What We Got Wrong in Afghanistan

Left of Boom Episode 16: What We Got Wrong in Afghanistan (Ft. Bing West)
Left of Boom Episode 16: What We Got Wrong in Afghanistan (Ft. Bing West)

Bing West has been called "The Grunt's Homer." After serving as a Marine Corps infantry officer in Vietnam and then going on to be an assistant secretary of defense at the Pentagon, he has devoted his time to long embeds with troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, telling their stories and bearing witness to the wars in a series of nonfiction books. His new novel, The Last Platoon, is a cautionary tale about America's "Forever War." He joins Left of Boom to talk about co-writing Jim Mattis' memoir, the real people who inspired characters in his book, and speaking truth to power at the Pentagon.

Find The Last Platoon here.

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Mentioned in this episode:

Helmand Province


The War in Afghanistan

Jim Mattis

Forever Wars

The following is an edited transcript of this episode of Left of Boom:

Hope Hodge Seck 0:00

Welcome back to Left of Boom. I'm your host, Hope Hodge Seck By any metric, Bing West has faithfully rendered more than his fair share of service to his country. He served in Vietnam as an infantry officer and wrote training manuals, then later went on to become an assistant secretary of defense at the Pentagon, addressing, among other things, insurgencies in El Salvador. His son Owen followed in his footsteps, becoming a Marine officer, and then a Pentagon official overseeing special operations. But after formally ending his public service, Bing decided he had more to offer. He committed to bearing witness to the nation's conflicts, traveling to Iraq and Afghanistan for lengthy embeds with U.S. troops. He told their stories in places like Fallujah and Helmand Province in gritty and candid nonfiction books, capturing service and heroism, and the triumphs and shortfalls of military leadership in the war zone. Now he's followed those works with a new novel, The Last Platoon. It follows a Marine Corps platoon deployed to the most violent province of Afghanistan as it battles internal conflicts while fighting an untiring enemy on its own terrain. I'm eager to learn more about how this book came to be, and how its insights relate to where we find ourselves right now as a nation in transition. Bing West, welcome to Left of Boom.

Bing West 1:23

Thank you.

Hope Hodge Seck 1:25

You have one of the most interesting careers of any figure I follow in the military community. So you saw combat in Vietnam as a Marine, you were a RAND Corporation analyst and then a Pentagon official, and then you started writing these incredible books about combat. When you were a grunt officer in Vietnam, did you ever think you'd be going on patrols with Marines 40-plus years later?

Bing West 1:52

Well, I think the commandant says he doesn't let you off active duty until you're 100. But I didn't, you know, I had no idea that I would end up doing this. No. But I was writing then, I wrote in Vietnam. I wrote, my first book was called Small Unit Action Vietnam, where the commandant and [Gen. Lew Walt], who was in charge of our forces in Vietnam, sent me as a captain to different battlefields, to report from the battlefields as a training manual for the other lieutenants coming over, so they'd have an idea what the combat was like. So my first start in writing was with the Marine Corps writing about combat.

Hope Hodge Seck 2:34

Most writers do not have that kind of start in their craft. So how did you develop that skill -- when you're in the battlefield, that presents a lot of challenge to writing thoughtfully -- and developing the skills and the techniques that it takes to be a good communicator?

Bing West 2:54

I think the secret to, to being a good writer is to have an iron ass, that is, no matter what you do, it's like a long distance runner, you have to do it every day. And as you know from your own writing, you're trying for a certain amount of output on a blank piece of paper, day after day after day, no matter what you feel emotionally, you just have to do it. And at the same time, you have to read, read, read. And gradually, you you learn your craft. And there have been many stories about it. But there's no, no shortcut. You just have to put the hours of grinding in and then you look at those sentences the next day and say, 'Oh, my gosh, they're terrible. I have to start all over again.' There's no substitute just for being willing to do the hard work. There's no easy cut to becoming a writer.

Hope Hodge Seck 3:45

So what were you reading all the way back then?

Bing West 3:48

I was always for the real classics. I genuinely believe that F. Scott Fitzgerald, with the Great Gatsby, wrote the classic novel for the 20th century. And now we're into 21st. But it's still, every single sentence was crafted. And Hemingway was the same way, he was very careful with his craft. And I very much envy today Cormac McCarthy, and the splendor with which he can describe a scene. But you have to be I think, almost omnivorous in your writing. Well, it's like anything you do in life. There's a variation. So you don't want to get stuck just in one pattern. And I'd say I read a book about every two days, I go through one one new book about every two days.

