Up in the rafters of our platoon’s plywood barracks in Combat Outpost Keating, there was a plank on which one of the previous tenants, a soldier who was part of the unit that had been deployed here before we arrived, had scrawled a little message to himself, a reminder about how life worked in Afghanistan. Me and the rest of the guys in Red Platoon liked what was written on that board so much that by the end of our first week on station, we had adopted the thing as our informal motto. It epitomized precisely how we felt about having been shoved up the wrong end of a country so absurdly remote, so rabidly inhospitable to our presence, that some of the generals and politicians who were responsible for having stuck us there were referring to the place as the dark side of the moon.
Those words were so cogent that whenever something went off the rails—whenever we learned, say, that we were heading into yet another week without any hot chow because the generator had taken another rocket-propelled grenade hit, or that last month’s stateside mail hadn’t been delivered because the Chinook helicopter pilots were refusing to risk the enemy’s guns for anything but the most critical supplies—whenever news arrived of the latest thing to go wrong, we’d give each other a little half-joking smile, cock an eyebrow, and repeat:
“It doesn’t get better.”
To us, that phrase nailed one of the essential truths, maybe even the essential truth, about being stuck at an outpost whose strategic and tactical vulnerabilities were so glaringly obvious to every soldier who had ever set foot in that place that the name itself—Keating—had become a kind of backhanded joke. A byword for the Army’s peculiar flair for stacking the odds against itself in a way that was almost guaranteed to blow up in some spectacular fashion, and then refusing to walk away from the table.
We took Keating’s flaws in stride, of course, because as soldiers we had no business asking questions so far above our pay grade—much less harboring opinions about the bigger picture: why we were there, and what were we supposed to be accomplishing. Our main job had a stark and binary simplicity to it: keep one another other alive, and keep the enemy on the other side of the wire. But every now and then, one of my guys would find himself unable to resist the urge to ponder the larger mission and to ask what in God’s name the point was of holding down a firebase that so flagrantly violated the most basic and timeless principles of warfare.
The main reason why life wouldn’t get any better at Keating, of course, was that it was so irremediably impossible to begin with. But in one of those odd little twists—the kind of irony that only a group of guys who pull time in a frontline infantry unit can truly appreciate—we were convinced that we would all look back on our tour there, assuming we managed to survive the damn thing, as one of the most memorable times of our lives.
Since our arrival four months earlier, it seemed as if we’d received a warning every three or four days. Each time, the pattern was the same. The reports would state that 50 or 75 enemy fighters were massing for a major attack. But when the attack finally arrived, it would turn out to involve four or five insurgents—or even more frequently, just one or two gunmen. Eventually, we’d started taking these warnings with a grain of salt.
That’s not to say that we didn’t expect to get hammered. Throughout the summer and into the fall, we’d been hit, on average, at least four times a week. But for the men on guard duty, word of a massive assault was no longer capable of setting off alarm bells.
On the morning of Oct 3, 2009, at 5:50 a.m., a sergeant named Brad Larson, who happened to be my best friend, had just started his shift of guard duty. The first rays of the morning sun were painting the mud walls of Urmul, the nearby village, with a golden pinkish light, and his gaze was pulled toward the tallest structure in the village, which was its mosque.
In another place, at another time, a view like the one laid out before Larson would have been nothing short of glorious. But here you could never allow a thing like glory to seduce you into forgetting that we were at war and that the men we’d been sent here to fight, the soldiers whose deepest desire was to kill as many of us as possible, lay concealed within that beauty.
Looking back on that moment now, I’ve tried to imagine the scene from the perspective of the 300 Taliban fighters who had moved into position overnight, forced the civilians in the area to leave their homes, set up firing positions in the buildings and across the hillsides along all four cardinal points of the compass, and who were now counting down the final seconds to launching a coordinated attack on us from three sides with RPGs, mortars, machine guns, small arms and recoilless rifle fire.
The force they’d assembled outnumbered us by six to one, and the onslaught they were about to unleash would qualify as the largest, most sophisticated, fiercest assault ever seen in the portion of Afghanistan that U.S. high command referred to as Sector East. As impressive as that may sound, however, what is perhaps even more remarkable is the depth of our collective ignorance in that instant.
Larson had no clue that his head and face were framed in the crosshairs of least 10 snipers, each armed with a Russian Dragunov rifle and intent on putting a .762 cartridge through his brain.
Zach Koppes had no idea that within seconds he would be cut off in his Humvee and facing off against dozens of insurgents while more than three dozen Afghan soldiers who were supposed to be our allies and partners abandoned their positions and fled, allowing Keating’s eastern defensive perimeter to completely collapse.
Josh Hardt didn’t have the faintest notion that within the hour, those very same insurgents would breach our wire, seize our ammunition depot, set fire to most of our buildings, and eventually be pointing an RPG at him with the aim of blowing his brains through the back of his head.
As for me, as those final seconds ticked down before the Taliban’s hellfire was unleashed, I was racked out in my bunk, fast asleep and oblivious to the fact that within less than 30 minutes everyone inside our besieged outpost who was still alive would be falling back into what would later be called “the Alamo position” and preparing to make a final stand in the only two buildings that weren’t on fire, while 10 of our comrades were stranded outside the wire.
Which brings me back to our little motto, the phrase that sustained us:
“It doesn’t get better.”
There were 50 Americans inside the wire at Keating that morning, including the men who were part of Red Platoon. Partly thanks to those words, we not only understood but also accepted, with total clarity, just how bad things were: how untenable our lines were, how impossible it would be to effectively defend our perimeter, how far we were from the nearest help. But in reality, not a single one of us had the faintest inkling of the sheer fury that was about to rain down on our heads.
After a nearly 14-hour firefight, an estimated 150 of the 300 Taliban who participated in the assault lay dead. Eight American soldiers had lost their lives.
The men of Red Platoon were no pack of choirboys. Nor were we the sort of iron-willed, steely-eyed superheroes that seem to populate so many of the narratives that have emerged from Iraq and Afghanistan.
If we qualified as heroes, then the heroism we displayed that day in the autumn of 2009 was cut from a more ragged grade of cloth—a fabric whose folds conceal the shortcomings and the failings of exceptionally ordinary men who were put to an extraordinary test. Men who were plagued by fears and doubts. Men who had bickered endlessly and indulged in all manner of pettiness. Men who had succumbed to—and in some cases, were still running from—a litany of human weakness that included depression and addiction, apathy and aimlessness, dishonesty and rage.
But if all of that is true, what is also true is that we were soldiers who loved one another with a fierceness and a purity that has no analog in the civilian world.
Adapted from Red Platoon, copyright © 2016 by Clint L. Romesha LLC. First hardcover edition published May 3, 2016, by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
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