“One Million Steps: A Marine Platoon at War” by Bing West (Random House, 277 pages, $27)
In the preface to “One Million Steps: A Marine Platoon at War,” Bing West announces that “this is my sixth and final book about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” If so, West has clearly left the best for last: a gripping, boot-level account of Marines in Afghanistan during the bloody struggle with Taliban fighters for control of an obscure village called Sangin.
When the longest war in U.S. history is finished (or at least U.S. involvement in it), “One Million Steps” may well stand as a classic account of what it was like to be a grunt in that war, assigned each day to find the elusive enemy and kill him.
West knows the Marine Corps. A Marine officer in Vietnam, he was an assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration. His style is narrative, almost novelistic, capturing the personalities of individual Marines and their roles in the platoon. His reporting comes from walking with the Marines during perilous patrols in an area infested with buried bombs and “murder holes” cut into mud houses so Taliban snipers could attack from ambush.
The Marines depicted are from the 3rd Platoon, Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment. The Camp Pendleton-based battalion had more killed and wounded than any other Marine battalion in Afghanistan: 25 killed in combat, more than 200 wounded, including more than two dozen suffering amputations, during the deployment that stretched from fall 2010 to spring 2011.
“The platoon had depth of leadership,” West writes. “Like wolves, they become accustomed to the routine of the hunt. When a leader goes down, another must step forward, be accepted, and be followed.” As casualties mounted, the secretary of defense offered to allow the Marines to withdraw. Marine generals refused.
A sergeant explained to West: “It didn’t matter how hard the next fight was. Our attitude was – you killed one of us, we kill 20 of you.”
West’s respect for the young Marines is balanced by a withering disdain for much of the military leadership, including the commander in chief and the Army general who was in charge of the Afghanistan mission until a 2010 story in Rolling Stone by the now late Michael Hastings got him fired.
He predicts a quick collapse by the Afghan army once the U.S. departs on the timetable declared by the president.
West’s gloomy prediction aside, “One Million Steps” is not about foreign policy. It’s about young men like Sgt. Matthew Abbate, 26, a sniper who fought bravely, “always leading from the front,” but who was killed by friendly fire and posthumously awarded the Navy Cross.
“Any grunt who is not a fatalist is foolish,” West writes. “Death is as random as it is unexplainable. If you’re very skillful – like Matt – you might tilt the odds a little, but not much.”