Hope Hodge Seck 4:39

Oh my goodness.

Bing West 4:40

Well, but you know how it is, because you can, after a while a writer can tell you the style of the other writer just like an architect can take one look at a building and tell you who probably the architect was, because of a certain style. And the same thing is true with writers after a while. You can see how they how they juxtapose the words. And you can either decide that, intuitively, you begin to copy some and reject others until you have your own true style.

Hope Hodge Seck 5:09

Who are your favorite authors right now who are writing specifically about the military?

Bing West 5:15

Well, I liked Dex Filkins, but he stopped writing about them. I thought Seb Junger did a good job. Phil Klay, his new novel about Colombia was good. I'd say Phil is the up and coming one. And then there's another author now who now is I think, is living in Turkey.

Hope Hodge Seck 5:40

Elliot Ackerman.

Bing West 5:41

Yeah. Elliot, Elliot, I like how Elliot does things too. So I'd have to say right now, my favorites about the up and coming, you know, the ones who are much younger than me, would be Elliot and Phil, I think that they have great styles.

Hope Hodge Seck 5:56

And they have a lot in common with you in that they're both veteran Marine Corps officers.

Bing West 6:01

Good point. And I didn't think in those terms, the interesting thing is we haven't, we haven't in fiction had many who've come forward from these wars compared to past wars. And that was one of the reasons why I wrote my book, I felt that there was that the true story wasn't being told as fiction, which brings you into a story and keeps you asking, and then what happened. We've had a lot of good reporting, but not the texture of a novel that enables you to get into the emotions of what's occurring.

Hope Hodge Seck 6:34

Well, I had planned to string you along with a few more questions before getting into your book, but I will follow your lead, and let's talk about that. So your new book is called The Last Platoon. It's your first work of fiction, if I'm not mistaken. And in some ways, it's on very familiar terms. You're writing about a salty Marine Corps captain who's deployed to Afghanistan for sort of a short rotation in the latest evolution of a seemingly endless war. How did this project and this idea came about?

Bing West 7:08

For the last 20 years, I've been on the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan. And I like the generals, I get along very well with many of the generals. They're a little bit younger than I am. But we we're able to communicate. But gradually, there was this great frustration growing in me that no one was really telling ground truth about about the war, especially in Afghanistan. And I'd have these conversations with the generals. And I'd say, you know, What are we doing? And they would say, Well, we'll get there, Bing, we'll get there. And I kept thinking, No, we won't. The only way you're going to get there in Afghanistan to the mission end that you're talking about with nation-building is the way we did in South Korea, Which took 70, seven-zero, years. And you had all these tribes that were hurtling headlong into the Ninth Century. And we send over 19, and 20 and 24 year olds, who don't speak Dari, and they're supposed to somehow help nation-build. And so I thought, in the end, I'm just going to have to sit down and try to tell a story based on every true character, of what happens when you are on the ground, and you are given a mission in a small area that is infested with Taliban and drug dealers. And then connect that to the President and the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and what they're seeing, then bring in the Taliban, bring in the drug dealers and let people understand what they were looking at, and then bring in their bosses, the people in Pakistan and Iran who are getting rich, and put them all into this pressure cooker. And let's see what happens. So that's what I did. I was so frustrated, I wanted to show any reader why we could not win the mission of nation-building in Afghanistan, and make it in such concrete terms that people would say, well, by Gosh, we're not going to repeat that kind of stupidity or ignorance again. So that was my purpose. My purpose was to write a metaphor in a way that would draw you in. It wasn't lecturing. You know, let's just have the fight. Let's see what happens. Because most people, when you think of it, every time you leave the wire, and you go outside on patrol, you're in a mystery story, because you're betting your life that you are better than the other person, the Taliban who's out there who wants to kill you. And the Taliban is betting his life that he can kill you and stay alive himself. And so I tried to write it as a mystery story so that the reader would understand both perspectives but not know how it's going to end. Because I didn't know how it was going to end. I mean, after a while, you know, your characters run away. They begin to tell you this is what I would do, on both sides. So I tried to tell it as a mystery story where the stakes are, you live or you die.

Hope Hodge Seck 10:11

Hmm. So you said that the characters in your book are, it sounds like, based on people that you've encountered? Can you talk a little bit more about that? I'm sure you want to preserve some anonymity there. But how did you find them?

