(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER)
SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:
A military helicopter descends into an Afghan mountain valley surrounded by switchbacks to a U.S. Army outpost-turned-sitting target for Taliban fighters.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE OUTPOST")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Captain - how're you doing, sir? Welcome to the dark side of the moon, gentlemen.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Delighted, sir.
PFEIFFER: This is how the movie "The Outpost" begins - soldiers telling one another not to bother calling home. The cast includes Orlando Bloom and Scott Eastwood, and the film was adapted from the nonfiction book by journalist Jake Tapper. It tells the story of Combat Outpost Keating, which on October 3, 2009, was attacked by hundreds of Taliban insurgents. Eight U.S. soldiers were killed, and 27 were wounded. What happened that day exposed the military for maintaining a base that some said never should have existed in the first place.
Joining me is Rod Lurie - he directed the film - and Army First Lieutenant Hank Hughes. He served at Outpost Keating and helped retell the story of what happened there. He also co-produced the film.
Thanks to both of you for being with us.
ROD LURIE: Hey. It's great to - really great to be here.
HANK HUGHES: Thanks for having me.
PFEIFFER: Rod and Hank, I want anyone who hasn't seen this movie to appreciate how remote and how shockingly vulnerable this army outpost was. Rod, would you describe its geographic setting? And then, Hank, would you tell us some of the reactions soldiers had when they first arrived there?
LURIE: Well, this outpost was placed at the bottom of the Hindu Kush mountains - very, very high mountains. And it was - the outpost was completely encircled by these mountains. And, you know, the significance of that is obvious to any soldier that is listening right now - is that we completely gave away the high ground to the enemy. So essentially, when any soldier that landed there realized that, they were going to take hits every day, there were going to be pot-shots every day. And one day, the big one was going to come.
HUGHES: I remember flying in for the first time. It was winter, and the helicopter descended, and it landed. And when you get off a helicopter, you're supposed to take a few paces and take a knee because the - basically, when the helicopter takes off again, it'll push you over.
But, like a cherry, I just, like, looked up at these mountains surrounding the entire camp and immediately - it's, like, everyone I ever spoke to had the exact same impression, which is, like, this is not where we're supposed to be. I remember my commander had to, like, pull me down to take a knee because I just, like, couldn't believe how much the terrain was surrounding and dominating our position.
PFEIFFER: I think someone in the movie said they even had a sense of impending doom when they saw that. Did it have that effect on you?
HUGHES: It does because, you know, it's not normal to look up so much. Like, your neck hurts. I remember saying to some guys on set that, like, you have to realize, like, usually when you're patrolling, you're kind of looking out and up a little bit. But this way, everything is going to come from above, and so you're constantly just creaking your neck upward. And it's just the exact opposite of how you want to engage with somebody in a firefight.
But ultimately, I think they decided that we were put down so low next to that river, next to some villages, because they decided that the human terrain was perhaps more important than the geographical terrain - which was true for a time until it was catastrophically incorrect.
PFEIFFER: This outpost was there to promote counterinsurgency. The idea was if you connect with the locals, and you try to stop the flow of weapons and Taliban fighters from Pakistan, that might be productive. But I want to play a clip of an exchange between a commander and a soldier.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE OUTPOST")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Now that we get shot at a lot less when the villagers are happy. That way, we can focus on the mission.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) You know what our mission is?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Not really, sir.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Well, we can't accomplish our mission if we can't survive.
PFEIFFER: Not really, sir - amazing answer. Hank, how did the soldiers feel about their sense of purpose and the point of being there?
HUGHES: You know, that line was from my life. I asked a soldier - one of my soldiers that - I was a platoon leader, and we did our best to try and explain the mission. And I think I understood it as best as I could - that we were trying to separate the forces that we thought were not good for the government of Afghanistan away from the people and to build up a government. But it's a very complex strategic idea that on the ground, it doesn't have that sort of clarity.
PFEIFFER: Rod, this outpost cycled through a lot of different commanding officers, and the movie's overall portrayal of them is pretty unflattering - you know, poor decision-making, cowardly, inconsistent philosophies. What message were you trying to send about military leadership?
