As luck would have it, it was Veterans Day when I spoke with Bing West, a former Assistant Secretary of Defense and Vietnam veteran who embedded dozens of divisions in Afghanistan and wrote three books about what he described from the outset as a “mismanagement”. war.
West is an 81-year-old military historian who first honed his writing skills as a young Marine and wrote combat manuals in Vietnam. He has been called the “Homer of the grunt,” and with good reason. His commitment to embedding himself in frontline troops and telling their stories as honestly and accurately as he can is unparalleled, as is his tenacity. He has taken four presidents and countless Pentagon officials to task for what he saw as an “impossible” mission in Afghanistan: a 20-year attempt to “persuade Afghan tribes to support a centrally controlled, deeply corrupt democracy.”
The original sin of the war, he says, was its shift to nation-building shortly after the Taliban were ousted from power in December 2001, and Osama bin Laden escaped capture at Tora Bora and took refuge in Pakistan. As he wrote in his 2011 book, The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan, our troops’ misguided mission was “to serve and secure the people,” as West claims, “transformed the military into a giant peace corps.” It is not a mission of a combat force.
Not only was it unfair to the less than half of the 1% of the U.S. population serving in our military, West said, it was ultimately unfair to the Afghan people, who never finally saw the Taliban storm back into power. after our “shameful” retreat from our strongholds at Bagram Air Base and the capital of Kabul.
It is not the American fighting men and women he knows and loves who lost the war in Afghanistan, he constantly emphasizes. It is the politicians and the top people who refused to see reality on earth before it was too late.
West’s love for the Marine Corps is evident when he picks up the phone from his home in Hilton Head, SC
“Happy Veterans Day,” I said.
“Thank you,” he replied. “But the big day was yesterday, the Marine Corps’ birthday.”
West’s great-uncle was a Marine in World War I, and his two uncles were Marines in World War II. His son Owen, who is also a writer, served in the Marine Force Recon during the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and another trip as an adviser to an Iraqi battalion.
Bing is a no-nonsense kind of guy, so I go straight to it: “You have long been critical of nation-building in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Your non-fiction books The wrong war and One Million Steps: A Marine Platoon at War (2014), and most recently a novel, The last division (2020), all centered around this. As the war in Afghanistan was coming to an end and approaching a catastrophic end, how did you decide to move away from non-fiction and write a novel? ”
“I thought if you want to interest the readers, tell them a story first and stop lecturing,” West replies. “And the more I thought about it, I said, I can write a story that is a metaphor for the whole war, but which is centered around a captain on the battlefield with an ambitious colonel representing the military’s ambition, and then reconnecting it. to the perceptions in the White House that were crazy, just completely interrupted. “
Crazy? I ask him to describe what he means. “Afghanistan was an insane military operation,” he says, “because anyone patrolling the land out there, wandering around trying to talk to these tribal people, who slammed headlong into the ninth century, would know that tribal culture in Afghanistan had nothing to do with it. to do with. to do with what we considered democracy. Therefore, it was crazy for generals to say that they could do this. The generals did not go on patrol. And that was what I tried to point out in my novel. the earth knew that this could not be done. And the generals kept insisting that it could be done. “
It reminds me of a line towards the end of The last division as a character named Stovell says to Captain Diego Cruz, the main character leading a small team of CIA agents and Marines protecting a base in the Sangin district of Helmand province: “This is not a country, this is a pathology “Do not fight against what you can not fix.”
“And that sums up my faith,” West said. “I’ve been on battlefields for 20 years – four or five years in Vietnam, four or five years in Iraq, four or five years in Afghanistan – and of those three, Afghanistan was the most absurd. It’s not a country. It “It’s a pathology. It’s a deeply Islamic tribal culture. And we granted the terrorists a sanctuary called Pakistan. It made no sense what we were doing militarily.”
Which brings me to perhaps his most powerful book, One million steps, an account of his enlistment in the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment (3/5), the infantry battalion that suffered the highest casualty rate in the war in Afghanistan. How did he decide to focus on only one division – 3rd division, Kilokompagni – under the command of Lieutenant Vic Garcia?
