Combat Outpost Keating, in Nuristan, Afghanistan, was built in 2006 as one of a string of bases the American military hoped would prevent the Taliban from moving back and forth between Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the fall of 2009, Keating was slated for demolition because of its remote location and the difficulties of its defense. The job of shutting the outpost down fell to the Black Knight Troop of the Army’s 4th Brigade Combat team of the 4th Infantry Division, composed of three platoons: Red, White, and Blue. As the platoons prepared Keating for a closing that the Army repeatedly postponed, some 300 Taliban attacked the base and its 65 men on October 3, 2009. In Red Platoon, Clinton Romesha, the staff sergeant of the “Red Platoon” on that day, has chronicled the battle, celebrating the valor of “exceptionally ordinary men who were put to an extraordinary test.”
Romesha (“Ro” to his men) opens the book with a brief description of the ordinariness of the dawn just before the attack, then moves into a description of the ordinary men who composed the platoon. They’d been carefully chosen: Romesha and his immediate superior, 1st Lt. Andrew Bundermann, had “stacked” the platoon with the best men available in an army filled with men suffering from multiple deployments, and they had worked hard to develop them into a cohesive group. Romesha introduces his readers to each one of these men in a few paragraphs, each illustrated by a photograph. That done, he takes us on a tour of Keating, again illustrated by photographs – but these shock even the least military-minded of readers. Against all tactical sense, Keating was built in a valley surrounded by mountains of up to 12,000 feet, which meant that every inch of the base was visible from the surroundings above it. All the Taliban had to do was stage occasional small attacks that allowed them to witness the defensive positions of the soldiers below them, then stage a large attack on those positions. The experienced soldiers in the platoons were well aware that besides being infested with fleas, forced by unreliable generators to eat cold food, and unable to shower, they were the military equivalent of fish in a barrel.
The second two-thirds of the book is taken up in Romesha’s skillful description of the battle, which, by amalgamating the narratives of all the surviving platoon members (each of whom he interviewed extensively) manages to capture the chaos of a military engagement. The resulting chronicle of Keating’s near loss, its air cover, and its retaking is exciting, but what stays with readers after they close the book is the intense mutual loyalty of the Red Platoon’s men. It was not a matter of “every man for himself”; they were fighting for each other, and rescuing their fallen comrades at tremendous personal risk. The losses greatly burdened their leaders. After the battle, Lt. Bundermann, who at their first meeting told Romesha he “didn’t like to work very hard,” was consumed by the feeling that the eight casualties were the fault of his leadership, though the men themselves were sure his tactics had in fact been responsible for their victory. And Romesha, who received a Medal of Honor for his actions that day, makes himself almost invisible in his own narrative, and ends it by saying he would immediately exchange all his (undeserved) honor for the life of any one of his men. If you read just one book on America’s recent military engagements abroad, this, which describes without cynicism or blame the military incompetence that designed Keating and celebrates with great appreciating the comradeship of boots on the ground, is the one to choose.
Laura Stevenson lives in Wilmington and her most recent novels, “Return in Kind” and “Liar from Vermont,” are both set on Boyd Hill Road.