Politics & Policy

A Million Steps with Marines

Marines in Sangin, Afghanistan, April 2011 (Photo: Corporal Nathan McCord)
What lessons can we learn from the 3rd Platoon’s experience in Afghanistan?

Bing West, a Vietnam veteran, writes courageously and authoritatively about those who serve our nation. His sixth and latest book about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is One Million Steps: a Marine Platoon at War. Amazon has selected it as a “Pick of the Month” for “writing of the highest order,” and Newt Gingrich described it as “stunning, sobering . . . a first step to rethinking 13 years of strategic failure.” Bill Bennett called it “a heart wrenching account.” Eliot Cohen wrote that the book was “epic . . . a stinging indictment of our strategy.” Max Boot found it “utterly gripping — and utterly different from the sanitized picture.”

West, a frequent contributor to National Review and National Review Online, talks to Kathryn Jean Lopez about the book, the current state of Afghanistan, and what we should be doing now.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: What happened in Sangin District, and why is it important?

Bing West: Sangin symbolizes Afghanistan: brave troops pursuing a bad strategy. We lost more British and American troops in Sangin than in any other district. I embedded with 3rd Platoon, where each Marine patrolled three miles a day, taking a total of 1 million steps across minefields during their six-month tour. Half of them didn’t make it.

What was the purpose? For ten years, the goal in Sangin was to open the road for installing a new turbine at a hydroelectric dam. That never happened. Our top command insisted the Marines conduct a “nation building” strategy while conceding to the enemy a vast sanctuary in nearby Pakistan. Hardened jihadists kept flowing in from Pakistan to kill the Marines. General Stanley McChrystal, acting as a misguided, four-star squad leader, ordered our grunts (infantrymen) to spend 5 percent of their effort killing the Islamists and 95 percent persuading the people. Other generals pontificated that “wars aren’t resolved by killing,” sowing further confusion among our warriors.

Our generals pursued an impossible strategy of nation building with half-hearted resolve. Although they knew their goal was too ambitious, they kept extending our battalions farther out in an “oil spot” strategy, occupying territory Afghan forces could not hold. The tragic, predictable result was 3rd Platoon living in caves in the middle of the Green Zone in the hardest district in Afghanistan, fighting and dying every day. The Marines knew that once they left, the Afghan forces would stop patrolling. The Taliban were part of the tribal fabric before the Marines arrived and after the Marines departed. The Taliban have taken back the poppy fields in the Green Zone and are again besieging the Sangin district center.

So what is the lesson from Sangin? When you go to war, have the proper strategy and the resolve to accomplish your objectives.


Lopez: You wrote three books about Iraq, and you were in the Fallujah battles. The Islamists in Iraq are currently the biggest problem. Why write about a platoon in Afghanistan?

West: First, Islamists share the same creed in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. You cannot excise one cancer cell and neglect the others. Mr. Obama has promised total withdrawal from Afghanistan before he leaves office. That means we lose, and there will be a surge in Islamist morale that extends into Pakistan — whose fifty-odd nuclear weapons are at risk of falling into the wrong hands.

Second, when you read how fiercely 3rd Platoon fought, versus how banally the generals talked, One Million Steps stands as a cautionary tale about why generals should not advocate nation building.


Lopez: President Obama has ruled out boots on the ground. So why discuss ground forces?

West: Today, we have boots on the ground in Iraq — about a thousand troops. I believe we also have teams on the front lines, calling in air support — with more teams on the way. Mr. Obama equivocates by using lawyerly language. Technically, all military teams can be placed under CIA command authority, as was the case when the SEALs killed Osama bin Laden. But they are still boots on the ground.

The president should say, “I will use the full panoply of American might to destroy the Islamist army — including our ground forces in supporting roles.”


Lopez: What strategy do you recommend in the Middle East and Afghanistan?

West: 1. Renounce the pledge to pull all American troops out of Afghanistan. It is imprudent to concede an entire theater of war to the Islamists.

2. Let facts on the ground determine the political boundaries in Iraq and Syria. The Kurds are today an independent state. The Sunni tribes in Iraq and Syria will fight only if they can gain de facto independence both from Assad and from the Shiite government in Baghdad that is heavily influenced by Iran.

3. Militarily, conduct air strikes, major expeditionary raids, and clandestine operations. Give the Kurds and the Sunni tribes equipment and pay. Embed Special Forces and Marine platoons like the one in this book to call in air support day and night, just as we did when routing the enemy in Afghanistan in 2001. Let Sunni or Kurdish forces seize cities without us. Launch Ranger or Marine battalions from offshore to wipe out lucrative targets, and then pull back out. There will be American casualties, but not on the scale of the prior wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In sum, permit the indigenous forces to hold territory they seize — not cede it back to Baghdad or Damascus — while we provide air and expeditionary assaults. The secular West cannot defeat murderous Islamist nihilism. That cultural Islamic plague must burn itself out over another decade. What the West can offer is aid, air power, and the incentive of self-rule to the Kurds and to the Sunnis in northern Iraq and eastern Syria, thereby constricting Islamist physical space.


Lopez: You are proposing a new map of the Middle East.

West: During World War I, England and France imposed the Sykes-Picot map upon the region. One century later, the Islamic war has erased that map. Our State Department must attend to today’s geopolitics, not to a Humpty Dumpty effort to put Sykes-Picot back together again.


Lopez: With Americans being beheaded by the Islamic State, why do you believe the public will stomach more American blood and treasure committed to that region?

West: The president has previously declared that the war against terrorists must end. Now he says we must destroy the Islamists. He has changed his mind. The burden is now upon the president to rally the American people and Congress. Will he do so? I don’t know. His track record is not encouraging.


