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Bookmarks Issue: 
52-May-June-2011
By: 
Bing West
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Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan

A-The Wrong WarFrancis J. "Bing" West is a former Marine who served as an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. He has written several books on military subjects for academic and popular audiences.

The Topic: Now running more than a decade, the Afghanistan War is one of the longest armed conflicts in American history. The military and the Obama administration hope that a counterinsurgency strategy adapted from the Iraq War will help turn the tide against the Taliban. But former Marine and military analyst Bing West is deeply skeptical of that argument. On the basis of his considerable expertise on the history of America's wars as well as several tours as an embedded reporter with the troops, West first presents an indictment of military strategy during both the Bush and Obama administrations; then he presents his ideas on how to end the conflict with the least damage to America's national interests.
Random House. 336 pages. $28. ISBN: 9781400068739

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"West offers vivid accounts of the war from ground level and an unsparing analysis of the chances for U.S. success. ... At age 70, West may schmooze with officers, but he also goes on patrol with the grunts who speak candidly while dodging snipers and roadside bombs." Tony Perry

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"It should be read by anyone who wants to understand why the war there is so hard. ... The strength of West's book is the legwork he's done. ... West, the author of several books on America's wars, went to Afghanistan and into the bases and out on patrols with the grunts, waded through the canals, ran through firefights and humped up the mountains." Dexter Filkins

Providence Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"What are we doing in Afghanistan? This two-headed question is addressed by Bing West, a former assistant secretary of defense and Naval War College professor turned journalist, whose military pedigree extends to Marine Corps service in Vietnam. ... . Combine that with numerous trips to Afghanistan embedded with various military units, and he is positioned to answer both what we are doing there and why." John Pantalone

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"The battlefield sequences and West's examination of the politics of the war fit together well, showing the human price of the conflict while raising questions about what those costs have bought. Political failure in war threatens to waste human lives, and this book connects the failure and the damaged lives with careful effort." Chris Bray

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"West is nowhere near the caliber of writer David Finkel, who reported the astonishingly vivid The Good Soldiers about Iraq. And West lacks the empathy for civilians that helped make Dexter Filkins' The Forever War so memorable. But he knows, in his gruff way, how to ask a pointed question. ... The Wrong War--whatever we make of its swagger--sharpens our questions and directs our attention where it urgently belongs." Karen R. Long

Critical Summary

Reviewers tended to regard Bing West's negative appraisal of the Afghanistan War as newsworthy in itself–considering that he is the author of The Village (1972), a classic book about counterinsurgency in Vietnam that is currently assigned to soldiers shipping out to Afghanistan. Some critics disagreed with his arguments, noting recent military assessments of progress against the Taliban, but all admired his courage and take-no-prisoners authorial style. In particular, they praised the way that Bing balances firsthand reporting about (and considerable sympathy with) average soldiers with an unflinching criticism of the war's overall strategy and prosecution. Several critics called The Wrong War required reading for anyone who cares about the war's outcome.

Cited by the Critics

The Good Soldiers | David Finkel: 4 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2010. Pulitzer Prize–winning Washington Post reporter David Finkel describes the war in Iraq in jarring--and all-too-real--detail.