There are moments in time that are greater not because they are particularly unique but because they capture a truth about how we look at a larger-scale view. The grunts that went into Sangin, Afghanistan in 2010 faced an impossible task in a hostile territory surrounded by people that couldn't be trusted. Bing West captures a snapshot of the Marine Battalion 3/5 3rd Platoon as they enter Sangin to take over from our British partners, push back at the Taliban that roam carefree, and find some success before being pulled out of Afghanistan. One Million Steps: A Marine Platoon At War is part battle log of this platoon and part military analysis of the overall strategy in Afghanistan.
On the first day that the 3/5 was in Afghanistan, five of those Marines died. The battalion would stay in Afghanistan for six months. The 3rd Platoon, in which West was embedded, would patrol about 2.5 miles a day. Each day would, thus, require about 6,000 steps. Over six months, that comes to one million steps. How many of those Marines could take one million steps in Afghanistan and not have one of those steps trigger an improvised explosive device (IED). How many wouldn't be hit by snipers in the trees? How many would survive the battles? How many would be killed by friendly fire? In the end, the 3rd Platoon had a fatality rate higher than 50% - 27 of the 51 Marines died.
West's strength is his ability to write about combat. The patrols he went on and the firefights that break out are all told in a way that propelled me through each chapter. Dialogue is very welcome and well used to convey the thought processes and emotions involved. And West weaves his storytelling with warzone philosophy and a slight glimpse inside the minds of those that go fight overseas for their country.
The world of an infantryman is unlike any other, and a grunt's motivation in battle is hard to judge from the outside looking in. The grunt makes instant choices in the heat of battle. He must keep his honor clean even when fighting an enemy who hides among civilians. He must resist the sin of wrath. Abbate had shown the right example.
"When we went out the next day," Sergeant Deykeroff said, "there was not calling in artillery or anything like that. No revenge. That's what Matt wanted. Just do your job."
A few weeks after his death, the sniper platoon attended a remembrance ceremony. The talk wasn't of the fighting, but of Matt's weird sayings and oddball antics. He was friendly toward everyone, and the snipers took turns telling funny stories.
The battlefield is a giant craps table. Every crack! on patrol is a white-hot slug of lead breaking the sound barrier as it misses you. Any grunt who is not a fatalist is foolish. 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.
West takes on the role of an advocate for the men and women out in the field trying to implement the orders of those up the chain of command. Throughout the book, he takes swipes at the strategy and tactics he said was promoted and passed down from the top of the chain of command. The central complaint by West is what he perceived as soldiers being used a diplomats. He saw tension between soldiers trying to stay on the offensive and attacking the Taliban versus the civilian leadership and Generals McChrystal and Petraeus who (West claims) hindered soldiers' ability to fight back and tasked them to instead do school building and "community organizing."
It is during the book's last quarter that we reach a million steps. West offers us a epilogue summarizing what some of the people we met are doing now. There is a tally of those who have suffered from PTSD and those who were maimed while serving in Afghanistan. And it is in the epilogue where West compiles his list of complaints about how the war was fought in Afghanistan. Whether one should believe his assessment is accurate or not is certainly up to debate. Regardless, it is the storytelling of what these Marines dealt with from day-to-day that is the most beneficial to the reader.
Anyone considering enlisting, let alone anyone going for infantry or other frontline roles, should read this book. It can be too easy sometimes to romanticize war and think one can train enough to outwit death. The men in 3rd Platoon learned during Afghanistan how random death can be. Read about it before you are forced to learn the lesson in real life.