“Where are they going?” Whittaker asked.
Lockner gestured at the topographical map. “Right over here, northwest of Naray,” he said. “Where the Darreh ye Kushtaz and Landay-Sin Rivers meet.”
Whittaker looked at the spot, stunned. “Right there?” he asked.
“Right there,” confirmed Lockner. “Can you do it?”
“I can do it; I have all night,” Whittaker said. “But sir … that is a really awful place for a base.” This new camp in the Kamdesh District would, like the dangerous Korangal outpost that their pilots knew too well, be surrounded by higher ground. But whereas the base in the Korangal was situated about halfway up a mountainside, in a former lumberyard, the one in Kamdesh would sit in a cup within the valley’s deepest cleft, ringed by three steep mountains that formed part of the five-hundred-mile-long Hindu Kush mountain range. Blocked off on its northern, western, and southern sides by rivers and mountains, it would moreover be a mere fourteen miles distant from the official Pakistan border — a porous boundary that meant little to the insurgents who regularly crossed it to kill Americans and Afghan government officials before taking refuge in caves or in the mountains or returning to their haven across the border. The camp would be one of the most remote outposts in this most remote part of a country that was itself cut off from much of the rest of the world, and the area all around it would be filled with people who wanted to kill those stationed there.
“So it’s located at the base of a mountain peak?” Whittaker asked. It didn’t take a Powell or a Schwarzkopf to know that as a matter of basic military strategy, it was better to be at the top of a hill than at the bottom of a valley.
“And it’s flanked by a river on the west and another river to the north?”
“And there’s no good road to get to it — they’re still building that,” Lockner volunteered.
The Army had been coordinating efforts to build up the vulnerable and narrow path from Naray to Kamdesh, but rain, steep cliffs, insurgent threats, and high turnover rates among local construction workers had led to frequent delays. The road, often running along the edge of a cliff that spilled into the Landay-Sin River, was a mere thirteen feet wide at its widest, and in some spots only half that — narrower than many military vehicles. A soldier could be killed just driving on that road, without ever coming into contact with a single enemy fighter.
“And it’s an eternity away by helicopter if something goes wrong,” Whittaker said.
“Yup,” agreed Lockner.
“Sir, this is a really bad idea,” said Whittaker. “A. Really. Bad. Idea. Anyone we drop off there is going to die.” As he said it, he thought he saw Lockner’s eyes glaze over.
Whittaker was known for being inquisitive and sometimes downright melodramatic, but even for him, this was an outsized response to a mission briefing. Those who worked with him understood that he always believed he was the smartest person in the room. He knew it put people off and made them less likely to listen to him when he had something especially important to say, but he was still young and had not yet learned how to check his behavior.
“What’s the point of this base?” Whittaker asked. “It’s on the low ground. It can’t be supported in any meaningful way. The troops there will be horribly outnumbered by potential bad guys in the town next door. They can’t even really go out and do anything because the rivers, the town, and the mountains will block any patrol routes.”
He couldn’t stop himself.
“All they can do is die,” he added....
Whittaker... would never be able to live with himself, he said, if they couldn’t find a way to stop the construction of this new base. But by that point he’d learned that in the military mindset, it was usually preferable just to carry out orders and then investigate later, if necessary, rather than to raise questions beforehand about whether a plan might be flawed....
Over the past three years, U.S. troops had died on their way to construct the outpost; they had died clearing the path to establish the outpost; they had died patrolling the area that surrounded the outpost; they had died driving from the outpost; they had died commanding the outpost; and they had died pursuing the mission of the outpost.
Now, as the enemy burst through into their camp, a small group of just over fifty American soldiers had no alternative but to do whatever they could to stay off that grim list. There was no more time for them to wonder why they were there. It was time to fight — and for some, it would be time to die.
keyboard shortcuts: V vote up article J next comment K previous comment