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Review: ‘Outlaw Platoon’ by Sean Parnell

Review: ‘Outlaw Platoon’ by Sean Parnell post image

Title: Outlaw Platoon: Heroes, Renegades, Infidels, and the Brotherhood of War in Afghanistan
Author: Sean Parnell with John R. Bruning
Genre: Memoir
Year: 2012
Publisher: William Morrow
Acquired: From the publisher for a TLC Book Tour
Rating: ★★★★½

Review: When he was 24 years old, U.S. Army Ranger Sean Parnell was named the commander of the 10th Mountain Division, an elite infantry platoon assigned to protect a small Forward Operating Base in Afghanistan, just 12 miles from the border with Pakistan. The 40 man unit — which eventually became known as the Outlaws — wasn’t up against a force of under-armed, untrained civilians. They were tasked with rooting out a well-trained, well-funded force of Pakistani insurgents.

Over the course of their 16 month combat deployment, the Outlaws would become one of the most decorated combat units in Operation Enduring Freedom: seven Bronze Stars, 12 Army Commendations for Valor and 32 Purple Hearts. In Outlaw Platoon, Parnell (along with co-author John R. Bruning) writes about life on the edge of the world and how the daily danger of a deployment in this region brought out the best (and worst) of the young men tasked with fighting there. 

Outlaw Platoon is one of the most difficult and most addictive books I have read in a long time. Although it is not as philosophical or analytical as other war memoirs I’ve read (Karl Marlantes’ What It Is Like to Go to War? comes to mind), Outlaw Platoon is effective as a snapshot of what war is like for soldiers today who haven’t yet had time to look back or process these experiences fully.

Part of what set the book apart for me was how well Parnell writes about what it is like to engage in combat. His prose, which is always matter-of-fact and to the point, nonetheless manages to convey the confusion of war as well as how adrenaline and fear can inspire feats of tremendous courage or become too much to handle. He also shows, painfully, how it is impossible to think about how horrifying battle can be until much later when, truthfully, you don’t want to think about it at all.

One thing I wondered about the book was what it might offer a reader who is deeply critical of war and the military complex. There were moments of sexism and homophobia (mostly with language or put downs from one soldier to another), for example, that made me uncomfortable as a reader. But I think those moments are important to show that Parnell wasn’t smoothing out his soldiers and this experiences. Parnell is nearly universal in the praise of his men and their action in combat, but isn’t afraid to turn a critical eye on himself, writing about the lessons he learned about leadership during his time commanding the Outlaws.

The book is also not universally positive about the war experience. Again, although Parnell loves the soldiers he served with, he was also open about the conflicts he felt about what he was asked to do as a commander — everything from sending his men into potentially fatal situations to having to order military strikes on enemy combatants. Outlaw Platoon is certainly told from a perspective of someone who believes in people, but not necessarily someone who believes in the politics of our current war.

Outlaw Platoon was, at times, a difficult book to read. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book that illustrated the brutality of war with as much immediacy and gut-turning detail as this book. But even at the most difficult, Outlaw Platoon was book I was glad I was reading. Parnell’s honesty about combat and the brutal ways combat can make brothers out of strangers dug into me and has kept me thinking about these issues since I finished. I highly recommend this book.

tlc logoOther Tour Stops: The Book Garden | Book Him Danno! | Bookfoolery and Babble |  Melody & Words |  toothy books | Cafe of Dreams | Man of La Book | A Musing Reviews | Chaotic Compendiums |

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • bermudaonion(Kathy) February 27, 2013, 9:43 am

    That does sound like a difficult read but it also sounds like one I’d love. One of the reasons I love to read is to experience other places/things vicariously and it sounds like this book does that extremely well.

    • Kim February 27, 2013, 6:48 pm

      Yes, it absolutely does. Although I’m not sure you can ever say you “get” being at war, this one came really close to helping me understand what contemporary combat is like.

  • Nikki Steele February 27, 2013, 11:12 am

    It’s interesting to see the wave of war books coming out from our country’s most recent experiences. I keep wanting to reach a hand towards them, but feel that the immediacy would make it that much more intense and hard to handle (though what am I saying, talking about reading something that other people are actually dealing with?).

    This one does sound really interesting and I like the idea that he kept it raw and real. The best war scenes I can remember are when Yossarian and his crew are roughing about, joking with each other and chasing girls, and are then confronted with the realities of the war.

    • Kim February 27, 2013, 6:49 pm

      There is a wave of these coming out. This is the first I’ve read, but I’m not sure if others could really top it. I didn’t think of a Catch-22 comparison until you mentioned it, but you do get some of that surreal vibe in what Parnell writes about here.

  • Steph February 27, 2013, 5:17 pm

    This sounds like a powerful book. I am adding it to my wish list.

    • Kim February 27, 2013, 6:49 pm

      I hope you’re able to read it!

  • Heather J. @ TLC March 2, 2013, 5:12 pm

    I’m glad that you feel this book was fair in its presentation and that the author didn’t try to whitewash things to make his point. That type of balance and honesty is important in a book like this.

    Thanks for being on the tour Kim!

    • Kim March 2, 2013, 6:40 pm

      Absolutely. It’s important to trust the narrator, and showing flaws can help foster that trust. Parnell does that really well!

  • susan March 4, 2013, 7:47 pm

    I think my brother would really like this book. Thanks for the review.