The Last Platoon: A Novel of the Afghan War
(Bombardier, 383 pages, $28)
Quat was crouching next to a steel stake that anchored the wire. While waiting for Zar to bring up the assault wave, he had pulled the broken coils farther apart so that two Taliban could rush through abreast. Four minutes had passed since he had sent Nguyen and Trao back to act as guides. Where were they? Was that idiot Zar waiting for more detonations by the suicide bombers? The man had the brain of a monkey. Weren’t two explosions enough to get him moving? A minute ago, Quat heard one burst from an AK a short distance to his north, but no third explosion. That wasn’t good. Come on! Come on!
What is a Viet sapper doing on the perimeter of a Marine artillery battery base in Afghanistan?
He is there to help the Taliban kill Americans. No one could make this deceptively simple answer more credibly than Bing West, one of the sharpest observers and critics of the political–military nexus that keeps marching on through a strategic fog of its own making with little or no evident memory of its original purpose.
Bing West began his Marine career in Vietnam and has served his country since, with rifle and typewriter, as warrior, analyst, and chronicler of our country’s “savage wars of peace.” His book The Village, a report on a unit of Marines living among Vietnamese and organizing their self-defense against communist terrorists — a wartime Magnificent Seven — is a classic of counter-insurgency writing. Col. (Ret.) West worked with Gen. Jim Mattis on Call Sign Chaos, the former defense secretary’s memoir. He also wrote on action and strategy in Iraq and summarized his years of embedding with platoons in Afghanistan in The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way out of Afghanistan.
The Last Platoon can be read as the popular version of that important book — popular, that is, in the sense that The Thin Red Line or The Bridges at Toko-Ri are popularizations of the Pacific and Korean wars. Apart from being a powerful human drama, or rather because of that, The Last Platoon should fascinate and inspire anyone who cares about the kind of country we are and what it takes in courage, honor, and character to keep it.
As the novel reaches its dramatic climax, it is Day 7 at Bastion, an artillery battery manned by U.S. Marines that is providing cover for an ANA (Afghan army) brigade advancing toward the Helmand provincial capital of Lashkargah, under pressure from the Taliban. The mission, designed by experts far away at Central Command (Tampa, Florida) and the Pentagon (Washington, D.C.) has to succeed because the science, or rather the numbers, say it will, and the president himself has agreed to a deployment of not more than seven days, and he wants no television reports of failure or casualties.
But under the cover of a fierce storm that incapacitates the Marines’ sophisticated surveillance and communications equipment, human bombs get through the wire in advance of an assault by fanatical Taliban members.
The plan is simple: if the base is overrun and the Marines killed, the Americans, led by a president determined to put an end to endless wars, will pull out. The pretense of negotiations the Americans have imposed on “their” Afghans will collapse, and the Taliban will be back where they were two decades and some 25,000 U.S. casualties earlier.
Quat has done what the Taliban leaders across the border in their Pakistan sanctuary paid him to do, but now he realizes that the local terror leader, Zar, is hesitating. And suddenly he sees his worst nightmare:
What was that? He looked up, the dust pelting his goggles. A monster was standing not a foot away, peering down at him. Quat reached to bring up his AK. Not able to swing his rifle around, Cruz charged forward, smashing into the Vietnamese. Quat’s slight body bounced backward and his rifle went flying. He felt the barbed wire slash into his back. Adrenaline surging, he wrenched free with no sense of pain.
Capt. Diego Cruz is doing his job. The command center has been put out of action by a suicide bomber, as both the mission C.O. and his XO (commanding and deputy officers) are too rattled to function and have sent out a desperate — and mistaken — “broken arrow” message that the base is overrun. But Cruz has rallied his beloved “devil dogs” and led them into battle even though they cannot see the tips of their rifles:
Then the American was on him, heavy arms around him, picking him up to slam him into the ground. Quat spun and ducked low, instincts honed by years of training. He was halfway loose when Cruz sensed his escape and lunged after him, using his weight to bear down. Quat fell and twisted onto his stomach, Cruz’s arms locked around his thighs. Quat squirmed and wriggled, digging his hands into the dirt, his rubber body suit [for getting under the wire to cut it], slipping from Cruz’s grasp. Quat rolled onto his back, drew up his right leg, and drove his heel forward like a piston.
Cruz, known as Rolling Thunder in the Corps, is at Bastion because the regular leader of the platoon assigned to base security has a health emergency and a replacement is needed at the last minute. The battery commander, Capt. Jean Lasswell, appreciates the no-nonsense, straight-arrow combat veteran because his presence assures her of safety so she can concentrate on her job of aiming the artillery “tubes.” But the base commander’s insecure attitude next to a storied warrior has a poor effect on the sergeants, who resent having to defer to a “guest” platoon leader.
