One Million Steps – Book Review
No author has been as rooted to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as Bing West. During the past decade he has crafted six highly acclaimed books on these wars. These books were characterized by the author’s ability to blend the human dimension of war at the lower tactical level of war with his thoughts on how the wars were prosecuted at the strategic level. West’s latest and last book tied to the wars is One Mission Steps and does not stray from the author’s highly effective formula.
The process by which West arrived at this title is very interesting and provides valuable insight. In his preface he states, “Suppose you’re offered $15,000 to walk two and a half miles each day for six months. In total, you will take one million steps and be well paid for losing a few pounds. Interested? 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? This is the story of fifty men who said yes.”
The men West alludes to are the Marines from 3rd Platoon, Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. Within One Million Steps, he focuses on the platoon’s operations in the highly volatile Sangin district in Afghanistan. As highlighted in the above excerpt from his preface, he addresses a six-month period in the platoon’s deployment in Afghanistan (October 2010 to March 2011). It was a time when the platoon suffered a casualty rate of over 50%.
As with any Bing West volume, the clear strength of his latest book is his ability to expertly depict the human dimension of war to his readers. He is able to share the emotions of the Marines throughout his pages. West details the unbelievable highs and lows they experienced individually and as a platoon. At the book’s conclusion, readers will begin to understand the incredible bond existing in small units during combat. They also begin to realize the incredible impact combat has on Marines and Soldiers (and their families) for the rest of their lives.
How is West able to articulate this human dimension of war to his readers? I believe this is achieved through two aspects. First, West does not rely on post-deployment interviews to tell his story. Unlike the majority of authors, he utilizes his own on-the-ground experience as an embed to provide a first-hand account. As with his prior books, West lived with the Marines he wrote about. Second, West has walked the walk himself as a second-generation Infantry Marine. During the Vietnam War, he served in a Combined Action Platoon and a Marine Force Reconnaissance Team from 1966 to 1968. Truly, Bing West has walked his own one million steps several times over.
An impressive and extremely beneficial quality of One Million Steps is the author’s talent to move effortlessly from the tactical to strategic levels for his readers. West is able to tie-in higher level decisions (and just as importantly, decisions that weren’t made) with the implications at the platoon level. This affords readers with a perspective that is rarely found in a book focused at the “foxhole” level. This is a characteristic that West has displayed prominently in his previous books.
For those who have read any of West’s prior volumes, you are keenly aware that he does not sugarcoat his thoughts on the planning, execution, and decisions made in Iraq and Afghanistan. Within One Million Steps, he injects his own thoughts intermittingly throughout the volume. He principally waits for the book’s last chapter to summarize his overall frustration (perhaps not a strong enough word) for how the war in Afghanistan was strategically planned and executed. Throughout his opine, he never loses sight of the tremendous sacrifices and the display of professionalism of those who fought the war on the ground.
In summary, One Million Steps is a superb climax to Bing West’s treatment of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It adds to an overall body of work on the wars that is unparalleled. These books have unquestionably personalized these wars for the public. Just as importantly, they are a tremendous testament to those who have risked their lives and limbs in fighting these wars. These books in total will be read and valued for many years to come.
Rick Baillergeon is a retired U.S. Army Infantry officer. Since his retirement, he has served as a faculty member at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. He is also co-author of the popular Armchair General web series “Tactics 101.”