Why 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.
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:
- The junior officers, NCOs, and soldiers of the outposts; and,
- 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.
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.
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.
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:
A good post on the battle of COP Keating:
Keating, the Medical Story (by the deployed Physician’s Assistant; scroll to p.21 of this .pdf):
(Note that Spc Ty Carter, mentioned in this article, has also received the Medal of Honor for his conduct in the battle).