OUTPOST SPECIAL: This interview is part of a special feature surrounding the film The Outpost. Click the following links in all caps to read our REVIEW, and our interviews with director ROD LURIE and Medal of Honor recipient TY CARTER.
When the host of CNN’s State of the Union began reporting on the Battle of Kamdesh, what he thought was a singular tale of American valor spiraled into a much larger story about went wrong in Afghanistan. Now his critically-acclaimed book, THE OUTPOST, is a hit feature film.
INTERVIEW BY MATT TUTHILL
Robert Irvine Magazine: Rod Lurie is an excellent director, but he hasn’t directed anything like The Outpost before. At what point did you realize it was in such good hands?
Jake Tapper: I was a fan of The Last Castle, and I was happy that such a gifted director was involved. But I guess it really wasn’t until I met Rod and we talked about the war and about the relationships I established with all the people who served there and the Gold Star Families, that I realized that he really got it. I met him at my house and talked to him about how we really needed to make sure that the families were as involved as possible, and he was very receptive.
He was constantly talking about how to make the script even better and how to improve it and keeping everybody on top of everything. One of the decisions Rod made, and I agreed with, was to take some of the stories that took place earlier in the history of the outpost and make them part of this movie. The story of Ben Keating that took place in 2006 and the story of Rob Yllescas, which took place in 2008 and put them in the movie as if they happened in the same deployment. That was a controversial decision within the family and those involved, because obviously we were playing with time, but I agreed with the decision because I thought it helped honor Ben Keating and Rob Yllescas, and it also helps tell the larger story of the outpost. Then when I saw the film, obviously I was just blown away.
RI: Rod says you were incredibly nervous when you went to screen it for the Gold Star families. You must’ve had a similar feeling when the book was coming out.
JT: With the book, it was a little different because I had shared parts of it with soldiers just to make sure that my descriptions were accurate. I felt a little bit more confident. Also, the book is nonfiction, and while the film is nonfiction too, it’s a recreation, a dramatization. I was very nervous. These were the reviews I was really worried about, because I can’t imagine what it’s like to have served. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have lost a loved one in a war, and then frankly, just to watch your loved one be portrayed on screen—must less to watch that person’s death recreated on screen. All of those things made me really worried, because I knew it was going to be traumatic or could be traumatic for people.
But again, Rod was such a great force for making sure that the families were part of it. They saw the film last October, close to the 10-year anniversary of the big attack. Millennium Pictures flew in people who had lost someone in war or some people who had served there. The Brookings Institution with retired Marine General John Allen—who was commander of troops in Afghanistan at one point—hosted the event. We showed it at the Naval War Museum. We had three grief counselors there just in case anybody needed to talk to somebody. Ultimately, one soldier left a few minutes in because it was just too triggering. We all understood that, but ultimately, after the film was over, I went around to each one of the families… and to a family, everyone felt positive.
I mean, you don’t feel good about a movie like this, but they felt positive about the portrayal. They felt like it was reverential. It was respectful. We didn’t pretend that these were a platoon of saints. They’re actual, real human beings. So I was scared, but then at the end I was very relieved. After that, I was just like, “Well, whatever the reviews are after this, anything else is gravy, because this is really all I cared about.”
RI: We’ve interviewed a lot of soldiers and Marines for the magazine, and sometimes it’s hard to get them to open up—even if they did not experience combat, or experience anything like the Battle of Kamdesh. How did you establish to them that you were someone that could be trusted with their story?
JT: Well, it wasn’t easy, and it was person by person. Some people trusted me more than others, but ultimately it was just the fact that I was, I think, devoted to telling the story and I cared about it. I think a lot of them felt like this attack happened and barely made news in the United States. And relative to the fact that it was the deadliest day for the US in Afghanistan that year, it really didn’t make a huge amount of news.
I think a lot of them resented that, that they were sacrificing and serving and giving so much and nobody was paying attention.
First, it was just going to be a story of what happened in 2009, but then some press got out that I was writing this book and some of the guys from 2006, from 271 camp, reached out and they said, “Well, you’re writing about Keating. I want to tell you why we put it there, and I want to make sure this book also tells the story of people that we lost.” Then guys from the next deployment, 191, reached out because they wanted me to tell the story of the guys from their platoons and from their troops that died.
The next thing I know, I have this much bigger book that tells the whole story of this one base, and in that way tries to tell the story to Afghanistan by just looking at one outpost. But the soldiers made the story bigger, not me. I was there to tell their stories, but they were the ones who ultimately got me to make this a much bigger book.
