Jake Tapper, The Outpost: an untold story of American valor (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2012)

Author’s Note “The most difficult choice I faced in writing this book lay in deciding how honest to be about the horrors of war: the injuries, the deaths, all the things that make war so terrifying. The media in the United States – taking their cue from the American public –often shy away from such coverage, and that has not served the nation well, to say nothing of the troops or the people in those countries that the U.S. government says it’s trying to help. Certainly, there are good reasons to avoid descriptions that are too graphic, including, primarily, the desire to shield families of troops who have been wounded or killed from details that may be new and upsetting to them. Ultimately, with all this in mind, I opted to withhold some information – but not a lot.” page xi

Prologue: Focus

“But sir … that is a really awful place for a base.” This new camp in the Kamdesh District would, like the dangerous Korangal outpost that their pilots knew too well, be surrounded by higher ground. But whereas the base in Korangal was situated about halfway up a mountainside, in a former lumberyard, the one in Kamdesh would sit in a cup within the valley’s deepest cleft, ringed by three steep mountains that formed part of the five-hundred-mile-long Hindu Kush mountain range. Blocked off on its northern, western, and southern sides by rivers and mountains, it would moreover be a mere fourteen miles from the official Pakistan border – a porous boundary that meant little to the insurgents who regularly crossed it to kill Americans and Afghan government officials before taking refuge in caves or in the mountains or returning to their haven across the border. The camp would be one of the most remote outposts in this most remote part of the country that was itself cut off from much of the rest of the world, and the area all around it would be filled with people who wanted to kill those stationed there.
“So it’s located at the base of a mountain peak?” Whittaker asked. It didn’t take a Powell or a Schwartzkopf to know that as a matter of basic military strategy, it was better to be at the top of a hill than at the bottom of a valley.” page 6

“Sir, this is a really bad idea,” said Whittaker. “A. Really. Bad. Idea. Anyone we drop off there is going to die.”

“What’s the point of this base? Whittaker asked. “It’s on the low ground. It can’t be supported in any meaningful way. The troops there will be horribly outnumbered by potential bad guys in the town next door. They can’t even really go out and do anything because th rivers, the town, and the mountains will block any patrol routes.”

“All they can do is die.,” he added.

Epilogue

"The ephemeral desires of generals for control of specific territories -- the drive to claim particular plots of land that will soon enough lose their importance, if indeed they ever had any to begin with -- inform a mindset that is long established. It's existence does not make casualties any less tragic, of course; it simply makes them unsurprising to any soldier." page 611

“It has been said that the United States did not fight a ten-year war in Vietnam; rather that it fought a one-year war ten times in a row. Perhaps the same will one day be said of Afghanistan.” page 612

“I did not write this book to convey lessons to be learned. I wrote it so that you as a reader (and I as a reporter) might better understand what it is that our troops go through, why they go through it, and what their experience has been like in Afghanistan. There are far superior military minds that can judge what went wrong and what policies might be formulated to guard against future disasters, future Combat Outpost Keatings. But one conclusion I cannot escape is that the saga of Combat Outpost Keating illustrates, above all else, the deep-rooted inertia of military thinking. Instead of seriously reconsidering the camp’s location, the Army defaulted to its usual mindset: We’re already there, let’s just fortify the camp a little more. That might be a fine way to go about establishing, say, a new Starbucks in a sketchy neighborhood, but it’s beyond glib in this context.

It was easier for me to get to Forward Operating Base Bostick that it was to get back. The military system is more interested in moving men to the enemy quickly, less interested in pulling them out. Such thinking – easy to advance, difficult to retreat – is burned into the military brain. Hence, the outpost was originally put in its precarious location so it would be near the road to facilitate resupply, but it stayed there even after the troops all but stopped using the road, within months of Lieutenant Ben Keating’s death. This was a symptom of what President Obama, in May 2012, would refer to as the ‘How are we going to solve this problem?’ mindset, the one that avoids asking instead, ‘Boy, why is this such a disaster?’

Unfortunately, the military doesn’t have much concept of irony, since the actual definition is so often the opposite of the literal definition of so many actions (a dynamic perfectly captured by Joseph Heller). But naming an outpost after a soldier whose very death exemplified why the outpost should not have been there in the first place? That would seem to qualify.

Why then, did the camp remain where it was?” pages 612-613

“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.” page 614