Book Review — Bing West’s “One Million Steps : A Marine Platoon at War”

One Million StepsA new book went on sale today: Bing West’s One Million Steps: A Marine Platoon at War. I was fortunate enough to get a review copy and would like to share my impressions with you.

West, a Marine veteran who served in Vietnam, has now added a sixth book to his series about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. In One Million Steps, he describes his experience when he was embedded with a Marine platoon in the Sangin distinct of Afghanistan during a six month period covering 2010 to 2011. As with all of West’s books, it is extremely well-written. West is a master of lyrical simplicity, something that fits very well with the way in which his book pulls us into the lives of the young Marines struggling to take back territory from the Taliban in the Sangin province of Afghanistan.

The Marines who fought these daily battles won’t be remembered in the same way as the Marines who fought at Iwo Jima or Guadalcanal.  This historical amnesia won’t arise because of any Marine failings, though.  As has been true for generations of Marines before them, the Marines in Battalion 3/5 sacrificed themselves mightily. Their battalion suffered the greatest losses of any unit in Afghanistan.  These sacrifices, however, will gain no traction in the public imagination because this is an unusual war.  While Marines fight to win, 21st century rules of engagement, combined with Obama’s political calculus, placed these Marines in an untenable situation, where winning was impossible.  Unlike previous wars, where even a lost battle, if fought with sufficient bravery, could imbue other fighters with the will to win, in Afghanistan victory was the true No Man’s Land.

As West ably explains, the Marines were ordered to an area of Afghanistan that Britain, which had previously tried to occupy it, had basically ceded to the Taliban. The British left the Americans a single fortified area surrounded by the Taliban; by farmers who were both victims of and collaborators with, the Taliban; and by thousands of IEDs buried in land that was an inhospitable combination of canals, marshes, primitive compounds, and small open fields surrounded by dense foliage. The correct way to have subdued this region, of course, would have to take every piece of modern land and air technology available and go in with guns blazing — perhaps preceded by Israeli-style warnings to non-combatants that they should vacate the land or prepare to die.

What happened instead were Sisyphean Rules of Engagement (“ROEs”) that prohibited Marines from firing offensively, instead limiting them to defensive fire after they’d already run the risk of casualties. Worse, if the Marines sought to engage in any more than a running skirmish in response to shots fired while they were out on patrol, a battalion, not of fellow warriors but of lawyers, had to review the proposed fight plan first to make sure that it didn’t violate the ROEs.  Even knowing about this bureaucratic, legalistic twist on warfare, reading about it in One Million Steps is still a shock.  It’s just mind-boggling that lawyers were calling the shots in a genuine ground war (as opposed to the lawyer’s usual field of battle — a courtroom). Wars are fluid, dynamic situations; lawyers are stolid, cautious, and risk-averse. To make fighters in the war dependent on lawyers is insane.

Even worse for the Marines in Sangin was that they were fighting under a Commander-in-Chief who was committed to defeat and retreat. That these young men willingly put themselves in the line of fire every day, day after day, under the most dreadful circumstances, all in service of a Commander who had already erased the word victory from his vocabulary, and who would soon spell out for the enemy the exact date and circumstances of the surrender is another mind-boggler.

Despite the adversity pressing down on them, the Marines in Battalion 3/5 never lost their commitment to the Marine ethos. Whatever the job demanded of them, no matter how pointless, quixotic, or dangerous, they would do their best to get the job done. Using a combination of brute strength, craftiness, and moral and physical courage, all under the umbrella of masterful leadership that encouraged both team playing and personal responsibility, they went out every single day through hostile Sangin territory and killed the Taliban in a perpetual game of whack-a-mole .  .  . only in this game, the mole was doing its best to whack back.

One of the strengths of West’s writing is his own service as a Marine forty-years before. West has a visceral understanding of what faces a grunt fighting an often chimerical enemy who observes no rules of war; who has the entire untouchable civilian community under his thumb; and who has had years to prepare the ground for war in the enemies’ favor. Although West’s language never becomes heated or bombastic, his descriptions of the Marines’ circumstances are vivid, realistic, and manifestly accurate. West is manifestly not a desk jockey suddenly playing with the big boys.

