Readers of former Staff Sergeant Clinton Romesha’s intense and brutal memoir Red Platoon will first meet a junior soldier, Specialist Zach Koppes. He’s a general-issue infantryman, rousted from his cot a few minutes earlier than his scheduled guard shift is meant to begin—not for any call to action, but so Koppes’s team leader could make an early-morning latrine call. The sun has barely begun to rise over Combat Outpost Keating in eastern Afghanistan, 14 miles from the Pakistan border, and the October 2009 morning seems routine.
“Koppes’ is an average, everyday soldier, a young kid on his first deployment,” said Romesha, talking about his book with The Daily Beast from his home in North Dakota. “Got a little secret hidey-hole where he can read his magazines and think it’s going to be an easy day,”
At that moment, Koppes—as in copacetic, Romesha writes—and the men of Bravo Troop, 3-61 Cavalry, 4th Infantry Division, are minutes away from a ferocious Taliban assault—a well-known battle thanks to Jake Tapper’s The Outpost, and because Romesha would receive the Medal of Honor for his actions that day.
At 6 a.m., hundreds of Taliban fighters attacked from multiple directions, using the high ground to assault COP Keating’s low position. It was a well-planned, well-rehearsed, full-on assault meant to overrun and destroy the American’s entire position.
Red Platoon is Romesha’s own account of the 13-hour battle (written with co-author Kevin Fedarko), gathered through interviews between Romesha and his comrades.
A critical take on memoirs from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq might divide them into two extreme camps: the snarky, above-it-all distance of ironic rumination on mistakes and angst, or fairy tales of superhero “operators” saving the day while accompanied by implied swells of a patriotic soundtrack.
Red Platoon is one of a handful that successfully focuses almost entirely on the brutality and violence of combat without mawkish uber-patriotism or plaintive regret. It is hell in a very small place.
In The Outpost, Tapper provided what Romesha calls a successful big-picture look at the bad decisions leading to COP Keating’s creation in a terrible, indefensible position on a plateau surrounded by high ground.
Red Platoon supplies the complementary close up, zooming in on the desperation of a minute-to-minute fight for survival that not all will win. Of the 52 soldiers at COP Keating, half would be injured and eight would die. The events for which Romesha received the Medal of Honor are never specifically pointed out. Instead, the day’s violence and the desperate tactics of Romesha and his comrades blend together until it’s difficult to grasp why any single act would deserve the Medal of Honor more than any other.
By presenting the battle in a rush of shifting action and intensity, the story lets Romesha direct attention at the handful of soldiers he believed deserved more notice.
Take Koppes, for example, a typical junior-enlisted “Joe,” no Special Forces type, no Seal Team 6 superman.
When the Taliban assault began, Koppes was cut-off from the rest of the men, isolated and alone in a Humvee, holding down his roadside perimeter position for 14 hours without relief.
“Nobody would have faulted him if he’d said he couldn’t hold that position anymore and was falling back,” Romesha said. “But he locked down the whole eastern side of the camp, with nobody beside him to help. I’d describe him as the platoon clown, until shit got serious.”
Koppes had kept his focus on what he could control—the battle he could see from his Humvee turret.
First Lieutenant Andrew Bundermann had much broader concerns, Romesha writes, thrust into Keating’s command with the normal commander away from the base. When the battle began, Romesha writes, the “place to which Bundermann was accustomed to going was the [.50 caliber machinegun] truck. The destination to which he’d raced at the start of virtually every engagement … but like it or not, the command post was where he belonged. Every tactical decision—all of that responsibility, all of that burden—rested directly on Bundermann’s shoulders.”
Bundermann would broadcast the message “Enemy in the wire”— just the second time, Romesha writes, that a “broken arrow,” all-hands-on-deck-help-us-now message was sent since Hal Moore did it in the Ia Drang valley in 1965. Sustained by air support, refusing to give ground, and finally taking the fight back to the enemy, the COP Keating defenders held their position.
Romesha said that Bundermann and some of the men did not participate as extensively in The Outpost or other accounts as others did, letting their roles fall into the background. It is to these men—those who lived and the eight who died— that Romesha felt a special loyalty; by conducting his own research, Romesha could fill in certain blanks.
