Commentary

Excerpt from Bing West’s latest novel ‘The Last Platoon’

New York Times #1 bestselling author, Bing West, called “the grunt’s Homer” by the Los Angeles Times, has a new book out this month. “THE LAST PLATOON: A Novel of the Afghanistan War” traces the physical and moral path of Marine Captain Diego Cruz, whose platoon, together with a small band of CIA operatives, is protecting a besieged base in Helmand, Afghanistan’s most violent province. To be promoted, Cruz seeks to win the approval of the colonel in charge. At the same time, the president has ordered the capture a nearby drug lord. To protect a fortune in drug money, the Taliban attack fiercely and the president, feeling political pressure, seeks a secret deal. As the battle escalates, Cruz must defy his colonel in an epic last stand. “THE LAST PLATOON” is a gripping tale of conflicting policy goals, unremitting battlefield loss, and leadership under extreme stress. West is the only writer who has been on the front lines in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan and he spent his 70th birthday embedded with a rifle platoon in Afghanistan. Here is an excerpt from the new book:

Zar hunkered down on the far side of the canal. The strengthening wind was already blowing the grey smoke and the vinegar stink a full kilometer to the southwest. Across the district the ICOM and cell phone nets had lit up. Every farmer had a question or a comment about the raid. There was no sense visiting any more farms, and Zar was too experienced to try to ambush the patrol returning to its base. The americani eye in the sky was too keen and the infidels were listening for code words in phone conversations. They could be tricked by clever planning, but only a fool rushed into battle against them.

Zar forced his mind to concentrate upon the assault. It would take the shura in Quetta a day to assess the damage. In the meantime, he was on his own. The attack against the americani base had to succeed. It was the only way to make amends.

***

The askaris had moved away from the Marines and were standing in a loose column, with the captured Taliban in the center. Off to one side, Afghan Lt. Ibril was shaking his finger at the terp, Mohamed. As Mohamed turned away, a tall askari wearing Army-green wool mittens slapped at him with the butt of his PKM. Mohamed staggered slightly, retaliated with a short kick and walked over to Cruz.

“I want out, sir,” he said. “I want to go back to the ODA. The SF are my real brothers, not those crazy fuckers. Let the f---ing Tajiks and Pashtos kill each other.”

“Mohamed, you can’t walk off,” Cruz said. “Ibril needs a terp.”

In the distance, Ibril was waving dismissively, indicating he didn’t want Mohamed to rejoin his group.

“Sir, Ibril speaks English good enough,” Mohamed said. “He was with 10th Mountain in the Korengal. I want nothing to do with his shit and he doesn’t want me with him.”

Major Barnes and Tic had hurried back from the front of the column.

“I’m picking up a lot of chatter,” Tic added. “Not good to stay here.”

“Ops center’s reporting bikers off to the east,” Barnes said. “We have to move. What’s the hold-up?”

“Ibril’s in a pout,” Cruz said. “I’ll settle with him later. Mohamed, you stay with us. Now let’s step.”

Ibril was leading his men through the crumbling compound wall. The askaris were looking toward Cruz and giggling nervously, like students concealing something from the teacher. As the Taliban prisoner, arms bound behind him, struggled through the wall, he slipped and fell. His guards jerked him to his feet and kicked him. He stood tottering, then suddenly bolted across the wash toward the Marines. The askari with the mittens raised his PKM and fired a three-round burst, striking the man in the back. He sprawled on his face, twitched and lay still.

“What the f---?” Cruz yelled.

Ibril strode to the askari and slapped the killer with the back of his knuckles. He gestured toward Cruz with his palms up, indicating there was nothing he could do about an idiot.

Tic exchanged a glance with Mohamed.

“They were going to kill him anyway,” Mohamed said. “They didn’t want him talking.”

“What?” Cruz said.

“They’re carrying,” Tic said, pointing at the askaris. “In that cave, each grabbed three or four kilos. That’s why they rushed into the mosque. They wanted to score.”

Ibril stiffened, glaring at Tic and Mohamed. His askaris immediately grew defensive, shifting to face the Marines. The Marine column turned, weapons half raised. Between the two groups, the dead prisoner lay in the scree, the blood-splashed pebbles glistening like rubies. Eagan and Ashford stepped off to one side to have clear angles of fire.

“Hey, Tic,” Eagan called out, “tell Mittens over there, don’t even twitch.”

