Righteous Read: Romesha, Red Platoon.

Red PlatoonWhy would you read a book about a fight that you’d already read one excellent book about? The Battle of Camp Keating, also called the Battle of Kamdesh, has been the subject of an excellent New York Times best-selling book by TV reporter Jake Tapper, and Tapper’s book, The Outpost, is as good as any military story written by a journalist can be — up there with the field’s previous standard-bearer, Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down. Surely any other book would be, as an incendiary Mohammedan prince said of the Library of Alexandria, either duplicative of The Outpost, and thus redundant; or contradictory, and thus heretical.

This is not the case. While it can be read in conjunction with Tapper’s account — there is little overlap between the books. Tapper tells a journalist’s story, with a great deal of framework-building “context” and with on-the-ground source and fact subordinated to a didactic Narrative (even though he is one of the most even-handed reporters working today). Clint Romesha, on the other hand, tells the story of Combat Out Post (COP) Keating as only an NCO who was deeply involved in its defense can.

The placement of COP Keating, named after Lt. Ben Keating who died in a truck mishap on the dangerous roads to the remote camp, was typical of the kinds of tactical decisions that began to be made as generals like Stanley McCrystal pursued personal celebrity and issued big-picture orders to subordinates who seemed disinclined to ask questions; none of these officers seems to have had the least regard for the men their orders sent to these modern Little Big Horns. Romesha writes that the position of COP Keating was selected, not by an experienced combat arms officer or soldier, but by tactically naive intelligence analysts. As a result, they wound up with the sort of defensive position that Bradley Manning might have chosen: Keating was surrounded 360º by high ground held by the enemy. Someone had “checked the box” by providing an OP (Observation Post) on higher ground, but so sited that the terrain between meant that neither the COP nor its OP could provide the other with observation or direct fire. (The COP was staffed by a company minus, the OP by a platoon).

While this was arguably an infantry mission, the men on the COP were from a cavalry scout unit.  Their “troop” or company-sized unit had three platoons, imaginatively labeled Red, White and Blue. Red was Clint Romesha’s platoon.

A chart showing where the 7 slain and 1 mortally wounded scouts fell. The photo is from before the attack, though.

A declassified chart showing where the 7 slain and 1 mortally wounded scouts fell. The photo is from before the attack, though. The police at the ANP station surrendered to the Taliban, and were summarily executed.

What use is an observation post that can neither observe nor be observed? Only this: it “checks the box” for some inept leader working off a checklist with no real comprehension of what he’s doing. No one from lieutenant colonel on up seemed to really grasp the weakness of the position; but the weakness was clear to two elements:

  1. The junior officers, NCOs, and soldiers of the outposts; and,
  2. The enemy.

The enemy’s presence was evident from the beginning, and attacks became a daily occurrence. What Romesha did not understand at the time, but came to realize later, was that these attacks were probes designed to tickle the Keating defenses and observe the defenders’ reactions. In the weeks before the big attack, patrols found numerous signs of enemy surveillance.

The attack launched on 3 October 2009 (yes, the anniversary of Mogadishu. Probably a coincidence — remember that the enemy here use the Moslem lunar calendar). It showed that the enemy had made great use of its surveillance logs; they first sent in a tsunami of withering fire, and followed it up with a storm surge of men.

After the withdrawal, the explosive charges failed to fire, and the remaining rubble was further destroyed by a B-1 bomber.

After the withdrawal, the explosive charges failed to fire, and the remaining rubble was further destroyed by a B-1 bomber.

By the time the wave hits, Romesha has introduced you to the key players in the defense of Keating (with a heavy dose of foreshadowing for those of his friends and platoon mates for whom this was the last battle). You also have met the supporting players, like the helicopter crews, and you’ve gotten — as, after the battle, Romesha got — a better perspective on some of the things that perplexed him as a low-ranking NCO. His even-handedness, good nature, and curiosity served him well when researching this book. This excerpt is a small example of the even-handedness that so impressed us. He is discussing how it seemed to the men at Keating that the supporting helicopter unit abandoned them; they had no way to know the choppers were being tasked to save the Afghan town of Bargi Matal from being overrun, and supporting five strikes a night on targets associated with the search for deserter Bowe Bergdahl. Sure, the war was under-resourced, but Romesha resists finger-pointing:

One could say that this boiled down to a cause-and-effect chain of lousy ideas, poor decisions, and flawed thinking. When it’s laid out that way, the logic of this argument seems to hold water. But most soldiers who have experienced combat understand that armchair quarterbacking is shallow and often misguided. It’s easy to second-guess decisions based on their ramifications, and then to assign blame. Considerably harder is excepting that in combat, things can and will often go wrong not because of bad decisions, but despite even the best decisions. That is the nature of war.

