Red Platoon by Clinton Romesha

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Red Platoon by Clinton Romesha

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Category: History
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Ewbank
Reviewed by John Ewbank
Summary: Red Platoon is a visceral and honest first-hand account of the battle for Outpost Keating, one of the bloodiest engagements of the War in Afghanistan.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: May 2016
Publisher: Preface Publishing
ISBN: 978-1848094642

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When the soldiers of Red Platoon arrived at Combat Outpost Keating, in Nuristan Province, Afghanistan, the vulnerabilities of the outpost were frighteningly obvious. It was surrounded on all sides by steep and wooded hills, giving the Taliban excellent vantage points to observe the outpost and fire into it; the helicopter landing zone, essential for bringing in supplies and evacuating the wounded, was situated outside the base across a river; and the perimeter was too large to be sufficiently defended. These weaknesses were also obvious to the Taliban, and on the 3rd October 2009, just after dawn, they launched a full-out assault to capture the base. Red Platoon is a first-hand account of the frantic battle that followed, written by Staff Sergeant Clinton Romesha who received the Medal of Honor for his actions.

The first thing to say is that Red Platoon is utterly gripping from start to finish: definitely not one to read before bed if you plan on sleeping. That it's so readable is a testament to the clarity and structure of Romesha's writing, since the battle was complicated and fast-moving, with many different participants both on the ground and in the air. Romesha went to great lengths to reconstruct exactly what happened, including interviewing many of those involved, and his research has paid dividends.

As thrilling as it is though, Red Platoon is more than just a thriller. For a start, it's unflinchingly honest about the realities of warfare. Romesha doesn't glorify or romanticise the battle, nor does he gloss over its nastier aspects (like what large amounts of shrapnel can do to the human body). He also paints an honest picture of the diverse group of soldiers stationed at Outpost Keating, who were by no means the steely-eyed Special Forces types who appear in similar books. Whilst some showed exceptional heroism, others were distinctly less heroic or even flat-out incompetent.

Another notable strength of the book is its detailed descriptions of modern warfare. The weapons, command structure, communication systems, and battle tactics used by the soldiers are all explained clearly and in detail. What I found particularly amazing was the level of air support that was able to reach Keating: within minutes helicopters, jets, and bombers from all over the Middle East were dashing to provide assistance. And Romesha doesn't shy away from explaining where all these aircraft came from, who was flying them, what weapons they were carrying, and how the whole operation was being organised by two guys in the cockpit of an F-15 fighter jet.

Finally, Romesha doesn't hide away from the uncomfortable truth that the battle achieved very little, and that all they were really fighting for was their own survival. The soldiers had no idea why they had been stationed in such a remote and squalid outpost, and no clue what they were supposed to do there. My lasting impression, once my heart rate had returned to normal, was that the battle for Outpost Keating could be considered a microcosm for the whole War in Afghanistan: a group of soldiers, sent to a hostile and unforgiving location, poorly led and ill-equipped and with no strategic objectives, comes up against a determined and well-organised enemy, takes a hell of a mauling, responds by dropping lots of laser-guided smart bombs, and leaves having achieved little. But reading about it was a great way to kill a rainy bank holiday.

For a broader discussion of the War in Afghanistan, we would recommend War Against the Taliban: Why it All Went Wrong in Afghanistan by Sandy Gall.

Thank you to Preface for sending us the review copy.

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