrilla or irregular warfare shows that much of American military service consists of seemingly endless patrolling. Battles are less prevalent than simply finding weapons caches, supply depots, and other unremarkable features of war. Despite the mundane side of this duty, it is precisely these types of actions that typify important steps in guerrilla warfare. Forget the formal invasions of World War II and in many ways forget the high-firepower moments of Somalia. Third, the US conducts these guerrilla wars with full dominance of the air, giving American units a distinct advantage that yet does not guarantee success or obviate the need for feet-on-the-ground. Fourth, and this would be a criticism of the book, Exum fails to show why he became a Ranger. Rangers are part of the US military’s answer to guerrilla warfare. Exum should have explored what it was that made him and other Ranger want to be different from mainstream infantry.

From the leadership perspective, Exum provides intriguing analysis of his own style as a leader. He denigrates other officers that separate themselves from their men. Exum believes that being in the midst of one’s followers and in many ways staying a follower are the traits of effective leadership. The lieutenant builds upon the principle of doing-what-you-ask-others-to-do. He also embodies a rather harsh, raw form of servant leadership.

In some ways, I think he takes it too far. He doesn’t simply say that this is the style that works for him; he insinuates that others choosing a more detached style are leading incorrectly. You don’t read much about Exum having to discipline his followers and it’s here where a leader with his style may have encountered trouble.