“I had been north in the Korengal valley with the army and then on several operations in the south, and I had finished the book, The wrong war“, says West.” And a naval colonel I knew from Iraq contacted me and said, ‘I want to show you what’s really going on here.’ And he drove me to this isolated outpost in the middle of nowhere [Sangin] and he said, ‘You are going to love these guys and they will love you.’ And he put me off. “
West quickly learned that the 3rd Platoon was making the toughest fights in Sangin “all by itself, a mile away from the company’s headquarters in a tiny farmhouse.” And every day he was with them, says West, “we were in a firefight. And usually in one day we would detect two or three IEDs [improvised explosive devices] when we patrolled. And later I realized that the division started with 52. And by the end of seven months, they had 26 Marines still there. They had two killed, nine amputations of legs or arms and 17 gunshot wounds in a small division. So I calculated that if you made it through all seven months and you patrolled once a day, you would have taken a million steps on the battlefield without knowing when you would be blown up, and 50% of you would not make it that. that. And so I gave the title to the book A million steps. “
“And you write beautifully about a young Marine who lost his legs and then suffered from infection after infection and finally took his own life in 2014,” I say.
“Yes. Yes. It just, I mean, it wears you down. It just wears you down,” says West. “And the idea that you could not talk to them about this notion of making a democracy out of Afghanistan. I mean, my goodness. I mean, they did not speak the language. We never … Every time we saw the people, they ran away because people knew when we came, the Taliban would come and it would be a gunfight. “
It is worth emphasizing here again that in our post-9/11 world, less than 0.5% of the American population serves in the armed forces, while more than 12% served during World War II. This creates an often painful interruption between our fighting men and women and the civilian population, an interruption that can be overwhelming for our wounded warriors.
“The war does not stop just because they come home,” the mother of the Marine, who took his own life after the double amputation, told West in A million steps. “The war is not over for them. It is still raging in their hearts and in their heads and in their physical bodies.”
In the book’s final chapter, “Who Will Fight for Us?”, West presides over George W. Bush and Barack Obama, after “the terrorists fled into Pakistan,” having “massively expanded and changed the mission.” And he does not shy away from shouting at the top of the military.
“Our most honorable generals embraced the mission to change Afghan culture,” he writes. As a result, “the clarity and confidence of the mission declined.”
This does not mean that the West agreed to the so-called peace negotiated by the Trump administration in February 2020, which halted all attacks on Taliban forces, even though they attacked Afghan security forces and civilians, or the hectic withdrawal of all US troops monitored of Biden administration.
Near the end of The Wrong War, West writes that “As a nation, we must commit to staying in Afghanistan for as long as it takes, while cutting back on our conventional forces and building an advisory task force. In addition, special operations forces must hunt down Islamist leaders while helicopter attacks from units of the Ranger type continues along the border with Pakistan. ” That was in 2011.
A decade later, West says in our interview, it was basically the strategy we followed. “My conviction was that in 2019 we had the right strategy, which was to have a very small number of people and let the Afghans fight. For the Afghan soldiers, it made a big difference to know that we were there and we could just stay continue to bomb the Taliban. And we had a fantastic air base at Bagram, in the backyards of Russia, Iran and China. “
Unfortunately, the American people had mostly stopped worrying about the war. “We hadn’t had anyone killed in 18 months,” West says. “It was more dangerous to be a police officer in the United States. And it did not cost us that much money. I think we could have continued to do so indefinitely. The Taliban would have controlled the entire landscape, and the Afghan forces would have controlled the big cities, and you would have had this stalemate that could have lasted indefinitely, at very low cost to us. And that would have made sense. “
Was the situation on the ground in Afghanistan so serious when Biden took office that we could not just maintain the status quo?
“In my opinion,” says West, “it is not technically correct in military terms for the following reasons. To move towards a city, and we saw this in Saigon in ’75, you need mass troops, you need mass artillery, and you need mass ammunition.To do any of this you need vehicles.To use a vehicle you need to use the internal combustion engine.If you turn on an internal combustion engine anywhere in the world and we want to turn it off it is gone 10 seconds later “Our air surveillance is so amazing that there is no way you can force a lot of troops if we do not want you to.”
In the final analysis, West says: “When President Biden said on April 1, ‘We are withdrawing completely,’ and the intelligence community said, ‘It will fall by the end of the year,’ it was the window where you operated. We knew in April. “We had 18,000 visa applications, and we knew we had 1,000 or more U.S. citizens in Afghanistan, and the military did nothing, and the State Department did nothing about it until August, when everything fell apart.”
I ask, what do you say to your other marines and all those who fought in the war, who lost comrades, what do you say to them after the fall of Kabul, when to many it seems to be for nothing?
“In 1975,” says West, “when Saigon fell, President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger did not say a word. But the Secretary of Defense, James Schlesinger, undertook to write a letter to all who had served. In that letter, he said: “Your cause was noble; your dedication was determined. You answered your country’s call.” I think the identical words could be used today for someone who served in our wars after 9/11. “
Michael Judge, a former deputy editor-in-chief of The Wall Street Journal, is a contributing editor at The Dallas Morning News.