Recently, I was asked by LTC Bob Brown, Editor and Publisher of Soldier of Fortune Magazine, to review the latest offering by author Bing West, One Million Steps. Following that assignment, I felt a desire to read other works by West. His writing style is very appealing to me and his work is, without question, some of the most important literature on warfare released in the modern era. But, reading for enjoyment, and having always been fascinated by the history of the Vietnam War, I decided to go back to the beginning. I picked up The Village, written in 1972. It is also on the Marine Corps required reading list, according to various sources.
While reading this book, or listening actually, as it was the audio book version, I was struck by something found about mid way into the fascinating work. The story is about a Marine Combined Action Platoon that lived and worked within a village in Vietnam. Successes and failures, victories and deaths, are all laid out in vivid detail. But, something in particular sounded very familiar.
In my articles for Soldier of Fortune that covered my experiences in Afghanistan, I made repeated references to our strategy moving away from counterinsurgency and moving toward a defensive posture. Kitted up in 70 pounds of body armor, carrying the latest weapons available, and traveling in virtually indestructible MRAP vehicles, we created a separation from the populace – a disconnect. It was also hard for us to convince the villagers that they were being kept safe when we were required to wear this magnificent array of armor including gloves, long sleeves, and ballistic eyewear, regardless of the temperature. We took the posture that we were under threat and that we were taking precautions but that you, the little villager, should continue along your daily routine without a worry in the world. In your sandals.
The same was true of the Afghan forces. They did not possess the armor and weapons found among the U.S. forces. They had cheap Ford pickups with no armor and they piled into the back of them a dozen at a time, ensuring a heavy body count if they came under fire or struck an IED. But don’t worry, little Afghan soldier. We are looking out for you. We sort of taught you how to do soldier-type stuff so you’ll be fine. Really. Don’t worry. Me? Oh, yeah, I’m worried. That’s why I’m wearing all this armor and driving around in an MRAP. No, no. haha.. sorry. No, you can’t have them. Now go fight.
The thing about West’s The Village that struck me so intensely was when, during their tour in the village, some Lieutenant Colonel ordered them to wear their flak jackets and helmets at all times, regardless of threat level or activity. West and his platoon did not follow those orders for the very reasons stated above. While the children walked to school and the women walked to the market unprotected, assuming a posture of self protection did not fit into West’s idea of winning any hearts and minds. Their mission was to become a part of village life, change the political landscape with their presence, and take the area back from the Viet Cong. They couldn’t do so by hiding in their base and ensuring they were well protected while leaving the villagers to fend for themselves.
Which is exactly what we were doing in Afghanistan during my tour. Exactly the opposite of a winning strategy for changing the face of Afghanistan’s future.
It would seem that after the nearly 50 years that have passed since West’s experiences in Vietnam, our political and military leaders have learned very little about how to win a war and make it a lasting victory that leaves a viable, free nation behind when we depart. In fact, I would have to say we haven’t learned a damned thing.