RI: As an audience member, when you first see the outpost and the sheer mountains on all sides, you don’t need to have any background in military strategy to realize this is terrible. When you began reporting on the story and learned that detail, it must’ve baffled you.
JT: Yeah, and it wasn’t easy to find the person who made the decision, but ultimately, and the movie doesn’t go into this, but this is how policy decisions in Washington end up having an effect on people’s lives in Afghanistan. The reason why the outpost was at the bottom of three mountain was because, A, it was part of a decision to set up all these small outputs all over Northeastern Afghanistan, B, in that part of Afghanistan, it’s all mountainous, so you’re either on top of a mountain or at the bottom of a mountain, and C, most of the helicopters were in Iraq.
Afghanistan was the forgotten war, so in order to have a camp that you could resupply and leave and go to, it needed to be near the roads because you didn’t have access to helicopters. Those decisions made by generals or colonels or President Bush, or whomever, ended up having an impact on why they put an outpost there.
RI: So it was logistically sound in terms of resupply, but it left the men as an afterthought.
JT: Well, I would never call it sound, but that was the reason. If you’re going to put an outpost there and you’re not going to give helicopter to soldiers so they can go to and from the camp, then there’s only one option. In the book gets into the politics or conclusions more than the movie. My conclusion in the book is if you’re going to do this, then you have to make sure that you support these guys every way you can, and I did not see evidence of that.
RI: Back in the earliest days of this war, the Bush administration had been adamant that we weren’t going to be nation-building. Now this war is two decades old and it wasn’t even mentioned at the RNC or DNC. At what point did you realize the American public was totally numb to this? And did you view your book as an attempt at producing an antidote to that?
JT: Kind of, yeah. By the time of the outpost, Bush had changed his position and now was in favor of nation building, but as long as there’s not going to be a draft—and no one’s advocating for a draft—but as long as it’s an all volunteer force, then people are going to be disconnected from it, unless they are from a military family or community, or go out of their way to not be disconnected from it.
When you have 1% of the population doing all the sacrifice and service for the other 99%, it’s not healthy. The book was an attempt for me to try to bridge the chasm, so I understood who these people were and why they did what they did, and then the desire to have it be a film. Thank God that it was good as it is, and that’s because of Rod, the screenwriters, and Millennium. Because I wanted a wider audience to know the story and to appreciate what was going on. I can’t say that it solves the problem, but hopefully there are a few more people who are a little bit more aware of what these men and women do for us than there were before.
RI: It’s obvious their sacrifice is incredibly meaningful to you. I had planned on this being an apolitical conversation, but I’d now be remiss if we didn’t talk about what’s been reported—that the current commander in chief not only has no respect for this sacrifice, but outright disdain. What was your reaction when you read that Jeffrey Goldberg piece in The Atlantic?
JT: It was very upsetting, but not particularly surprising, because, look, this is a guy who in 2015 said that he didn’t think John McCain was a hero because he was captured. He likes people who weren’t captured. I understand John McCain might not be everybody’s cup of tea, whether on the left or the right, but he was a prisoner of war for five-and-a-half years, a war he didn’t start, a war that John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson started and Richard Nixon continued.
We sent John McCain there, the American people, and he was captured and tortured, and to not have respect and reverence for that is very upsetting. The president is denying that he said what he said, but the things that the president had said about service—and I understand that he has done other things to honor veterans and members of the military—but the things he has said and done on the record about people who have served, whether it’s smearing the Khan family, or any of the other many, many things that he has done have upset veteran friends of mine.
I find it very distressing—and I did not serve—but one of the things that I have appreciation for is I understand that these people who serve are doing something selfless and are doing it for me and my family. Even if I don’t always agree with every decision made in the military by a president, by a soldier or service member, I have and will always have gratitude for these individuals and what they’re willing to do.
I don’t care if that’s a conservative Republican like Tom Cotton, or a liberal Democrat like Seth Moulton, whether it’s Joni Ernst or Tulsi Gabbard, I have appreciation for it and I have gratitude for it, and that transcends their views, their actions. I do not understand people, much less a commander-in-chief, who can’t do that.
RI: What do you want people to take away from this film?
JT: I guess the most important thing is to stick around through the credits at the end [which features interviews with the actual soldiers], because these are real people. It’s not just a movie. These were real people with real pain and real families, and it’s always important for us to remember that.