Jake Tapper’s “The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor” more than lives up to its title. It’s a remarkably compelling, heartbreaking, and inspiring tale about a little known battle in the Afghan War that cost the lives of eight brave Americans during a brutal sneak attack that found us outnumbered 53 to 400.
Other than themes exploring American sacrifice and heroism, the most important element in “The Outpost” is the context. Too often the stories reported about our military are told through a soda straw context that’s meant to further an agenda while still hiding behind the term “historical accuracy.” Tapper’s having none of that. He tells the full story, and any conclusions drawn come from the only people who have earned that right: the men who fought that day.
The expansive story goes into great detail about every aspect of Combat Outpost Keating. You’ll meet the brave men (many of them impossibly young) who fought that day for all the right reasons; their loved ones, the Afghan people we’re fighting for (as maddening as they are sympathetic), the inhospitable Afghan terrain, our-so-called Pakistani allies; andyou’ll learn about everything the military brass and White House did right and, yes, wrong. But as he says in the interview below, Tapper never loses sight of the fact that the only enemies in this story are the ruthless, oppressive Taliban.
This is great reporting (and storytelling) from a great reporter. As the chief White House correspondent for ABC News (and his online perch Political Punch), Tapper’s always been a bright spot of integrity in an otherwise bleak mainstream media landscape. “The Outpost” certainly lived up to those expectations.
In the interview below, I asked Tapper about the origins of the story, media criticism, and the Libya cover up. I also asked him not to allow Hollywood to bastardize the story, should they come calling (and if they’re smart, they will).
BREITBART NEWS NETWORK: Something that’s apparent in your reporting, your Twitter feed, and in your new book, “The Outpost,” is your admiration and respect for the institution of the American military, and the men and woman at all levels who serve. Even when you’re critical of what you see as military blunders, that respect is always there. Where does that come from?
JAKE TAPPER: My grandfather, Everett Palmatier, served in the Royal Canadian Navy during World War II and he lost a brother, Edwin, who was a tail gunner with the Royal Canadian Air Force, when his plane was shot down. My grandmother Helen worked for Canadian Intelligence and would receive the names of those killed every night. (Before any Americans scoff or sneer at the notion of Canadian fighting men, they should keep in mind that the U.S. hadn’t entered the war yet.) Grammie and Grampie Palmatier revered Winston Churchill for his wartime leadership – and they in turn were heroes of mine. So respect for men and women in uniform, and the recognition that there are sacrifices made by them that most of us cannot even begin to fathom, was always part of how I was raised.
BNN: I’ve read that you heard the story of Combat Outpost Keating when you were in the hospital holding your newborn son. At what point, though, did you know what you really had — that you had something special and, better still, all to yourself?
JT: The stories as I began to hear them from the troops and their families were just on their faces so moving and incredible, that I pretty much knew right away that potentially this project could be special, just because the tales were already so tragic, and inspiring, and in some cases surreal. As for having it “all too myself” – unfortunately given the limited coverage of the war in Afghanistan, that was never really a concern.
BNN: Was that kind of a terrifying moment because you knew that, in order to do the story justice, you would have to give up a huge chunk of your life? My understanding is that you have a fairly time-consuming day job. Where did you find the time to research and write?
JT: My wife is incredibly understanding and once she recognized that this wasn’t just any old side project, but that it was something I felt compelled to do, a story I felt a responsibility to tell, she was beyond helpful in terms of my working nights, weekends, and holidays on the project. I carried around my laptop for two years, so whenever I had any downtime on a plane, or a coffee shop, a grabbed it. All those hours add up; I was able to interview more than 225 people for the book, many of them multiple times.
BNN: In the book’s closing notes, you thank some people for convincing you to make the project more ambitious than what you originally had intended. What changed?
JT: “The Outpost” was originally going to be titled “Enemy In the Wire” and it was going to focus just on the last troop at the camp, Black Knight Troop from 3-61 Cav, and the last, terrifying battle, in which Taliban fighters got inside the outpost and during which eight U.S. troops were killed.
But after he read about my book project, a former intelligence officer with 3-71 Cav, the first squadron to push into Kunar/Nuristan, reached out to me. Former Army captain Ross Berkoff wanted to make sure that I knew about all the incredible stories that took place during his deployment, from 2006 through 2007, about Lt. Col. Joe Fenty, and about Lt. Ben Keating – whom the outpost is named after – and Medal of Honor winner Jared Monti, and Oklahoma National Guardsman Buddy Hughie.
And then Dave Roller, a former lieutenant with Bulldog Troop, 1-91 Cav, did a similar thing – he wanted me to tell the stories of Captain Tom Bostick and Staff Sergeant Ryan Fritche and Private First Class Chris Pfeifer — and it went on from there.
Eventually the framing of the book became the entire history of this one doomed outpost, with the outpost the main character in some ways. It provided not only dozens more compelling stories of courage and loss, but a context for the October 3, 2009, attack that really helped me – and I hope helps readers – understand what war is. Going big by going small, as it were.
BNN: You found some truly fascinating characters in your story. Any thoughts on following up in five years or so to tell that part of their story — the aftermath, where everyone ended up?