LURIE: Well, it's not really a message film so much, Sacha, as a chronicle of the events that occurred because I believe that most of the time the company-grade leadership that were there - captains and below - were actually really, really strong leaders. They really had the love and the affection of their men.
But it was the higher-ups - you know, the people that rarely ever set foot onto Combat Outpost Keating or any of these outposts that were in that area - where if any criticism can be aimed, it would be to them because as - you know, as you insinuated earlier, there were reasons for having this outpost, but not - in my opinion, at least - a good enough reason to put the men in this incredible harm's way.
Because, you know, it was inevitable that these guys are going to be overrun by, you know, the Taliban outnumbering them at least eight to one, which is what was the case in this particular battle. So the movie has as one of its core themes the sort of laissez-faire attitude that the Pentagon officials may have had with the soldiers on the ground.
And after the fact, at the end of the movie, there is - in the recounting of what happened, there was an investigation that was extraordinarily critical of creating what was an indefensible outpost. You know, they keep talking in the movie, Sacha, about the big one is going to come one of these days. And this movie is about that big one that did come.
PFEIFFER: What was it like when the people portrayed in your movie and their families first saw this film?
LURIE: Well, we had a very emotional experience. Jake Tapper and I - you know, Jake Tapper wrote the book upon which this movie is based. And, you know, he and I, we both became, you know, very, very close to the families of the dead - he through his research, and - you know, my son Hunter died while I was making this film, and the families really rallied around me. And, you know, they became very emotionally involved in the film even more so when that happened.
And on - you know, in October of 2019, we finally showed this movie to the families of the fallen and some of the people who had survived. And, you know, Jake Tapper was this absolute nervous wreck, and so was I. How are they going to react? Are they going to be, you know, concerned that, you know, my son didn't smoke, or my husband didn't swear, or - you know, how their lives were portrayed or how they were seen.
And it ended up that every single one of them were - they were just so grateful because, you know, there's that expression that, you know, you die twice - once when you leave this earth, and the other when, you know, the last person ever speaks your name. And the gift that we gave them and the gift that I gave my son, who this movie's dedicated to, is that, you know, their names will be forever spoken. So I'm glad that we could do that.
PFEIFFER: Hank, there's a scene at the end I found pretty heartbreaking. It's the one where one of the soldiers who'd been in the heart of the battle is talking to a therapist. And she's well-meaning, but it doesn't seem like she could possibly grasp what he'd been through. How are your colleagues doing now all these years later? Do you know?
HUGHES: Yeah. I've been in therapy for four years. I love it. I think it's something that everyone should do, whether your trauma comes from combat or more sort of everyday. We talk on the phone often. There is a shared experience that we have that is hard to communicate and is a very warm thing to be a part of, to have - to share that company with. You definitely seek it out.
You know, we've had - a very dear friend of mine killed himself. You know, this is a part of our culture. And it's complicated. There's a - it's hard to know what to do with all those feelings and emotions. I think ultimately, the journey for all of us is embracing some sort of love in the future and creation back home.
PFEIFFER: After that huge battle, one of the soldiers said - and I'm going to omit an expletive here - he said, we won, man. We won. They won, but at what cost?
HUGHES: I don't know if there's such a thing as winning in modern wars. Maybe they just end, and some people are better off than the others. Look, I don't want to make any sweeping statements about that place. There's too many people that I care about that may not think the way I do, and I don't even want to take that part of my life away. But there was probably a futility on some level in the strategy of being out there.
Lives were impacted. A lot of us did some really great work to try and make that place better. A lot of us did fantastic work leading their fellow men in soldiering. There's a lot of honor in all of that that I think is separate from the politics and the strategy.
So do I think that - I feel like we won at the end? I think it's that, look - you don't hand out medals because things went right. You hand out medals because things go wrong, and someone has to step up way further than they're ever supposed to and do something valorous and miraculous. So in that instant and in that way, in the human spirit, there was winning.
PFEIFFER: Rod Lurie and First Lieutenant Hank Hughes are director and co-producer of "The Outpost," now streaming on Hulu and Amazon Prime.
Rod and Hank, thanks very much for talking with us.
LURIE: Thank you very much.
HUGHES: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.