West also conveys admirably the strong connection between the individual Marines, all of whom are stuck in the middle of nowhere, seeing their comrades fall in often fatal and always devastating welters of blood, and putting their lives on the line every day. While these young men’s peers are at college, or holding down jobs, or just slacking off, these men, all of whom are volunteers, are living by the rules their much-admired Sargeant Matt Abbate wrote on a piece of plywood that he then hammered onto a wall:

1) Young warriors die
2) You cannot change Rule #1
3) Someone must walk the point (where you are sure to die)
4) Nothing matters more than thy brethren . . . thou shalt protect no matter what
5) Going out in a hail of gunfire . . . pop dem nugs until they body runs dry of blood . . . AND LOOK HELLASICK

Another great virtue of West’s writing is that each of the young men he mentions, even if only briefly, is a real person. West is not a Marxist who sees soldiers as cogs, units, victims, representatives of their race or class, statistics, or any other socialist group designation. To him, each is an individual with a name and a story. Moreover, to the extent too many of these young men died, each is a person who deserves the dignity of being remembered once more as the person he was, someone with hopes, family, and plans for a future that was never realized.

One Million Steps often makes for painful reading because we are seeing a tragedy play out in real-time. At the national level, the Marines were contending with two administrations that were, and have continued to be, terrified of the prospect of fighting a full-blooded war.  Worse, the second of these two administrations was frightened even of the possibility of victory. Serving on the ground under this schizophrenic, neurotic, diffident, sclerotic bureaucracy were men who, for whatever reason (a thirst for adventure, a fear of boredom, a craving for the camaraderie that only military services brings), chose to fight in an army governed by fear, constrained by counter-productive rules, and opposed to victory. There is no way this could end well.

Nevertheless, uncomfortable reading or not, Bing West’s One Million Steps: A Marine Platoon at War is a book that deserves to be read. We need to read it to understand the nature of our enemy, even if our political class continues to turn a blind eye. We need to read it to appreciate that this country is still capable of producing men of high-caliber, discipline, commitment and bravery. And lastly, we need to read it because young men, tucked away in a forgotten corner of an unpopular war, deserve to be recognized for their courage and sacrifice.

The Bookworm Beat — 9/3/14 “what makes Progressives tick” edition

Woman writingYahoo News had a short photo essay about transparent animals. I’m by way of being a transparent animal myself this year. Thanks to bone and muscle breakdowns, surgery, and anemia, I’ve been cut open, scanned, x-rayed, probed, and pretty much turned inside out in an effort to repair what’s wrong.

Of course, there is no real repair. What’s wrong is can be summed up in two words: “tick” and “tock.” Certainly some of my complaints can be alleviated, but absent a drinkable fountain of youth, I’m just going to have to be grateful that things aren’t worse. What really makes me grumpy is my knees. I can ignore pretty much everything else, but knees do tend to make themselves known throughout the day.

That’s my whine. I’ve tried not to be a whiner lately, but today seemed like a good day. It was so much easier to focus on my own aches and pains than to turn my eyes outwards and look at the world’s agony. Things are not going well. I’ll spare you the laundry list of Obama failures (Noemie Emery does it better than I ever could), and simply say that the world is not a healthy place when America checks out.

The big mystery, as always, is what the heck is going on in Obama’s head?  Former Obama cheerleader, and current Obama critic, Ron Fournier tortures himself with that question:

I’m puzzled by Obama.

A calm, deliberative presence in the aftermath of the rush-to-misjudgment Bush era, Obama can nonetheless choose words that remind Americans of his role in the assassination of Osama bin Laden and countless other terrorists. Denouncing the Islamic State for the beheading of a second American journalist, Obama declared, “Our reach is long, and justice will be served.” He’s believable.

At the same time, he’s maddeningly indecisive, unclear, and defensive—or, as Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein said on Sunday, maybe he’s “too cautious.” Once, early in Wednesday’s news conference, Obama mentioned almost in passing the threat posed “to U.S. interests.” Much later, he spoke for a third time about dangers to the region, with no mention the United States.

Perhaps Fournier is puzzled because he still believes that, hiding somewhere within this distant, cold, lazy, dismissive, self-involved calculating man is the light-bringer Fournier and others like him worshiped back in 2008. Even having lost his faith in Obama, Fournier still clings to the memory, just as a long-abandoned church hints at that faint, sweet, sacred smell of incense.

I’m not so puzzled about Obama’s motives. I decided long ago that he’s a man short on book-learning, but long on the feral, manipulative intelligence that comes with being both a narcissist and a Leftist. Although his only God is the man he sees in the mirror, to the extent he has an affinity for any faith, that faith is Islam. Indeed, if your basic nature is God-worship, rather than free will — and most especially so if you’re the God at issue — you’re going to like a religion that urges its followers to subordinate themselves utterly to your God’s every utterance, whether it issues directly from your own lips, or is disseminated through your various prophets (or, as we call them nowadays, political hacks, mouthpieces, and reporters).