Bing West 10:24

Maybe. Maybe not. The, the platoon commander actually, and I've asked him if it's OK if I mentioned his name and asked him please to check with his wife first. And he came back and he said, Yes, okay. He's now a major by the name of Vic Garcia and I was with his platoon in Sangin. And Vic was prior enlisted, he graduated from high school, he had fought in Fallujah, decided he want to stay in he gradually worked his way up to being a gunnery sergeant. And then he went to college, and then he became a lieutenant. So everything about Capt. Cruz in the novel is based basically on Vic. Then, of course, Cruz becomes his own man, that happens with any character. And then we all know who the president is, I think when you read it, you can immediately understand that I was referring to a certain president who's just left office, and then the Secretary of Defense, I made him a composite because I served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for international security, five or six secretaries of defense of dear friends of mine, so I made him a composite of a secretary of defense. And on the enemy side, I knew some Taliban just like Zar, who's the chief Taliban, and then the Pakistanis, they're Pakistani officers that I knew. And so in every case, and then the colonel, the marine colonel, I've had a couple of very senior Marines come to me, Well, you know, Bing, some of us aren't really like that. Oh, yes you are. You know, I had one general he was, he said, You know, he said, You're not really showing us in the greatest light. And I said, well, General, I said, you know, Admiral [Ernest] King, after World War II, he was the Chief of Naval Operations, he was asked what he thought about Herman Wouk's book, The Caine Mutiny, which is a great, great read. And King thought for a minute. And he said, Well, at one time or another in my 40 years in the Navy, I've met every one of those sons of bitches, but not all of them on the same ship at the same time. So what I was doing in The Last Platoon was bringing in very strong characters, with great defects and great strengths, and putting them all together in a mix. And it's reasonable for some people to say, well, they're not all like that. No, they're not. But there are enough so that you get an idea. This is real life, this is what really happens.

Hope Hodge Seck 12:56

Well, it really drives it home talking about that colonel, in particular, in the way that you sort of highlight the chain of command and how things come down. First of all, how officers' career progressions influence the decisions they make and the risks they take in war, but also the human life cost of every single decision that's made at the Secretary of Defense, four-star level, in how it's received on the ground and how things go from there. I found that actually the most interesting thing about the book. How, I guess, have you observed this dynamic throughout your career? You talked a little bit about that. But also, do you have thoughts about how to counteract the negative externalities of that and kind of keep at the forefront, the human life cost of the decisions that are being made?

Bing West 13:46

My belief is that in these wars, when you look back, and you ask what happened, I believe what happened was at the top, a combination of arrogance, kind-heartedness, and too much wealth as a nation. Now, what do I mean by that? We were hit on 9/11 and 3,000 innocent people were killed. Therefore, we had every right and duty to go after al-Qaida who had done it and destroy them. Once we started on that mission, things began to go awry. But what really went awry was that President Bush, whom I admired, I knew his father in office. I didn't know George W. Bush, but he seems like a very good man. But he, at a certain point, very early on in 2001, in about November, December, he said, We owe the Afghans freedom, and we have an obligation to build a nation. No, we don't, no we don't, not my judgment. And I started right then saying to people, No, you're going down the wrong track. But you know, who was I to be saying things. But what happened, and I think the reason we did that is, we had so much money, President Bush and everyone around him felt they were so powerful, it looked so easy to get rid of al-Qaida, that we could do more. And I think he did it out of a kind heart. But he went too far. And what really irritated me then about the generals, and about the director of CIA, is that none of them, to the best of my knowledge, went to them and said, Mr. President, you are undertaking a 70 year obligation. And do you think the next 10 presidents are going to follow through with this? To the best of my knowledge, nobody just said, if you're going to build a nation, you have to think in terms of decades, and those people, they're not even literate. What are you going to do with them? And so we went off the track, I think very early on. And that's why I try to show in the novel. The perspective, when you're in Washington about the infighting and your inbasket, and all the different things going on, and Afghanistan is just one tiny little piece of what a Secretary of Defense is doing. But if you're on the ground, it's your life. And so there was, in my judgment, a huge disconnect. And I think it's because we thought it would be too easy. And we were so wealthy and powerful, we could do it easily. I think we forgot, if you go into a war, you go in full steam, and you have a mission that can be accomplished. Everyone understands that mission and get that mission done. Instead, we diverted from one president to another one Secretary of Defense to another, one Chairman of the Joint Chiefs to another. Therefore, I tried to show in the novel the consequences when you do business that way.

Hope Hodge Seck 16:36

It's interesting to read this novel now, with the Trump administration having just completed a hasty albeit incomplete draw down from Afghanistan, and Iraq for for that matter. My question to you is, first of all, what do you think of that action? And second, in light of everything you've said and everything you've seen, where do we go from here?

