Like many habitues of antiwar.com, I generally do not find much time for sitting down and reading a book since I have become accustomed to obtaining most of my information in easily digestible bites over the internet. This year for Christmas I received a copy of The Outpost by ABC’s White House correspondent Jake Tapper, which was particularly daunting as it is nearly 700 meticulously researched pages in length. I was given the book by my daughter because it tells the tale, among many others, of a friend of hers from high school who went to Afghanistan with the Fourth Infantry Division and was killed there. My daughter had seen her friend on his last home leave and he had described the base in Nuristan province that he was posted to as a death trap where he and his comrades were attacked every day with little ability to defend themselves. He predicted that he would not be coming home again. He was twenty-one years old when he died.
The book jacket’s subtitle is "An Untold Story of American Valor," which I presume to be a marketing blurb originating with the publisher, because the book is much more nuanced in its message than that would suggest. It is, in fact, one of the most powerful antiwar books that I have ever read precisely because it does not wrap itself into an explicit antiwar theme. Tapper explains in an epilogue that he set out to "better understand what our troops go through, why they go through it, and what their experience has been like in Afghanistan." He tells his tale dispassionately, inexorably demonstrating the human cost of a war that need not have been fought on a small stage where blunder after blunder killed quite ordinary Americans who under other circumstances, in another place and time, might have been our next door neighbors. The book describes in detail the devastating wounds that kill and maim a succession of soldiers posted to the indefensible Combat Outpost Keating, located inexcusably in a depression overlooked by mountains on three sides. He follows the wounded through their hospitalizations, writes about their grieving families, and chronicles the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and even suicides that afflict many of them when they try unsuccessfully to return to civilian life.
The original rationale for the siting of the base in a valley was that it provided a presence in remote Nuristan province that could be supplied by a road. The road quickly becomes unusable as the tale unfolds but the soldiers remained in place, bleeding, dying and killing for no reason whatsoever. The U.S. Army commanders in Afghanistan come out of the tale emitting a bad odor, as do the decision makers in Washington, a process that Tapper chronicles in some detail. Whether or not there was any justification in remaining in Afghanistan at all, the Bush White House condemned the Army to fighting the war on the cheap, having only one combat brigade assigned to a country nearly as big as Texas with much more rugged terrain and little in the way of infrastructure. Most of the soldiers initially in the country after the fall of the Taliban were shifted to Iraq, a pointless and essentially fraudulent diversion which has since borne bitter fruit.
The commanders in Kabul insisted on sending the Fourth Infantry soldiers to what nearly everyone recognized to be an indefensible location to demonstrate American resolve and establish a presence. From that point on the stupidity multiplied. A number of ambitious senior officers forced their men to go on suicidal missions to impress their own superiors and to punch their own tickets for higher rank. In one particularly scandalous episode an Army Colonel insists that his soldiers drive a truck down a road that physically could not accommodate the vehicle’s weight or dimensions just to show that it could be done. The truck made it the first time but second time around it flipped off the road and into a river far below, killing two American soldiers.
American resolve gradually becomes a confused sequence of "kinetic" (combat) operations interspersed with COIN (counter-insurgency) interludes, none of which successfully take root in a remote region which was littered with the wrecks of Soviet combat vehicles. Some of the local tribesmen believed that the Americans were actually Russians left over from the 1980s and found it difficult to understand why they should not be driving out the new invaders.
The book is admittedly about the Americans involved in the war and most of the Afghans are snapshots, but the insurgents come across as tough, dedicated and tenacious fighters who quickly learn to adapt to the changing tactics used by the better trained and equipped U.S. Army. The fighters, willing to suffer heavy casualties to engage the foreign soldiers, consist mostly of highly motivated local villagers who are seeking to drive out the invaders to defend their homes and way of life, not ideologues who are trying to bring some particular type of governance to Afghanistan. Indeed, they clearly have difficulty in relating to Afghanistan at all.
The American soldiers fight doggedly in a situation in which they know they are sitting ducks with a high likelihood of a fatal outcome. They fight hard and die often, accepting it as part of their job. Their allies, the Afghan National Army, frequently choose to run rather than fight and often betray the Americans to the insurgents, highlighting the futility of the entire enterprise of nation building in a place where all loyalties are local, illiteracy is nearly universal, and corruption mixed with drug trafficking is the only business worth engaging in.
Many of the American soldiers at Keating, perhaps not surprisingly, came from troubled backgrounds, joining the Army because of a lack of opportunities at home or in search of a new beginning. Some switch off their moral compass by rationalizing that they are professionals, paid to do a job. Others are revolted by what they are asked to do. Nearly all believe that they are accomplishing little or nothing by being in Afghanistan and no one expresses the view that they are defending the United States through their presence. While it is perhaps fashionable to fall back into Donovan-esque denunciations of "universal soldiers" really being to blame, life in the real world is never that simple. Before one becomes a soldier, it is impossible to understand what is involved and how one is transformed as a result. Kipling said that becoming a soldier in Victorian England was often "starvation cheap" and while that might be a stretch in the 21st century, the appeal of "serving one’s country" combined with a steady and respectable income in a country where opportunity has otherwise largely vanished should not be dismissed. Tapper chronicles how many of the junior officers enlisted in the Army to be able to go to college, which would otherwise have been beyond their reach, demonstrating the mixed motives that eventually place so many young Americans in uniform.
Though I find current levels of military spending obscene and deplore the exaltation of the military as an aspect of the growing national security state, I am not among those who believe that war itself is unthinkable. I just do not accept that it be a first or even a second option in a country’s interaction with the rest of the world and think that it should only be entered into if truly vital interests are threatened. The wars that America has fought since 9/11 have been particularly senseless as measured by any reasonable standard. If the United States extends its twelve year-long losing streak by attacking Iran our nation truly deserves to share the fate of the empires that have preceded it on the world stage. One has to ask how the apparently intelligent people we elect to high office can ultimately be so ignorant as to believe that one nation should assume the responsibility for "leading" the rest of the world. I have no good answer for that, but if one reads The Outpost an understanding of just how the U.S. engagement in Afghanistan makes no sense now and has not made sense for many years will certainly emerge.
To finish up where I started, my daughter’s friend received multiple wounds while fighting against hundreds of insurgents who nearly overran Combat Outpost Keating in October 2009. His comrades heroically braved fire to carry him into an aid station where a medic struggled to save him. Five soldiers gave him direct transfusions from their own veins in a bid to help him survive. He suffered horribly through it all, but was lucid enough twelve hours later to tell a doctor after being medevac’d to a field hospital "I don’t want to die." But many of his internal organs had already shut down and died and he soon followed. His funeral was attended by thousands. He was described as a hero and was subsequently named our county’s citizen of the year.
This may not be a popular viewpoint at antiwar.com but for me, the soldiers at Combat Outpost Keating exemplified much of what is good about America in their sense of honor, duty and their keeping faith with each other. But the war they were fighting in is the reverse of the coin, an exercise in killing and being killed for no discernible purpose, a slaughter ordered by the Dick Cheneys, George Bushes, and Barack Obamas of this world, none of whom in any way ever personally pay any price as a consequence of their actions. I don’t know if I understand what heroism actually means but I do see young men who deserve much better from their government dying horribly. What a bloody waste.