The Washington Times Daily - - Opinion -

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.

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