“‘It doesn’t get better.’ To us, that phrase nailed one of the essential truths, maybe even the essential truth, about being stuck at an outpost whose strategic and tactical vulnerabilities were so glaringly obvious to every soldier who had ever set foot in that place that the name itself — Keating — had become a kind of backhanded joke.”
Much has been made of our latter-day war heroes — of stories like Lone Survivor or American Sniper. Now, you can read the gripping minute-by-minute, play-by-play account of the Oct. 3, 2009 Battle of Keating, as written and recounted by one of the men who survived it — Clinton Romesha. Former Staff Sgt. Romesha won a Medal of Honor for his valor at the Battle of Keating, but, as you’ll see, he cares more for the comrades lost to the Taliban.
The vast majority of this thrilling book focuses on the battle itself, but Romesha first spends time carefully setting up its context. The Keating outpost, located in the isolated Nuristan province, was badly located and badly designed, offering attackers in the surrounding mountains a birds-eye view of everything in the camp. This precarious strategic situation helps set up the dire urgency that animates the battle portion of the book.
Romesha also devotes time to explaining who his comrades were in the Red Platoon; pictures are included when they are first introduced. These explanations clearly convey his brotherly love for his comrades, and fleshes them out not merely as characters but as human beings, real people fighting real danger in a real war. You also get a feel for how life was at Keating, the way these men interacted and the way they did their jobs. This sense of reality is key; it keeps you invested in them when the Taliban attacks the Keating outpost.
The book opens with the morning of Oct. 3, 2009 — and really gets intense once the 300 Taliban fighters enter the scene. Almost immediately, Romesha is able to convey the desperation and terror of their attack, especially considering that the Americans were outnumbered 6-to-1. Because he participated in the battle and interviewed fellow soldiers who were present, he is able to cover the most minute of details, offering an intricate account that could only come from someone who was there.
The battle, from start to finish, is riveting. I’ve never read a personal account of a battle before; I’m new to the war genre. But I’m confident in saying that anyone who reads the full account — from the initial assault to the end of the attack — will be sucked into the action. I felt invested in these fighters, from the first death to the attempts to save one soldier who had had his legs blown off. Romesha, using both his memories and those of his fellow soldiers, constructs the scenes skillfully. It’s great writing, and he manages to make a battle that lasted 14 hours credibly stretch for most of the book.
For those of you interested in the technical details, you’ll recognize all the weapons and the little actions of the battle, the ways that men moved and the ways in which they tried to retaliate against the enemy. Veterans and fans of military writing will appreciate the real messages to other bases interspersed in the book; it reads like a running narrative tally, and doesn’t take a break for a second.
Red Platoon does not just recount the Battle of Keating; you feel Romesha’s pain when he describes the choices he had to make, or the friends and comrades he lost in the battle. It does not shrink away from the aftermath; a memoriam at the end of the book is dedicated to the 8 Americans who lost their lives in that battle. He also describes the way his comrades felt very well — he recounts their friendships, their personalities, and their pain as well as he expresses his own pain.
The government gave Clinton Romesha a Medal of Honor for his valor in the Battle of Keating. After reading Red Platoon, I think he deserves one for writing about it as well.
Original CBC review by assistant editor Brad Matthews.
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