The Lieutenant Don’t Know: One Marine’s Story of Warfare and Combat Logistics in Afghanistan. Jeff Clement. Casemate Publishers, Havertown, PA, USA.
As the title indicates, this book is essentially about the logistics of war, of war in Afghanistan and its peculiar circumstances of mountain/desert terrain. It is reasonably well written, but the reader needs to be interested in that ‘logistics’ aspect of the war as that is the overriding main topic covered throughout the work.
Jeff Clement has presented a coherent story, but it is not, as indicated on the back cover promo line, a work that is “insightful”. Yes, it is a firsthand look “the challenges our forces have faced in the war in Afghanistan,” but only in the narrow perspective of that of a marine commanding/managing what is essentially a supply and delivery mission to forward operating bases. As such it is a reasonable account, written by a student of engineering and in an engineer’s style is quite technical and dry, perhaps a good read for someone who has been in Afghanistan or is interested in the technical side of logistics supply or more basically as another segment of US Marines history in the war.
I would not have finished the whole book except that I kept looking for the moments of insight to arrive. I must admit they did, but only a few isolated sentences scattered throughout the work. In the final section of the work, Mr. Clements writes that he based the story on his memos and writings made while in Afghanistan. More importantly, he noted that he waited to write this book for a while after his assignment finished in order to be able to clear his thinking.
That perhaps is the downfall of the book. By avoiding what he called his “rants” he has also avoided what could be a more important aspect of the book for readers who are looking for those insights. Did he rant about the military command? Did he rant about the weather, the lousy conditions on the base? Did he rant about the ‘terrorists’ and their unholy war? Or conversely did he rant about the stupidity of the situation he found himself in, fighting for some cause that seemed rather nebulous? Did he rant at the ungrateful locals who did not trust him nor appreciate his efforts to control the countryside? At times he provides hints.
Perhaps it was the rules of engagement, as “our rules of engagement prohibited us from taking any real action”—without describing those rules of engagement. It might have been those moments briefly described as “Terrifying. Exhilarating. I knew I would never look so cool or badass again.” More description would help, but also the ‘badass’ image could be described more fully or do the readers simply ‘image’ their most recent Hollywood movie to conjure up their own view of badass?
At another moment, he describes going into a village without sunglasses or helmet because the British had shown that the locals reacted more calmly without those accoutrements. Yet, does he really question or wonder how they truly felt? Is that explored in one of his rants, that sunglasses and helmets might make a real difference when facing someone wearing flak vests, armored clothing, and carrying some kind of high power rifle?
Clement’s longest discourse was probably frequently on his mind, maybe part of more than one rant: “I had told them [his personnel] the party line, of course, that we were here to provide security and stability to the people of Afghanistan, and to establish a democratic government capable of providing for the people and ensuring their rights. But were we accomplishing that? Were we capable of that?” [italics in original]
His reference to this line of thought was from a comment, “Can’t the hajis take care of it themselves? Or who even cares if there’s insurgents out here?” evoked by the siting of “some nomad Bedouins.”
Later he rhetorically asks, “What were we doing here?” in response to his own first confirmed killing of an insurgent, from which he was “physically sick from the thought of it. We had killed him so that he wouldn’t kill us, but hadn’t we started the fighting by coming to Afghanistan in the first place?”
He continues this thought saying, “In all likelihood, the insurgent probably didn’t want to be fighting Americans either….Were they fighting us because of jihad, on ideological grounds, or because we were invading their home? Would I act differently if we switched places?”
At the end of his first rotation in 2010, Clement wonders about the “Thank you for your service” comments he received, giving “most Americans…a comfortable ‘out’ when conversing with a veteran of wars the most Americans didn’t support.” He continues at the end of the section, “As I read about Afghanistan in the news, I wondered what the point of it had been. Few Americans even seemed to remember that we were still at war.”
In sum, Clement’s two main points of mental/emotional concern seem to be concerns if the war was a valid war in the first place, and then being made aware that it was a war perhaps controlled by mainstream media domestically and not given much thought except as fodder for more rhetoric on the terrorist to democratic spectrum of the political leaders.
I would hesitate to read too much into the comments as they are very brief, yet hint at some much deeper thinking, some much more emotional and perhaps more revealing thoughts that might have come out had he included some of his rants within his discourse.
All that being said, I have to commend him for at least considering these ideas, however briefly. His training and education was one of following orders and as is normal believing the idea that he was involved in the defense of his homeland. Perhaps “The Lieutenant Don’t Know” for sure, but Clements appears to be intelligent enough that I hope he continues to question and rant and find out what is actually going on in the world of geopolitics.
Given the nature of the book, I did learn a few smaller items that I had not paid attention to. The most surprising reaction was to his descriptions as to how intelligently and quickly the insurgents reacted to the maneuverings of the marines as they worked their supply routes. The frequency of IED use and the deliberateness of their placement and timing indicated a skilled opposition that had found a weakness in the overall structure of the military setup. Conversely, the amount of armored logistical support vehicles seemed enormous, obviously an impediment to a quick and easy war over a local insurgent force.
Would I recommend the book? Only to those interested in the minutiae of war, the details of logistics and the requirements of keeping the military supplied. What I would do is reread a second edition with the rants more fully explored, with more description of the grit and dirt and blood of war (I think of Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilisation when I mention this), and perhaps the discussions that may have transpired between himself and his command concerning the nature of the war.