by Martin Kuz
Tapper, Jake. The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor. New York: Little, Brown and Company. 688 pages. ISBN 0316185396. US $29.99.
You remember the war in Afghanistan, right? The one the U.S. military has fought since 2001 in a country far from our Homeland-obsessed shores? The grinding, mystifying conflict in which more than 2,000 American soldiers have died? Anybody?
Year by year, as the 9/11 terrorist attacks recede deeper into the past, the longest war in the history of this nation’s armed forces seeps from our collective consciousness, the news coverage about the Taliban and IEDs and drones and whatnot tuned out like the hum of fluorescent lights. We make sure to parrot the bumper-sticker sentiment of “Support Our Troops” at dinner parties. We rush to a showing of Zero Dark Thirty after forking down our chicken bellagio at The Cheesecake Factory. But otherwise, if we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t care. We prefer a version of war that clocks in under three hours and stars Jessica Chastain’s radiant amber tresses.
Attempting to shake us out of our apathy, Jake Tapper has written The Outpost, a book that in its depth and detail performs a public service by giving due to troops whose stories won’t receive screen time at multiplexes this winter. Here is the war as borne by the grunts who belong to the country’s other 1 percent: that fraction of Americans who serve in the military, the thin green line insulating the rest of us from geopolitical unpleasantness.
Running to almost 700 pages (including ample endnotes), The Outpost is, in essence, a tell-all biography of a small U.S. military base in eastern Afghanistan. Built in 2006, the camp was at once ill-conceived and ill-fated, owing to its location in a valley suffocated by steep mountains and infested with militants. Shortly after dawn on October 3, 2009, hundreds of insurgents hidden in the crags and clefts high above the outpost let loose with machine-gun fire, rocket-propelled grenades, and mortars. They breached the perimeter in less than an hour and sustained their assault until nightfall. Eight soldiers were killed, making the attack one of the war’s deadliest for American forces. Three days later, U.S. fighter jets bombed the base after troops had left it for good. A Taliban spokesman crowed to reporters that their departure marked “another victory” for the Islamist militia.
Few would have faulted Tapper, the longtime White House correspondent for ABC News who recently moved to CNN, for crafting an overtly cinematic narrative, i.e., one confined to the outpost’s bloody denouement. Enough happened in those violent hours alone to justify the book’s subtitle, An Untold Story of American Valor, though “untold” creeps toward overstatement: Media accounts of the siege appeared within days, and the ensuing months brought lengthy reports that chronicled the base’s brief, troubled life.
Instead, drawing on hundreds of interviews with soldiers and their families, Tapper reconstructs the camp’s existence from conception to death. His exhaustive approach, if clogged with an excess of names, missions, and military minutiae, captures the slog of combat and, in turn, the broader struggle of U.S. forces to impose anything like control on Afghanistan. The sense of futility is both intimate and writ large.
The Outpost presents John Nicholson, then an Army colonel, as the father of this wartime tragedy. After arriving in eastern Afghanistan in early 2006, he ordered troops under his command to build a handful of outposts in Nuristan, a province bordering Pakistan in the Hindu Kush mountains. Apart from sporadic special forces missions, prior units avoided Nuristan, whose people—despite the jagged geography and centuries-old tribal rivalries that otherwise divide them—share an enmity of foreign militaries. Their well-armed defiance of the Red Army, abetted by the U.S. government, had helped end the Soviet Union’s decadelong occupation of Afghanistan a generation earlier.
Previous American commanders judged the risk of trying to tame Nuristan too high largely because troop levels were too low; the bulk of America’s ground forces and air assets were committed to Iraq. Nicholson, by contrast, saw opportunity beyond the obstacles. A devotee of counterinsurgency doctrine, he sought to dam the flow of militants and materiel into the province from Pakistan while coaxing the locals to support Afghanistan’s young democratic government based in Kabul. Never mind that a good many Nuristanis had yet to hear of the new government or President Hamid Karzai, or that at their first glimpse of U.S. troops they assumed the Red Army had returned. Nicholson insisted on establishing the bases, including one in the district of Kamdesh, 14 miles from Pakistan.
“The camp would be one of the most remote outposts in this most remote part of a country that itself was cut off from much of the rest of the world,” Tapper explains, “and the area all around it would be filled with people who wanted to kill those stationed there.” A low-ranking soldier, when informed the base would huddle at the foot of three mountains, nicknamed it Custer Combat Outpost. “Anyone we drop off there,” he tells a superior, “is going to die.”
