Here are excerpts from an interview with Jake Tapper, the author of The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor and the senior White House correspondent for ABC News. Next month he will be the anchor and chief Washington correspondent for CNN.
First and foremost, what was it that interested you about this story and why did you feel compelled to write it?
I suppose two things converged to set me on the 2 1/2-year path of writing the book.
First was serendipity. I was in the hospital recovery room with my wife and newborn son when I looked up and saw a news story about a U.S. base in Afghanistan I’d never heard of being over-run. Combat Outpost Keating was located at the bottom of three steep mountains, just 14 miles from the Pakistan border. On October 3, 2009, just over 50 U.S. troops serving in this vulnerable outpost faced an overwhelming enemy force — up to 400 Taliban — all of whom had the advantage of the high ground. And as I held my son, I heard about eight other sons, eight American troops, taken from the world that day. There was something poignant about that moment that made me want to learn more about the news report I was hearing: why would anyone put an outpost in that spot? Who were these troops who had been killed? What was it like to face such daunting odds?
Those questions combined with something else that had been bothering me: my own inadequate coverage of the war in Afghanistan. I’d been reporting on the war from the comfort of the North Lawn of the White House — the fights between the president’s aides and the Pentagon generals, the debate over troop levels for the surge —but I wasn’t satisfied with my coverage of the war. It wasn’t good enough. I was missing the human element, and also the less tangible imperatives of service and sacrifice.
How did you reach out to soldiers like Kyle to gather their experiences?
The interview process started when I called a mom in Minnesota who’d recently held a reunion for her son’s company (Black Knight Troop, 3-61 CAV) and three Latvian soldiers who’d served with them at Combat Outpost Keating. From her I got her son’s number, and his first sergeant’s number, and it went from there.
Then after I’d signed the contract to write a book about the October 3, 2009 battle, troops from other deployments who’d served at COP Keating before 3-61 CAV heard about the book and started reaching out to me; they wanted their brothers’ stories told, too. Especially those stories about fallen troops.
Troops shared phone numbers and emails; I also became Facebook friends with many of them and then reached out to their “friends.” Eventually I interviewed more than 225 people for the book, including Kyle.
Looking back at my records, I see that, specifically, Lt. Chris Safulko gave me Kyle’s email address in January 2011 after getting Kyle’s permission.
I wrote to Kyle: “Hello there, sir. As you may have heard, am writing a book about COP Keating... and I’d love to talk to you some time. The book has no political agenda, am mainly looking to describe the hard work of the troops there to honor their sacrifice from 2006-2009. Thanks.”
He wrote back with his phone number and said I didn’t have to call him “sir.” He was an incredible help in writing the book, both in terms of his great memory, his generosity of time, and his unfettered criticism when — after reviewing a draft — he thought I was getting something wrong.
You mentioned in the book that the soldiers were disenchanted when learning that more Americans were interested in what Paris Hilton was doing rather than what was going on in Afghanistan. Is that part of the reason for writing this book? Also, are there lessons to be learned in terms of U.S. foreign policy?
It’s absolutely a reason for the book. Most of us can name more Kardashians than troops who have been killed in Afghanistan or Iraq. There’s something wrong with that. As a member of the media, I am part of that problem. So the book is a small attempt to rectify it.
In terms of U.S. foreign policy, the book doesn’t take any positions in terms of military strategy, pro- or anti-war in Afghanistan, with one exception: anyone who reads the book will conclude that the brave men and women we sent to Afghanistan were not given all the assets they needed in order to succeed. I do think that if we send our troops into harm’s way, we need to make sure they have everything they need — whether helicopters, additional manpower, or anything else.
You say in the beginning that you are trying to show the true nature of what happened but keeping in mind the families of the soldiers involved. At times this can be a difficult book to read, especially when learning of the deaths of those involved. Why did you choose to write it in the manner you did?
It was a difficult decision, and I sought the advice of many troops and journalists. But ultimately the U.S. media sanitizes the war, for easier consumption, and that means too many Americans don’t understand the true nature of the sacrifices being made on our behalf. At the urging of one non-commissioned offficer, I included an Author’s Note at the beginning of the book to warn family members of fallen troops that maybe they shouldn’t pick up the book, but the rest of us should know the true cost of war.
What sort of feedback have you received from the soldiers who lived this?
The response from troops, especially those who served at Combat Outpost Keating, and their families, has been overwhelmingly positive. Obviously no book will please everyone, but in general I’ve been really touched and humbled by the emails and letters I’ve received from troops and their families.