Book Review: The Last Words Are Not Lost in ‘The Last Platoon’

January 4, 2021J. Ford Huffman
Last Marines exit Sangin, Afghanistan

A convoy of vehicles with some of the last Marines, sailors and equipment returning from Sangin Valley entered friendly lines aboard Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan, May 5, 2014. The last Marines, sailors and equipment exited FOBs Nolay and Sabit Qadam, May 5, 2014, leaving the 2nd Brigade, 215th Corps, Afghan National Army in full control of the FOBs and the surrounding area for the first time without advisors in place since coalition forces entered during 2006. (U.S. Marine Corps Photo By: Sgt. Frances Johnson/Released)

Indefatigable, the Marine veteran of Vietnam and author Bing West is back with his 12th title, a work of suspense that is a page turner 400 times.

The Last Platoon: A Novel of the Afghanistan War is not the first word in military fiction but is a good read, even with stock characters and a formulaic ending complete with a setup for a potential sequel. What matters is the story, and this one intrigues with twists and action. West presents a clear, uncomplicated narrative about convoluted circumstances of his creation.

Part of the reader’s satisfaction comes from West’s apparent knowledge of the territories, both geographic and governmental. He has reported from Afghanistan (and Iraq) and served as an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. He has familiarity with complex webs of politics, government, and the military.

He foresees trouble, too, the kind he unfolds in the plot of this novel. His perspective in his nonfictional The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan (2011) seems prescient nearly 10 years later. West’s way out is frank about “oblivious” generals who expect troops to serve as both war fighters and nation builders in a misunderstood theater.

the last platoon
The Last Platoon by Bing West was published Dec. 15, 2020.

The fictional Firebase Bastion is a microcosm of two decades in Afghanistan. In The Last Platoon the “wrong” war continues — with befuddled officers, stoic Marines, clever CIA agents, and poppy-to-opium-to-heroin players from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and Vietnam. Yes, Vietnam. A chart of “major characters” helps you keep track of who’s who as the chain of events pulls tighter over seven days.

Capt. Diego Cruz is the central figure, a Marine with “unquestioned assumptions about right and wrong” and four deployments in 16 years. He agrees to temporary duty for “only a week of checking lines for an arty battery” in Helmand, the “heroin supplier to the world.” Cruz is recommended for the job of commanding a security platoon by a Central Command general who patrolled with Cruz five years ago. 

Unfortunately for the captain, the officer trying to command the firebase is self-centered and paranoid about the motive behind the general’s choice of Cruz. Might Cruz affect his ticket to promotion to brigadier general?

At first sight Col. Hal Coffman loathes Cruz, who is “carrying a worn ruck” — and “his rumpled cammies were faded.” Coffman’s lack of combat cred is obvious, and after a second Marine dies in two days, he winces. The deaths will “hurt his career.” 

Also on the job is a quartet of smart and tough spooks (the preferred term for “agent”). They patrol with Cruz’s Marines, and they are hardened. 

“There’s no such animal as a one-way war,” one reminds a morose sergeant. “They lose people, and so do we. […] So suck it up.” With what West calls “the DNA of warrior ants,” the NCO and his Marine survivors comply.

Meanwhile, “Persian” (so clandestine you never learn his name) is dealing in the profitable poppy fields, where he must put up with his local affiliate, Zar, a “blood-soaked illiterate intent on resurrecting a 9th-century caliphate, one dripping head after another.” 

Afghanistan bleeds, and West alternates the setting with scenes in Washington that depict Commander in Chief Dinard as a “creature of impulse,” a guy for whom “the essence of decision-making” is a matter of “sizing up the other players.”

The frustrated Dinard wonders how “our country beat the coronavirus in nine months” — “that was tough, but I got it done” — when “you Pentagon guys have been stuck in Afghanistan for 20 years.” He hates the Pentagon chain of command, with one general in Tampa and one in Kabul and one heck of a predicament at Bastion.

bing west, the last platoon
The 35th Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James F. Amos, right, and his wife, Bonnie, speak with the 2013 Gen. Wallace M. Greene Jr. Award recipient, former Assistant Secretary of Defense Bing West, during the 32nd annual Marine Corps Heritage Foundation Awards Dinner at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, Virginia, April 20, 2013. Photo by Sgt. Mallory S. VanderSchans HQMC Combat Camera/US Marine Corps, Released.

“When I’m building a hotel, I talk with the project manager,” he explains. “Why aren’t I talking to the colonel in charge of the damn base?”

Any comparison between West’s fictional POTUS and an actual president is, no doubt, coincidental. But to a regular West reader, the West Wing interludes in The Last Platoon compensate for the paucity of White House details in his last book.

In that work, West shares writing credit for the revered and retired Marine Gen. Jim Mattis’ Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead (2019), which lays out Mattis’ legendary military acumen. For a candid look at Mattis’ civilian style inside pentagonal corridors, try Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with General Mattis by Navy veteran Guy Snodgrass, published also in 2019.

The Last Platoon is fiction from an imprint that “largely places its focus on conservative political nonfiction” at a publisher whose “bestsellers” web page includes Follow the Money: The Shocking Deep State Connections of the Anti-Trump Cabal

This novel can be assessed as figurative commentary or simply as a no-nonsense military adventure — or both. Either way, The Last Platoon won’t be the last word from Afghanistan.

The Last Platoon: A Novel of the Afghanistan War by Bing West, Bombardier, 400 pages, $28

Noted but not reviewed

Modern Warriors: Real Stories from Real Heroes by Pete Hegseth, Fox News Books, 288 pages, $30

Army veteran Pete Hegseth of Fox & Friends Weekend presents a collection “based on the hit show” and promises “vivid battlefield reflections from highly decorated Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, marines [sic], Purple Heart recipients, combat pilots, a Medal of Honor recipient, and more.” 

Suitable “for anyone who wants to know what it means, and what it truly takes, to be a patriot,” the book includes 15 profiles. Among them: former Ranger and current Black Rifle Coffee Company vice president Mat Best; former Navy SEALs Jocko Willink and Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas); Air National Guard member Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.); former soldier and Medal of Honor recipient David Bellavia; former Ranger Nick “The Reaper” Irving; and the female on the list, former Navy pilot Caroline Johnson, author of Jet Girl.  

J. Ford Huffman
J. Ford Huffman

J. Ford Huffman has reviewed 400-plus books published during the Iraq and Afghanistan war era, mainly for Military Times, and he received the Military Reporters and Editors (MRE) 2018 award for commentary. He co-edited Marine Corps University Press’ The End of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (2012). When he is not reading a book or editing words or art, he is usually running, albeit slowly. So far: 48 marathons, including 15 Marine Corps races. Not that he keeps count. Huffman serves on the board of Student Veterans of America and the artist council of Armed Services Arts Partnership and has co-edited two ASAP anthologies. As a content and visual editor, he has advised newsrooms from Defense News to Dubai to Delhi and back.

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