With his latest book, Bing West has reconfirmed his standing as one of the most intrepid and insightful observers of America’s wars over the past decade-and-a-half. Some have called him a latter-day Ernie Pyle. Embedded for the sixth time with soldiers and Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan, West demonstrates, as he has done before, Pyle’s empathy for the “grunts” who have borne the major burden of these conflicts. The empathy comes naturally, since West himself was a Marine infantryman in Vietnam.
But the author brings something to his accounts that Pyle did not: an understanding of high-level policymaking arising from his service as an assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration. These two perspectives—a grunt’s eye view of close combat and the policymaker’s broader outlook—have made West’s previous books particularly illuminating. This is no less true of One Million Steps.
The title comes from West’s calculation that each member of the Marine infantry platoon in which he was embedded—3rd Platoon, Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment (Kilo 3/5)—took a million steps during the endless and extraordinarily dangerous patrolling that the unit did in the Sangin District of Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. West masterfully recounts the saga—for that is what it was—of 50 men who accepted the following proposition: Would you take $15,000 to walk two-and-a-half miles each day for six months?
There are a few provisos. First, you must live in a cave. Second, your exercise consists of walking across minefields. Third, each day men will try to kill you. The odds are 50-50 that you will die or lose a leg before you complete the one million steps. Still interested?
West’s thesis is straightforward: Brave young men were attempting to execute a flawed strategy. He focuses most of his attention on the brave young men. His account of their actions is riveting, reading more like a novel than simple combat narrative. The men of 3rd Platoon were locked in a life-or-death struggle with a determined enemy. The Marines knew that to prevail in this part of the world, they would have to demonstrate that they were “the strongest tribe” by breaking the enemy’s will. That lesson, one the Marines had previously learned in Iraq, in places like Fallujah and al Anbar Province, and that the Army had learned in Ramadi and Tal Afar, was chronicled by West in one of his earlier books. But the cost was high: As a whole, Kilo 3/5 suffered many casualties during its campaign to show that the Marines were the strongest tribe in the Sangin District. The platoon contributed its share in blood.
West demonstrates a novelist’s knack for character development, enabling the reader to get to know the Marines in the platoon. But an unexpected consequence of his approach is that the reader will often be shocked when one of the Marines he or she has come to know becomes a casualty. In this way, West invites the reader to share the emotion of the Marines themselves as they load a dead or wounded comrade onto a medevac helicopter.
West notes a major difference between his experience as a Marine in Vietnam and that of soldiers and Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan. Because of the individual replacement policy of the Army and Marine Corps in Vietnam, a fighting man might die in combat without anyone really knowing him. Not so for today’s soldier or Marine. In an 800-man battalion, one individual is likely to know 200 others by their first names, which means that when 3rd Platoon lost a man, it had an effect not only on his platoon-mates but throughout the battalion: “When a grunt was killed [in Sangin], 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.” While supplanting the Vietnam-era individual replacement system with unit rotation has enhanced unit cohesion, it has also created a certain kind of stress.