The Chosen Few
A Company of Paratroopers and Its Heroic Struggle to Survive in the Mountains of Afghanistan
Da Capo Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2017, 400 pages
Book Review published on: April 21, 2017
In the summer of 2008, forty-nine U.S. paratroopers and twenty-four Afghan soldiers faced off against a determined force of Taliban fighters at a remote combat outpost in the mountain village of Wanat in Afghanistan’s northeastern province of Nuristan. The ensuing battle, which remains a source of some controversy, left nine Americans dead and twenty-seven wounded, and will serve as a case study in the annals of warfighting for years to come. However, the Battle of Wanat was just the final chapter at the end of a particularly violent and exhausting campaign for C Company—the “Chosen Few”—of 2nd Battalion, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team.
Often overshadowed by events in the neighboring Korengal Valley (documented by Sebastian Junger in his book War and the documentary film Restrepo), the Chosen Few’s tour of duty in the Waygal Valley is no less remarkable, if noticeably absent from the popular literature to emerge from the Global War on Terrorism. Gregg Zoroya’s The Chosen Few aims to add to that body of literature, bringing to the forefront the gripping, often heartbreaking story of Chosen Company’s time in the Waygal Valley. And, in a style reminiscent of Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers, Zoroya takes readers beyond the blood and sweat of close combat and into the hearts and minds of the soldiers themselves. The result is an intensely personal and heart-wrenching tale of courage, love, and loss.
Zoroya begins his journey at the end, with Medal of Honor recipient Ryan Pitts, bloodied and battered in the midst of the melee of Wanat. Those moments with Pitts, where he was all but certain of his own death, somehow seem to capture the experience in Waygal with perfect clarity: “So this would be the end.” From predeployment training in Germany to their deployment into Afghanistan and back home again, Zoroya brilliantly weaves a complex narrative of human tragedy intertwined with the harsh realities of war.
Within that narrative, Zoroya uses the voices of the men of Chosen Company to paint a vivid portrait of America’s war in Afghanistan. In a war fought from remote outposts in the most isolated region of Afghanistan, their experience exemplifies the loneliness of close combat at the tactical level. In a trackless forest at the foot of the Hindu Kush—where the enemy moves effortlessly in and around the rugged terrain—every sound is a threat, ever encounter potentially deadly. Days of seemingly endless boredom are punctuated by intense moments of intense small arms, rocket, and mortar fire. This is Afghanistan. This is their war.
The Chosen Few is, without reservation, a human story. It is brutally honest in the telling, in a way that will affect readers deeply. Zoroya tells the story of the paratroopers of Chosen Company in their own words, their own thoughts, their own sorrows. It is a book that will leave readers both breathless and unable to turn away. It is a story that very few could tell with the same passion and intensity that Zoroya brings. It is not a political commentary on the war itself, nor does it offer any brilliant insights into warfighting at the platoon level. It is a human narrative, told in the same raw, cutting monologue that made Ambrose such a compelling historian and storyteller.
An experienced war journalist, Zoroya’s previous writing focused on the effect of war on troops and their families, and the challenges faces by veterans upon their departure from the ranks of the military. A reporter for USA Today since 1998, Zoroya was an embedded reporter with the U.S. Marines in Somalia from 1992 to 1993 and was on the ground in Baghdad during the Thunder Run when then Col. David Perkins led his Spartan Brigade into Iraq’s capital city in 2003. In 2005, Zoroya began the “home-front” beat for USA Today, dedicated to telling the stories of the men and women fighting our wars, exploring posttraumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, joblessness, and suicide. His writing has been recognized with numerous awards and honors, and his human-interest reporting has led to appearances on PBS, NPR, and C-SPAN.
The Chosen Few is an exceptional book, providing a stark, often unforgiving glimpse into the American involvement in Afghanistan. Zoroya’s writing is equally direct, offering a glimpse into the depths of modern war that is as revealing as it is enthralling. For military readers, The Chosen Few is a “must read”; few books are as insightful, especially with respect to the character, courage, and commitment of those fighting for the future of Afghanistan. For readers with preconceived notions of what it means to engage in the “forever war,” this book is a necessary addition to the bookshelf.
Book Review written by: Steve Leonard, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas