Is Bing West a grunt who writes, or a writer who served in the grunts?
On the one hand, he is the author of—by my count—nine books, and has spent substantially more time as a front-line journalist and a political figure (including an appointment at the Department of Defense during the Reagan administration) than he spent fighting as an infantry Marine in Vietnam.
But a stronger case can be made the other way, less as a result of his Vietnam War combat credentials—which are impeccable—than as a consequence of how he writes, which is uniquely sensitive to the unspoken rules of the Marines.
The book that first earned him notice, 1972’s The Village, was a brutal and captivating account of a Marine rifle squad that spent over a year fighting alongside South Vietnamese partisans doing battle in the village of Binh Nghia with their Vietcong neighbors. The Marines suffered over 50 percent casualties and won, rooting out the communists.
The Village is riveting in part because the depictions of combat are so detailed. They are detailed because West was a participant in much of the combat. In fact, he was often the most senior officer present for the terrifying, nightly, close-quarter firefights, and thus officially in charge. Yet the reader will be hard pressed to find much in the way of authorial self-reference in The Village, despite the fact that another sort of writer might have been tempted to turn his experiences into a memoir. West more or less cut himself out of the story, focusing on the enlisted Marines whom he saw as bearing the brunt of the fighting.
This sort of thing earns loyalty among a Marine readership, which detests the impression that a Marine, and especially a Marine officer, is in it for himself. This sort of readership also is sensitive to the fact that, in his "About the Author," West only describes himself as a Marine combat veteran—not, as is the case, as a officer who served with a Force Reconnaissance team doing some of the most intense and dangerous work in Vietnam.
West has spent much of the last decade visiting Marines on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan and writing about them, producing at least one book during that time—No True Glory, about the Battle of Fallujah—that is likely to endure and be considered a classic alongside The Village. His latest effort, One Million Steps, is his second about Afghanistan.
Whereas his first book about Afghanistan, The Wrong War, constituted a serial approach, with West visiting a variety of hotspots in southern and eastern Afghanistan, One Million Steps focuses on a single group of Marines. These forty-odd young men were, when West met them in late 2010, fighting in what was the worst place on Earth: Sangin.
West’s subjects are a platoon fighting under the larger umbrella of Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines. As West details, 3/5 is a particularly storied battalion, having helped to found the mythology of the modern Marine Corps in a particularly fatal wheat field outside of Belleau Wood in 1918.
West’s book may extend this mythology, because 3/5’s luck has not changed much over the years. The battalion was sent to Sangin to conduct counterinsurgency operations, with the ultimate goal of securing the support of the local population for the Kabul-based Afghan state. In addition to the usual focus on combat tactics, their pre-deployment training involved a great deal of practice on how to drink tea with Afghan elders and an emphasis on the importance of gathering intelligence from friendly locals.
There was no tea to be drunk in Sangin. Instead, 3/5 arrived to face a situation where a senior Marine commander had eliminated dozens of fixed coalition positions in order to free up Marines to patrol larger portions of the district—something that the British, who had been responsible for Sangin until 2010, had declined to do. The British reasoning was that with limited forces, numerous, closely coordinated fixed positions could at least dominate part of the district, the rest of which would have to be left to the Taliban until broader conditions changed.
The Marines felt this was timid. When they began to patrol into what had been considered insurgent territory as if the previous battlefield lines didn’t exist at all, the Taliban fought back, fiercely.
West’s Marines—3rd Platoon of Kilo Company—arrived a few weeks into this new strategy. The situation on the battlefield made a mockery of their counterinsurgency training. Their daily routine consisted of walking through a minefield until they were shot at, which they almost always were. They then shot back. They often killed a few Taliban. The Taliban regularly hurt or killed one or more of them. A number of non-combatants also were killed, caught between the two groups. This cycle repeated itself for the entire deployment.
West is at his best when writing about the combat that he witnessed, and in his discussions of the psychology of the young men willing to endure it. And it was a psychological question, a question of endurance: After one month of combat in Sangin, the Taliban had killed 15 members of 3/5, caused at least one limb to be amputated on 40 more, and had severely wounded an additional 70. That is in one month. These American casualty figures were higher than anywhere else in Afghanistan during any period of the war. By the deployment’s end, the unit had suffered more casualties than any other battalion in the war.
