Book Review: The Outpost by Jake Tapper

What makes HBO’s The Wire a great series is, well, many things; however, what struck me most was when I’d be watching, I’d forget that it was dramatized fiction. It seemed all too real. When approached at a micro level, you found yourself cheering for violent criminals. The disconnect between the homicide/narcotics detectives and high-ranking officials in the police department made too much sense to be fiction. At the macro level, it’s a commentary on institutional dysfunction. One gets to see where seemingly objective statistics and numbers can be misconstrued as progress, where goals and initiatives can only result in a better world for all. Yet, once we see people operating with their own prejudices, biases, motives, etc., we find how organizations falter. In the same way The Wire portrays this, so does Jake Tapper in his thoroughly researched, entertaining-yet-horrific account of the war in Afghanistan entitled The Outpost. 

Enter 2006. The United States military, in act of utter hubris, decided to build a presence in the Nuristan province of Afghanistan along the Hindu Kush mountains. This is the same area the Soviets attempted to take over in the late 70s and 80s. Despite superior technology, the Soviets found themselves on the losing end. But how did that happen? A layman would shrug it off as inferior training or perhaps shallow morale. Despite all this, and despite reluctance from some lower-ranking analysts, the outposts would be built. Each one started with one name, and, when I finished the book, would end with another–named after a fallen hero.

In the grand scheme, the Army brass thought these outposts to be indicators of progress–a march forward. However, those making the decisions weren’t the ones dealing with the day-to-day operations. The goal, among other things, was to build transportation infrastructure into the region making the logistical nightmare of delivering supplies a little easier. The process came by way of employing the locals. This would prove futile as the locals, battle-hardened peoples with a penchant for playing both sides, couldn’t police the region enough to maintain consistent work. Despite the Army’s efforts, the road would never get built, making helicopter drops the only method of delivery.

Prior to this book, I’ve read my fair share of modern military accounts: Lone Survivor, Generation Kill, Fearless, and American Sniper. All of these, including The Outpost, have put into words the tragedy that comes with war. However, The Outpost is the most difficult to get through because chapter after chapter, soldier after soldier, death happens. A significant number would enter, and then another significant number wouldn’t return. Tapper, being a journalist (currently as the host of CNN’s The Lead with Jake Tapper) writes with brevity, and it works. The gruesome tragedies that incur amongst our own are horrific and detailed. This passage was one in particular that stuck out to me:

“Inside the bird, a cold calm came over the men. They knew what their purpose was. Portis thought, I’m not going to come back from this mission. This is it. This is how I’m going to die. He had written his wife, Alison, a farewell letter and given it to his brother to present to her should he not return. She would be taken care of. Portis got choked up for a second, and then he made his peace with what awaited him in the valley. This is what he signed up for…putting pen to paper, he drew a diagram and began planning with his men how they would exit the helicopter, run for cover, and then join the fight to save Combat Outpost Keating.”

To put this into context, Combat Outpost Keating was set to ship out. Word spread and the Taliban executed their biggest attack yet. The attack came in the early morning and wouldn’t finish until nightfall. Soldiers who were hurt wouldn’t be able to take advantage of the “golden hour”–the idea that if a soldier is wounded in battle, he or she has a 90% chance at survival if given medical attention within an hour. Since the only way in was by helicopter, and RPGs were falling like rain, the golden hour was awash. Soldiers like Portis in the above passage were aware of their situation. They simply made peace with the fact that they will die. The romance of dying for your country becomes negligible. These proud few willingly became the most selfless individuals on the planet because they were brothers in arms, they died fighting for each other, and most frustrating, for a whole lot of people wearing YOLO hats or a media that use these exact battles as political capital for mindless punditry.

I found it difficult to read a soldier’s heartwarming and humanizing backstory only to see him die. I would hold on hope that Hollywood would intervene with a dramatic recovery. But real life isn’t Hollywood. As the KIA numbers increased, so did my respect for what these troops did. While I sat in the basement of crummy college house slamming cheap beer with friends, soldiers my age were selflessly putting themselves in harm’s way. This is a required read just to realize how well each and every free American has it.

At the micro level, you get to see the great work that individuals did day in and day out. Work that no one ever talked about at home. Counterinsurgency, the idea of creating a bond with the locals to ensure a more open dialogue, made real progress. It took time, energy, and death. And when General McChrystal and President Obama get in a rift that becomes public in Rolling Stone, the chips start to fall. Troop levels fluctuate, eventually pulling the plug on the operation altogether, which begs the ultimate question: What was the effort here worth. Despite the small victories in battle, was the American presence in Nuristan worth it? That question is never really answered, but I’m ambivalent about it. It seems that we gained an experience that will change future operations out there. This question, along with the residents of Nursitan and it’s surrounding hamlets, is a fickle matter.

Altogether, the read is necessary for understanding why progress isn’t as fast as everyone would like it to be. And this is microscopic in terms of information needed to judge the war effort in general. I won’t pretend to have the answers, and I don’t think Tapper does either. His voice is largely absent throughout the whole book besides the epilogue in which asks a few fair questions. Do not read this and expect an endorsement of neither President Bush or President Obama. The focus is to highlight the heroic nature of our troops. What is interesting, though, is how politics directly affects real people. Rarely do the ones behind the microphone actually have to practice what they preach. In that, I find that overt praise for a high-ranking politician for a war victory to be naive. War is an animal. The president is the owner of the animal. However, the ones responsible to taming that animal are the soldiers.

I know I’m late here, but I urge any and all to read more about our troops, so on Memorial Day, you can actually acknowledge the ones who have paid the ultimate sacrifice by name rather than provide us with a generic Facebook post. I would recommend starting with The Outpost.

On behalf of 20 somethings,

Thank You!