Book Review: Outlaw Platoon

At age twenty-four, U.S. Army Ranger Sean Parnell was given command of a forty-man elite infantry platoon – a unit that came to be known as Outlaws. Their job: find, fix, and destroy the Pakistan-based insurgents along Afghanistan’s eastern frontier.

It was assumed they they would be facing a scrappy band of undisciplined civilian fighters. Reality, however, was much different. In May 2006, what began as a routine mountain patrol ended in a bloody ambush that nearly overwhelmed the platoon. From then on, the situation was clear: the Outlaws were dealing with the most professional light infantry force the U.S. Army had encountered since the end of World War II.

Outlaw Platoon is a story of heroes, renegades, infidels, and the brotherhood of war in Afghanistan – a combat memoir on par with Marcus Lutrell’s Lone Survivor. Parnell’s detailed account of sixteen months of mountain warfare is as mentally and emotionally demanding as it is suspenseful. Don’t be surprised when you find yourself struggling to wrap your head (and stomach) around what these guys go through on the front lines.

Parnell is a consistently superb storyteller. As a fellow soldier noted, “He brings you into his thoughts of success, loss, perceived failure, and all emotions that troops process during and after heavy combat operations.”

The story of his platoon is resurrected with guts and bravado-less honesty and it’s about as close as you get to the real deal: a fascinating depiction of courage, camaraderie, and leadership laced with mortar fire and the ripping spray of .50 machine guns.

Gunfire has its own language. Suppressing fire, the purpose of which is to pin you down, sounds undisciplined; it wanders back and forth over you without much aim. It is searching and random and somehow doesn’t seem as deadly.

Accurate, aimed fire is a different story. It has a purpose to it. You know as soon as you hear it that somebody has you in their sights. The shots come with a rapid-fire focus that underscores their murderous intent. Somebody is shooting at you. It becomes intimate and fear inducing…

The enemy machine gunners hammered at us with accurate bursts. As their bullets struck home, they spoke to us infantrymen as clearly as if they had used our native language. Message received: these were not amateurs in the hills on our flanks. (p. 77)

It’s quickly apparent how deeply Parnell cares for the men he’s writing about, and over the course of the story, we come to care about them, too – from Staff Segeant Phillip Baldwin, who sacrificed everything after 9/11 to serve his country; to Specialist Robert Pinholt, a soldier with “the mind of a warrior and the heart of an economist.” Heroes. And the cost of battle wasn’t cheap for them. Over 80 percent were wounded in action, putting their casualty rate among the highest since Gettysburg. Some of them never made it home.

Like the men whose story it records, this book is rough. And I mean rough. The brutality of modern war comes through clearly in Parnell’s narrative and no punches are pulled in describing the atrocities perpetrated by the insurgents. Swearing is frequent, especially during the final half of the book, and it’s usually R-rated fare (including a handful of crude sexual references). Such content issues are par the course for war books, but you should know what you’re getting into. My age recommendation would be 17 and up. At least.

For those old enough to handle it, Outlaw Platoon is a must-read – especially if you’re even remotely interested in stellar combat memoirs. To quote Steven Pressfield, “Sean Parnell reaches past the band-of-brothers theme to a place of brutal self-awareness… he never flinches from a fight, nor the hard questions of a messy war.”

7 thoughts on “Book Review: Outlaw Platoon”

  1. I have been really looking forward to reading this one. Your review gives me further motivation to check it out soon.
    -Ben

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