Jake Tapper on the Danger of Celebrity Generals
Journalist, news anchor, writer--Jake Tapper is a man of almost too many talents. Until recently, the Senior White House correspondent for ABC News, where he was known for getting in the faces of administration talking heads, he's now reporting at CNN, where he will also helm the 4 p.m. hour. When he's not serving as one of our most recognizable and hard-hitting TV reporters, Jake Tapper is writing--he's the author of three books, the most recent being his critically-acclaimed "The Outpost." The book details one of the most deadly moments in the Afghan war: the attack by Taliban forces on Camp Keating, an outpost that was in the wrong place at the wrong time, in a country whose people we barely understand. The disaster at Camp Keating cost eight US soldiers their lives, with many others injured. In the first of this two-part interview, Tapper spoke with Bookish about "The Outpost," being a TV journalist, the ongoing situation in Afghanistan, how Obama has shifted gears, and how the curse of celebrity generals leads to decisions that sometimes cost lives.
Bookish: Our culture here in America is so careful about being nonpartisan--certainly I think at ABC for you, and at CNN going forward--that I wonder how you as a writer are careful not to get on a bully pulpit. Because there’s so much [in "The Outpost"] that must have pissed you off, as a human being as much as a writer?
Tapper: First of all, just as a general rule of thumb, in my day job as a correspondent and anchor, it helps for me to be as agnostic as I can and not necessarily think I have all the answers. It’s actually more interesting that way anyway, because then you can listen to a whole bunch of points of view and challenge them, and then the reader or the viewer comes away edified. But at the same time, that doesn’t mean that when somebody does something stupid or reckless, that you don’t call it out. It’s just a point of not calling out for ideological or partisan reasons. So for instance, it’s very clear that the decision to not send enough helicopters to Afghanistan in 2006, five years into the war, resulted in decisions that cost men their lives. That larger strategic decision, tactically, was lethal for many Americans.
Bookish: In your mind is there a rogues gallery of people who are directly responsible for that decision?
Tapper: I think a lot of people who were part of the decision to send that LMTV (Light Medium Tactical Vehicle) to Kamdesh thought it was a stupid decision at the time and didn’t understand it. But, then, beyond the decision to send that truck up to Kamdesh is the larger, looming question: Why would they send troops to this part of the country if there weren’t enough helicopters to supply to the outpost? One can certainly look at Lieutenant Colonel Mike Howard’s decision to send the truck up there as a questionable one, and a lot of troops in the book do so. But the reason the outpost was put where it was was because they needed to be near the road--that was the only way to resupply the camp, and that was because they didn’t have enough helicopters. At the end of the day, [that] comes down on the commander-in-chief and the secretary of defense and the joint chiefs of staff. That has nothing to do with partisan issues or ideological issues; it just has to do with, if you’re going to send troops into a really dangerous place where empires have died before, make sure they have what they need. And they weren’t doing that.
I don’t have a position on whether we should be in Afghanistan right now, whether we should have been doing counterinsurgency or counterterrorism. I’m just trying to tell these stories, and ultimately the one conclusion that I think is inescapable is these guys didn’t have everything they needed to succeed, and a lot of things went wrong, and the Army really should do some soul-searching about why all those things went wrong.
Bookish: Am I right in thinking that the book came from an urge to tell these personal stories, rather than seeing an injustice, be it from a colonel or general, secretary of defense, the president, the country. Was it more a case of, “These guys went through something extraordinary and were incredibly brave and I should just tell their stories?”
Tapper: Totally. The original scope of the book, when Little, Brown bought it, was just about the men of 3-61 Cav, Black Knight Troop and their time in Afghanistan, (which became the final third of the finished book). Then, a former captain, Ross Berkoff, reached out to me and he wanted me to expand it to a whole history of the outpost--specifically about 3-71 Cav, and why they went up there and what they did there.
And then former Lieutenant Dave Roller, who was part of the second company deployed there, 1-91 Cav, Bulldog Troop, reached out to me, too. He wanted me to write about their time there, and about guys like Chris Pfiefer and Tom Bostick and Ryan Fritche. And before I knew it, the book had become the whole history of this outpost, and though that made it a much more difficult project, ultimately, I think that made it a better book--not just as a narrative, but as a way of looking at Afghanistan. Act one, people go in to accomplish something difficult; act two, they’re accomplishing it; and then, act three, there’s a catastrophic event and everything goes to hell. So, it makes more sense as to why the U.S. would be there when you hear about the successes from 2007 through 2008. The reader thinks, "This isn’t just stupidity; there is something actually being achieved here.” But then, you also see how difficult it is. I think it does more of a service both to the grunts, but also the generals. You understand the larger goal, and why it’s not just being foolhardy.
Bookish: Do you think we’ve ever--as a country, or a military, or politically--quite understood the lessons that the Soviets went through? Do you get the sense that we understand, even just the politics aside, what it’s like to fight against people, some of whom don’t actually know what the Afghani government is or if they even have one?
Tapper: There are so many challenges that the men were facing, starting with the terrain, but also ending with: should we have been in that part of Afghanistan? Even if we were going to be in Afghanistan, did it make sense to be there trying to win over these people?
