One Million Steps: A Marine Platoon At War

Bing West was recently profiled on CBS Sunday Morning. The author of a series of books on Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, West is a Marine combat veteran and later served in the Defense Department. He was imbedded with troops in various war zones, including Afghanistan, which is the backdrop for One Million Steps.

The opposite was true in Afghanistan.  When a grunt was killed, everyone in the company knew him personally. In 3/5, it was especially tough because the deaths were coming only a few days apart. On average, a battalion in Afghanistan lost one man a month; 3/5 had lost twenty in two months.

Bing West

One Million Steps traces the tour of a Marine platoon in Afghanistan.  It is a very tough and realistic journey, filled with valor and death.  This is not fiction, but you wish it was.  West allows you to get to know many of these soldiers and some die.  Iraq and Afghanistan were the wars of IEDs, or the amputation wars.  These often crude, but effective explosive devices, could shred a human body or two from the same blast. A device could remove both legs, an arm and cause other injuries.  The IED seemed to be the leading cause of death for American soldiers, even more than snipers or larger engagements.

(Secretary of Defense) Gates suggested pulling the Marines out of Sangin.  The Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James Amos, adamantly refused. “We don’t do business that way,’ he told NCR. ‘You would have broken the spirit of that battalion.”

The book is structured day by day of the 158 days of the tour, sort of like a diary.  West records the battles and deaths, but he gives you far more information about life in Afghanistan’s most dangerous district.  The conditions were certainly brutal, the extreme temperatures, the terrain, the few comforts and the continuous threat.  Each Marine was expected to patrol 2.5 miles per day, so over six months it would be one million steps.

Small teams of Special Operations Forces were praised for killing Taliban leaders, while conventional forces were treated differently. McCrystal even supported a proposal to award medals for “courageous restraint” to grunts who did not return fire in populated areas.

The Marine 3rd Platoon, Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment was sent to Sangin to relieve a British unit in 2010.  As the British prepared to withdraw, they tried to alert the Americans to the realities of fighting in that district. This experience in many ways defined the policy verses reality of this conflict. The military and political challenges of Afghanistan would require a set of books to explain, so I am only going to generalize from 50,000 feet.  This war was like no other the Americans fought.  The Afghan people did not want the Americans there, so efforts to nation-build and win hearts and minds were flawed from the very beginning.  Identifying the Taliban or sympathizers was nearly impossible, rarely did any of them wear a “uniform” and those you might have thought to be friendly farmers or kids, would be involved in setting IEDs.  The economy was very dependent on the poppy, used in the heroin trade; both the Taliban and farmers benefited from the crop.  The Afghan military and police were weak and disengaged, and the Afghan leadership was more a problem than a help.  The terrain made fighting challenging and the staging of IEDs in the path of American patrols deadly.

The next day, 1st Squad attempted to conduct a census. The war in Afghanistan would have ended in a few months had the Taliban worn uniforms. Instead, by posing as civilians they walked right by American soldiers.

Casualties happened the very first day.  Some days there were more than one.  Sometimes it was a new guy, barely unpacked, other times it was someone well-known and liked.  Sergeants and officers were not immune from becoming casualties; like NFL linemen, it was the next man up.  The casualties were young men, many married or engaged, with a young child or one on the way.  West describes the new Marine in this war as early 20s, educated, middle class, and mature.  There was a waiting list to get into the Marines and the entry requirements were tough.  West, who served in Vietnam, often contrasts fighting in that war to these desert campaigns.  Not only was the fighting different, but the politics and efforts at hearts and minds were polar opposites.

Third Platoon had lost the sergeant with the easy grin and wacky expressions.  The Marine who helped everyone else, always leading from the front, was gone.  Six inches of exposed flesh between Matt’s helmet and his armored plate. One inch of sizzling metal. A hand not pressed tight as the helicopter lurched skyward. Amid battle’s fury, who can judge the cause?

West often focuses on the changing and confusing engagement polices and military strategies that front-line leadership struggled to adhere to or implement.  For example of when to shoot, which is challenging when combatants do not wear uniforms but are engaged in activities that could be part of a planned attack, or when to fire missiles or release bombs at targets as planes, drones and balloons had live video feeds to headquarters. Strategy also changed from protecting the population to aggressively killing Taliban.  Were we nation-building or focused on seeking Taliban.  Those are different objectives.  Whereas the British maintained forces around the base and village, the Americans were more aggressively patrolling and encouraging firefights.  As the generals changed, the policy changed, and the mission changed.

Every platoon in 3/5 was waging a straight war of attrition, exchanging American for Afghan lives.  If the Marines killed enough Taliban, the Afghan army might – might – have the self-confidence to take over.  The hope – hope – was that Afghan officials would then gain the support of the people, who would turn against the Taliban, many of whom belonged to their own families.

As the policy for drawing down American forces in Afghanistan, not based on success, but calendar days, the Taliban adjusted.  Much of Afghanistan was in the hands of the Taliban already, the American forces at their peak could not be everywhere.  As American forces grew and then withdrew, the Taliban came and went, but were generally always present through their network of sympathetic, paid or intimidated villagers.

I understand the original reason the country went to war with the Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, but our policy changed and the huge mistake of invading Iraq and totally destabilizing the region that we would pay for later.  Shifting the focus from Afghanistan to Iraq allowed the Taliban to regroup and regain their influence in many parts of the country against the Afghan government and army.

In Vietnam, the Combined Action Platoons with American squads living in the villages succeeded because the people wanted them there. Conversely in Sangin, there was not one village where the residents would accept Americans.  Even the Alakozai tribe that professed to hate the Taliban wanted the Marines removed from the district…In truth, the grunts were out there fighting alone without a population willing to be protected.

Books on war do not appeal to everyone, they can be grim and difficult to process.  A few pages in, I wondered if I would last or would stop and pick up something lighter.  I stayed with it and I’m glad I did.

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