The book is frank, fair and sufficiently intense that we had to put it down from time to time and go do something else, anything else. It is an excellent corrective to those of us who read Tapper’s The Outpost and thought we understood this fight. Understanding might be one cognitive leap too far, but Red Platoon will inform you of the ends to which our young men are sometimes put, and the character with which they meet such challenges.

The very best parts of the book are the ones where Romesha shares with you clear word portraits of the other men he served with; we were especially moved by his description of Eric Snell, a soldier he’d served with — and lost to a sniper — on an earlier tour in Iraq. At the end of Red Platoon, you know the men who died, warts and all. And you mourn them and regret you never got to meet them. You also know, and you recognize the sheer guts and skill of, the survivors.

U.S. Soldiers with Bravo Troop, 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division pose for a photo after a mission in Afghanistan in 2009. Standing, Left to right: Medal of Honor recipient Staff Sgt. Clinton L. Romesha, Spc. Thomas Rasmussen, Sgt. Brad Larson, 1st Lt. Andrew Bundermann, Pfc. Christopher Jones, Spc. Kugler and Spc. Knight. Kneeling, left to right: Sgt. Armando Avalos, Jr., Spc. Zach Koppes, Spc. Gregory, Pfc. Davidson. (U.S. Army Courtesy photo/Released)

U.S. Soldiers with Bravo Troop, 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division pose for a photo after a mission in Afghanistan in 2009. Standing, Left to right: Medal of Honor recipient Staff Sgt. Clinton L. Romesha, Spc. Thomas Rasmussen, Sgt. Brad Larson, 1st Lt. Andrew Bundermann, Pfc. Christopher Jones, Spc. Kugler and Spc. Knight. Kneeling, left to right: Sgt. Armando Avalos, Jr., Spc. Zach Koppes, Spc. Gregory, Pfc. Davidson. (U.S. Army photo).

Is there anything about the book we’d change? We’d like to see better maps. The endpapers contain a commercial artist’s sketch map of COP Keating, but it really can’t show the relief, and it’s too small to show the relation of the min COP to OP Fritsche, the mutually-non-supporting Observation Post. As a soldier, these things are easy to follow from Romesha’s written description, but we worry that civilian readers might miss these aspects of just how incredibly bad, tactically, these siting decisions were. Then again, the topographical maps that make the nightmare terrain clear to a military reader may be Greek to the average civilian.

Many of those heroes of the fight who distinguished themselves, like Romesha himself and his platoon leader, Andrew Bundermann, left the Army subsequently. Bundermann, says Romesha, blames himself for the loss of eight men of his platoon. Romesha and the other survivors disagree vehemently; from the command post, Bundermann marshaled supporting fires like a great conductor animates his strings and woodwinds; without those fires, there would have been no survivors, and the post would not have been held. Still, he feels guilty that his name was not among the dead.

Every combat vet understands.

The Book

Red Platoon: A True Story of American Valor was published in May by Dutton, an imprint of one of the big New York publishers. It is available in hardcover (Amazon link) and in an overpriced Kindle e-book. Expect trade and mass-market paperbacks in due course.

Many thanks to OTR for recommending this book. -Ed.

For More Information:

Compare the Battle of Wanat, another badly sited post defended by off-the-charts valor:

The Big Lie About Wanat (COP Kahler), Part 1 of 2 (long)

A good post on the battle of COP Keating:

http://plbirnamwood.blogspot.com/2013/02/medal-of-honor-ssg-clinton-romesha-cop.html

Keating, the Medical Story (by the deployed Physician’s Assistant; scroll to p.21 of this .pdf):

http://www.sapa.org/MAYNewsletterSAPA2011.pdf

(Note that Spc Ty Carter, mentioned in this article, has also received the Medal of Honor for his conduct in the battle).

23 thoughts on “Righteous Read: Romesha, Red Platoon.

