Outlaw Platoon” is a book that will probably not be read by the people who would most benefit from it. Those who are beating the drum for regime change in Syria need to learn something of the human cost of replacing those regimes in environments where we don’t understand the culture or the human dynamics. This is the story of an Army infantry platoon during an extensive deployment to Afghanistan in 2006.
The author, Sean Parnell, was the commander of the platoon; like most military leaders in their first time in combat, he made mistakes, to which he freely admits. Along the way, the platoon encountered enemies both inside and outside the wire. The book details these challenges in a way that will resonate with combat veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
The soldiers fought a determined and skillful enemy in the Taliban and their allies, including al Qaeda-affiliated foreign fighters, along the Pakistan border who could easily retreat to safety on the Pakistan side when combat did not go their way. In doing so, the enemy often used Pakistani soldiers as willing human shields; so much for our loyal Pakistani “allies.”
There were enemies inside the wire of their forward operating base (FOB) as well. The platoon had to deal with the perfidious Afghan Border Police as well as an Afghan interpreter who was giving information to the Taliban employing a U.S. satellite phone that the soldiers unwisely let him occasionally use.
This betrayal caused casualties among the Americans and led directly to the death of their own respected interpreter. Not as dangerous, but equally destructive to morale, were the “Fobbits.” These are personnel who supposedly support the combat troops, but too often monopolize welfare and recreation computers and telephones and otherwise debilitate the morale of those doing the fighting.
There is a natural tension among front-line fighters and the rear-echelon support troops in any war, and this one is no different. In modern war, the Fobbits make up the vast majority of the uniformed personnel in theater. To the combat troops, they are at best a necessary evil; at worst, they can be destructive to morale. The platoon’s problem with Fobbits culminated when an unpopular female mail clerk caused the forward operating base’s vaccinated pet dogs to be killed. Worse still, she was having an affair with a senior noncommissioned officer.
The U.S. Army in Afghanistan has something in common with the Taliban; neither organization likes dogs, alcohol or fun; one is led to wonder what they are fighting about. The culmination of fighting enemies inside and outside the wire combined to degrade morale, but to also bring the unit closer together.
Lt. Parnell learned from his mistakes and weeded out those not fit for combat, and he welded the organization into an effective fighting force that took casualties and inflicted casualties prodigiously on the enemy. He is unsparing when he writes about his comrades who could not stand up to the needs of combat, but has justifiable pride in the brotherhood of war that developed in the crucible of combat.
Although not stressed in the book, the improvements in U.S. protective equipment, communications, navigation aids and fire support are notable when compared with similar accounts of small-unit combat in Vietnam and Korea. Firefights that might have killed half a dozen members of a platoon in either of those conflicts merely resulted in injuries to Lt. Parnell’s unit. He lost only one killed, even though many of his men, including him, were wounded.
Lt. Parnell was eventually medically retired as a captain. The combat in Iraq and Afghanistan has been every bit as intense as Vietnam and Korea, but fatalities have been an order of magnitude smaller.
We have equipped our troops well, but don’t always treat them well. Denying them a few beers when they come in from the field and killing their vaccinated pets are just a sample of the “harassment package” unnecessarily inflicted on our combat forces.
This brings us back to why the book should be read by more people in positions to make and influence policy. Iraq and Afghanistan have been fought by a small portion of our population, and the actual heavy lifting is done by a smaller minority of warriors. The all-volunteer force means that many policymakers and those who oversee them in Congress have no relatives or neighbors who will experience combat. For most of the public, the military is out of sight and out of mind.