JT: Definitely. There are some widows and their children whose stories are a part of the book but will be tales I want to tell. Most of us are so disconnected from this war in any personal way, but there are millions of Americans whose lives have forever been altered for the worse – not just the heroes who returned to the home front with deep scars but also their families.
BNN: Something I see a lot from Hollywood is how they construct a story to make America the arch-villain, even as they present our troops as the good guys fighting some sort of enemy (aliens, terrorists, Nazis). It’s a sleight-of-hand that allows Hollywood to pose as patriotic, even as they portray our national security infrastructure or military brass as incompetent or made up of cold, selfish, calculating types. The Bourne films are a good example; so is “The Dirty Dozen” and the last couple of Jack Ryan films. I’ll admit that, when I read the “The Outpost” dust jacket, my left-wing trope-alert went off, but that’s not the story you told. And with all the mistakes that were made at the highest levels, it would’ve been very easy to tell the story that way. My question is — and I do have one — if Hollywood comes calling (and they should) will you please make sure they don’t change that?
JT: Of course. But I can’t imagine anyone reading this book and feeling anything but empathy and admiration for the troops who served at the outpost. Those in Hollywood who have reached out did so because they found the stories so moving and compelling.
I do note some examples of decisions that seem questionable in retrospect made by commanders (and folks in Washington, D.C.) but for the most part they weren’t examples of incompetence or selfishness, they were born from a desire to win the war, they just don’t hold up very well in retrospect given what happened. I tried to make it very clear that the only “bad guys” in the book are the ones with guns trying to kill Americans.
BNN: One of the most impressive accomplishments in “The Outpost” is how on one hand it’s an in-depth piece of investigative journalism, filled with details, maps, footnotes, photos, and even an extremely useful glossary of military terms. But at the same time, you tell a compelling story.
From a purely process standpoint, how did your organize your narrative; how did you bring it all together — the structure? And was the story all there from the beginning, or did you live through many cold dark days where you were sure you would fail?
JT: There were some rough nights where I wondered how this would all come together, or if it would.
Once Ross Berkoff and Dave Roller pushed me to expand the breadth of the book the narrative construct made perfect sense: it would be the history of the Outpost.
And as a screenwriter, John, you understand that the reality of the outpost’s story has a perfect narrative arc: One, Americans push into this impossible area and establish an outpost. Two: the Americans succeed in reaching out to the locals and beating back the enemy. Three: a catastrophic event happens and everything goes to hell. The narrative of the outpost happened to, more or less, adhere to that traditional dramatic structure.
BNN: One of the book’s touching themes established early on is how so many of these guys, and not for cynical reasons, see the military as something truly wonderful that allows them a second chance in life or a way out of a life they felt was dragging them down. After all the hell they went through, do you think they still feel that way?
JT: Absolutely. For many of these troops, if they hadn’t joined the Army they would have ended up dead or in jail. The military offered them discipline, self-respect and a purpose that had previously eluded them. None of that changes because of the tragedies of war.
What some of them are dealing with now, though, are Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury. That’s dragging them down quite a bit and this country better get its act together quickly to figure out how to provide the help for these heroes that they need.
One of the stories I told in the book was that of a hero, Ed Faulkner, Jr., who survives the attack on Combat Outpost Keating but comes back home and faces an enemy even worse than that he faced in the mountains of Nuristan: the demons in his mind and the indifference of the Army. His tale was one I told as a cautionary tale: there are a lot more Ed Faulkners out there.
BNN: I’d be remiss if I didn’t take advantage of this opportunity and ask at least a few media questions. Feel free to reject the premise of this question, but why is the media (with some notable exceptions) not pushing for a full and final accounting of all things Libya even a tenth as hard as they pushed to see Mitt Romney’s taxes?
JT: I can only really speak for myself, and that’s certainly not the case with my reporting. As the Obama reporter, I didn’t cover the Romney tax returns issue much at all, and as you know ABC News broke a number of stories about the failures of the State Department to meet requests made by diplomats and security officials on the ground in Libya for greater forces and assets.
As a general rule, there’s a lot of pushing and reporting and digging that might not be immediately apparent to the public since it doesn’t happen in front of cameras. I’ve been investigating and reporting and pushing on Benghazi for weeks and I will continue to do so.
BNN: If President Obama granted you the wish of answering in full any three questions about Libya, what would you want to know — what would you ask him?
JT: The same basic questions everyone has, I’m sure. Why weren’t security requests made by officials on the ground in Libya met? What exactly did officials in the White House know about the attack on Benghazi that night, and what specific actions did they take beyond a blanket command to protect the Americans there? Did those being attacked at Benghazi make requests for help and what were the responses and why? I have many more, as I know many Americans do.
BNN: Now I’m going to give you a chance to give a little back. What could those of us who dabble in mainstream media criticism do better. And don’t hold back…
JT: Oh, I’m not a good media critic, and I’m not a good “media critic” critic. In general I think it’s healthy that there are thriving voices on the right – Breitbart, MRC, AIM and so on – and the left – FAIR, Media Matters, Glenn Greenwald, etc., etc. – to challenge the assumptions and narratives many of us in the media engage in. I don’t always agree with the criticism, but as a general rule I’ve learned some things and the existence of the criticism makes my journalism better. I personally find most helpful the criticism that is meant to constructively make reporters re-consider the way they report a story, the memes and narratives that may not be inherently fair or accurate.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC