The New York Times bestseller by ABC senior White House correspondent Jake Tapper, The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor, tells the tale of the brave men who were asked to defend a remote combat outpost in the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan. Tapper responded via e-mail to questions from National Review Online contributor Greg Pollowitz about the book itself, the mistakes we’ve made in Afghanistan, and the media coverage of the war.
Greg Pollowitz: You’ve told the story of how you decided to write about the eight men who lost their lives during the 2009 battle at Combat Outpost Keating in Afghanistan: You were watching a news report, you said, while holding your newborn son. Have you ever thought, looking back, that if not for your son’s birth at that exact time, The Outpost wouldn’t have been written?
Jake Tapper: You know, I haven’t. But that’s probably right, which is kind of weird, because this project has had such a profound effect on me. More important, the stories about the creation, life, and death of the outpost are stories that need to be told.
Then again, if I hadn’t walked into the Hotel Fort Des Moines on Iowa-caucus night, 2004, I probably would never have met my wife, and then my two awesome munchkins never would have been born. So I suppose these twists of fate are something one just has to accept.
Pollowitz: When you started writing the book back in 2009, did you have an inkling that the situation on the ground was as bad as you found it?
Tapper: I knew in a vague sense that it was dangerous. But only by drilling down into this specific valley and trying to understand the individual challenges faced by our troops at this one outpost did I really come to understand the truly constant nature of the threat from the enemy and the difficulty of trying to win over the local populace.
By focusing on one small corner of the war, I was able to understand it much better on a larger scale. Not only in terms of the challenges the Americans faced, but also the threats to the local Afghans who tried to work with the U.S. and the Afghan government. I knew these things in theoretical ways, but only by learning about the individuals who gave their lives to win over this valley did I understand what it meant in a real way.
Pollowitz: You don’t pull any punches on the failure of the military leadership to prevent what happened at Keating. Is it any different today? Have the lessons of Keating been absorbed, or are we repeating the same mistakes?
Tapper: Well, we’re withdrawing troops, so we’re not setting up any more new remote outposts, as far as I can discern. One of the larger failures the book illustrates is what happens when troops don’t have the assets or manpower they need to accomplish the task they’ve been sent to undertake. I’m watching to see what happens in that respect as we draw down, with combat troops set to leave by the end of 2014 but with other forces likely to remain beyond that.
Pollowitz: You included in the book a 2007 letter written by Captain Ross Berkoff of the 3-71 Cavalry after he learned that the Bush administration had extended deployments for another four months. An excerpt: “God help the man who made this decision when we lose another soldier. . . . All I can say is that I’m sorry for what we’re putting you through. I’ll be home one day, and if no one else is hiring in the market, I know of a few guys here who would make outstanding Bush Administration Protesters for a living.” When soldiers over there listen to politicians over here talk about 2014 deadlines, etc., what do they think? Do the men and women on the ground have a clear idea of what the mission is? Or are there thousands of Captain Berkoffs writing similar letters?
Tapper: Berkoff was just joking, though the frustration many of the troops felt over their tours’ being extended four months was very real. We read about tour extensions here in the U.S. with little reaction, but over there — as I tried to capture in the book — it was heartbreaking for these warriors to be told that their weddings would have to be delayed, that they would have to wait four more months to see children they had never met, that their lives would be at risk for 120 more grueling days. (I should note that General Karl Eikenberry and Defense Secretary Robert Gates were trying to increase troop levels with that extension, at least temporarily, so as to make the troops’ jobs less impossible.)
The troops I talk to who are still rotating in and out of the country tend to try to not think of the war in larger strategic terms. For them it seems they’re focused on the job at hand, and it’s not their task to think about the big picture or if what they’re doing is worth it. And those jobs tend to be rather specific: train this Afghan National Army platoon, provide security for this operation. When they do think about the larger existential questions about U.S. involvement, I think they grow a bit despondent.
Here’s one specific answer from an officer friend on the frontlines:
I can’t speak for everyone, but I know what the mission is. It’s to train the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and GIRoA [the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan] (to the extent we can) to take over security and government operations when we’re gone. I think the public 2014 deadline has pros and cons. For instance, it kind of lets GIRoA and the ANSF know they need to get it together soon, because we don’t plan on sticking around forever. It also lets the Taliban know, “Hey, we’ll be out of here soon.” Do I think 2014 is enough time for the ANSF and GIRoA to stand on their own? No. But then again, they’ve had about nine years or so now, so the question is “Will they ever be ready?”
Pollowitz: You write that the media — “taking their cue from the American public — often shy away” from reporting the “horrors of war.” Do the media need to change the way they cover the war in Afghanistan and future conflicts? Have the media and the American public failed the men and women in uniform?
Tapper: It’s a complicated topic, because if the viewers/readers wanted extensive war coverage (let alone more graphic coverage) our capitalist media system would provide it. For the most part, they don’t, though many of us in the media try to bring them coverage of the war anyway — witness Mike Boettcher’s and Martha Raddatz’s reports on the war, and Bob Woodruff’s pieces on the troops.
On the other hand, the desire by some readers to take a look at my book and some other books about the war suggests there is a market for these stories.
