This pulse-pounding first-hand account of heavy combat in Afghanistan by a Medal of Honor winner kept me on the edge of my seat the whole way through. The army base, called Keating, was a nightmare ready to happen from the moment it was built, and that nightmare came true. Sitting in a hollow surrounded by steep mountains on all sides and with no viable supply lines, it was impossible to defend. This fact was realized fairly quickly and the base was in the process of being shut down and evacuated when hundreds of Taliban attacked from all sides with a fierce, well-coordinated, and well-armed attack from the high ground. The violence, death, gore, and emotional trauma that Red Platoon and the other occupants in Keating went through is described in grisly, riveting detail. This is not fiction and is not for the faint of heart. Those who love combat stories will eat it up; if that’s not your thing, you might want to think twice before starting this one.
This kind of tale can be divisive, separating those who think everyone who wears our uniform is a hero keeping us all safe from those who thinks the army is full of dropouts or losers or those bloodthirsty gung-ho maniacs who just like to kill. As I see it, they can both be right in part, even when describing the same soldiers. The author makes clear his platoon was not a bunch of choir boys nor did they all join to defend their country. Some joined to escape death in a gang or because they were meth addicts with no chance at a real job. There were some who were lazy and some who were cowards or just plain stupid. None wanted to be at a screwed up base like Keating. But when the attack came, most stepped up and did what soldiers do in every war – they fought with every ounce of courage they had for their comrades and their own survival. Many showed remarkable resilience, bravery, and ingenuity.
The minute-by-minute account was heartening in this way, but frightening and disheartening at the same time. Why in the world were we there? Why are we still there? I’ve read another first-hand account of a soldier’s time in that god-forsaken country that makes the same point. The whole nation-building thing is a joke. I fully supported going in right after 9-11, but it was time to get out long ago. No one but the corrupt Afghan government and American defense contractors wants us there. Our continued presence just serves to help Al-Qaeda or the Taliban recruit more USA-haters and results in deaths and maimed veterans.
The writing is at times eloquent, even elegant. It is always engrossing. It tells the unvarnished story from the eyes of one soldier, although a lot of research was done to incorporate the experience of others who were present on the ground, in the air, or in remote command positions. Despite the generally fine writing, there were moments of eye-stabbing grammar and spelling errors that disrupted the flow. “Me and Jones went…” “feeling went throughout myself…” “areal support.” I wanted to yell at the ghostwriter, “pick a lane: the left side of the IQ bell curve or the right, or better yet, aim for the big hump in the middle.” I assume that Kevin Fedarko, whom Romesha acknowledges at the end for the writing, was trying to impart some of the voice of Romesha in the telling. While the writing was uneven, it was compelling. I found it hard to put down. My thanks go to all the men, survivors or not, who endured that assault at Keating, and for matter, all our men and women who wear the uniform.