The subtitle Jake Tapper chose for his book is one that legitimately salutes the incredible bravery and perseverance of America's troops in Afghanistan. But it could just as easily be subtitled the first sentence on the inside flap of the book: They never should have been there. Or, better yet: They deserved SO much better.
Tapper's book is a heartbreaking, detailed day-to-day account of several units assigned sequentially to one of the stupidest, most life-wasting assignments in all of a very understaffed war in an indefensible valley in a little explored region in a vastly under-researched country. In fact, so little was known about the Kunar and Nuristan provinces in northeastern Afghanistan when U.S. troops were sent there that, according to Tapper, "The citations for the briefing written by one intelligence officer for 3-71 Cav included Wikipedia, from which he drew heavily."
Welcome to war on the cheap. So cheap, in fact, that troops who rotated in from Iraq—quagmire that it was— were appalled, as you can read below the fold:
Berkoff found the sparse conditions demoralizing. It wasn't just here at Naray; throughout their tour of U.S. bases in Afghanistan, from Khost to Jalalabad, he and others in 3-71 Cav had been stunned by the enforced austerity whereby soldiers could be simply jammed against one another in rows of green cots. The Iraq veterans among them couldn't believe how grim their Afghanistan quarters were compared to U.S. bases in Iraq—especially since Iraq was the more recent of the two wars, with the United States' having gone into that country more than a year after entering Afghanistan. But then again, the officers reminded themselves, Iraq had long been the favored war of their commander in chief, and Afghanistan the one that would be fought on the cheap.
Yep, welcome to Combat Outpost Keating, situated at the foot of steep mountains, purportedly to stop trafficking by insurgents to and from Pakistan. Strategically misplaced from the beginning, nearly every soldier, from outpost commanders to lowly grunts, landed at the site, took a long look around, whistled and said, "Holy shit. We're gonna get slaughtered here." And on October 3, 2009, after several years of rotations, casualties, and one-by-one deaths, the compound was assailed by more than 400 insurgents—with the mere 53 U.S troops ultimately holding them off, but at a price of numerous dead and wounded.
From beginning to end, The Outpost is one long, sad tale of wasted talent, effort and money, reinforced by the stubbornness and failure of vision of an out-of-touch command structure. Despite numerous obvious flaws in the location of the outpost, construction moved forward, ostensibly because the site was located on the only road in the region, and as such was deemed key to both halting insurgent traffic and resupplying the base. However, early on it became clear that the road was not anywhere near stable enough to allow heavy U.S. military equipment to pass safely. Before too long, supplies were being flown in by helicopter—eventually, only at night … and then, only nights with no moon, because insurgents could fire on them so easily from the surrounding hills. Supplying the troops becomes so dangerous the troops at the outpost at some points are down to one MRE a day, and after a particularly fierce firefight in which a couple of men and the lone medic are wounded, it's deemed too risky to send a medivac to get them out, both for reasons of enemy fire and generally shitty terrain that won't allow landings..
Still, the inertia of the establishment military to refuse to take a second look at the wisdom of locating a post in the valley reigns. Even when the decision is finally made to pull troops out, it's postponed due to flare-ups nearby, and with units stretched so thin throughout Afghanistan, every military action is undermanned. The deadly assault of October 2009 is only surprising in that it hadn't happened earlier—and if it weren't for the incredible fast-thinking cooperation of the troops at the outpost and belated air power help, it's likely no one would have survived.
Tapper does what all great narrators do: He brings to life the individual men in a way that allows readers to see each soldier in full, with their unique backgrounds, hopes, dreams and families. When they are wounded or killed, we as readers feel it, deeply. Let's take … oh, the story of, say … Lieutenant Ben Keating as one example. After all, the outpost is eventually named for him.
Ben Keating was destined for greatness, of this he was sure. After finishing ROTC at the University of New Hampshire, where he was president of the Young Republicans, he had joined the military because he expected someday to be a U.S. senator from Maine, charged with voting on whether or not to send American troops into harm's way, and he didn't think it would be right to ask those future troops to fight he had never done so himself.
Tapper goes into great detail about Keating's parents back in Maine, his girlfriend, his God and country background, his enormous sense of responsibility towards the men he leads. And after just a little while in country, we see a change:
Keating had joined the military because he wanted to know what it was like to serve before he—as a future congressman, senator, president—sent others off to fight. What his time in Afghanistan was teaching him was that there needed to be better reasons, stronger threats to national security, before the United States deployed its sons and daughters. The abstract threat of terror was not enough, Keating thought.
So bad are the decisions being made above him that Keating refuses to put his men in the obvious danger of carrying them out; when ordered to bring a heavy tank back to the larger base on the godforsaken, crumbling road, he decides to go himself. And he loses his life when the road collapses.
Keating was in the first round of casualties, on the first tour of setting up the ill-fated outpost. So beloved was he that the camp ended up bearing his name, a painful touch of irony given that he thought the base shouldn't exist … and that the venture in wider Afghanistan was unwise. As the casualties mount through troop rotations, accidents, firefights and the final crucial October battle, Tapper shows how the damage spreads outward from the dead and wounded to families, to fiancees, to parents and to now-fatherless children.
The ravaged are many and varied; one of the wounded soldiers is shipped back home and discharged, only to spiral into PTSD and substance abuse, ultimately dying from a drug overdose. He's as abandoned in the U.S. veteran medical system as much as he was at the outpost, prompting one fellow soldier to say: "I kinda think he was the ninth victim of Keating. And I honestly don't think he'll be the last."
There were small positive signs of bonding with the locals here and there, but the residents in nearby towns knew from the get-go that the Americans would leave and the insurgents would remain, a fact that at times kept them at best neutral … and who could blame them?
Tapper surveys the landscape, both political and geographic, and concludes there had been a perfect firestorm of ignorance and bad decision-making, not just at the outpost, but for all of the conduct of the Afghanistan war. War on the cheap, the inability to acknowledge the bad player that Pakistan is and was in the region, disconnected leaders, fear of political repercussions, disinterest in the region's history and alliances and geography … all led to this terrible waste of effort and life.
The Outpost is a painful read, make no mistake about it. When the U.S. finally leaves the cursed place, it is bombed to smithereens so that bad guys can't use any of the leftovers. "The Army assessed the value of the loss of Combat Outpost Keating at $6.2 million," Tapper writes, "including LRASs, radios, machine guns, Humvees, and night-vision goggles."
The ruined lives and the ill will the outpost left behind, both in those who manned it and for the residents surrounding it are, of course, immeasurable.
As Tapper says in closing:
All that I can tell you with certitude is that the men and women of 3-71 Cav, the 1-91 Cav, 6-4 Cav, and especially 3-61 Cav deserved better. They are heroes, and they have my appreciation and eternal gratitude. I wish they had a command structure and a civilian leadership that were always worthy of their efforts.
Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here.Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.