He was wrong. Over the next three years, most of the soldiers sent to the camp survived. But he was not nearly as wrong as could be hoped: several died and many more were wounded before the final enemy ambush in 2009. The unit that built the base suffered casualties even before setting foot in Kamdesh. Four of its soldiers (along with six others) died when a Chinook helicopter crashed on a supply run. Three more were killed during a firefight. Tapper, who has split The Outpost into three sections, devotes much of the first to these early calamities, and while eliding them would have slimmed the book’s structure, their inclusion amplifies the feeling of dread as the first troops descend into the valley. You mean it gets worse? And how.
The attacks on the base began days after soldiers showed up and soon rose to three to four a week; the rate remained more or less constant for the four units that rotated through the outpost until its demolition. The camp covered less than two acres of land beside a pair of rivers and consisted of a cluster of buildings made of stone and wood, with nothing more than sandbags fortifying the rooftops and walls. The perimeter, a ring of large canvas-and-mesh containers loaded with dirt and topped with coils of concertina wire, offered little protection from the rocket-propelled grenades that screeched down at sharp angles from mountain ridges. The closest Apache attack helicopters and medevac choppers were at least a 30-minute flight away, depending on weather and combat conditions. It was, in short, the outpost as bull’s-eye.
Fifty to 100 soldiers manned the camp at a time, and true to counterinsurgency principles, they filled the dual role of warrior-ambassador during patrols in the valley. They killed scores of militants in the hills and preached peace in villages during meetings with tribal leaders, sweetening the diplomacy by committing thousands of dollars to infrastructure projects.
Neither prong of the strategy yielded lasting gains. Insurgents streamed into Kamdesh unabated, an endlessly renewable resource. The elder tribesmen, poker-faced behind long beards, disguised their allegiances but made sure to ask for more money. Mutual mistrust prevailed and most of the projects stalled. As fighting intensified and casualties mounted, fewer helicopters and ground convoys traveled to the outpost, further isolating the troops, who sometimes waited weeks for critical supplies. Sleep, hot meals, and showers were rare. Mortar and sniper fire seldom ceased. Unease spread like a pathogen.
“Every soldier… believed he’d be killed the next time he rolled out of the gate,” Tapper writes, “or if not killed, at least wounded in a way that would forever make life a miserable challenge.”
Tapper resists framing soldiers as saints. He balances their acts of courage and selflessness with their flaws, grudges, and occasional pettiness, creating a portrait of personality types familiar to me from spending several months with troops in Afghanistan over the last two years. There’s the headstrong but charismatic captain, the brusque but kindhearted sergeant, the callow but capable private. The dozens of character sketches in The Outpost reveal the doubts cloaked by duty’s call in a war of ambiguous purpose, doubts that tightened around 1st Lt. Benjamin Keating until his death.
After a couple of months at Combat Outpost Kamdesh, Keating, a 27-year-old Maine native and second-in-command of the unit that set up the base, lost conviction in the mission. His optimism curdled as he confronted the scarcity of troops, the resiliency of insurgents, and the reluctance of locals to side with the Americans for fear of drawing the Taliban’s wrath. He heard the hollowness of his rhetoric as he exhorted fellow soldiers: “He pushed them to figure out how to defeat the enemy even as he thought, You can’t! You can’t defeat this enemy! Yet he was willing to let them continue risking life and limb to try. It was his job, but he felt like a liar.”
Keating died during a mission he considered needless and that in its absence of logic might be viewed as emblematic of the war as a whole. A lieutenant colonel had ordered the transfer of a nine-ton truck from the outpost to a bigger base. The route was a narrow road softened by recent rains and skirting a river; troops had taken fire virtually every time they traveled it. Anticipating the worst that night, Keating refused to allow anyone else to drive the vehicle and permitted only one soldier, Sgt. Vernon Tiller, to accompany him rather than the typical two or three.
Predictably, the road gave way under the truck’s weight. Tumbling down a riverbank in the darkness, the vehicle spat out both men, rolling over Keating before crashing into the water. Tapper recounts the rescue effort of the men in one of the book’s most wrenching passages. Two soldiers descended the rocky slope and found Tiller severely injured but responsive. Closer to the river, they spotted Keating, face down and unconscious between a pair of boulders, his body broken. When they turned him over, he briefly awakened and yelled, “Get me the fuck out of here!”
