Quantcast

A Lonely Spot in a Lonely War | The Nation

  •  
Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

A Lonely Spot in a Lonely War

My new Think Again column is called “It’s Not Really ‘Krugman vs. the World’” and it’s rather critical of Joe Scarborough and his fellow Villagers, here.

I also thought I’d recommend Thomas Mallon on Richard Nixon in The New Yorker.

And in the “Well Said” department, there this:

Rolling Stone speaks with My Morning Jacket's Jim James, who recently "came to [a] realization."

RS: You're a big Neil Young fan. Are you into his current work?

JJ: The last Neil Young record I really enjoyed was Prairie Wind. I thought that was a fucking beautiful record. I like everything that Neil does. Neil's a big hero of mine, but I really came to this realization: I saw Springsteen in Louisville, and I've never been giant Springsteen fan. I only liked things here or there and I wasn't like a giant fan. I saw him in Louisville and he was fucking phenomenal! It was like seeing the sun shine for the first time or something. It was like he was so positive and it felt like every motherfucker in that place was his best friend. You know he touched everybody. He was crowd surfing. He was fucking running around and shit. When you see Neil [Young] and Bob [Dylan], they're, like, all pissed and you feel like they don't give a fuck if you're there or not. I'm so sick of that, and seeing Bruce I was like, "Fucking-a, man! Thank you! I paid a lot of money to be at this fucking show and you care I'm here." It was just, like, such a revelation.

If you’ve not yet discovered Foyle’s War, well, then I rather envy you. Acorn media is ready with six dvds they are calling The Home Front Files, Sets 1-6 Michael Kitchen stars as Christopher Foyle, the laconic detective chief superintendent of a coastal English town, investigating crimes on the home front as World War II rages. The 22 mysteries in this collection follow the course of the war and its aftermath from 1940 to 1945. It’s really charming and lots of fun and never insults your intelligence. Every one of these episodes can be watched more than once after you’ve learned who did it (and if you’re my age, forgotten). Acorn has also released Maigret Complete Collection I n which the great Michael Gambon stars in PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery! Adaptations of Georges Simenon’s classic detective novels, originally broadcast on in the early 1990s. Minnie Driver is in it too. It’s four dvds. And finally the Acorn people have also re-issued the Wodehouse Playhouse Complete, three series of the BBC show based on the great writer’s silly stories. I’ve not watched it yet but it’s six cds and the reviews give it high marks. You can find more information about all of them here and I think you can sign up to stream them as well.

Now here’s Reed:

A Lonely Spot in a Lonely War
by Reed Richardson

When trying to gain historical perspective on any event as vast and complex as a war there are a number of narrative structures that an author can use. The wonkish approach might focus on legislative and administrative aspects, digging into the seemingly endless documentation that accompanies every nation’s entry into major conflict to get the insider view. The biographical take—a popular one—establishes a dramatis personae and then follows these characters throughout, similarly using their experiences and utterances as a prism through which the reader can view the unfolding story. And then there’s the less common strategy of planting one’s narrative flag on a piece of ground, taking up residence, and letting the story eventually occupy it.

This last idea, that sometimes a place can more powerfully tell a tale than the people or policies or ideas that do battle there isn’t new. Asking a hill, a valley, a beach, a town to carry a broader perspective on a war can easily devolve into an exercise in forced symbolism, of trying to make too much about too little, all of which is to say that it is not an easy thing to pull off successfully. Jake Tapper, in his exhaustively detailed book about one lonely corner of the War in Afghanistan, The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor (Little Brown, $29.99), manages to do it with aplomb, however.

The funny thing is Tapper, a longtime member of the DC press corps who just became CNN’s chief Washington correspondent, might not necessarily agree. It’s clear from his book tour interviews that his interest in tale of Combat Outpost Keating arose when his veteran journalist’s curiosity unexpectedly collided with his newfound sense of life’s fragility. (As he tells it, he was literally holding his one-day-old son, Jack, while still in the hospital, when he first saw TV news reports of the massive, bloody battle where hundreds of insurgents nearly captured COP Keating.) His intentions, in others words, didn’t begin with the idea of detailing the intelligence failures, strategic stubbornness, tactical arrogance, and historical ignorance that has colored (and still colors) our messy,12-year-plus endeavor in Afghanistan.

This hesitancy on the part of Tapper to embrace his own book’s larger critiques remains. After all, one does not spend years researching and exploring the ponderous reasons why a dozen-plus men died and many more were wounded over several years at an exposed location like COP Keating and then slap a rather clichéd, gung-ho subtitle on the book without some forethought. As a marketing decision, I get it, but as an honest description of the larger lessons a reader might learn from reading it, Tapper is pulling his punches here.