  1. John M.

    “[R]emember that the enemy here use the Moslem lunar calendar….”

    Afghans use the Solar Hijri calendar. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_Hijri_calendar Islamic religious festivals are driven by the Muslim lunar calendar, but day-to-day events are run off of the Solar Hijri calendar.

    The anniversary for the battle of Mogadishu would likely fall on the same date in the Solar Hijri calendar as on the Gregorian calendar. Whether or not your typical Talib commander would have the faintest idea that Mogadishu exists, never mind that there was a battle fought there on a particular date is unknown to me.

    -John M.

      1. John M.

        Interesting. They’re the only non-Arabic speakers to do so, so far as I know. Even the Islamic Revolutionaries in Iran only managed to reform the Iranian solar calendar to a Hejira epoch date (rather than a full switch to the Arabic lunar calendar).

        You have had more contact with the Taliban, so I’ll defer to you on this.

        -John M.

  2. SPEMack

    Christ, I knew Chris in passing at Knox. The fiance picked the book up at Sam’s Club while getting new tires on the Tahoe. Read the first few chapters and wondered off. The hunt for Berghdal, and resulting casualties, is something that I have tremendous problems with.

    I regret only one thing through my military career:

    I can not say that I brought all my guys home. That hurt runs deep.

  3. RostislavDDD

    Many thanks! I hope to see the book in russian translation :(. I will dare to advertise. “One Bullet Away” aroused great interest.

  4. Keith

    Amazing how the cycle keeps returning. Many of the front line units before the German attack in December, 1944 had gone into villages without out posting the surrounding hills. When the attack came in the Germans were able to dominate the villages by fire before over running them.

    Hognose sir I wound up sending that pdf to the email for this site. Had issues that day and lost the other email address you sent me. Did you ever get that sir?

  5. Aesop

    Tapper’s book on Dien Bien Phu II was excellent, so I’ll have to add this one to the stack.

    Somehow, I suspect it will most of all reinforce my curiousity about why someone didn’t just decide to nuke the entire godforsaken anus of humanity from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.

  6. medic09

    Okay, tangential question from the ignorant asking to be schooled.

    What is the substantial difference between infantry and cavalry scouts? Why can’t a cavalry company do a task the same as an infantry company? Is the difference fundamental, in the way the individual soldier is prepared; or is it more at the unit level, relating to equipment and usual roles?

    1. S

      Modern “cavalry” has taken the old light cavalry role: screening and reconnaissance. Modern heavy armour fulfills the role of the old heavy cavalry: breakthrough. Infantry continues to exist to take and hold ground, to seek and close with the enemy and destroy him, on all terrain in all weather day or night. Heavy infantry these days travels with the tanks, and the light infantry still maintains its agility without ever carrying loads considered light. For all the satellites, drones, ships, subs, artillery, fighter bombers and standoff missiles, someone still has to put on caligae and go stand on or closely under a bit of land to qualify as “owning” it. The smart ones take the high bits first. Equipment and employment has changed over the last couple of decades. Instead of manning equipment, the idea is to equip the man. Or woman, or whatever designation is applied to the grunt; though perhaps “squeal” will be the new moniker for the doomed soldiers of the enlightened cultures.

      1. medic09

        Thanks, S. That sounds like a good answer.

        After several years in light infantry in the IDF, I was switched to a reserve infantry company that served at the will of an armour brigade. Our role was largely what you describe as cavalry scouts (and pretty much what I expected). But we all came from infantry and paratroop brigades, and if you had tasked us with a standard infantry role away from the armour, we would have done it no questions asked. My question was because of Hognose’s comment “While this was arguably an infantry mission, the men on the COP were from a cavalry scout unit. ” I infer from that a cavalry unit isn’t equally capable or prepared for an infantry role. Hence my trying to better understand the differences, especially as far as initial training and expectations go.

        1. Kirk

          In the US Army, cavalry scouts focus more on reconnaissance and security missions operating from armored vehicles than do the infantry. Think “modern-day dragoons”, and you’re closer to the mark. It’s more a cultural difference than anything else.