Then Cruz finds that a CIA team wants to use the base to pursue an Iranian drug dealer who is dealing with Zar, the Taliban chieftain. Opium is Helmand province’s major cash crop, and it supports the Taliban as well as the Pakistan intelligence service, which makes a show of cooperating with the U.S. but is in fact protecting the Taliban. ANA soldiers take cuts for themselves when they can, and now the Iranians are in on the racket. The CIA men are more interested in getting evidence of this, for political reasons, than in shutting down the drug trade. But they are themselves ex-Marines and pros, and they share their expertise and special equipment with Cruz, within limits of their own choosing.
Cruz deals with all of these headaches with as much courtesy as he can muster and imposes firm leadership when he meets resistance. His last word is always that the job must come first because it expresses the Marines’ humanity better than could any personal grievance or feeling:
Cruz felt a jolt of pain and saw a jagged flash of lightning as his left cheekbone shattered. Instead of backing away, he dove forward, flopping on top of Quat before the Vietnamese could deliver another kick. He wrapped his arms around Quat’s lower ribs and pulled the Vietnamese on top of him, locking his hands and squeezing with all his might.
Bing West, who served tours of duty as an assistant secretary of defense, knows that, for better or for worse, organization politics, intermingled with personal ambitions or resentments, get in the way of sound strategy and hamper tactical execution. He also knows it is an old story, even if it has an American twist. “What are we doing at Troy?,” Greek warriors wondered. “What’s in it for me?,” others asked. The wisest one among them said, “Save the rancor for later; here’s what we must do now”:
Quat felt the American’s thick arms tightening their vise grip. He dug his heels and elbows into the dirt and arched his back, straining to gain an inch of separation from Cruz’s chest, twisting and turning to open enough space to slip free before the breath was squeezed out of him. Cruz hugged him in a bear’s embrace for five seconds, seven, ten. Then Quat had to breathe. When he did, Cruz pulled harder and a rib broke. The pain exploded though Quat’s body. His muscles went into spasms and his heels and elbows momentarily lost their grip in the dirt. He banged the back of his head against Cruz’s face, trying to deliver a hammer blow. He felt the American’s teeth bite down on his hair and tear at his scalp, trapping his head before he could deliver a second blow.
The Marines and the CIA team have sophisticated armaments, including devices in the telescopes mounted on rifles that can hit a target a thousand yards away — or farther — drones that can watch the battle field, snooping sensors that can pick up enemy communications. Cruz and his men know the value of this equipment, but in the end it comes down to grit and guts:
When he next tried to inhale, Cruz again squeezed and a second rib fractured. Quat was no longer fully conscious. Cruz knew he had to keep applying full pressure until the Vietnamese passed out, but his muscles were tiring. Quat felt a slight slackening and gathered himself. When he next heaved himself up, he would roll to his right, pinning the American’s arm. Once he squirmed loose, he’d deliver fast kicks to the face.
The lives of Marines given to ensure artillery support for an Afghan brigade reluctant to save a provincial capital may be rational within a grand scheme of strategic containment — but is it? Americans are right to question the price of stopping Islam’s attack on our civilization. The cost seems never-ending. Bing West lets the reader make up his own mind while showing him the meaning of this cost, in the most graphic terms. He shows the reader the price of the honor and sacrifice that are required. When a Marine goes down, Cruz tells his men they have lost a brother, gained an angel, and the time for mourning is later. The job now is to live and win:
Then Ashford was there, down on one knee, peering from Cruz to the Vietnamese as though the referee at a wrestling match.
“Knife,” Cruz grunted.
Ashford drew out his Ka-Bar, pressed the tip against Quat’s wind-pipe, and shoved hard. Quat’s head jerked up, his blood spraying Cruz’s face.
Capt. Cruz knows the colonel, when he emerges from shell shock, will blame him for the breach and the casualties. About to be evacuated with the wounded, he turns the platoon over to the surviving sergeant and speaks to him and the NCOs, who just days earlier had viewed him as an intruder:
“I’ve served in five platoons in two wars, and I have never been prouder of any group of devil dogs.”
That touched them. McGowan was now looking at him, Denton was nodding, and Gordon’s mouth was open, as though he was inhaling every word. Cruz found his rhythm. He knew what he wanted to say, what image he wanted to leave them.
“Last night tested every one of you,” he said. “When the enemy came among you, not one of you could see or hear them. You were blind and alone. But you held the line, each and every single of you. You tell your men to post that thought in their brains for the rest of their lives—when the world was black and howling, you held the line.”
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