There are great men in America.
As I read Bing West’s third — and best — book about the Afghan War, I met some of those men. Bing West is many things: a Marine “grunt,” a scholar, a historian, and a former leader in the highest levels of our government. But he’s also a writer, and a very good one. In One Million Steps, West uses that talent to tell the story of one Marine platoon, and — through that platoon — the story of the Afghan War in its entirety.
In his first book on the Afghan War, The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan (2011), West captured the war’s big picture, taking a hard look at America’s strategic mistakes — mistakes that courage and grit could not overcome. His second, Into the Fire: A Firsthand Account of the Most Extraordinary Battle of the Afghan War (2012) — which I reviewed in these pages (“The Best of Marines,” December 3, 2012) — took a look at one desperate battle and one remarkable man, his co-author, Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Meyer.
The two books shared a theme: Courageous men were saddled with foolish strategies and deadly restrictions, which could all be summarized in the concept of a “benevolent counterinsurgency.” This “benevolent” brand of warfare tries to prevail over the enemy without actually defeating him, a novel approach when fighting a vicious and capable foe.
But it is in this third book that this theme comes most powerfully to life. West embedded with 3/5 Marines (Third Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment), walking patrol after patrol with a single platoon (Third Platoon, Kilo Company), tracking their progress through the Sangin area, in blood-soaked Helmand Province.
Many times, when these Marines left their tiny, primitive base and walked the most dangerous ground in the world, West walked with them, and with each step he encountered truths that would expose the myths of our war in Afghanistan.
Myth: Our Marines and soldiers are largely fighting a high-tech war, pitting Taliban flesh-and-blood against American bombs and drones.
Fact: Again and again, the Marines fight the Taliban straight up, small unit versus small unit, with no air support, no artillery support, and only their tactics and marksmanship to keep them alive.
Myth: Insurgencies are defeated primarily by relationship-building, and “kinetic” (i.e., violent) operations are largely counterproductive.
Fact: Unless the enemy is utterly defeated, driven away with confidence that he won’t return, relationships mean little. Why would the villagers support the Marines when the Marines’ presence so clearly has an expiration date?
Myth: America’s uneducated poor keep fighting while the middle class looks the other way.
Fact: The men of Third Platoon, Kilo Company, were “smarter, wealthier, and fitter” than the average American, coming largely from intact families, with 100 percent possessing at least a high-school diploma.
Myth: The modern American Marine is softer, and less willing to engage in close combat, than his predecessors at Tripoli, Belleau Wood, and the Chosin Reservoir.
Fact: Not only is the modern Marine every bit the fighting man his forefathers were, the modern Marine keeps faith with his brothers and walks those one million steps — the two and a half miles a day that West’s platoon marched for six months — not only knowing that each step could be his last but also knowing that the mission is likely, ultimately, to fail.
Think about that last fact for a moment. How many of us ever risk our lives — for anything? Yet these Marines risked their lives, every day, with the knowledge that their leaders were failing them, the strategy was wrong, and time was on the enemy’s side.
This was common knowledge from the outset. Near the start of the deployment, the strategic rift between the Marines and the higher command was clear. West recounts the Marine approach: “Now in Afghanistan, [Marine Brigadier General Larry] Nicholson issued the same clear order every corporal could understand. The mission: drive the enemy out of Helmand by walking every foot of farmland.” Walking every foot of farmland meant constant enemy contact, constant firefights, and — yes — extensive “kinetic” operations.
At the higher levels . . . a more sophisticated, or squishy, philosophy prevailed. . . . Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had announced that America, after eight years of fighting, had finally found the “the right strategy” for Afghanistan. Mullen explained that the U.S. troops were building a nation. As a model, he praised the book Three Cups of Tea, which espoused village-level projects, and [he] spent a day visiting a girls’ school in Afghanistan.
How nice. Never mind that Three Cups of Tea was not just a fraud (later exposed by 60 Minutes and writer Jon Krakauer), but a fraud that should have been obvious to anyone who’d spent more than nine minutes on the ground in Afghanistan.
Tea does not defeat terrorists.
#page#Near the end of the book, West revisits the results of that wrong strategy. He notes that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates “had lost faith in the counterinsurgency mission” — and that nonetheless, the “failed strategy did not change.”
The alternative to that failed strategy was clear: change the mission. Forsake nation-building and tea-sipping. Focus instead on “building up the Afghan forces and bashing the Taliban.” This strategy change would have allowed combat commanders to strike the enemy “when and where they least expected it.”
While West’s discussions of strategy are both fascinating and disturbing, the real power of the book is in West’s ability to tell the story of the men who lived that strategy. Because you know even as the book starts that Third Platoon took high casualties, you turn every page waiting for the gut punch, waiting to see which of the men you get to know and admire has an arm torn apart by shrapnel, or has a leg blown off, or loses his life — bleeding out before the medevac chopper can arrive.
Try to imagine living the battle in the movie Lone Survivor not just once, but again and again, day by day, step by step — fighting alongside men you’ve gotten to know and care about, when no day is a safe day, and the pressure never relents.
It’s especially frustrating to think of what might have been, had these Marines been truly unleashed. Even when Third Platoon fought under very difficult rules of engagement, in pursuit of a failing strategy, they took the fight to the enemy, and they still beat him on his home ground. From Day 150 — 900,000 steps into the deployment: “The intercept team . . . reported increasing frustration on the part of the Taliban shura in Pakistan. In the judgment of the senior insurgent leadership, the Sangin local rebels had lost their nerve and weren’t engaging the Marines.”
When Marines fight, Marines win. And this despite the fact that, as West notes, “no army in history ever fought with more restraint than did the Americans, Danes, Dutch, and British in Afghanistan.” At one point, General Stanley McChrystal — then commanding the Afghan war effort — “supported a proposal to award medals for courageous restraint” when Marines and soldiers held fire around civilians. Battalion lawyers hovered around every request for indirect fire (fire in which the shooter cannot see his target in his direct line of sight), protecting commanders from court martial if they made the “wrong” decision when supporting troops under fire.
The Taliban, fully aware of these rules, took maximum advantage, hiding among civilians in villages, sending children to scout American lines, and doing all they could to blend in with the population.
It bears noting that the rules of the Afghan surge differed considerably from the rules governing the Iraqi troop surge, in which combat units (including this reviewer’s) fought hard under much more permissive rules of engagement to prove to wavering Iraqis that America was, in fact, the “strongest tribe” (to borrow a phrase from West’s excellent book about the surge in Iraq). The Sunni tribes came to our side because we were strong, not because we were benevolent. And those who didn’t come to our side were defeated.
Yes, there were “cups of tea” in Iraq, but the real message was delivered by tons of bombs, rockets, and artillery rounds, and by savage combat that wore down a vile enemy.
The men of Third Platoon were more than capable of defeating the enemy. Indeed, they showed they could, again and again. Many of the Marines in Afghanistan had served in the worst parts of Iraq and had beaten al-Qaeda in the alleys and streets of Ramadi, Fallujah, and other now-infamous places in the Sunni Triangle.
As West describes it, to be in Third Platoon was to be “the lion tamer, the man on the high wire, the race-car driver, the risk taker whose life and limbs are no safer than a coin flip.” A man in Third Platoon was a “warrior king” — and he proved it each step of the one million steps of his deployment.
It is one of the great tragedies of our time that these warrior kings were led by men who loved tea more than they loved victory. Our nation — and the world — will pay the price.
– Mr. French is a senior counselor at the American Center for Law and Justice and a veteran of the Iraq War.