His last words reverberate as an anguished plea on behalf of the soldiers forced to occupy the base during its lifespan. When Keating’s unit renamed the camp in his honor, his parents in Maine regarded the tribute with ambivalence, their gratitude tempered by the foreboding that more troops would perish in Kamdesh.
The toll of dead and wounded climbed with sickening inexorability, and as Tapper describes the losses, one feels an urge to echo the anger of Chris Briley. A Marine lieutenant in charge of training Afghan soldiers, he survived a bomb blast in 2008 near the base that gravely wounded an Army captain who later died from his injuries. Dazed and enraged moments after the explosion, Briley raised his middle fingers toward the mountains as he screamed, “Fuck you! Fuck you!”
There may be a similar impulse to shout epithets at the U.S. military leaders who, given its marginal strategic and tactical worth, refused to abandon Combat Outpost Keating earlier. The factors that doomed the military’s push in Nuristan mirror those that have produced a stalemate across Afghanistan. The fathomless cultural deficit between Americans and Afghans, coupled with civilian casualties wrought by drones and special operations forces, stymied the soft-power campaign. The lassitude and uncertain loyalty of Afghan security forces deepened misgivings among locals about whether their own military would shield them from insurgents. The widespread corruption of Afghan politicians undercut the proclaimed legitimacy of the country’s democratic government.
By mid-2009, even U.S. commanders realized Kamdesh was a black hole for the military’s ambitions. But squabbling between Army and political officials in Kabul and Washington, D.C., and tension between President Obama and Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, delayed the base’s closing. On October 3, with morning sunlight trickling into the valley, insurgents announced that the Americans had waited too long.
The Outpost maps physical and narrative terrain similar to War, Sebastian Junger’s 2010 book that remains unrivaled among journalists’ accounts of the U.S. soldier experience in Afghanistan. Unlike Junger, who embedded with troops in neighboring Kunar Province for eight months, Tapper spent only a couple of weeks on the ground in late 2011. His lack of time there deprives The Outpost of the consistent visceral potency that imbues War and two of the best books inspired by the Iraq war, David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers and Evan Wright’s Generation Kill. Nor does Tapper’s writing match the lyrical poignancy of Dispatches, by Michael Herr, perhaps the finest book by a reporter about the Vietnam War or any other.
Tapper nonetheless has proven himself a diligent interviewer, and he suffuses his story with details told to him by troops that lend the story immediacy. A soldier badly singed by a grenade explosion found fleeting relief in a river, “feeling the cool mist… on his destroyed face.” A platoon came across a dead insurgent who, in an apparent attempt to staunch the bleeding from a gunshot wound in his neck, jammed a pear in the gaping hole. Wearing night-vision goggles, soldiers waiting for a helicopter to pick up two dead comrades watched as their body heat drained away and they “slowly eased from a light shade of gray into the same inky black as everything else around them.”
Tapper provides a tense, bullet-by-bullet retelling of the daylong battle that brings about the end of Combat Outpost Keating. Fifty-three soldiers, besieged by some 300 militants, killed more than 100 and eventually drove them from the base. In the aftermath, eight soldiers went home in coffins. The rest had to summon the resolve to continue carrying war’s inhuman burden.
The weight overwhelmed Ed Faulkner, Jr., one of 22 soldiers wounded in the firefight. He returned home early because of his injuries, but while his body healed, his mind was undone by post-traumatic stress disorder. Faulkner, who had previously deployed to Iraq, dreamed of Iraqis bringing him their dead babies, and he believed Taliban fighters were hunting him. Five months after his discharge from the Army in 2010, he died of a drug overdose. “I kinda think he was the ninth victim of Keating,” another soldier says. “And I honestly don’t think he’ll be the last.”
Like the war itself, The Outpost is of a length that will dissuade most Americans from bothering with it. And Tapper overreaches with an epilogue that, in part, raps President Bush, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Obama, McChrystal, and other leaders for their handling of the war in Afghanistan. The criticism isn’t undeserved so much as it is redundant. The hundreds of pages before the coda deliver a far more powerful indictment.
Still, from my experiences covering the war and talking with soldiers who are duty-bound to follow orders that can appear misguided, and sometimes utterly absurd, I understand Tapper’s decision to write more rather than less and the indignation that provokes his finger-wagging. He wants us to remember those who served in a forgotten valley on the other side of the world, and he seeks to remind us who sent them there. Attention must be paid.