This is perhaps not surprising. Tapper has a track record of being an at times pious, self-flagellating member of the media-is-liberally-biased club. (I took him and fellow self-confessor Mark Halperin to task for their baseless assertions here in this space last August.) More recently, Tapper took umbrage at Obama’s rather obvious criticism of the Beltway media’s facility for false equivalence. His rather facile response: “False equivalency is a thing, sure. But so is false ‘false equivalency,’” was a classically dismissive retort. Later, he claimed the comment was a “joke” and that “pols don’t make the best media critics.” Again, what Tapper didn’t do was try to engage the argument in an intellectually honest way.

In The Outpost, though, you can tell that, through the hard work of reporting COP Keating’s story arc across three-and-a-half years and through the eyewitness accounts of hundreds of regular soldiers, Tapper’s tetchiness about bias and Beltway instincts for hidebound objectivity aren't driving the story structure. So, from the book’s very first scene, from its very first sentence even, it’s clear that Tapper isn't merely serving up glorious patriotic shades of red, white, and blue. From the get-go, he foreshadows the violent climax that was ultimately going to befall the 53 soldiers stationed on a tactically disastrous piece of ground in a dangerously remote part of Afghanistan: “It was madness.”

From here, the reader is treated to literally hundreds of pages of the history of COP Keating leading up to the final fateful attack in October 2009. He tracks the ebb and flow of four different cavalry companies into and out of Nuristan, a rugged, punishing province in northeast Afghanistan where Keating and several other small American outposts have been set up to stem the tide of insurgents oozing back and forth across the nearby border with Pakistan.

Tapper does yeoman’s work trying to keep the constantly rotating cast of characters straight as the years pass by, but at times there are so many names being bandied about, both American and Afghani, that it becomes hard to focus. Likewise, the intense combat set pieces he describes leading up to the final battle, of which there are many, are often impossible to visualize. This down-to-the-man detail is impressive—as is his unflinchingly visceral, sometimes clinical, description of battlefield wounds and death—but it is in service of what larger need to the story, you find yourself asking occasionally. His granular exposition no doubt shows off his reporting chops, but too much of it can become trap, a quicksand of data that buries and disorients the reader.

Even so, Tapper slowly introduces a larger context into what will finally shape the fate of COP Keating. As one company replaces another, the outpost’s efficacy erodes, as it becomes harder and harder to sustain and protect it. Certainly, the numerous schisms and centuries-old grudges that plague Nuristan (a place so stubbornly riven with clannish feuds that Tapper dubs it: “the Afghanistan of Afghanistan”) contribute to the ever-evolving insurgent resistance that can’t abide the outpost’s presence. But time and again, Tapper demonstrates how another antagonist is working against the troops’ mission and their very survival: the war in Iraq.

For a good portion of the book’s scope—from early 2006 to early 2009—it’s evident that whatever our intervention in Afghanistan ever accomplished was in spite of the Bush administration not thanks to it. Throughout most of Bush’s time in the White House, Iraq was assigned four to five times more combat brigades. (To put this in context geographically, Tapper notes that at one point an ISAF brigade of a few thousand soldiers was responsible for a piece of Afghanistan roughly the size of Virginia.) The helicopter shortage, still not corrected 10 months into Obama’s administration, actually contributed to the demise of COP Keating—with not enough air assets available to evacuate the base earlier, it gave insurgents time to amass a huge stockpile of men and materiel.

Indeed, by the time George Bush makes a brief, personal cameo in the book, to comfort a wife of a company commander severely wounded during an 2008 IED attack just outside the outpost, there’s an justifiably earned sense of outrage on the part of the reader (if there wasn't one already). Bush’s sunny optimism: “Rob will wake up and when he does, I will meet him in person again,” to an emotionally fraught spouse of a wounded soldier is, on the one hand, understandable. In war, things rarely work out happily, though. Three weeks after meeting the president, Capt. Rob Yllescas’s wife watched her husband suffer a massive stroke. She decided to take him off life support. He died quickly.

By the time Obama takes office, the outpost’s high toll in lives lost and energy expended to keep it is obviously not worth the cost, to everyone involved. Yet a combination of theater shortages and military inertia conspire to keep it hanging around, even after its usefulness to the local population is thoroughly spent. This inertia, Tapper rightly points out, has several causes, one of the most mundane, but psychologically potent, is the U.S. military’s counterproductive habit of posthumously re-naming its combat facilities after fallen soldiers. As a result, the idea of closing or pulling back from a place like COP Keating (named for a popular first lieutenant who died in a driving accident during a perilous resupply mission), in conversation, effectively sounds like a discussion about abandoning a fellow soldier on the battlefield. Such emotional reasoning surely wouldn’t affect military decision-making, but Tapper demonstrates otherwise.

