Call to Action: When the Tempest Gathers

WHEN THE TEMPEST GATHERS: From Mogadishu to the Fight Against Isis, A Marine Special Operations Commander at War. By Andrew Milburn. South Yorkshire, England and Havertown PA: Pen and Sword Books Limited, 2020. ISBN: 978 1 52675 055 6, 336 pp.

reviewed by Col Christopher Woodbridge in the March 2020 MCG

The enduring character of war, characterized by violence, danger, and chance, has always produced opportunities for remarkable men with unique skills and character to serve with distinction and to amass “collections” of truly exceptional experiences. In the fields that today we know as special operations, unconventional warfare, anti-terrorism, and counterinsurgency, individuals throughout history have developed near-legendary standing. The 19th century produced Sir Richard Francis Burton and Frederick Townsend Ward. The first half of the 20th century gave us T. E. Lawrence and Marines like Edson, Carlson, and Pierre “Pete” Ortiz. The “shadow warriors” of Vietnam, the Cold War, and the creation of U.S. Special Operations Command following the failure of Operation EAGLE CLAW to rescue U. S. hostages from Iran in 1979, have all contributed to the culture of quiet professionalism that marks today’s special operators. Without hyperbole, the combat memoir of Col Andrew Milburn, When the Tempest Gathers, establishes this Marine leader’s name among this storied group.

Andy Milburn has never been the “ordinary Marine.” Born in Hong Kong, educated in the United Kingdom up through law school, and widely travelled in the Middle East to include Iran, Andy’s opportunities for life experience were atypical even before enlisting in the Marine Corps. Selected for a commission, he first became an infantry officer and later a special operations officer. Commanding Marines in combat at all ranks from Somalia to Iraq, he has also been among the Corps “intellectual capital” of graduates from the School of Advanced Warfighting:  critical thinkers and leading operational planners. 

While in command of the Marine Corps’ Special Operations Regiment, today the Raider Regiment, he was the first Marine to command a Combined Special Operations Task Force. This multi-national force of U.S. and allied special operators and Iraqi special forces were central to the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (also known as ISIL and Da’esh). This tour forms the focal point of the book and best demonstrates Col Milburn’s synthesis of his tactical cunning born from combat experiences as a junior officer with depth of knowledge and creative problem solving of a scholar of the professional of arms. His leadership and the courage and perseverance of all his troops were critical to the eventual destruction of the ISIS Caliphate.

I first met Andy Milburn in the Al Qaim/Husaybah area of western Iraq during Operation IRAQI FREEDOM. During this time between 2004-2005, the Marine Corps had not yet established Marine Corps Special Operations Command (MARSOC). Andy was part of the Corps’ effort to understand and prepare Marines for special operations and coalition warfare beyond the certification of our special operations capable MEUs. The measured, deliberate, and thoughtful approach he applied to the assessment of combat operations on the ground, and his personal courage in accomplishing this mission, were quietly impressive.  This work proved invaluable when by 2006 MARSOC became the Marine Corps Service component of USSOCOM.

Ultimately, this book is not the chest-thumping, self-promoting war story that some veterans of our most recent wars have published.  Sincere humility and—at times painful—honesty are the hall marks of this genuine tale of the triumphs and the challenges of leadership in today’s wars. From the loneliness that comes with the responsibility of making life-and-death decisions, to the fierce friendships formed among those together in the fire, and to the heavy tax that long separations from family and home levy on us, this is most importantly a compelling and completely authentic story.

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