Thursday, July 11, 2013

Listened: "Outlaw Platoon" by Sean Parnell

Listened: Outlaw Platoon: heroes, renegades, infidels, and the brotherhood of war in Afghanistan by Sean Parnell, 2012, download.

So many things to think about as I listened.  I'll list some of those thoughts below.

Parnell seems like an emotional guy.  Someone who wears his heart on his sleeve.  This is good for writing a book.  Parnell does not bluster and brag, he owns up to his fears and inadequacies during his extended time in Afghanistan.  He is a new lieutenant in a combat unit and sometimes struggles.

Parnell's Preface says he is not writing about politics and strategy.  He acknowledges he had a ground level view in a a certain area of Afghanistan over a limited time.   He focuses on his platoon, his company, and the area he patrolled.

Parnell's book is re-learning and re-telling the same lessons of most every other combat memoir.  The importance of friendship and camaraderie among combat troops.  The need for leadership and support.  The schism and tension between combat soldiers and support soldiers.  The trauma, euphoria and excitement of battle that wears off and leaves people feeling hollow.

Parnell joins ROTC after 9-11.  He joins the 10th Mountain Division as a Lieutenant.  His unit deploys in early 2006.

Parnell arrives in Afghanistan with an advance team and experiences a rocket attack on his first day. Several wounded civilians arrive at the main gate.  Many of the wounded are children.  The parents demand the boys be treated before the girls.  Parnell picks up a wounded girl and starts running to the aid station but the girl bleeds to death before he gets there.

Parnell's 3rd Platoon had not molded well together during training.  Parnell had hoped for the brotherhood of war and is disappointed it is not there.  At first.

Parnell's Forward Operating Base (FOB) is in charge of patrolling an area along the Pakistan border that is equivalent in size to Rhode Island.  The are facing the Al Qaeda (AQ) aligned Haqqani Network that operates from Pakistan.  Then, a couple of his squads (nine soldiers per squad) are sent to reinforce operations in Helmand Province. There are not enough resources in Afghanistan because of Iraq and Parnell is short-handed.

Parnell's unit gets ambushed in May and June and faces very tough opposition.  The enemy are well trained, equipped, and led.  Both ambushes almost result in his unit being overrun.  Radio intercepts heard the enemy's plans to overrun the U.S. unit's position, kill the soldiers, and behead them.

Parnell and his men patrol for days at a time.  They return to resupply and refit and then drive out again.  They are always evaluating tactics as the enemy alters their own tactics.  The armored Humvees sound surprisingly safe against rifle fire, machine gun fire, and shrapnel.  The Humvee's turret mounted machine guns and grenade launchers keep them from worse trouble.

At one point the platoon escorts a Special Forces team to a border post by Pakistan that is shelled by rockets from the Pakistan side.  The U.S. Army is not allowed to return fire.  The AG/Haqqani hillside firing position is directly downhill from a Pakistani Army post.  The Pakistani soldiers are mingling with the AQ/Haqqani as they load and fire.

Third platoon seems to take the bulk of the work.  One platoon at the FOB is under the command of a company posted at a separate FOB and the platoon's acting commander is a jackass who makes excuses to never be in the field.  Parnell's Company Commander has no authority to make that other platoon work.

Things go on until Fall of 2006 when a counteroffensive by the U.S. and ANA kills 150-200 enemy.  Parnell thinks, "Ha, we stomped them out of here for good."  Nope.  The Haqqani's recruit and refit and come back.  Third platoon is rotated back to Northern New York.  Third Platoon is told "You're tour is extended."  Some soldiers are already home when they are told to hop a plane back to Afghanistan.

Parnell focuses on a small unit and his experiences as a leader.  But it is impossible listen/read this without thinking of the wider issues.   Why are we still there?  Do we need to fix the country?

Then Parnell tells the story of an Al Qaeda group that comes into a village to punish the people.  The AQ take a 6-year-old boy and gouge out his eyes.  They take the boy with them to an AQ camp, knock out his teeth, and use him as a sex slave.  The kid is rescued, or somehow reclaimed, by the male villagers.  Parnells's unit sees the boy stumbling in a circle on the road.  The boy had wandered off from home.  They walk the boy over to the village and find the rest of the village's children beaten black and blue when AQ came back for more punishment.

After that story how could you want to leave without killing each and every of the AQ and Haqqani guys?  The same issue existed in Iraq.  People fighting the U.S. and the Iraq government would target children with bombs.  They would use crowds as human shields.  They would use children to courier weapons.  You get caught in the cycle and don't want to let scum like that get away.  But the scum will always be there.  Does that mean we should always be there?

So many parallels to Vietnam.  Length of time there.  Counterinsurgency.  Enemy hiding in protected areas across the border.  Supplies and men coming back and forth from the border.  Well trained, equipped, and led enemy troops working along the border area.  Stuck in FOBs and patrolling around.  The locals cooperate with the U.S. at great risk to themselves.  Inability to communicate with locals.  Units rotating in and out.  Local troops who are unaggressive, under-equipped, under-trained and poorly led.  Local troops who do not fight.

1.  M2 .50 machine guns are finicky.  In one major fight one of the .50s kept malfunctioning and would only  fire one shot at a time.  Trained and experienced gunners can keep the guns working on but others cannot.  I read a similar tale from Korea or Vietnam where a guy in a defensive position manned a .50 in a bunker and could only fire single shots or two round bursts when the gun would jam.  He was still able to hold off the attacking enemy.  I'm thinking the bunker was well designed and behind a lot of razor wire.  That or the guy's bunker was getting bypassed.
2.  Vehicles - armored HMMVs - would shot up pretty bad.  How often were vehicles replaced?  Did they make repairs and keep things going or were they able to get replacement vehicles sent over?  Could the rifleman fire out from inside the vehicles or are they buttoned in?
3.  Vehicles in general and something else I read about: The more bombs there are, the more armor is added.  The more armor is added, the bigger the bombs get.  The more armor is added, the heavier and bigger the vehicles get.  The heavier the vehicle, the more the vehicle is limited to roads and smoother terrain.  The more road driving, the less routes available to drive and the easier it is to guess ambush spots and plant bigger bombs.
4.  Translators are vital and rarely any good.  I was mentioning the trouble the Lt. had in this book to my wife.  I said how I was watching a TV show following a platoon in Afghanistan and they tried to speak to local leaders.  The local Afghans would say quite a bit and want to discuss things with the American Soldiers.  The interpreter was incompetent and could not - or would not - directly translate all that was said.  The accurate translation by the TV production company was subtitled on the screen and showed how accurate and vital communication was being missed.  The Afghans came out as stone faced and stupid but their words were intelligent and incisive.
5.  The Afghan National Army (ANA) around Parnell is not up to speed.  The ANA is often at no speed.  The ANA is usually standing alongside a junked car smoking hashish.
6.  One translator turns out to be a mole.  The mole gives information that leads to the bombing death of an American.  The Mole sets-up the infantry company's lead translator for assassination so the Mole can get the job.
7.  The whole book is another reminder of how well trained and disciplined the U.S. military is.  The clear majority of soldiers are honest and professional, even with the various FOB assholes Parnell writes about.
8.  The whole book is an unabashed and sincere love letter from Parnell to his platoon. Parnell constantly hits on the theme of family and how the platoon was his second family.

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