Tic didn’t have to translate. The askari with the PKM had the sense to remain frozen. This wasn’t a two-sided standoff. Every askari knew he would die inside a few seconds. Barnes didn’t know what to do. His mind was blank as he watched the blood from the dead man ooze into the dirt. Richards and Stovell kept quiet. This was a matter for the Marines to work out. Everyone was silently deferring to Cruz.

“Drop your packs,” Cruz said, pointing at Ibril and the askaris.

His tone was as neutral as death. Ibril sensed his doom. The Americans were rigid about things they didn’t understand. It was insane to challenge them. With no way out, he exploded in anger.

“CIA got prisoners!” he shouted. “We helped you!”

Ibril had participated in enough spec ops missions to know that Richards and Stovell were CIA. He was bargaining, demanding payment for services rendered. Cruz kept his face firm and unyielding. He pulled the handheld from his vest pocket and pointed it at Ibril.

“I’m calling Captain Golstern,” he said. “When you get back, you’ll be searched. You have no choice. Drop those packs.”

Ibril didn’t back off. He was enraged, his face turning purple.

“Why Colonel Ishaq say no go to mosque?” he shouted. “Everyone take. My men have nothing.”

There it was, direct and unapologetic, the great wheel of commerce revolving in its immanent tribal circle from farmer to drug lord to the Taliban to the ANA colonel, each receiving payment and none facing punishment. Why shouldn’t one skinny, burnt-out lieutenant steal a sliver of drug money for his castaway platoon? The heroin would reach the addicts regardless of who sold it.

Cruz looked at Richards, standing there beside him, blank as a telephone pole.

“Tic probably told you Irbil took that powder,” Cruz said, “But you didn’t tell me. You were going to let them steal it?”

“I didn’t want you dealing with this,” Richards said. “It’s not your mission.”

Major Barnes was listening intently. A few feet away, the dead Taliban was still leaking out. Whether he was murdered or executed depended on one’s point of view. And the enraged Afghan Lt. Ibril, was he an ally or a thief? Barnes didn’t know. He did know he couldn’t stand there with his mouth open like a beached fish. He had to say something.

“We don’t have proof,” Barnes said. “We can’t strip search our f---ing allies! Let’s not hang around here.”

It was more a plea than an order. The decision still rested with Cruz. All of his training — the rigid discipline and sense of order accumulated over sixteen years, his unquestioned assumptions about right and wrong — told him to search the askaris. His parents had ingrained rectitude into him. Though he hadn’t attended church since enlisting, Catholicism had helped to shape him. The Corps wasn’t a God-substitute, but like most Marines, Cruz believed in its dogma. “First of fight for right and freedom, and to keep your honor clean.” To Cruz, that hymnal verse was real. It had molded and stamped him.

But without Ibril, they couldn’t have entered the mosque and the mission wouldn’t have succeeded. He hesitated. If he didn’t search the askaris or call the ops center, they’d hide their heroin stash and eventually sell it. He could think of no right decision.

Major Barnes had grown impatient.

“Let this go,” Barnes murmured. “It’s not our business. We’ve busted up the lab. Time to beat feet. Icom chatter is increasing.”

Cruz glanced at the Taliban’s body. Only the dead didn’t have to make decisions. Staring at Ibril, he slowly slid the 153 handheld back into his breast pocket.

“Aye-aye, sir,” he said.

Ibril nodded and gestured for his askaris to move out. Cruz turned away, feeling he had left part of himself behind. Stovell read the turbulence in his face. Ordinarily, the CIA wizard wouldn’t intervene. But this platoon commander needed reassurance.

“Cruz, you’ve done all you can here,” Stovell said. “Don’t think of Afghanistan as a country. It’s a pathology. You can’t straighten it out. "

In dispersed column, the Marines warily walked down the road. The two blindfolded mullahs stumbled frequently, slowing the pace. Chatter on the Icom nets was constant, but the patrol was pestered by only a few desultory shots from tree lines rustling and bending under the stiffening wind. Soon too the fight would stiffen.

A former assistant secretary of defense and combat Marine, New York Times bestselling author Bing West has written a dozen books from the frontlines about our wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He also co-authored the New York Times #1 bestseller, “Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead” with retired Gen. Jim Mattis. “THE LAST PLATOON: A Novel of the Afghanistan War” can be purchased here.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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