The meat of Red Platoon came from Romesha and Fedarko’s cross-country trips—about eight from “California to Alabama, Alaska to Minnesota”—to reconnect with Romesha’s fellow veterans. To build the first-hand account, the men crosschecked recollections and examined the official record to see where memories diverged or matched with history.
“With any of these guys, it’s about what they’re not saying, and the body language in which they’d say a certain phrase or relate a certain moment. We had to sit face-to-face and be right there,” Romesha said. “Lot of emotional stuff. We tried not to hard-charge it, but tease things out and get the whole picture.”
When first approached to write a book, Romesha was ambivalent if not downright dismissive. He was worried that his “I” would overwhelm the story of the other men—in fact, the word “I” does not appear until page 12.
“Some of the guys, and some of the families approached me, and said if anybody can tell the story, it would be me,” he said, “and I kind of rolled that in my head a little bit. I did get the national attention that if I open my mouth, people will listen. Other guys went back to their everyday lives.
“The book needed to be a labor of love, to let those guys tell their story, veteran to veteran, with somebody who was right there with them.”
Fedarko structured the narrative while Romesha went round-and-round with the narrative, reading aloud to get the right tone, bouncing it off friends and family to ensure it sounded like him.
Through the interviews, the “sensory overload” of the past could be translated and triangulated among the multiple perspectives, he said, arriving at a soldier’s truth, even if certainty remains elusive.
“No way in hell it’s perfect, but with the first-hand accounts and the official records, we got pretty damn close,” he said.
Romesha and Fedarko give retroactive credit, correcting the record of their memories wherever they can.
It turns out, for example, that Apache helicopters arrived within the battle’s first hour, providing vital air support, whereas in the soldiers’ memories those helicopters didn’t arrive until hours later, a misperception of “explosions at eye level, instead of looking up at the sky,” Romesha said.
Photographs provide objective truth. Throughout the book, images introduce faces of soldiers and physical landscapes that match up with the narrative, a more effective choice than an out-of-context photo insert. A picture of Observation Point Fritsche shows a tiny compound of plywood and sandbags, on a low plateau surrounded by high ground—an “exclamation point about the isolated, extreme conditions,” Romesha said.
Red Platoon is a soldier’s story, told bluntly. Romesha dogs out those he feels deserve it: a former commander, a few U.S. soldiers who don’t measure up, and Afghan soldiers who abandoned their positions and fled. Romesha said an earlier group of Afghan soldiers were much more professional and battle-ready, but were replaced by those he felt were sub-par.
Even fellow Medal of Honor recipient Sergeant Ty Carter comes in for a ribbing: to save the outpost’s aid station from a fire, Carter chainsaws down a tree, which falls the wrong way and almost crushes two men. Still, it did save the aid station. “Mission accomplished, more or less,” Romesha writes.
“It’s not an intentional dig,” Romesha said, “but there’s always more to the story than what’s on the surface.”
Red Platoon refers to Romesha’s fellow Medal of Honor recipient in unexpected ways, such as Carter’s heroic transition. Romesha writes that at his pivotal moment, Carter “was about to rise above his reputation as an oily, smooth-talking douche bag [from a pre-deployment disagreement with a fellow soldier] and find his center as a soldier.”
With help from Romesha’s close friend Sergeant (and later Lieutenant) Brad Larson, Carter would rescue the fatally-injured Stephan Mace, keeping him alive long enough for surgery, futile though it was. Romesha presents the account of this rescue effort like he does the rest of the battle—in intense detail, but with no other special focus. Among the decorations, Larson and Bundermann would receive the Silver Star, and Koppes a Bronze Star with Valor.
Carter received the award for a few specific actions, and Romesha’s citation makes clear how wide in scope his valor was considered to be. It’s only the third time in U.S. history that more than one man was awarded the Medal for the same battle and they’ve both entered a brotherhood that stands apart.
Inside that society, Romesha says, is an ironic common bond: the members feel that they don’t deserve to be part of it.
Once awarded the Medal, Romesha spoke to other recipients, to try and get a handle on this new responsibility and identity. One of the first he met was retired Lieutenant General Robert Foley, a Medal recipient from the Vietnam War.
To Foley, Romesha said among his first words were, “Why me?” Foley told him, “Those words have come out of all of our mouths. The reason is because the men on the ground felt that you did something that went above and beyond.”