The Outpost: A Crucial History of Our Longest War

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Greg Jaffe/The Washington Post via Getty Images

U.S. troops patrol northern Kunar Province, about six months after the Oct. 3, 2009 battle at Combat Outpost Keating.

In the summer of 2006, four and a half years after the invasion of Afghanistan, someone in the headquarters of the 10th Mountain Division had a bright idea.

In and of itself, this was nothing new. So many delusional designs filter down through the chain of command that soldiers call the people who create them “good-idea fairies.” In this case, the brass wanted to build a small outpost in the northeastern province of Nuristan, 14 miles from the Pakistan border.

The location they chose was at the bottom of three steep mountains, a horrifically indefensible position. It turns out, the story of that camp, and the troops who fought there, are microcosms for the broader successes and failures in Afghanistan for much of the past decade.

There have been several outstanding recent books about Afghanistan, from Sebastian Junger’s searing account, War, to memoirs like The Lions of Kandahar by Green Beret Major Rusty Bradley. For The Outpost: An Untold Story of American ValorABC’s senior White House correspondent Jake Tapper took a unique approach. Rather than tell the story of a general, or a battle, or a unit in combat, Tapper has instead written the biography of a place–Combat Outpost (COP) Keating. The result is perhaps the best book yet about the middle years of the Afghanistan War.

The Outpost by Jake Tapper

Tapper, a political reporter who has covered the war largely through the policy battles in Washington, didn’t set out to chronicle COP Keating’s entire existence. On Oct. 3, 2009, one day after the birth of his son, Tapper noticed a news report on the small hospital T.V. about a fierce battle being waged in northeastern Afghanistan.

More than 400 Taliban insurgents had attacked a remote outpost on the Pakistan border, and for more than 12 hours, 53 Americans beat back wave after wave of deadly assaults. At the end of the day, eight Americans were killed. “I had just been gifted a son and eight other sons were taken from this world,” Tapper said in an interview last week at the Newseum.

He began by asking a basic question: why was the outpost there in the first place?

Then as he began researching and reporting a book about the Oct. 3 battle, he discovered the story was much larger. “The more I researched why they put the outpost there, the more I learned the stories of the troops who served there,” Tapper recently told Time. “They were just unbelievable. They were cinematic, tragic and heroic. They were stories that weren’t being told.”

Soon, soldiers from other units reached out to Tapper and wanted their stories told as well, and Tapper realized that the story of COP Keating wasn’t just a straight shot from debatable idea to tragic battle.

In the middle, units operating out of COP Keating experienced real successes partnering with local Afghan leaders, coming very close to beating the insurgency in a forgotten corner of a neglected war. But between 2006 and 2009, there were also plenty of tragedies. Some were, as they say in the military, self-inflicted, casualties of decisions by leaders who were, at best, ill-informed. Other wounds were self-catalyzed, the results of troops operating in far-flung areas with too little aviation and logistical support, much of which was tied up to the west in the ongoing chaos of the war in Iraq.

Analyzing the consequences of decisions, large and small, is what makes Tapper’s book so important. He delves into the ramifications of the military’s can-do spirit, what Tapper calls “the deep-rooted inertia of military thinking.” Instead of seriously reconsidering whether the outpost should have been there in the first place, commander after commander concluded, we’re already there, and asked young men to fight and die for that ground. Readers will also see the consequences of civilian leaders who ask our troops to accomplish missions without giving them the resources to do so.

And yet, Tapper doesn’t leap from the pages as an omniscient critic raining down judgment. “I think it shows unbelievable selflessness of spirit of everyone form generals down to privates in terms of what they’re will to do and what they’ll try to do,” Tapper says. “But at the end of the day, there are lessons to learn for the next time.”

Throughout the crackling narrative, he stays out of the business of sweeping conclusions, instead saving his feelings for the afterword. “They are heroes, and they have my appreciation and eternal gratitude,” Tapper concludes of the troops who fought at COP Keating. “I wish they had a command structure and a civilian leadership that were always worthy of their efforts.”

In the coming decades, those wishing to understand the beginning of the Afghanistan War should read Sean Naylor’s searing book, Not A Good Day to Die about Operation Anaconda in early 2002. The best chronicle of the end of the war has, of course, not yet been written. And for those wishing to understand the middle years of the war, they could do no better than to read The Outpost. That’s because Tapper, like Naylor, focuses on the experience of fighting in Afghanistan and lets the broader conclusions emerge from the narrative itself.

The Outpost is an exciting read but not an easy one. That is by design.

Early in the book, Tapper devotes half a page to a brutally graphic description of what a rocket-propelled grenade does to human flesh. This explanation serves the reader later in the book when he writes about fierce battles where bullets and RPG’s pelt the air like raindrops.

After a decade of war, where so few people have experienced combat, such battle scenes have become abstract.

In The Outpost, Tapper drags the reader towards the reality in which the troops at COP Keating fought, bled, died and triumphed. As the war fades inexorably from the nightly news, it’s worth reading that description again to try and understand what the troops in Afghanistan are still facing.

Nate Rawlings is a writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @naterawlings. Continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.