SWJ Book Review: The Lieutenant Don't Know

The Lieutenant Don't Know: One Marine's Story of Warfare and Combat Logistics in Afghanistan by Captain Jeffrey Clement, USMC Casemate Publishers: Havertown, PA, 2014 (264 pages) $24.71.

Since 9/11, many war memoirs have chronicled the collective experiences of the fighting men who fought and bled in Afghanistan and Iraq. From Nathaniel Fick’s One Bullet Away (2004) to Mark Owen’s No Easy Day (2012), such books have successfully captured the collective hardship of infantrymen or special operations forces commandos. However, very few war memoirs have told the story of logistics personnel who have often shared their miseries in America’s longest war to date.

Marine Captain Jeffrey Clement’s first book, The Lieutenant Don't Know: One Marine's Story of Warfare and Combat Logistics in Afghanistan, offers a  unique insight into the war experience of Marine logisticians of CLB-6 (Combat Logistics Battalion 6) where he served as a truck platoon commander. In Afghanistan where “the term ‘front lines’ didn’t exist [since all types of u]nits could be attacked anywhere,” Captain Clement faced the same dangers and horrors as his infantry counterparts.

Captain Clement’s memoir is divided into two parts: his life prior to joining the Corps and his first tour of duty in Afghanistan in 2010 as a Marine truck platoon commander. Clement writes that he decided to serve in the military because “Both of my parents and both grandfathers had been in the Navy. The September 11th attacks strengthened my resolve.” While he originally planned to join the Navy, Clement later chose the Marine Corps because one former Marine sergeant in his NROTC battalion kept telling him that he should be a Marine officer if he had “something to prove.” In an unforgiving environment where the institution “chewed people up and spit them out if they couldn’t hack it,” Captain Clement learned to lead his Marines from the front.

Captain Clement tells his tale and those of his Marines with brutal candor and humility throughout his book. For Clement and his Marines, combat meant constant state of boredom punctuated by brief moments of terror where their “large slow moving logistics convoys [became] easy targets” for the Taliban insurgents. Throughout his first tour in Afghanistan, Clement would deal with multiple IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) planted by an elusive enemy and watch his fellow Marines die.

Furthermore, in e-mail interviews with me, Captain Clement told me that the fear of having the enemy “sneak up and take [his] Marines prisoner” would cause him to stay awake for more than 48 hours, and that because he desired nothing less than to lead by example, he would personally drive trucks regularly notwithstanding regulations against officers personally driving vehicles. Perhaps it was because of his concern for his Marines that, by the end of his first tour, Clement would suffer from war-related injuries.

Particularly noteworthy is Clement’s keen observation of his fellow Marine officers with whom he served. Clement seemed to say that the Marine Corps is led by officers of mixed qualities. In his memoir, he recounts his reunion with his former instructor, a seasoned colonel who fell out of favor with the higher-ups because he lacked political finesse. Of women officers in combat, Clement praises one of his fellow platoon commanders as a competent commander who knew how to fight. Clement does not hold back criticisms against incompetent officers who could not handle the unrelenting pressures of combat, however. According to the author, he saw one officer popping a red smoke grenade—which is used to signal someone’s death—inside his truck because he was scared, while another officer left her sergeant to run her platoon because “she didn’t want to be the convoy commander.”

Overall, The Lieutenant Don't Know is well-written and offers a realistic picture of what it is like to serve in Afghanistan as a Marine combat logistician. As editor of War on the Rocks and a Marine veteran, Thomas Gibbons-Neff argues, Clement’s realism “is where [he] shines.” Indeed, Clement’s memoir has the potential to become a classic of the Afghanistan War.

All I can do after having finished the book is to express my utmost gratitude for allowing me to get a glimpse of  the hardships and terrors Captain Clement and his fellow Marines endured.

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