Doug Stanton tells war stories as intimate as they are intense, scorching accounts of the split-second decisions soldiers must make if they’re to have any hope of surviving the crucible of combat. The Michigan-based journalist-turned-author’s dedication to digging deep into the mind-sets of men and women at war led him first to the WWII sinking and rescue of the USS Indianapolis crew, recounted in his 2003 New York Times bestseller “In Harm’s Way.”
In search of a worthy follow-up, the Hampshire College grad, 56, found himself fascinated by reporting coming out of Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, particularly images of American soldiers dressed like locals, some on horseback. These individuals, he’d learn, were the Horse Soldiers, an elite group of Air Force combat controllers and soldiers with the Army’s 5th Special Forces Group’s Operational Detachment Alpha 595, the first to invade Afghanistan post-9/11. Tasked with supporting and advising the country’s Northern Alliance as they fought the Taliban and Al Qaeda, the small band of soldiers helped Afghan forces turn the tide against their common adversary — then returned home to a country kept unaware of their accomplishments.
“12 Strong,” now in theaters, brings Stanton’s 2009 book “Horse Soldiers” to the big screen. The movie is directed by Nicolai Fuglsig, who enlisted actors Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, and Michael Peña to tell the task force’s story in a viscerally cinematic way that honors the author’s detailed, rigorously researched narrative. Speaking by phone, Stanton discussed the project, its subjects’ unique form of heroism, and his own eclectic career.
Q. Hollywood has a long-documented love affair with the American military, from combat-driven narratives like “Black Hawk Down” to in-depth biopics like “American Sniper.” What was the cinematic appeal of “Horse Soldiers”?
A. [“Horse Soldiers”] is a golden snapshot of those opening moments [after 9/11], and one way in which we approached the problem of terrorism and civil unrest. The special forces soldier views these kinds of incidents as social problems; they think and try to believe that someone blowing themselves up in a suicide bombing is actually the bitter fruit of a social problem. If you’ve trained to think that way going into that community, then you’re actually thinking about what’s fomenting this desire to blow oneself up. Because they’ve been trained to do this, and because if you went to the Pentagon there was no other real plan at that time, they were the perfect answer to that moment in history. And I think because that’s a unique take, and because they largely returned home in secret, that’s a reason the book and the movie have been so warmly received, by both the military and the general public.
Q. You’ve referred to this group as diplomats trained to fight, as opposed to regular soldiers. How did that distinction inform “12 Strong” as a war drama?
A. Most audiences are being attracted to “12 Strong” because of what they might expect to see from a movie like this, which is that the Americans arrive, they march into the camp, they take it over, and take charge. It’s like, “Everything’s going to be fine now. We’re here.” That’s not how these guys operate. They’re very different. You marry that postmodern, nuanced thinking with soldiers on horseback, and you have this interesting narrative that’s essentially a western with lasers.
Q. In line with that idea of them being so unique, this group never sought recognition for their service and, until your book, hadn’t received it.
A. Their bumper sticker is “The Quiet Professionals” — it actually is a bumper sticker, and they meant that. They live by that. And when I began researching, there were few if any books about special forces on the shelves. . . . What is heroism to these guys? That’s a good question. Because it’s not this classic model of heroism that we think of. If you’re not happy with doing something incredibly dangerous — though important — that no one will ever hear about, you’re not made out for this business. These guys have a great deal of humility, and they don’t look like superheroes.
Q. When did the idea come about to adapt the story for the big screen?
A. It began to take shape with [producer] Jerry Bruckheimer as the book was published in 2009. He came to me maybe a year before that, but it’s been at least an eight-year journey with Jerry Bruckheimer Films to bring “Horse Soldiers” to the screen. I started the book in 2003, it came out in 2009, and I worked on it for about five years. It’s no understatement to say that Bruckheimer’s insistence that the movie get made, and then [the work of] Molly Smith from Black Label Media, this great company that helped produce “La La Land” and “Sicario” — they really carried the day, because it was a unique and very nuanced movie to make.
Q. On your website, you mention experiences as a teacher, lecturer, and — curiously — a fisherman. Can you elaborate on that last part?
A. Yes. [laughs] I worked on a tuna boat, a charter fishing boat called the Shady Lady, with a great captain named Manny Phillips out of Provincetown when I was going to Hampshire College [in Amherst]. I didn’t know what I was going to do with myself, but I ended up going back to graduate school in Iowa at the Writer’s Workshop, and then was able to study writing at Hampshire, and then again Iowa. At the time, I lived on candy bars and beer, and we lived in a tent in a campground. [laughs] This wasn’t a long line in a commercial fishing occupation; this was for two years from early spring to late fall.
Q. There’s also something in there about you living in Robert Frost’s old house.
A. That’s right. Robert Frost had a house in Bennington, Vermont, and I had a friend, the poet Mary Ruefle, who was the caretaker of it when it was owned by Norman Lear, the TV producer. She got a grant to go to Scotland, and she had to be gone six or nine months, so I moved in, and my job was just to make sure the ravage didn’t overtake the place. Frost is one of my favorite poets, so it was a thrill to do.
Isaac Feldberg can be reached at email@example.com