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My Turn: ‘12 Strong’ is a reminder of a time when America was unified

  • Afghan native Fahim Fazli (left) and retired Marine Michael Moffett are seen at the base of Mount Washington before ascending the mountain via the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail on Aug. 6, 2014. AP



For the Monitor
Saturday, December 09, 2017

The current Thor movie features Chris Hemsworth as the title character, capable of using a magic hammer to bring down destruction upon the forces of darkness. A fun fantasy, the film provides escapism for viewers.

At least for a couple hours.

Next, premiering on Jan. 19, the movie 12 Strong also features Hemsworth wreaking havoc upon the forces of darkness. Portraying a U.S. Army captain, Hemsworth calls down destruction not from Norse Gods, but from the even more potent United States Air Force. His enemies are al-Qaida and Taliban fanatics who provided safe haven in Afghanistan for the plotters of the 9/11 attacks.

Unlike Thor, the army captain is real – Hemsworth’s Mitch Nelson is based on Green Beret Mark Nutsch – and 12 Strong will capture the imagination of countless viewers. Nelson/Nutsch was one of a dozen soldiers who infiltrated into Taliban-controlled Afghanistan soon after the wanton Sept. 11, 2001, murder of thousands of innocents.

I was one of the few aware of this mission during that tumultuous autumn of 2001. Following the 9/11 attacks, I’d returned to active duty as a Marine Corps infantry officer to work at the ground operations desk in the top-secret Central Command war room at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. CENTCOM tracked the perilous journey of these brave soldiers as they flew a terrifying night insertion mission through towering mountains – from Uzbekistan to northern Afghanistan. They hoped to link up with anti-Taliban elements and eventually attack and liberate the key city of Mazar-E Sharif, thus paving the way to topple the Taliban regime.

Some feared it to be a suicide mission but all were relieved to learn that the operatives landed safely to link up with anti-Taliban Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum. Soon the Americans were riding with Dostum’s men toward their objective.

Like 21st-century Arthurian knights, the Americans rode into battle on horseback, wielding not Excalibur swords but small arms – and radios capable of calling in that awesome U.S. air power.

The area of operations featured the 12 Americans and their new Uzbek allies against around 50,000 Taliban fighters. But in one of the truly stunning military operations of all time, Mazar-E Sharif fell to the unlikely coalition. Northern Alliance forces then moved south toward Kabul and by Christmas the Taliban regime collapsed.

The exploits of these horse soldiers were top secret, but eventually Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld couldn’t resist sharing the story at a news conference. The remarkable saga was later chronicled in a book by Doug Stanton, which inspired the coming film.

The movie trailer and previews of 12 Strong bring tears to my eyes as I think back to those poignant weeks late in 2001. But my anticipation of this film is also heightened because one of its actors is Fahim Fazli, an Afghan-American Marine Corps interpreter that I met in Afghanistan when I later deployed there.

A refugee from the Soviet Union’s Afghan invasion, Fahim waited for years in Pakistan to come to America legally. He learned English and studied American history and became a citizen. After years of perseverance he earned a Hollywood Screen Actors Guild membership and later worked with many of Hollywood’s top stars.

Fahim was perhaps the only SAG actor to leave Hollywood and put on a uniform to go into harm’s way during the War on Terror. He asked to serve in the most dangerous part of Afghanistan, with the Marines in Helmand Province. The charismatic actor was so effective at bringing together Americans and Afghans that the Taliban put a price on his head. But he survived to return to Hollywood. We stayed in touch and co-authored a book, Fahim Speaks: A Warrior-Actor’s Odyssey from Afghanistan to Hollywood and Back. Tom Hanks wrote a cover blurb for us.

Fahim went on to numerous film and television projects, to include Argo and American Sniper. Now comes 12 Strong. I can’t wait for Jan. 19. Time will tell as to whether the film will succeed. I sense it will be a blockbuster.

The War on Terror continued after the fall of the Taliban and the unity we experienced that autumn later dissipated amidst debate about whether President Bush should have gone into Iraq, or whether President Obama should have dramatically escalated our Afghan commitment. But for several weeks in late 2001 Americans came together in a way we had not since Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Hopefully this true story about brave knights on horseback will be a vehicle to transport us back to that special time of national unity.

At least for a couple hours.

(A retired Marine Corps officer and professor, Michael Moffett represents Canterbury and Loudon in the New Hampshire House of Representatives.)