Bing West 16:59

Well, first, the novel is set today, actually, it's set in 2021. Because that's exactly what that platoon is doing. Just defending a few artillery tubes, while the artillery tubes kill some Taliban is precisely what we're doing, with very few people. And we're very good at it. We're doing that too in Syria. But sometimes something can go wrong. We are down to a level where I think it's proper to be down to. When you consider it now, we have so many spies in Afghanistan, that there's nothing that a-Qaida are doing, the Taliban can do that we don't gradually get somebody betraying them and saying, Blah, blah, blah. And so we do have targets. And I believe with a very small number of people, we say we have 2,500 people there. But I just saw the newspaper today. And I always suspected this: They never report the contractors. There are 8,000 contractors and 2,000 American soldiers, so we actually have a force of 10,000. And then there's another 2,000, NATO, other allies there, but they have another 8,000 contractors. So we actually have 20,000, roughly, people involved in going after the Taliban and ISIS today in Afghanistan. And I think that's about the proper level. And we don't, we don't see much in the newspaper about them. But make no mistake, as I indicate in this book with what happens. Anytime you're out there, there's no such thing as a one-way war. So some of them still going to die. But I believe that that is a price we have to pay because those Islamic terrorists are still determined to kill us. And therefore we have to keep hammering them and hammering them until that disease, and it is a disease inside the Muslim religion, until that disease fades out, just like COVID will fade out.

Hope Hodge Seck 18:59

I want to stay on the topic of asking your advice, since there's a whole new guard about to descend on the Pentagon, which finds itself in dire need of stability, caught between the wars it's fighting in the Middle East and future fights it wants to posture itself for in regions like the Pacific. So we've got an incoming presumptive defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, former four-star general, and a slew of other new officials, some of whom have been in the building before. What advice would you offer? And what would you recommend this new Pentagon prioritizes?

Bing West 19:35

Well, from the bleachers, and I am a confirmed Republican. I would say first, it is a solid team that's coming in. But there are two things. And the first is that because the budget of the Defense Department is being so much spent on manpower, there isn't really enough for the equipment and the capital investment. Some huge decision is going to have to be made to anticipate what the next war looks like, that's going to be really tough to do. And that's where I think most of the effort should go. In terms of things like Afghanistan, I'd leave it up to the special forces, and I think they will. They know what they're doing. The other thing that is inevitable, is that crises and losses are as predictable as hurricanes. That is, you know, they're going to happen, you just don't know when. And so there will be crises for this new group. And when the crisis strikes, then we will see the mettle of these new officials. But we won't know ahead of time. You can't predict a crisis and how you're going to react to it as an entire administration. Actually, President Trump did not have a real challenge in his four years, when you look back on it. That means the odds of a serious crisis actually are increasing over the next four years, not decreasing. But in the meantime, the real issue that they're really going to have to grapple with is, you don't have enough money in the Defense Department to do everything. How are you going to prepare for the long term challenge that comes out of China?

Hope Hodge Seck 21:15

To touch on a few other elements of your long and distinguished career. For anyone who doesn't know, you were a co-author on Jim Mattis, his memoir, "Call Sign Chaos." Long before he became defense secretary, he enjoyed sort of a godlike status within the Marine Corps, where he served as a general. And he's somewhat controversially insisted on not saying too much of significance on his tenure, as SecDef, snd his views on the President, Donald Trump in his memoir, although he's since broken his silence. I'm curious what it was like being a collaborator with him on that project.

Bing West 21:54

Well, the reason I laugh is because Jim Mattis and I are dear friends we've known each other for 20, 30 years on the battlefields. That's why I wrote co-wrote it with him. I have been on those battlefields with him so often that we, we understood each other quite well. And were two Marines. And we spent three to four hours a day for two years on the phone with each other with a delightful editor, Will Murphy. And the three of us -- and Murphy didn't serve, but Murphy is one of those Irishmen with an attitude that he thinks he, as an editor, he knows what's going on, and he does -- so between Jim and me and Murphy, every single sentence down to the period was hammered out over time. And there's one thing, there were several things about Gen. Jim Mattis. But among other things is, he takes care of every single detail. He only sleeps about four or five hours a night. He's not married, he devotes his life to the Marine Corps, and he leaves no stone unturned, in preparing. But then when he goes on a battlefield, the reason that the troops love them, he grows fangs. He's a wolverine. When he gets on that battlefield, he is singularly focused on destroying the enemy. And that that's what clicked with the troops. They immediately knew that this general had, he'd give you an order, he would let you do the order. He believed in initiative. But he was out there to win every single battle. And in writing the book, we tried to show what he learned about being a leader step by step over time. But the interesting thing is, Jim didn't really like being a four star that much at all, he immediately would have gone back to having the division, the First Marine Division if they would have let him, because that was much more fun. Then he could really interact. He felt as a four-star, he was getting up to a level where he really didn't have a connection with the troops that he really wanted to. Jim Mattis is most at home on a battlefield.