Lopez: You write in One Million Steps: “Imagine being on one patrol, and then another and another, always expecting to be blown to bits, shooting every day. Had these Marines been policemen in the States, the intensity of their battles would have made front-page news every week. To 3rd Platoon, each week only meant a few more stories shared around the campfire.” What’s your advice to the media?

West: The reporters, once on the ground, get it right. You can take the accuracy of their stories to the bank. The media pay homage and respect to our casualties. It takes a lot of money to place one reporter in the field. If the public is not interested, the news corporations cannot afford the coverage. Our grunts wanted more coverage of their fights. In a way, our generals did not, because fighting seemed to conflict with successful nation building.


Lopez: You write, “Third Platoon was determined to win. To them, that meant walking across the poppy fields without stepping on a mine or being shot at. That was a limited but practical definition of winning.” What does that do to a man, when winning is implausible and death is everywhere?

West: In 3rd Platoon, it came down to basics: determined leaders, sound tactics, a desire to kill the enemy as payback, knowledge that other Marines had had it harder, unit self-pride, looking out for each other. In the book, I include the results of a survey taken in the field. Eight Marines believed the combat had made them harder; forty-two said it made them more caring for others and more appreciative of life.


Lopez: What do Americans owe these men?

West: I would not phrase their service in terms of obligation. Every one of them volunteered twice. First, to be a Marine. Second, to be a grunt. This extends beyond the Marines. All our services wants to be the best, as does each branch in each service. Every service strives to instill in every new member the habits of accountability and accomplishment.

To a large extent, the services succeed. Publicity and recompense are given to the 10 percent who report debilitating post-traumatic stress. General Jim Mattis, the legendary field commander, instead emphasizes the successful and extraordinary post-traumatic development of the other 90 percent who have served. The Greatest Generation, for example, developed industrial America after the traumas of World War II. In the vast majority of cases, a combat veteran reenters civilian life with more to contribute. He gains and we gain.


Lopez: You wrote about the fallen hero Sergeant Matthew Abbate: “The battlefield is a giant craps table. Every crack! on patrol is a white-hot slug of lead breaking the sound barrier as it missed you. Any grunt who is not a fatalist is foolish. Death is as random as it is unexplainable. If you’re very skillful — like Matt — you might tilt the odds a bit but not much.” That’s chilling. What’s going on?

West: Every reporter and/or grunt meets a sergeant like Matt Abbate — outgoing, friendly, funny, smiling, and as professional as a white shark. The battlefield doesn’t care how generous or mean you are. Your competence can carry you far, but the odds catch up.


Lopez: You begin a chapter with a quote: “You never know how much you need Jesus until Jesus is all you got, because you live day to day, not knowing if you’re going to have your legs or life the next.” Why did you choose that?

West: These were hard young men, killing on average one Taliban member each day while losing some of their best comrades. The squads lived in caves hacked out of a farm wall. They didn’t have e-mail or nightly calls home. Their entertainment was each other. Platoon discussions were riotous affairs. Most expressed a firm belief in God. Only four said they were atheists, and others shouted that they were trying to get attention. So in the book I included one comment I often heard.


Lopez: You quote Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who fought in the Civil War: “To fight a war you must believe in something and want something with all your might.” Could the same be said about our diplomacy or public policy? Do we Americans have confidence in our own brand?

West: In the 1960s, Presidents Johnson and Nixon tried to hide the scope of the Vietnam War from the people. After invading Afghanistan and Iraq, in 2005 President George W. Bush said the American people should share in the sacrifice by shopping in the mall, or words to that effect. President Obama trumped that by declaring in 2013 that he had ended both wars and all troops were coming home.

Holy smoke! With a tradition of leadership like that, no wonder few believe in fighting a war “with all your might.” The cultural wellsprings of society’s distance from our wars and warriors go far beyond President Obama. But we only have one commander-in-chief at a time. He has declared that the Islamists as a cohesive force will be destroyed. To do that, he must fight with all his might.

Other officials must do the same. The war novelist Karl Marlantes has an apt phrase: Policymakers must be virtual warriors. As an assistant secretary of defense years ago, I had the honor of sitting in on White House senior meetings. If senior officials were transplanted via virtual reality for a few minutes on a patrol with 3rd Platoon, the tone and focus of Washington meetings would change dramatically.

We, the American people, are about to embark upon a ten-year war. I’m not persuaded our policymakers are prepared to do so with all their might. And to embark without requiring a sacrifice from all Americans would be injudicious. We all have to feel we’re in this fight.


Lopez: Why do you end the book with a quote from Aristotle?

West: The ending quote is, “We become brave by doing brave acts.” Aristotle also wrote that courage was the one quality that made all other qualities possible. Every human being intuitively knows that. When we do wrong or slack off or take the easy way out, we know it’s because we lack the willpower — the courage — to do the right thing.

Take 50 young men, put them through Marine boot camp, and place them in a God-forsaken patch of farms and 9th-century farmers on the other side of the earth where within a week one squad is blown apart, their sturdy platoon leader loses his leg, their fort is flooded out, the people run away from them, and bullets zip past every time they stick their heads up.

And what do they do? They patrol with tourniquets wrapped around their thighs, ready to stanch the blood when their legs are sliced off at the knees. Every time they lose someone, another steps forward. They keep attacking and attacking until they are masters of the terrain and enemy. After five months, the Taliban avoid them. Aristotle’s words fit the 3rd Platoon.

“We become brave by doing brave acts.”

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Onlineand founding director of Catholic Voices USA.


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