Author Bing West on Afghanistan: The Wrong War in The Wrong Place

Author Bing West describing his experience in Afghanistan

(Photo by MCC(AW/NAC) Robert Inverso

Exclusive Interview by Newport

Current history is being writ large in faraway corners of the world: Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya. The Honorable Bing West has been chronicling  wars that comprise the United States' military endeavors from both diplomatic and in-the-trenches perspectives since his first publication, Small Unit Action in Vietnam, 1966. Mr. West, who  served as Under Secretary of Defense in the Ronald Reagan Administration, has served up a scalding evaluation of in his latest book, The Wrong War, gaining media attention from the Wall Street Journal to Comedy Central's The Colbert Report.

The Wrong War was the topic of an intense illustrated talk at Newport's Naval War College's Spruance Auditorum It showed, starkly, what the war really is – a series of short, sharp clashes between U.S forces and the Taliban. In the presentation, the author took the audience to actual place: showing tribesmen with 9th century traditions pitted against United States servicemen, with no way to converse of connect. It also showed the harsh realities of an unrecognizable foe, not in uniform, and indistinguishable from general population.

Elizabeth (Betsy) West with captain Russell Knight,

Chief of Staff for USNWC

To illustrate the alarming number of casualties, Mr. West held up an actual explosive device, the mechanism by which the most casualties are inflicted. It was a powerful moment. He also cited Pakistan as a sanctuary for the Taliban, creating defense problems along the border.

After detailing the history and culture of the country,  West summarized: the way to "win" the war in Afghanistan is to remove fighting troops, and replace them immediately with advisor units, the true way to nation building.


Mr. West explains the demographic & tribal distribution of the
Afghan population (Photo by MCC(AW/NAC) Robert Inverso)

Bing West was introduced by the new President of the War College, Rear Admiral John Christenson. Seen in the engrossed audience were Bettie and Jonathan Pardee, Hugh D. Auchincloss III, Dr Charles and Mrs. Shoemaker, Richard and Margo Grosvenor, Johnny Richmond, Kim Herrlinger, Dick and Gay Sheffield.

Newport Seen
interviewed Mr. West after his presentation:

NS: When you spoke at Salve Regina University 3 years ago, you said that the Iraq War was over, and that the Afghan war would escalate. You were right. What do you think now about that war, having said it was such a different terrain, and would require completely different strategy?

Mr. West on a camel, off to stay with U.S. troops


West:  Our basic mistakes were two. First, in late 2001 we should have pursued al Qaeda into the wild tribal lands of Pakistan and finished them. The tribes and the Pakistan government were then in awe of an enraged America and would have stood aside. Second, we should not have handed full sovereignty to Karzai. He ruled as president only because we did the heavy lifting. We should have insisted on joint promotions boards of all Afghan officers.


NS:. How long were you at The Naval War College, and can you describe your duties there?


West: I was a Professor of Economics (1970- 1980) and Dean of Research (1977-1980). I taught and directed the advanced research program.


Bing & Betsy West at their home in Newport

NS: Do you think that there is an analogy between your with-the-troops reporting, and Catherine Bigelow's Academy – Award winning film about Iraq, The Hurt Locker?


West:  Ha! I am often asked that question! I have no comment.


NS: You exhibit such energy and zeal for being out in the field, and such high reporting skills. What drives you?


West: Inside football. That is, I know the field of combat. I know what those young warriors are doing. Few young reporters understand because we are now an all-volunteer army. So I think someone who has been there should stand a witness to what the grunts do, and compare it to what the generals say, and be willing to point out when the two views do not match.


Showing an incendiary device, whith its effects on the screen

NS: How would you like your literary legacy to be described?


West:  Someone has to tell the story of what our warriors did in Iraq and Afghanistan. Never mind the politics. Those grunts volunteered, served hard combat and re-entered civilian society. Four out of five do not make the military a career. They just defend us. All they want is to be recognized. In The Iliad, there is the classic line, "Let us win glory for ourselves, or yield it to others." To those who are not the warriors, that sounds boastful or egocentric. It's not. Those Spartans were about to assault Trojan walls, and they knew they would likely die. They wanted to be remembered by their countrymen. That's my job: to tell stories of warriors that might be remembered. We will always need warriors.


NS: Will the war in Afghanistan (and the police action in Libya) affect the next Presidential election, in your opinion, and how?


The map of Afghanistan, showing its idealogical and tribal


West: President Obama will likely declare his surge of 30,000 troops in 2009 was a success and begin a withdrawal in 2011. Afghanistan, barring an unforeseen major event, will play a very small role in US elections.

NS: Will you and Betsy continue to live in Newport?


West: Newport is our home. The problem is that the city cannot afford the pensions it is giving to all city workers. Newport within four to six years will face a dire fiscal crisis. Taxes will rise sharply, anger will mount between union and non-union members and the city will desperately try to entice newcomers to buy property in order to prop up the property tax level. The dilemma facing many of us will be whether to sell before the Newport housing market collapses, or to trust the short-term elected officials to enact a sustainable budget and cut back severely on pensions, overtime and city work forces.  Obviously, the odds are that those candidates favoring the unions will receive the most vocal support. his will be a tough environment five years hence. I cannot predict how Afghanistan will turn out. The same is true of Newport.


The author being thanked by Rear Admiral John Christenson


NS: What's your next project?

West: I am following a rifle platoon from combat back into civilian life, entitled: "Who fights for us, and why?" Consider: fewer than 25% of 18 year-olds can qualify for the military, due to academic and physical standards. Less than one-half of one percent of high school graduates volunteer to fight in the infantry for four years, and then rejoin civilian society. Who are they? Why do they do it? What happens to us if there are not enough volunteers?

                                                                     -- L.P.



Bing West's 2004 book The March Up: Taking Bagdhad with the First Marine Division, written with United States Marine Corps General Ray L. Smith,[1] was awarded the Marine Corps Heritage Prize for non-fiction, as well as the Colby Award. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA) and Princeton University (MA), where he was a Woodrow Wilson Fellow. For information on Bing West's books, go to


Signing "The Wrong War" for a fan

Rear Admiral Christenson & Dr. Charles Shoemaker

Bing West ends his comments

Delineating an exit strategy for Afghanistan













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