I’m only half way through it, but with our readers starting to think about Christmas shopping, I want to join the chorus of praise for Jake Tapper and his new book about the war in Afghanistan, The Outpost. Tapper is well-known as one of the few real journalists in the Washington press corps, but The Outpost is an achievement of a whole different order of magnitude. It tells the story of Combat Outpost Keating, in remote northeastern Afghanistan close to the Pakistan border. The climax of the story takes place in 2009, when the outpost is attacked by Taliban fighters and nearly overrun.
Tapper begins in 2006, with the events leading up to the establishment of the outpost. He follows several rotations of American soldiers as they struggle against seemingly insurmountable obstacles to achieve some kind of success in Afghanistan. There are lots of characters; among many others, First Lieutenant Ben Keating, after whom the outpost was named, who dies in the first third of the book. You can hardly keep track of all of the soldiers, but it doesn’t matter, as the narrative flows logically and inexorably toward its conclusion. Tapper interviewed more than 200 soldiers in writing the book, and worked with a number of them in depth. The Outpost, at around 650 pages, is a remarkably sustained piece of excellent writing.
Tapper’s prose is spare, his narrative voice is objective and never obtrusive. He lets the participants in the action speak for themselves. But the author has a point of view, as reflected in the book’s subtitle: “An Untold Story of American Valor.” The Outpost is more than a labor of love, it is a labor–and I do mean labor, as the book required an almost unimaginable amount of work–of patriotism. The Outpost is a magnificent tribute to men who do more than most of us can imagine to fulfill what they regard as their duty.
The Outpost will tell you a great deal that you didn’t already know about Afghanistan and the conflict there, but it probably won’t change your opinions about that war, whatever they may be. The book isn’t a policy critique or an ideological tract, it is a chronicle of the commitment and heroism of individual soldiers. As such, it can rarely have been surpassed in the history of military writing.
Hugh Hewitt, the best interviewer in the business, interviewed Jake Tapper last week. You can read the transcript here. It’s a long interview and conveys a good sense of the book. Here, Tapper describes the climactic attack:
It starts at 5:58 in the morning, and I actually have information about the attackers, because I was able to interview two of them, two of the insurgents. And there were videos as well of their attack. It starts at 5:58 in the morning, and it’s just an unrelenting hailstorm of machine gun fire, RPG’s and mortars at this very vulnerable outpost. They pinned down the mortarmen, so they can’t respond. They pinned down the observation post. They set up positions so that any helicopters that come there are also made, are also vulnerable and fired upon. And as the U.S. soldiers run out to return fire, or to bring ammunition to those at the guard posts, the snipers and insurgents know exactly where they’re going and exactly what doors they’re coming out of, and they just pick them off one by one. It’s a devastating battle. Ultimately, the words that nobody wants to hear, enemy in the wire, meaning there are insurgents, there are terrorists inside the camp, are shouted out. And there are insurgents inside the camp.
Eventually, there are some incredible acts of heroism, not just in returning fire, but in taking the camp back. In the words of Sgt. Clint Romesha, who’s one of the Medal of Honor nominees. People who go right into fire, right into places where people were just killed moments before and run right into it. And there are some very inspiring stories of courage. Eventually, ultimately, the U.S. beats back the Taliban. A lot of the troops who were, Captain Portis and some of the others lead a quick reaction force down the hill, down the mountainside. They had their own adventure there. And they come across the camp, and the whole thing lasts more than 12 hours. I think it’s around 8:00, so roughly 14 hours before they can get a medevac helicopter safely onto the ground.
The Outpost: Go here to buy it at Amazon. Read it. Give it as a gift. It is an extraordinary book.