"THE OUTPOST: An Untold Story of American Valor," by Jake Tapper; Little, Brown; 652 pages $29.99 (nf)
"INTO THE FIRE: A Firsthand Account of the Most Extraordinary Battle in the Afghan War," by Dakota Meyer and Bing West; Random House; 239 pages; $27 (nf)
When news broke that the American Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, had been attacked and four Americans killed, two questions dominated the immediate postmortem: Why wasn't there better protection in advance? Why wasn't the response faster when the attack began?
The same questions hover over two superbly reported and compelling books about the ground war in Afghanistan: "The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor," by former ABC News senior White House correspondent Jake Tapper; and "Into the Fire: A Firsthand Account of the Most Extraordinary Battle in the Afghan War," by Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Meyer and veteran battlefield author Bing West.
Both books ask disturbing questions about how and why the U.S. has waged a decade-long war in which U.S. goals are murky, U.S. allies are often corrupt and unreliable and the enemy enjoys a sanctuary in Pakistan.
Each centers on a specific battle in 2009 in the treacherous mountains of eastern Afghanistan. Eight Americans were killed in the fight at Combat Outpost Keating, as detailed by Tapper; five Americans were killed at a village called Ganjigal, where Meyer's resolve, courage and defiance of orders brought him the nation's highest award for combat bravery.
The scenarios were similar: An American redoubt was lightly defended despite warnings of impending Taliban attacks. And when the inevitable attack occurred, Afghan allies were mostly useless and the U.S. higher command was shamefully slow to respond with air power or reinforcements.
Tapper, who has now moved to CNN, was not present during the fight, but through interviews, documents and follow-up reporting trips to Afghanistan, he has woven an intricate account about battlefield bravery hamstrung by military bureaucracy and sluggishness. His aim is to portray the complexity of the American situation; complexity takes time and, at 652 pages, "The Outpost" may require more commitment than some readers can muster.
West takes a different approach: to show the essence of the U.S. war in Afghanistan by giving voice to a naive but patriotic farm boy from Kentucky who enlisted in hopes of seeing combat, and then, seeing it, responded with great courage but left appalled by the loss of life and the behavior of some of his superiors at the higher echelon. Essence can be conveyed with greater economy than complexity; hence, "Into the Fire" is half the length of "The Outpost."
Tapper writes that an Army intelligence analyst had come to realize that "the Army seemed clueless when it came to institutional knowledge. There was no real information at Combat Outpost Keating about the surrounding area, no historical data about the people or any record of the two previous companies' experiences during their deployment."
At Ganjigal, when Taliban fighters ambushed a patrol of Afghan soldiers and Marine advisers, a desperate call was made for air support. Instead of a quick response, a sergeant was asked to provide the battle roster and the Social Security numbers of the Americans in danger, according to "Into the Fire."
Meyer, frustrated and angry, disobeyed orders to stay put and instead dashed repeatedly into the firefight to rescue trapped comrades. In some cases, he was too late. Even as he received the Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama, Meyer felt like a failure: "As a Marine, you either bring your team home alive or you die trying. My country was recognizing me for being a failure and for the worst day of my life."
Back in the U.S., Meyer was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and ordered to a clinic for eight weeks. His account of his return to the U.S. is vivid and disturbing.
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