But Tapper’s book finally delivers on its full promise—not just the one on its cover—in the final 150 pages. Here he marshals a more even-handed balance of gritty, day-to-day outpost life with the high-level strategic back-and-forth of the new Obama administration and new ISAF Commander, Stanley McChrystal. By demonstrating how McChrystal’s initial public politicking (or bumbling, take your pick) created friction between him and the White House, Tapper follows these ripples all the way back down to COP Keating, which is forced to stay in place still longer as a PR move to appease Afghan President Hamid Karzai in the run up to national elections. Finally, after numerous false starts and missed deadlines, the official date was set to pull Black Knight Troop of 6-4 Cav out of the outpost: October 4, 2009.

The insurgents attacked at dawn on October 3rd.

Tapper’s account of the horrendous, 12-hour siege of COP Keating is well done, almost cinematically so. Indeed, if Hollywood is able to sell a tactical-heroism-within-a-larger-strategic-failure movie like “Black Hawk Down,” then someone is probably already looking to option this book. Outnumbered eight to one, 53 Black Knight soldiers fought for more than an hour with no artillery or close air support cover. Even after that support arrived, the battle dragged on till nightfall, and the enemy, at times, overran the outpost. Only through the sheer force of will and numerous acts of bravery did the Americans push out the insurgents and recover the eight dead US soldiers. (In all, seven soldiers earned Silver Stars for their actions that day, and SSG Clint Romesha is due to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor from President Obama in two weeks.)

Of course, the tragic irony is that all this blood and treasure was finally spent to merely survive at a lonely place the US military was planning on abandoning 24 hours later. (After an expedited evacuation of the outpost, B-1 bombers destroyed the rest of COP Keating in the days following.) If this isn’t a microcosm of the contradictions plaguing our nation’s current plan to hang around in Afghanistan, to little discernible positive effect, for another two more years I don’t know what is. In the book’s “Epilogue” chapter, Tapper tiptoes up to endorsing the same frustrations. In what, one suspects, serves as a kind of proxy for his own feelings, he quotes a “recently retired general” with experience in Afghanistan:

“The wars of the twenty-first century have been outsourced by the American people to our government in D.C. and to our military,” he said. “With an all-volunteer force, the American people are no more connected to our armed forces than the Roman citizens were to the legionnaires. And now we even pay for wars with tax cuts. So, whose war and whose Army is it?”

The general hoped that at least some members of the public would, through reading this book, come to a greater understanding of just what war entails, just what sacrifices mean. “I worry it is becoming too easy for the United States to use force,” he added. “There are not enough domestic constraints.”

I’m not one to say Tapper is so sly as to use an off-the-record comment by a U.S. military general to precisely endorse the liberal military policy critique offered by Rachel Maddow last year in her excellent book, “Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power” (Crown publishing, $25), but damned if that isn’t exactly what he did. Indeed, “drift” might best describe the aimless, overlooked strategic operational posture of most of the Afghanistan War during Bush’s tenure. Obama’s leadership, which bought into its own surge myth, has certainly had more direction, but suffers from “haste” and “sloth” in exactly the wrong directions. For reference, here’s my review of Maddow’s book from last April, which included this pertinent quote from her book, which is strikingly familiar:

The ropes we had used to lash down presidential war-making capacity, bindings that by design made it hard for an American president to use military force without the nation’s full and considered buy-in, have been hacked at with very little appreciation about why they were put there in the first place.

Maddow took more of a hybridized, policy-and-people approach, Tapper stuck to a place, but what’s notable is that their different intellectual paths both arrived at the same conclusion. Like COP Keating, too much of our country’s military policy today is tactically defendable but not strategically or even morally defensible. Sure, we can drop bombs on just about anybody anywhere in the world, but too often we don’t bother with much forethought about why or the long-term aftereffects of who else might suffer.

So, yes, you might say this book about a lonely place in a lonely war serves as a record of the oft-ignored, valorous sacrifices made by the men and women in our armed services in Afghanistan. But for anyone—even the author—to stop there, and merely think of it as a lengthy paean to military bravery and all those who paid the ultimate price would be a real mistake. For, this book’s real, unstated value should be to stand as an indictment of how cheaply we hold this precious national resource and how cavalierly our national leaders behave in their continued willingness to spend it.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. Also, I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.