February 19, 2011
Book Review: Andrew Exum on Bing West's "The Wrong War"
Bing West's "The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan" is one of the best books yet written on the war in Afghanistan. I disagree with the way Mr. West characterizes the war at times, but "The Wrong War" is filled with both vivid descriptions of the Afghan fighting and sound advice concerning how counterinsurgencies should be waged.
First, the grit. "The Wrong War" contains some of the most compelling descriptions of small-unit combat that I have ever read. Mr. West has argued in the past that the U.S. armed forces have lost their "warrior ethos" and calls them here "a gigantic Peace Corps." But these claims in no way square with what he depicts.
Most of the book is taken up by the author's adventures with Marine and Army infantry units and Special Forces teams in eastern and southern Afghanistan. Mr. West's tales of U.S. soldiers under fire and the heroism they display take the breath away, capturing the difficulty of the combat environment in Afghanistan and the fortitude required to fight a skilled enemy in it. The only writer I know who has captured the essence of small-unit combat as well is C.J. Chivers, whose dispatches for the New York Times from Iraq and Afghanistan are essential reading for anyone interested in how a very small percentage of our nation's men and women have spent the past decade. (That both authors were Marines, and know what it means to lead men in combat, is not coincidental.)