I’m offering this blog comment after recent news updates about the Benghazi affair reminded me of Jake Tapper’s The Outpost and how it hadn’t gotten the traction in Army conversations that I thought it would get. I entered Tapper into the SWJ search engine and the first hit was to a 13 January SWJ editors’ roundup link to Paul Szoldra’s article (Business Insider, January 14, 2014) titled, “Jake Tapper Is Getting Attacked For Saying What Many Are Thinking About Afghanistan.” The second hit was to an SWJ book review article by Martin Kuz. Kuz’ review was thoughtful and thorough. He covers a number of points, but Tapper’s story makes an especially important accusation that Kuz didn’t highlight. Tapper put his finger on a failure by American military leaders to respect the principles of operational art. To me, that was the big take-away, the key contribution of the book to our professional conversation – and what the profession didn’t want to talk about. Below is a quickie book review I submitted to Military Review not long after The Outpost hit bookstore shelves. I then forgot I had sent it. Military Review did not run the piece. That happens, no big thing, and when I recently asked why, the reviews editor was kind enough to give me an answer. The MR editorial board felt that my review “needed analysis, relevance to today's leaders, and recommendations for readers.” Ouch. Well, it was a while ago and they have to cull a lot of stuff that’s better than mine. On the other hand, I thought, SWJ might publish this schlock. (I did change a word or two for syntactical reasons, but nothing of the substance.) I think Tapper’s book deserves to be on the short list of what SWJers would want to read.
The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor, Jake Tapper, Little Brown, 2012, 673 pages, $29.99
For the student of things military, this is a five star read. You may have a hard time concentrating on much else until you have finished the book, even knowing the outcomes, even disliking the author’s political and ideological tendencies. Some of its long-dwelling on medical challenges or personal lives of the wounded may off-put some readers who have experienced enough of that, but to me the author creates an appropriate environment within which to place the larger points he wishes to make. The Outpost could become a favorite instructors’ prompt for conversations at Ft. Leavenworth, especially. The book encapsulates a question of operational art -- about the relationship among military theory, application, and ethical leadership. As the sub-title confesses, the story cheerleads American military honor. Unabashed and un-equivocating, it admires our soldiers’ spirit. The main title, however, bespeaks the principal subject of the book: the birth, life, and death of a US military encampment in Nuristan, Afghanistan. Moreover, Mr. Tapper makes an elaborate, compelling argument about the decision-making that made Outpost Keating a tragic place. His argument isn’t about something atmospheric, ideological, theological or philosophical. The string of errors he exposes is mundane institutional and vocational, and the single greatest error in that string was the initial selection of the outpost’s location. If you believe, as I do, that the four main categories of military operational questions are who to fight, where to do battle with them, how to win that battle, and how to win the ensuing pursuit, then The Outpost might make you wonder if the US military is educating its officers well enough to decide who to fight. Worse (and this Mr. Tapper treats in spades), you might wonder if we are preparing leaders to decide where to do battle, a question directly associated with ‘operational art.’ In fact, so poor might have become our education in determining where, that our chances of winning pursuits are all but forfeited. That the poor selection of an outpost’s location was as much the product of doctrinal precept, of theoretical notion (one at odds with patently relevant and more traditional military wisdom) is at the center of Mr. Tapper’s observation. The Outpost exposes for us something we must address, and it does so far better than our increasingly edgeless doctrinal literature.