Yet through all this, and despite a widely held belief that any gains that were being made—in what was, as West persuasively argues, a straight battle of attrition—were likely to collapse as soon as the area was turned over to the Afghan Army, these Marines patrolled every day.
At night—the Taliban didn’t like to fight at night, largely due to the dominance of night-vision technology—the Marines carved man-caves into the thick mud walls of their patrol base. They relaxed as young Marines have always relaxed. West relates how several of the Marines carefully constructed a mud oven, complete with chimney. A young Devil Dog announces that they ought to test the chimney to see if it leaks, and before anyone can stop him, he tosses a smoke grenade into the contraption. Predictably, it is destroyed in the ensuing explosion.
Coping with the rising death toll, Sergeant Matt Abbate writes his "Rules of War" in the mud brick of his part of the compound:
1) Young warriors die
2) You cannot change Rule #1
3) Someone must walk the point…
They are remarkable not only for their bravado, but also for their clear-eyed confrontation with mortality. Sergeant Abbate was killed by friendly fire in December 2010. He posthumously received the Navy Cross.
West’s criticism of the strategy in Sangin is more problematic than his depiction of the grunt’s day-to-day existence. He thinks—plausibly—that Sangin was part of a foolish broader effort to build a nation with insufficient forces and on an arbitrary, politically imposed deadline. Curiously, his blame for this stops at the very highest levels: He is withering in his criticism of President Obama, Secretary Gates, and Generals McChrystal and Petraeus, but it takes a discerning eye for detail to detect any disapproval of anyone wearing a Marine uniform. In particular, he has a soft spot for the regimental commander in Sangin, Colonel Paul Kennedy, whom he admires as a tough fighter and with whom he formed a relationship when Kennedy was a more junior officer in Iraq.
However, it was Kennedy who, in Sangin, made the decision not to clear systematically out from the established British lines but to begin patrolling the whole area as if those lines had never existed. He was widely disliked by his company-grade officers for what they perceived as a bizarre overemphasis on disciplinary details in the middle of a war, even beyond what is typical in the Marine Corps. He was believed to have fired one company commander when it was discovered that some of that officer’s snipers were wearing white socks under their boots, rather than the darker-colored issued pairs.
West does not report this and other stories that were making the rounds in the aftermath of the deployment, but he does tell a story from which the attitude of the Marines of Third Platoon towards Kennedy can be inferred. When they hear that their regimental commander has had his nose broken by a crazed Afghan who sucker-bludgeoned him with a rock,West says, they "shrugged."
West admires Kennedy for one thing he and other senior Marine leaders certainly did do right: engage in a virtually open rebellion against the maddeningly restrictive rules of engagement imposed by the Army-led NATO command in Kabul. Many more Marines would be dead today had he and other Marine leaders not done so.
The Marines of 3/5 and those who followed them in 2011 and 2012 succeeded in a limited victory of weakening the Taliban to the point where they could not or would not fight at the levels they sustained in 2010. The Marines then turned the area over to the Afghan Army, which today does not go near the areas secured at great cost by the Marines. It is too dangerous for them.
In 2011, I had a conversation with the man who would soon superintend the turnover of most of Afghanistan to the Afghan government, General Joe Dunford (about to be the new Commandant of the Marine Corps). In 2010, he had oversight from a very high level of an operation in southern Afghanistan in which I played a very small part. We were discussing the vagaries of strategic success there when he told me not to concern myself with large-scale victory: I should be proud of what I and my Marines had done where we could influence events. I should, he implored, tell my Marines the same thing.
This position has some merit, insofar as the Marine Corps has always been less a citizen Army and more a professional force spiritually akin to those 19th century British troops who fought bitter little battles in strange places for which the public cared nothing. For men in such a profession, worrying about the larger picture rarely leads to good results. Marines "fight battles and not wars," as a popular way of putting the matter goes.
Young Marines—and young soldiers and sailors and airmen, for that matter—are fighting these battles, as West depicts. But at what level is someone actually fighting the war?