Pollowitz: We know more about David Petraeus’s mistress than we do about the eight men who died at Keating. Tell us a little about those eight men and why they’re the ones we should be covering and honoring.
Tapper: The book tells the whole history of Combat Outpost Keating, from its formation in March 2006 through the base’s being overrun in 2009, and, as you know, there are more stories of fallen and wounded troops beyond those of the eight troops killed during the Taliban assault of October 3, 2009.
That said, the eight who were killed that day died — to a man — as a result of their having run into danger, either to return fire or to try to help one of their brothers.
Kevin Thomson was from Reno, Nev. A mortar man raised by a single mom, Thomson had battled depression and lost 100 pounds in order to join the Army. He was the first one killed, shot as he ran out within a minute of the attack, heading to his weapon to return fire.
Josh Kirk, raised in Idaho, was one of the toughest, bravest men with Black Knight Troop, 3-61 Cav, and he had already been in the region with 1-91 Cav in 2007–2008. Kirk left behind a wife and daughter.
Michael Scusa also left behind a wife and child, a son. Mild-mannered and sweet, he was killed running out to bring ammunition to those who had pulled guard duty that day.
Josh Hardt, who left behind a grieving wife, ran out on a mission he had to have known he wasn’t likely to survive, to rescue five of his brothers pinned down in a Humvee.
Chris Griffin was a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians from Kincheloe, in the upper peninsula of Michigan. He joined Hardt on that mission. He was a man of few words, but he commanded respect.
Justin Gallegos, a tough guy with a tender side, left behind a son and ex-wife. He was one of the five men pinned down in the Humvee, and he died trying to save one of the others as they made a break for it.
Vernon Martin was a funny and nice man with a wife and three children, and a secret that was bedeviling him. He was one of the five men pinned down in the Humvee. He, Gallegos, and Stephan Mace had initially run to the Humvee — which was being used as a guard position — to help those on guard duty.
Stephan Mace, full of mischief and fun, was from northern Virginia. The kid had so much life in him — he survived much longer than anyone thought he would have even though he had suffered horrific wounds.
I don’t know that I did them justice in these brief descriptions; that’s why I wrote a whole book about them, to flesh out their heroism and their humanity.
Pollowitz: One of the haunting stories from The Outpost is that of First Lieutenant Ben Keating (who died from injuries sustained in a truck rollover on November 26, 2006, and for whom the combat outpost was later named). You mention he was reading Steven Pressfield’s historical novel about Alexander the Great’s Afghan campaign. Pressfield starts The Afghan Campaign with a “historical note” telling readers that Alexander was forced to leave fully a fifth of his army in Afghanistan to “keep the country from reverting to insurgency” — a not-so-thinly-veiled warning to our politicians and military leadership. Are we repeating Alexander’s failed strategy?
Tapper: Many of the U.S. troops I profiled in the book were well aware of the history of both Alexander and the USSR. in the region — the hollowed-out shells of three Soviet personnel carriers sat outside Combat Outpost Keating, not exactly the most reassuring landmarks.
I don’t know that we’re exactly repeating Alexander’s strategy — obviously our mission is quite different, as we’re not seeking to conquer and occupy forever — but there are certainly uncomfortable parallels with previous empires’ excursions into the area. At the end of the day, there are a lot of people in Afghanistan who don’t want outsiders there — and they are willing to fight to the death to kick them (us) out. These insurgents know the land, and the locals know that in five or ten years’ time, the native fighters will be there and the latest occupying empire will probably not be.
Pollowitz: You’ve said that the media helped “tip the scales” to then-senator Obama in 2008, first in his primary contests with Hillary Clinton and later in the general election against Senator John McCain. Do you think the media have given President Obama a pass in regard to his handling of the Afghan war — in covering green-on-blue attacks, troop levels, corruption in the Karzai government, etc.?
Tapper: I don’t think the media have covered the war in Afghanistan as deeply and thoroughly as we should be doing — but I think that began long before the election of President Obama, and I don’t think it’s a matter of “liberal bias” as much as public weariness of our nation’s longest war. (That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be covering it more; it’s just a sad reality of news consumerism.) Regarding this election, I can’t say that the Romney campaign ever made one consistent (key word) and defining critique of the president’s handling of the war in Afghanistan that would have propelled the issue to the forefront of the debate.
Pollowitz: What’s the first thing you would do about Afghanistan if you had won the 2012 presidential election?
Tapper: The good news is (a) I didn’t win the 2012 presidential election, so therefore (b) I don’t have to come up with an answer to that confounding question. Seriously, as you know, The Outpost isn’t a treatise of military theory — it’s a work of reporting, a description of the challenges, successes, failures, and tragedies for U.S. troops and Afghans in this one remote area of the country. The only major conclusion I reach about the war is that troops should be given the assets and manpower they need to accomplish the tasks we give them. So I suppose, given that we’re dealing with the world of the fantastical, to answer your question: I would survey every commander in the field. I would ask them all what they need to complete the mission they’ve been given, in terms of assets and manpower.
Pollowitz: What’s next for Jake Tapper?
Tapper: I’m home right now with my kids, ages three and five. So Tickle Monster is definitely next.
— Greg Pollowitz is a National Review Online contributor.