Oscar Levant has been quoted as saying "There is a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased that line."

As an artist, Levant could get away with erasing that line, as can any number of actors or comedians or writers who, in one moment of brilliance, can produce a work that is timeless. Mel Gibson may be a violent, racist drunk but Braveheart is a masterpiece. Clint Eastwood may be a serial philanderer but his body of work is unparalleled.
As an Army officer, Jim Gant didn’t inhabit that world.
The soldiers of the Special Operations Forces (SOF) inhabit a world that is different, to be sure. Their selection process is arduous, they train separately from conventional forces, and perhaps most surprisingly they prosecute an entirely different kind of war, apart from the conventional forces often headquartered on the same base.
They live and work in a grey area. They’re in the Army but they’re ‘Special.’ They operate in the same battlespace but they often don’t tell conventional forces what they’re doing or thinking. They’re supposed to live by the same rules but they don’t – and often flagrantly flout them.
This is the world inhabited by Jim Gant. Please read every word of this article, it’s one of the best pieces of journalism I’ve read in a while.
Full disclosure – I served with Jim Gant in Baghdad in the summer of 2007. He’d just been promoted to Major and had just won the Silver Star, and one of my only memories of him is that he yelled at me. The background of that fight isn’t important except to say that, even though we were the same rank, I gave him a lot a respect and leeway because I had the feeling he was special.
At that time, years before the events described in this article, Jim Gant had gone native. If you want to prevail in a counterinsurgency campaign, ‘going native’ to one degree or another is essential. Counterinsurgency is less about the military and more about the personal. But ‘going native’ involves some risk because the US Army is, first and foremost, an organization with rules.
Some of those rules are silly. For example, we were directed not to bring pornography into Iraq or Afghanistan, ostensibly because we did not want to insult the Mulsim religion. We needn’t have worried. Iraqi soldiers showed me more pornography on their phones and computers than I think I’ve seen in the rest of my life combined. I heard one senior Iraqi officer tell a story about purchasing a "sexy" DVD from a street vendor in the weeks after Saddam’s regime fell, only to be disappointed that the DVD didn’t contain porn.
Rules prohibiting alcohol were perhaps less silly, in that there is a very good case to be made against it. But a blanket prohibition is arguably counterproductive. A former Iraqi General lived right outside of my Joint Security Station in Baghdad and invited me over for a glass of Scotch one night – I had to politely decline but to this day I wonder what I could have learned if I took him up on his offer. A group of Kurdish Policemen invited me to spend Nowruz with them and during the celebration they broke out bottles of Jack Daniels and Jim Beam and proceeded to drink them in front of me – making fun of me as they did.
The prohibitions on sex are just insane – who thinks that young women and men sent into combat, away from their families for 9 months or a year at at a time, are going to have carnal impulses they won’t be able to satisfy on their own?
Getting back to Jim Gant, it is generally accepted in the SOF community that none of the rules I discuss above about pornography, alcohol, or sex, exist within their compounds while they are deployed. Already operating in that "grey area" outside of the normal Army command and control structure, it wouldn’t make sense to rigidly adhere to rules that make little sense in the first place.
SOF were also allowed to have what are called "modified grooming standards." Which means they can grow beards and wear native clothing and try to blend in as much as possible with the local populace. Regular Army couldn’t do this, (because, rules) but SOF could and Jim Gant did to great effect.
And because of their rigorous selection processes, and because of Gant’s successes in Iraq, he was given an usual amount of leeway – even for a Green Beret – in the violent Kunar Province in Afghanistan. Until I read this article I didn’t know Jim and I were in Afghanistan at the same time, but it didn’t surprise me. Jim always struck me as a guy more at home in combat than he was actually at home.
If there’s any point to this blog post it’s this – Gant was on the right track. He has an understanding of counterinsurgency and how to ingratiate yourself with the indigenous population. An Army officer’s loyalties, first and foremost, have to lie with his country and his mission. One of the risks of ‘going native’ like Jim Gant did is to blur that line, to identify more with the local tribesman than you do with your comrades in arms. But our fortunes in Afghanistan depend upon the support of tribes like the ones Jim befriended. As the Sunni Awakening in Anbar province in Iraq had shown us, support of the local tribes can be as effective as hundreds of thousands of troops.
In the end Jim was undone by a by-the-book West Point officer with less time in the Army than Jim had in combat. Given his training the young officer was forced to report what he saw, and if I had to guess I’d say Jim always knew his days were numbered.
So who was right? I don’t think there can be any doubt that they both were. Jim lived on a razor’s edge, he couldn’t operate any other way. The young Lieutenant was borne of a world where the most pertinent question is "How’s the cow?" (an inside West Point joke). The Army itself had set up this structure, given SOF such leeway and tolerated it’s rules violations, and had set the stage for a genius like Jim Gant to emerge.
I suspect Jim Gant sleeps well at night knowing he did the right thing. And even though it lost a special officer, I suspect the Army does as well.
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