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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.”

On the Bookshelf V

The Wages of Spin by Carl Trueman
Critical writings on historical and contemporary evangelicalism. It took me all of five pages to decide that Carl Trueman is one of my favorite writers. No joke. I’m simultaneously loving this guy and feeling very small next to his brilliance. I mean, seriously – if I could write non-fiction like Trueman and write fiction like Cormac McCarthy, I’d be set.
Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card
The second installment of Enderverse, and a winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards. It’s quite a bit different from the first book, Ender’s Game, but it’s every bit as interesting and provocative. Card has a gift for ambitious, detailed world building (or out-of-this-world building, if you will), and his characters and scenarios are always fascinating. It’s not difficult to see why he’s regarded as a classic Sci-Fi author.
Modern Times by Paul Johnson
I was a bit daunted by the length of this one at first (it’s 800 pages), but the fact that it’s authored by Paul Johnson helped me overcome my hesitation. That, and the fact that I really had no choice in the matter – it’s required reading for school. At any rate, I’m glad I started it: it’s brilliantly written and consistently challenging. Dashed interesting, too.
I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
A classic and oft lauded post-apocalyptic vampire tale. The 2007 film is one of my favorite Sci-Fi flicks, but I avoided the book until now because I’d heard questionable things about it. A very good friend recently recommended it, however, so I decided to give it a go. I picked up a copy at Barnes & Nobles the other day, and as soon as I finish up some of my other reads, I plan to start it. Can’t wait.
The Fort by Bernard Cornwell
A novel of the Revolutionary War. Cornwell is a prolific author, highly respected and generally regarded as one of the best  historical-fiction writers working today. I haven’t read anything else by him yet, but I figured this would be a good place to start. He also wrote a novel about the Battle of Agincourt which I’d love to check out. “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…”
Outlaw Platoon by Sean Parnell
“In combat, men measure up. Or don’t. There are no second chances.” The story of 10th Mountain Division’s stand in the violent, rugged mountains of Afghanistan. I’m almost done with it and have been very impressed thus far. There’s a lot of profanity (you have been warned), but it’s a remarkable look at leadership, brotherhood-in-arms, and the messiness of modern warfare.

What’s on your bookshelf right now?