Book Review: The Lieutenant Dont Know
One Marines Story of Warfare and Combat Logistics in Afghanistan
As a consumer of a considerable amount of “Afghan Lit” this is one book I was really looking forward to reviewing. Combat logistics isn’t necessarily a topic that excites those interested in military history as say stories of the Special Air Service, Delta Force or even the British and American Airborne operations during the Second World War. However logistics are a vital contributor to the success or failure of all military forces; as the adage attributed to General Omar Bradley has it, “Amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics”.
Still not interested? Well in the asymmetrical warfare that now typifies combat in the twenty first century there is very little difference between the front line and the rear areas. So those shifting the food, ammo and fuel are just as likely to be attacked as their comrades in the infantry or armoured forces! In a place like Afghanistan perhaps more so!
So I would encourage you to read Jeff Clement’s account of his time as a Platoon Leader in Alpha Company, Combat Logistics Battalion Six (CLB-6) of the US Marine Corps during its deployment to Helmand Province, Afghanistan in 2010.
The Author takes us on an Autobiographical journey including why he decided to join the armed forces (the events of 9/11) and through the process of his recruitment and officer training plus the pre-deployment training he and his troops went through. It is a tale familiar to anyone who has served and (to a less immediate extent) anyone who has studied military forces. The usual hurry up and wait, the lack of equipment and the lack of experience. This rawness on the part of 2nd Lt Clement as he deployed to Afghanistan is captured in the book’s title. The Lieutenant Don’t Know is a Marine Corps phrase to describe the lack of knowledge of a newly minted officer. As in “Kowalkski why did you do that”, “Sarge the LT told me to do it”, “Kowalski do it properly! The Lieutenant Don’t Know!” And the Author uses the phrase throughout the book, sometimes in its original context but more poignantly towards the end of his unit’s deployment when he and his men start to question why they are there and what are they actually achieving.
Mr Clement makes it clear from the outset that his recollections of the facts may be faulty and that like all old soldiers telling war stories there will be places where he lies, perhaps not deliberately but because with the passage of time certain events become distorted, misremembered or perhaps become an amalgamation of several different events. The Author’s honesty on this point is refreshing. As is his reason for writing the book. Quite simply just to make sure that somewhere there is an account of what he and his men did – he doesn’t want their accomplishments forgotten.
The book captures perfectly the idiosyncrasies of the campaign in Afghanistan, all that firepower and equipment at their disposal but with NATO forces’ movements reduced to a snail’s pace due to IEDs. The tour becomes a deadly game of patience as the convoys to supply the Marine combat battalions have to check every inch of the way for booby traps. And however patient the troops are nearly every convoy gets the call over the radio “IED, IED, IED!” How the Author’s unit got through their tour without deaths or more serious injuries is tribute to the bomb resistant qualities of the armoured vehicles they were using.
As well as the work on the outside of the wire we also get an insight into the workings and administration of a US Combat Logistics Battalion. The tension between the Marines who go out with the convoys and those who stay behind in the bases is well described. All contribute but those who go outside the wire often don’t feel that those who stay behind understand what they are going to encounter and how they could be better supported. Even the rear echelon has its own rear echelon to bitch about! Also it is interesting to see the small unit politics at play. In the case of CLB 6 the Battalion Commander and Senior NCO are relieved and sent home.
Whilst this is the story of an American unit there is a lot of interest for a British reader. Helmand was obviously the focus of British forces’ efforts for a number of years until US troops took over some of the Province. So for anyone who has read the accounts of the British platoons who fought and bled across the “Green Zone” the place names will be very familiar. In fact at one point the Author works with British troops to transfer supplies and equipment as part of the change in responsibilities between the two nations’ forces. It is always fascinating to see what one nationality makes of another and in this case this is made more interesting by the fact that most of the “British” troops the Author worked with were Ghurkas! Also there was a strange moment where the Author is complaining that the British forces were, in some ways, better equipped than the US Marines. This is usually mentioned as being the other way around!
The book is well supplied with Black and White photographs. Unusually rather than being placed altogether in the centre of the book they are placed throughout the text. This allows them to be placed alongside the relevant piece of text which helps bring both photos and words alive for the reader. Also at the rear of the book is a short Appendix giving the specifications for the main vehicle types used by CLB 6 with a photograph of each. I thought this was an excellent touch. Whilst most people will know what an Abrams or Bradley looks like not everyone will be familiar with these vehicle types.
Overall this was an excellent book. The Author’s writing skills really bring alive to the reader the terror, tedium and tension of running supply convoys in an asymmetric war zone! Also he provides a fascinating insight into one part of the US military and a lesser known part of the US Marine Corps. I found the book very hard to put down and it is highly recommended for those interested in the USMC, combat operations in Afghanistan and the modern military.
“The Lieutenant Don’t Know” is available now in hardback from Casemate Publishing, normal price $32.95/£19.99 (ISBN 9781612002484).