          You get down to it, the missions are similar, but the units and culture are very different. It’s like with the way that the old Armored Cavalry Regiments looked a lot like a standard Brigade Combat Team from any of the divisions, but when you went to look at them, and observed them in action…? Yeah. T-totally different beasts. With the guys from 3 ACR at the NTC, you didn’t dare stick your nose into their field trains, because you were gonna get it bitten off. Period. The guys from the standard BCT formations? Field trains were a cluster-f**k of epic proportions, in most cases. Why? Number of reasons–Many times, the units in the BCT were divisional slice elements, and were not used to working together with the BCT. In the ACR, all that crap was organic, and used to working as one, plus… They were all “Cav”. Lots of esprit de corps, lots of unit identity, and boy, howdy… Even the maintenance guys were scary. We had a light infantry unit sneak into the perimeter of the 3 ACR, on a rotation: They barely got out alive, and they only made that mistake once. As soon as they raised their heads from one of the wadis, it was “game on”, and the rear-echelon types went nuts. You saw them using rough-terrain forklifts as combat vehicles, driving around the perimeter with armed men in baskets on the forks, being raised up to look for the light infantry dudes who were hiding in wadis. It was Grade “A” nuts–The light guys mostly didn’t make it out of the perimeter, and the platoon+ that infiltrated only had like 3 guys alive, when it returned to their ORP. That response from rear-area troops was totally unlike anything else I’ve ever seen from that echelon in training. Usually, they mill around in confusion. The ACR bubbas just went straight into “hunt down and kill the enemy”, and did so with a real sense of joy and purpose. They were looking for a fight, vs. trying to stay out of one. All the light guys who got rounded up and made POW during the attack, as well as the ones who were “dead” all had this look of “What the hell just happened to me…?” on their faces, which was pretty damn close to what you see in the history books when they took pictures of the German SS who had to surrender to some average allied unit…

          1. S

            Isn’t the “every marine a rifleman” doctrine directly aimed at just this problem of tooth vs. tail? You nailed it: “It’s more a cultural difference than anything else.”

  7. robroysimmons

    Why most editors don’t insist on better maps has always been a mystery to me. The actual battle of the Little Big Horn is one of my hobbies at least as far as reading about it and generally the maps are basic at best. A Google Earth screen shot would be better in most places than what they place in expensive books.

  8. Boat Guy

    Just ordered both solely on your recommendation. I’ve read some of the AAR’s on this fight but t’would be good to add these to the library for posterity.

  9. AJ in NJ

    I read the book the day it came out, actually binge listened on audiobook through a day off of work and the next morning workout and drive, and it was a riveting account of what some studs have to do when their govt ties their hands behind their backs and loses sight of the objective of war. Conceding the high ground, being infiltrated with spies and complacency on all levels (not the hard chargers it seems, but enough that the claymores didn’t clack off when it could have significantly stopped part of the infil) all contributed to this colossal cluster fuck that cost the lives of our best young men. Clint is very humble in his account and he seems to be a throwback, the the old breed, before the PC bullshit. What he did was pretty incredible.

    And the kid that was in the gun truck laying hate the entire time must have a custom set of cammies to fit his gigantic balls, he was a sitting target and hung in there.

    Great read, but aggravating that anyone was even in that position losing lives for ground we would concede anyway.

  10. Trone Abeetin

    Tapper was a flack for Handgun Control Inc. or one of its name change variations. I always consider that when I read anything authored by him.
    I read an online account of that battle, it’s a wonder anyone survived.

    1. Hognose Post author

      According to his Wikipedia bio, he did indeed. He also was a flack for Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, husband of Ed Mezvinsky, the parents of Mr Chelsea Clinton.

      Ed and Marj were both Congressthings, but Ed was also a Wall Street makler, who did a long stint in prison for running a Ponzi scheme on his clients (and, being a Made Guy in the Beltway Crime Family, got to keep the money). Marj divorced him to create an appearance of propriety, but she’s still enjoying the money. Junior is also a Wall Street makler, and his hedge fund clients have also inexplicably lost large sums of money, but they probably write it off as a contribution to the Clinton Global Foundation.

  11. kerry

    When and if, and if and when the boot is on the other neck, and the “Als, Whose’s and Ackbars” are at the bottom of the fish-turd shooting barrel, serving cold hate on them will be, a la Jackie Gleason, “Sweet it is”.
    (I’m just a guy who makes chairs, and thinks about the “last four things”. “At this point, what difference does it make”, and “Well done thou good and faithful servant” are on the welcome mats of the “hot place” and Eternity. “Choose wisely”.

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