With the excitement generated by the recent movie “Lone Survivor,” based upon the book by the same name, Americans are eager to learn more about the U.S. military’s actions in Afghanistan. While movies like “Lone Survivor” and “Zero Dark Thirty” have us in awe of Navy SEALs and other U.S. Special Operations forces, I think it is important to recognize the often overlooked and understated role of the United States Marines — a role they have fulfilled for the past 237 years.
The book “Victory Point: Operations Red Wings and Whalers — The Marine Corps’ Battle for Freedom in Afghanistan,” by Ed Darack, provides an excellent commentary on the value of our Marines. This is an important read for the general public to understand how the policies and methods of the U.S. Marine Corps serve our involvement in regions with such different cultures from our own. Always our expeditionary force, the Marine Corps recognizes the importance of understanding and working closely with the local populace to earn their respect and quickly building the intelligence necessary to survive and succeed.
The story follows the Marines of 2/3, the Second Battalion of the Third Marine Regiment, in June, July and August of 2005. Told in meticulous detail, corroborated by multiple sources, the author clearly describes the efforts of 2/3, from training in similar terrain in the mountains of California to gathering intelligence from Afghan sources to the actual battles in the Hindu Kush.
Though the author tends to be over-complimentary in the early stages, sometimes even gushing with praise, once he presents the details of the Marines’ efforts during Operations Red Wings and Whalers, I came to appreciate his admiration. He vividly describes the Marines’ drive and determination while marching for days with full packs, weapons and body armor weighing 80 to 100 pounds, over mountains, in 120 degree heat. When Sniper Team Ronin is ambushed, he illustrates the chaos and danger, yet describes how the Marines react according to their training and ultimately persevere. I have had the privilege of knowing some Marines personally, and have seen examples of that perseverance first hand — an experienced, battle-tested Marine sergeant with a rugby ball in his hands and the try zone in sight is an image that will always stay with me.
But to think of a Marine as just a single-minded, battle-hungry grunt does not do justice to the methods and policies of the Marine Corps. Mr. Darack does an excellent job of depicting the careful planning that goes into each operation, and the policy the Marines follow of working closely with the local population. The Marines of 2/3 showed a tremendous amount of empathy for the people they were there to protect, while still displaying ruthless efficiency in dealing with those who wished to terrorize and subjugate them. The platoon leaders (first lieutenants, still in their twenties), quickly made allies in the region when they arrived, eating meals with local tribal leaders, dressing in regional garb, and building vital sources of intelligence in the area of operation. The author includes one lieutenant’s efforts to supply a local girls’ school, at one time closed down by the Taliban, with all the material they need — first from the Marines’ own allotment, then by going on the Internet and making pleas to his family, friends and charitable groups back home, and finally putting the last clothing purchases on his own credit card.
This kind of community building works very well to build a rapport between the Marines and the local people, and ultimately the trust necessary to learn how to detect friend from foe, in a war where the enemy wears no uniform and can easily put down his AK-47 and pick up a garden hoe to blend in. The protocol of the Marine Corps also dictates training and working closely with any local fighting force, relying on that force’s knowledge of their home country and their culture. The Marines of 2/3 found staunch allies in the ASF, the Afghan Security Forces, who marched and fought alongside them. They developed very trusted relationships with local interpreters, without whom they could not have gathered the information they needed, nor understood the enemy radio traffic which was targeted against them.
The U.S. Marine Corps plays a vital role in our military, a role largely misunderstood by the American people they serve. Ed Darack uses Victory Point to explain that role in detail. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to know how our military really worked in Afghanistan, and how the Marine Corps doctrine has developed effectively over the last two centuries.
Curtis Ostler lives in Waterbury.MORE IN Commentary
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