While Obama seems reasonably clear to me, I’m too am puzzled about the fact that the half of America still invested in Obama seems so cavalier about the rising threat from ISIS. Technically speaking, ISIS shouldn’t be a threat to America.  I’m absolutely confident that if the full force of our military — even our diminished military — were to be unleashed on ISIS and related entities, those misbegotten militants would be wiped out in short order.

But of course we never will unleash that full military force, in part because we Americans (especially the royal “I, me, my, and we” currently occupying the White House) lack the political will and, in significant part, because we hold ourselves to a higher standard than mass slaughter. It’s not only the Geneva Convention that controls us. Just as Israel tried desperately to fight a “humane war” (an oxymoron if there ever was one), America too tries to fight a good war. Good wars tend to drag because, lacking Sherman’s carefully targeted depredations of the civilian populations giving “aid and succor” to the combatants, war is inefficient.

Aside from our morality, America is hampered by the Left’s fervent belief that our military is evil and our enemy misunderstood. Leftist pressure means that American troops are forced to go beyond moral decency and into the realm of mandated suicide. (As a somewhat related aside, on September 9, you can buy Bing West’s One Million Steps: A Marine Platoon at War, which I’m now reading. It’s uplifting reading because it presents brave young Americans who have a fundamental belief that their country is valuable and deserves to be defended; it’s depressing reading because you see how Leftist war theory, as carried out under a Commander in Chief who manifestly dislikes his military, means that those same decent lives are cruelly snuffed out or those healthy young bodies destroyed — never forgetting that these sacrifices aren’t even made in the name of victory but, instead, are for the purpose of retreat.)

Now where was I? Oh, I remember. I was leading up to the threat that is ISIS. Yes, we could destroy ISIS swiftly, but we won’t. More to the point, Obama has made it very clear that he’s not going there. In a speech that should live in infamy, Obama held up the ISIS threat as a bureaucratic mess-up that should yield to dry, technocratic oversight in the field — never mind that Obama has utterly alienated the Muslim countries he expects to do the ISIS clean-up.

Obama sounds defeated before he’s even left the starting gate. He doesn’t speak of victory; instead, he wearily speaks of containment:

We know that if we are joined by the international community, we can continue to shrink ISIL’s sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its financing, its military capabilities to the point where it is a manageable problem.

And the question is going to be making sure we’ve got the right strategy but also making sure we’ve got the international will to do it. This is something that is a continuation of a problem we’ve seen certainly since 9/11, but before and it continues to metastasize in different ways. And what we’ve got to do is make sure that we are organizing the Arab world, the Middle East, the Muslim world, along with the international community to isolate this cancer.

This particular brand of extremism that is first and foremost destructive to the Muslim world and the Arab World and North Africa and the people who live there. They’re the ones who are most severely affected. They’re the ones who are constantly under threat of being killed. They’re the ones whose economies are completely upended to the point where they can’t produce their own food and they can’t produce the kinds of goods and services to sell in the world marketplace.

And they’re falling behind because of this very small and narrow but very dangerous segment of the population. And we’ve got to combat it in a sustained, effective way. And I’m confident we’re going to be able to do that.

Try to imagine Churchill making mealy-mouthed sounds about manageable problems and organizing international communities so that he can oversee them as they get rid of a cancer in their midst. Obama’s bureaucratic mindset is pretty small potatoes when compared to Churchill’s stirring call to arms:

Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

Fundamentally, Obama makes it clear that he doesn’t really think America is at risk — which is a most peculiar view to hold a mere 13 years (almost to the day) after another small band of Islamic fundamentalists housed in the Middle East managed to kill almost 3,000 innocent souls in a matter of hours. It’s a peculiar view to hold when ISIS has shown its willingness to slaughter children, crucify Christians, commit genocide against ancient Christian populations, and march half-naked men whom it determines are the “wrong” kind of Muslims out into the middle of nowhere only to gun them all down. It’s a peculiar view to hold when ISIS boastfully beheads two American citizens, just because they’re American (and Islamists do love their beheadings). It’s a peculiar view to hold when 11 commercial jets have gone missing from Libya, a country that Obama practically handed to the Islamists and one that still has in its soil the blood of a US Ambassador and three other Americans. It’s a peculiar view to hold when British and American Muslims, complete with British and American passports, are cheerfully heading off to join ISIS, knowing that they can and will, just as cheerfully, return home to blow up Americans.

