Immediately following the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001, less than a hundred U.S. Special Forces flew to Afghanistan to wage a significant but secret war with the Taliban. The new Sundance documentary Legion of Brothers, from director Greg Barker centers on this little-known fight.
The film focuses on two 12-man teams of Green Berets, each tasked with a different mission to defeat the Taliban. Captain Mark Nutsch’s Team 595 arrived first in October 2001 and partnered with the anti-Taliban military to capture cities in the north — something they did primarily on horseback. In November 2001, Captain Jason Amerine’s Team 574 arrived in Afghanistan, and eventually attacked Al Qaeda and Taliban forces in the south of the country.
Barker was first captivated by these missions more than 15 years ago, while working at PBS’s Frontline. More than a decade later, he was finally cleared to talk to the now-retired soldiers, and was able to gain their trust. The result is a film centered around the brotherhood of these teams of Green Berets, what they saw on the ground, and their experiences readjusting to life after war. Men’s Journal spoke with Amerine and former Green Beret master sergeant Scott Neil about the experience of seeing their story on the big screen, the cultural and tactical differences between Green Berets and the Navy Seals, and why their mission in Afghanistan was so successful.
How does it feel to see your story told?
Scott Neil: Special Forces have always been very quiet and reserved about our stories. But finally seeing them on a big screen and watching everybody else react has been uplifting.
Why do the Special Forces tend not to share as many of their stories?
Jason Amerine: A lot of it is the culture. We tend to have older soldiers in Special Forces. And when you have kind of that age and maturity, it’s not about thumping your chest. It’s about the team.
What are the cultural differences between the Green Berets and the SEALs?
Neil: The SEALs are direct-action focused, and they tend to be younger, and they tend to really throw themselves into the fray. It’s a culture where if you need to get something done immediately, you throw them into it, and they’ll figure it out along the way.
How are Green Beret missions different?
Neil: Some missions are tic-tac-toe, some missions are checkers, and some missions are chess. So as a commander, you pull the tools out of your tool box and apply those to the problem. And not every nail needs a hammer. There was a very complex and confusing time right after 9/11. While all of America was staring at the hole in the ground and the damage at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania, a small group of people were given a very complex mission and nobody knew what would happen, nor would anybody have thought at the time that there was such a rapid success. Mine was a bit of a tic-tac-toe-like mission, and Jason’s was a strategic game of chess that ended a lot faster than most of us ever imagined.
Why are we still there today?
Amerine: I always viewed Afghanistan as two wars. I felt that we won that first one very rapidly, and the Taliban fled the country, and we really needed to focus on good governance, infrastructure, and the military. We didn't need to flood the country with troops, but we needed to focus on the country. But we immediately left for Iraq, and all of the folks who developed amazing relationships with the warlords were pulled out to go to Iraq, and all those relationships were lost. We paid lip service to Afghanistan but didn’t do a lot, because there was this false conception that it's done, we'd won, and [then] the Taliban came back. That was when you really had a second war that nobody recognized until it was too late.
What was it that made you guys want to tell your story now?
Neil: You know, we haven’t even really told our stories to ourselves. What's great about Green Berets, as also challenging, too, is the teams are so small, and we stay together for so long, and other teams don’t even know our own stories. Amongst ourselves, we've lost the ability to tell our own stories to each other. And so when we started this conversation and we would all get around a table like this, even before the filming, we would start telling each other, "Did you hear about when... I didn’t even know you did that... You were the one that did that?" We’ve lost, in this generation, our own internal storytelling, and this [documentary] kind of became the first [to help us do] that.