By Benjamin Rose
Merry it was to laugh there—Wilfred Owen, “Apologia Pro Poemate Meo”
Where death becomes absurd and life absurder.
For power was on us as we slashed bones bare
For power was on us as we slashed bones bare
In 2006, as the opening scroll to The Outpost notes, “The U.S. Army established a series of outposts in Northern Afghanistan to promote counterinsurgency.” One of these was PRT Kamdesh in Nuristan Province, a posting so deadly and illogical in location that an unnamed military analyst quoted in the scroll likened it to the Battle of Little BigHorn, where a coalition of the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians massacred the 7th Cavalry Regiment under Lt. Colonel George Custer. The comparison was apt. In a doomed attempt at “winning the hearts and minds” of the Afghan population, as well as stopping the flow of weapons and drug money through the Hindu Kush from Pakistan, the U.S. Army chose the perfect deathtrap for its public relations: a valley surrounded on all sides by steep and rugged terrain from which the Taliban could harass its servicemen with impunity. This culminated in a massive battle on October 3rd, 2009 just days before the base was to be abandoned in which PRT Kamdesh was overrun, scores of servicemen were injured, and eight Americans and over a hundred Taliban fighters killed. It was one of the bloodiest days in the war up to that point, and the men who survived it remain to this day the most decorated unit of the longest war in American history.
The Outpost, based on a book by CNN reporter Jake Tapper, is a retelling of these events through the eyes of the men who fought and died at Kamdesh, and a brilliant film which eschews philosophizing, politics, and unnecessary sentiment. What emerges is one of the most accurate and grounded war films to date, free of stock characters, moving speeches, pro-war patriotism, or anti-war guilt. This is the record of men on a mission so patently unrealistic and poorly defined that they’re only concern, as SSG Romesha calls it, is survival. Some live, some die, and a rotating succession of short-lived officers go through the motions of acting out “strategy” until, in the end, no one spends much time pondering the meaning of it. Only brotherhood, survival, and above all, doing you’re fucking job matter. Damn the politics. Damn the mission. Damn the Afghans and the persuasion of their organs.
The Outpost’s great strength, besides its spectacular action sequences, lies in that very indifference to the broader geopolitical questions surrounding the war, which it treats as irrelevant. Its tone is remarkable for both the respect it shows its protagonists and its refusal to sanitize their most politically incorrect utterances for a moralizing public. Are the unit members casually racist, sexist, homophobic and so forth? Yes, of course they are. Does their approach to Afghans and Afghan culture run the line from inept and patronizing to willfully ignorant? Why wouldn’t it? As SNL’s 2015 skit Game Of Thrones: South Centros so aptly put it, “Don’t hate the slayer. Hate the game.”
The war itself, a 20 year exercise in futility whose rationale has spanned everything from retaliation for 9/11 to denying a safe haven to terrorism to protecting the tenuous gains of Afghan women at gunpoint, was from the first founded on a delusional mixture of “humanitarian” imperialism that imagined America could bomb one of the poorest countries in the world into a Muslim Japan or Germany. Yet as the Afghan National Army collapses under the strain of terrible casualties1 2, the Taliban extend their rule with impunity, and America rushes for the exit after a pathetically half-hearted attempt at peace, all these rationales have collapsed one by one.
This is apparent from the first shura council in the movie, where Orlando Bloom’s CPT Keating awkwardly attempts, through an Afghan interpreter, to win the locals’ collaboration against the Taliban. The scene is tense and absurd, not because it is poorly shot, but because it’s a perfect evocation of how these meetings actually played out in real life (at least according to every embedded account I’ve read). A White officer entreats with the locals, throwing out references to cultural touchstones like “honor and shame” as they apply in Afghanistan’s tribal society. He speaks softly and unarmed while making it clear his army men are onhand to function as “a big fucking stick” if necessary. He promises building and infrastructure, so long as the elders point out the local Talibs and command them to lay down their arms. A shaky agreement is forged and the Americans are shot at immediately the next morning.
That’s the outpost. The film is not an anti-war polemic, it’s simply an objective depiction of a war based on bullshit. I remember Ben Anderson making the case in his book No Worse Enemy3 that the objectives of the American mission in Afghanistan circa 2009-2011 were contradictory. On the one hand, the surge-era rules of engagement sought to limit civilian casualties through stricter limits on the use of force. On the other hand, the homefield advantage of the Taliban and the desire to limit our own casualties in a politically unpopular war regularly required the use of close air support and heavy weapons that made civilian deaths inevitable.
The stupidity of the policy is illustrated brilliantly in a gunfight in the first half of The Outpost, when CPT Broward prevents SSG Romesha from calling in a mortar strike on a man shooting at him from above whom he cannot see. To quote Vernon Roche from The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, “It’s a soldier’s job to kill, not save.” The men of PRT Kamdesh, ethnically and religiously distinct from a population whose languages they can’t speak, are tasked with converting a local population to sell out their male relatives in the name of a widely loathed puppet government fancifully expected to impose “peace” on a nation 40 years at war. This is so insipid as to boggle the mind, and when Black PVT Martin jokes in a segment of the opening sequence, “must be the honkies. Heard someone talking about freedom” as the predominantly White new members of the unit land at Kamdesh, the commentary on delusional White Saviorism writes itself. To their credit, almost no one buys into the Bush/Obama mythology of “counterinsurgency” at Kamdesh.
The film shines as well where it chronicles the boredom and frat boy antics of deployment life. There are more than a few masturbation jokes to be found, (including one involving a picture of another man’s wife) and general bro shit that would be insufferable in polite society becomes weirdly charming in this context. Or at least, sometimes it does. One subplot involves Specialist Carter, who isn’t really down with all this bro nonsense, rising from the role of platoon misfit to eventual Medal of Honor winner. Nobody seems to like him much, and he seems a little too thoughtful for his own good, but ultimately his valiant if ill-fated attempt to save a dying comrade from bleeding out forms the high point of the movie’s epic fifty minute final gun battle, and the film pulls of the admirable stroke of making his run through overwhelming gunfire both thrilling and realistic enough to persuade you that, no, this is not some Call of Duty embellishment. Ty Carter, who served as a producer on the film, was awarded the Medal of Honor at the Battle of Kamdesh for an act of heroism most men and women have only ever attempted behind a game controller, risking all for a man who, by his own admission, he didn’t particularly like. His story forms an important throughline of the film, and it’s commendable that it dismisses personal hagiography for broader commendation of the men he served with, treating his act of valor that day as merely one conspicuous example among many.
The Outpost is an excellent film, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in war films or a ground eye view of the U.S.’s war in Afghanistan, a stark depiction of adventurist futility buoyed by the courage and brotherhood of those tasked with carrying out our country’s most unrealistic attempts at nation-building.