One of my friends thinks Obama’s passive, sanguine attitude is difficult to reconcile with his fervent support of the Chicago way, complete with that whole thing about bringing a gun to a knife fight. I think the answer to this apparent conundrum may lie in something Ben Domenech wrote while commenting upon Hillary Clinton’s ridiculously strong corporate ties, something that seems to offend her Progressive followers not one whit (emphasis mine):

History may ultimately consider Obama’s 2008 nomination as a representation not of progressivism’s resurgent appeal, but as its death rattle—a speed bump along the way to the Democratic Party’s becoming a fully corporatist, Clinton-owned entity. In practice, the party now resembles a protection racket with an army of volunteers, with friends who never suffer and enemies who never relax. And who are those enemies? Not big business or Wall Street, which has paid their way to new alliances; not America’s insurers, whose products Democrats have made it illegal not to buy; not privacy-challenging government, which Obama has expanded to unprecedented degrees. No, the only enemies who really matter to today’s Democratic Party are those wayward intolerant social-policy traditionalists with their un-American views of religious liberty.

Hillary was deemed unacceptable in 2008 for being wrong on the top progressive priorities: the war and civil liberties. Now those priorities have shifted, and a candidate who voted for the Iraq War and the Patriot Act can denounce Edward Snowden as a lawbreaker without compunction. For today’s left, social progressivism is the glue that binds the whole project. It’s no accident that this is the one policy aspect on which Hillary has been forced into compliance: For her party, it is the only ideological position that really matters—everything else is window dressing. Hillary’s top five all-time donors are a perfect reflection of this: Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase & Co., the law firm DLA Piper, and—in the lone nod to ideology—EMILY’s List. There are few better representations of the factions that inform the Democratic Party’s policy priorities in the Clintonian age: Wall Street, big law, and puritanical social leftists, for whom the only non-negotiables are abortion, gay marriage, and free birth control.

The only thing missing from that trinity of abortion, gay rights, and birth control is race victimization. In other words, Progressives, from Obama on down, have met the enemy, and it is YOU. They’ve even got the t-shirt to show for it:

Rather get stopped by terrorists

Let’s talk of pleasant(ish) things

I discovered that I was too nervous about the election even to read my usual round of blogs this morning.  After I saw a post about shenanigans in Pennsylvania, my stomach did a little slip-sloppy thing, and I closed all the political blog tabs I had open.  Until I get my equilibrium back, I thought I’d make this a book post.

I’m reading Dakota Meyer’s Into the Fire: A Firsthand Account of the Most Extraordinary Battle in the Afghan War, which he wrote with Bing West.  I’m about halfway through and can already tell you a few things about it:  First, it’s extremely well written.  In the beginning, West’s voice was a little too strong, as he set the scene (making it more West novel than Meyer story), but either I got used to that voice or West sublimated his own writing style as the book went along.  Second, it’s very interesting.  This is a very different take (for me) on Afghanistan.  Meyer was stationed in Afghanistan for quite a while before he found himself in the fight that earned him his Medal of Honor.  Meyer describes the slightly dysfunctional relationship American troops have with Afghani troops, the difficulty dealing with Afghani villagers, and the terrain that allowed the Taliban to hold off both Soviets and Americans for so many years.

The only problem with the book is that I know how it ends:  good people die.  That’s why I’m reading it more slowly than usual, despite its being interesting and well-written.  I just keep putting off those chapters where real people die real, painful, lonely deaths.  That’s the problem with true war stories.  In a novel, you can remind yourself that a fictional creation bit the dust.  When reading a true war story, though, you can’t get out of your mind that a father will never again see his children or that a mother back home has lost her child forever.  It’s rather pathetic that, sitting in my comfy reading chair at home, I’m less courageous than the men and women on the front lines, but that probably explains why I’m in my living room and they’re in Afghanistan.

On the subject of books, I continue to be fascinated by that Folio Society website I told you about.  The link I just gave you is to another war story, although this one is fiction:  Erich Maria Remarque’ All Quiet on the Western Front.”  This is another book I’ve been meaning to read forever, but somehow haven’t gotten around to.  After reading Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, I’m as emotionally cowardly about WWI as I am about events in Afghanistan.  Still, maybe I’ll be brave and try to entice myself into reading the book by buying a copy that’s aesthetically pleasing.

That’s the thing about these Folio Society books — they are so beautiful.  They also make me feel kind of bad about getting rid of childhood classics.  One of my craven secrets is that I never really liked Charlotte’s Web.  I liked Stuart Little and The Once and Future King but Charlotte’s Web never worked for me.  So, I got rid of my copy once I left my parent’s house for good.  Too bad I didn’t realize it was a first edition.  You can get a gorgeous Folio Society reprint of that first edition for only $40 at the Folio Society.  My copy probably cost $3 back in the day.  Oy!

Are you reading anything interesting today?  Funny would be good.  I need a funny book in my life.