It’s complicated. I don’t think [the troops are] destined to fail. The question then becomes, taking into account how difficult it is, are these troops prepared and do they have the assets they need? I don’t see evidence that they do have everything they need, and that they are as prepared for it as they should be. And that’s not their fault--it’s the fault of a military structure. First of all, it’s very difficult to fight two wars at once, even if you assume that we’re only fighting two (if you’re not counting the ones that we’re fighting in different ways in Yemen and Pakistan; and, maybe, soon to be Africa). And then, the question is: Do we know enough about the culture, do we how to succeed in a different area? Even if we had successfully chased all al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan (which we essentially did--there are fewer than 100 al-Qaeda in Afghanistan)--do they just go somewhere else? And if they are going to do that, are they just going to take safe haven in Yemen, or Pakistan, or Algeria, or wherever? Even if everybody had everything they needed, and everybody spoke Nuristani and Pashto and Dari and everybody knew what Tajik was and all the people in Nuristan knew what the Afghan government was (not to mention the United States), still then, does it make sense? [If] they’re going to crop up in Yemen and in Pakistan and in Mali, then what do we do?
Bookish: Do you think we’re going to get involved in West Africa, or do you think we’re going to try to keep out of it?
Tapper: I think at this point, President Obama is more reluctant than ever before to deploy U.S. troops beyond special forces. I think that the President Obama of 2013 would not have ordered the surge that the President Obama of 2009 did.
Bookish: What do you think has changed him?
Tapper: I think he’s more confident in his worldview than he was in 2009, when he was more inclined to defer to generals and advisors. I think that he understands blowback and the limits of what a superior military force can do. You see that in Libya, you see that in Afghanistan, you see that in Africa. What did he do in Africa a year ago? He sent special forces troops to go after the Lord’s Resistance Army. But they were special forces; it was something like 100 troops.
I think it wears on [Obama]--as it does every commander-in-chief before him--to send men and women to their deaths, and to then reach out to their family members. I think it has made him more reluctant to use U.S. force. Now, that is not to say that he won’t do other things when it comes to deploying special forces or other resources, but I think he’s fundamentally different now than he was in 2009. I don’t say that glibly--that’s based on many conversations with many people around him.
I think it has to do with what George Romney talked about in his infamous brainwashing comment [made on WKBD-TV in 1967, and which ultimately scuttled his presidential run]. [There's a difference in the] reports you get from the frontlines from generals versus what you see when you go to ground and talk to privates and sergeants. The lieutenant governor of Delaware read "The Outpost" and was so moved by the stories of these soldiers that he [asked] if he could bring some of them to his inauguration in Delaware. So we did that--three of the soldiers came to his inaugural, and they spoke to Junior ROTC, and then we had a forum where I interviewed the three of them onstage (Zach Koppes, First Sergeant Jonathan Hill and Cody Floyd, who was a medic). One of the questions I asked was, “What lessons do you take from your experience?” One of the things they suggested, though it’s difficult to see how it would ever happen, is that people need to listen more to privates and specialists and sergeants, instead of a bunch of officers just sitting around listening to themselves. There’s a wisdom in a fresh set of eyes, of a 19-year-old coming into a place like COP Keating, and saying, “Why are we here? This makes no sense. We’re not accomplishing anything, and we’re sitting ducks.” Because there is that reluctance for officers to listen to enlisted men, that doesn’t happen. But, by the same token, I should point out that Lieutenant Colonel Brad Brown and Colonel Randy George were doing everything they could to close COP Keating, and it was General McChrystal who wasn’t even listening to his officers when he delayed that decision.
Bookish: Did you read McChrystal’s book?
Tapper: Not yet. I interviewed him on background for "The Outpost," and I did not discern much by way of regret, remorse or anything along those lines. I’ll be interested to read his book, but I know that there are a lot of angry moms from the troops of COP Keating not happy to see him on their TVs.
One of the problems that I touched on in the book is the [idea of] celebrity generals. And, you know, the two biggest celebrity generals who were part of this in the last five years are McChrystal and [David] Petraeus, and they’re both now forced into retirement—I guess Petraeus [was] forced into a different kind of retirement. But in any case, my only point is there’s a hubris there that I don’t think the celebrity general mythos helps. Ultimately, it hurts their decision-making, in terms of McChrystal when it came to COP Keating for sure. I mean, he was preoccupied with the politics, and the politics of [Afghan president] Karzai meant that he wasn’t going to shut down any camps before the August [2009 Afghan presidential] elections, he was going to send troops to Bargi Matal, north of COP Keating, despite the fact that people like [Colonel] Randy George thought it was a bad idea, and then, obviously, McChrystal [is] back and forth with President Obama. . . . These are political reasons. These are not, “What can I do to save these men’s lives and make sure we have troops stationed where they’re the most effective?” It’s hard to look back at those decisions and say those decisions were the right decisions made for the right reasons. Exactly the opposite.
Bookish: When I think about those poor grunts, I can’t even look at those people--Petraeus, especially.
Tapper: It’s disgusting. There’s a passage in the book where I write about early 2007, when Dave Roller and his platoon were stationed at Observation Post Warheit. They don’t have plumbing, they don’t have enough food, they don’t have silverware. They haven’t seen women in months. There’s a female Apache pilot who flies over them every now and then, and they all run to the comm shed to listen to her voice. And the idea that not long after that General Petraeus brought this “author” with him to Afghanistan to write his own biography is so offensive on so many levels, even before you get to the fact that he was cheating on his wife with her.
Stay tuned for part two of our exclusive interview with Jake Tapper, in which he names the books that have most influenced him and how he views his journalistic calling: Spoiler alert: It's nothing to do with "what Paris Hilton does on a Saturday night."