Hope Hodge Seck 23:53

Are there any regrets in retrospect on either side about not being more direct? Jim Mattis has since been very clear about what he thinks about this immediate past president and fomenting insurrection and all that, not putting any of that in the book?

Bing West 24:09

Jim, I think very sensibly, and very rightly said, Look, if you are a military general, and you retire, and you keep the title general, and when you write your letters, etc, then you have an obligation to be very careful with the Constitution, because the last thing you want to do is have any president coming in and looking at a general and thinking well, he's here with me now, but the minute he leaves, he's going to be out there criticizing me. Because then the president, his commander in chief will believe he can't trust his generals. So Jim believed, keep your mouth shut and he clung to that the entire time. He wasn't going to discuss what he and President Trump talked about. He never did. But in the end, it was only at the end when President Trump, I think, went way over the line with what he did on 6 January, you know, really inciting. For the sake of the Constitution, Gen. Mattis believed he had to speak up and say, Be gone, man, be gone, you have violated your oath. And that's why he spoke out. But the idea when he was writing the book that he was going to get into stuff with a president, a sitting president, he's very, very careful. He doesn't believe the generals, once they've retired, should be actively politically pushing for one cause or one politician or another. He doesn't like that at all. And neither does Gen. Joe Dunford who retired as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. I think that that's a very sound position.

Hope Hodge Seck 25:48

You've written and co-written 11 nonfiction books by my count, and I may be missing one or two, many of them in connection with embeds in Iraq and Afghanistan. Which of those if you had to choose one, was most memorable and special for you?

Bing West 26:06

Well, this sounds, I mean, in the end, it was spending the last three years writing The Last Platoon because I was trying to summarize everything I have learned over 20 years. And that was the hardest, but I think the most satisfying. I noticed a few of the reviews now saying, finally, somebody has put this together so that you can understand as the story is developing, how frustrating it was on the ground and how disconnected Washington was. So I'd have to say, overall, that took the most time writing the novel and trying to get it right. But I hope in the end, I was able to show the difference between what they were thinking and Washington what was actually happening in the field.

Hope Hodge Seck 26:47

As we've said, you've had this amazing and very varied career. Is there anything left on your bucket list? Anything you haven't done that that you'd like to do?

Bing West 26:59

While the commandant says I can stay this in this status until I'm 95. I mean, if there's another war somewhere where I could really get out there, I'd be I'd be kind of tempted to do it. So I tried to stay in an awfully good shape. But I'm moving on now, probably that my next effort is, there's a fellow in the CIA, who was in charge of their Special Operations Group, Special Activities Group. And he and I are kind of talking with the agency about whether we could do a book to explain what the CIA actually did in what they call covert activities, because that's another area, the CIA is out there on the ground with this. That's why I have them in the novel, they're out there. So I'm kind of tempted to go the CIA route and put something together along those lines, and maybe take Capt. Cruz from this novel, and maybe put them into another one, depending on what I can work out with the CIA about what can and cannot be said.

Hope Hodge Seck 28:01

Well, I will certainly read it. When you write it. I will read it.

Bing West 28:05

Thank you.

Hope Hodge Seck 28:06

Thank you so much for taking the time to be on the show. I've really enjoyed this conversation and really appreciate your insights on all these different topics.

Bing West 28:15

Well, I'm very gratified that you took the time with me. Thank you. God bless.

Hope Hodge Seck 28:25

Thanks once again for joining us here at Left of Boom. The Last Platoon was published December 15, 2020, and can be found on Amazon or anywhere else books are sold. The previous episode of Left of Boom, featuring Medal of Honor recipient, Kyle White, is already one of the most popular we've ever had. If you missed it, I encourage you to subscribe to Left of Boom today and check it out. Coming up, we've got some fantastic guests and topics, including the legendary Dale Dye and the expert designers who create military uniforms. You will not want to miss them. And as you're waiting for those episodes to drop, remember that you can find all the news and information you need about your military community every day at Military.com.

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