Outlaw Platoon II: The Politics of War
June 30, 2014
As the their stay in Afghanistan continued, the Outlaw Platoon found itself increasingly frustrated, both by its enemies, by its allies, and by other US Army personnel. There was, for example, a distinction between the platoon and those who were called “Fobbits,” or those who never left the FOB Bermel [forward operating base] and who seemed to take pleasure in making light of the platoon and its activities. When the platoon would return from its operations, the Fobbits took pleasure in cracking jokes about the condition of their vehicles. This created ill will between the two groups, which seemed to grow as time went by.
But the platoon was also increasingly frustrated by the behavior of their allies, the Afghans. As Parnell reports it, this spilled over on July 4th, when the platoon returned from an engagement in which they were rocketed and could not return fire because the enemy was launching its rockets from Pakistan.
“Late that afternoon, we returned to Bermel through the Afghan National Army side of the base. The ANA soldiers had spent the day inside the wire. We passed knots of them playing dice games and kicking soccer balls. Here and there, others sat in the dirt with vacant eyes, smoking hash. Their polyglot uniforms were ill tended. They were poorly groomed. They looked like a unit that didn’t give a shit.
“From my turret, Christ Brown exploded, ‘You motherfuckers! Fight for your own goddamned country.’
“Brown, knock it off,’ I said.
“Fuck them! We’re out every day getting shit on, and they’re in here playing soccer.’” [p. 254]
Parnell, although he tries to shut Brown up, knows that Brown is correct. As he puts it: “This was Afghanistan’s revolution, not ours. We had fought our war for independence. With great leaders like Washington, Adams, and Jefferson, we had thrown off the yoke of terror and oppression and forged a new era…. But who was the Afghan Washington? Hamid Karzai? Give me a break.” [p. 255]
But while Parnell knows that Brown is correct, he does not see that not only is Brown correct but that his description of the situation, as well as Parnell’s own description, points to the futility of America’s war in Afghanistan. And this lack of insight on Parnell’s part has implications for his own well-being insofar as it blinds him to certain phenomena. Parnell thinks, for example, that the death he sees around him is affecting him adversely, making him and the platoon depressed and increasingly anemic. And he is correct.
But it is not just the death that is affecting him. It is also the futility of the entire “project” which is affecting him and his men. They may not know but they certainly sense the futility of their war. They may not know but they sense that change, real change, “revolutionary” change in Afghanistan is beyond their power to accomplish. It is this that led Parnell and his platoon to become depressed, angry, and anemic. These men were experiencing the same feelings that the soldiers in Vietnam experienced and that led them to say, when something bad happened such as the death of a buddy, “Don’t mean nothin’.” In a strange way, this phrase, “Don’t mean nothing,’” was a way of trying to preserve one’s sanity in the face of what appeared to be simply futile, what would otherwise appear to be madness.
Parnell – and his platoon – don’t see that their feelings are, first, appropriate given their situation and, second, point to the delusional character of American policy in Afghanistan. For some reason, Parnell severs the connection between his feelings and the policies that give rise to those feelings. And so he tends to think that he should deal with his feelings in what might be called a “psychological way,” for example, by sharing them with his father as his confidant. [He does this until his mother tells him how his “sharing” is affecting his father and then he stops.] But he does not seem to see the connection between his country’s politics and his feelings.
As a result, Parnell is hard on himself and keeps retreating to his position as “a leader” in order to suppress his feelings of futility. It is almost as if his feelings cannot be justified or that they reflect on his character, rather than reflecting the delusional character of America’s war in Afghanistan and the war on terror in general. He thinks he has to be “tough” so his men will be “tough” too. But, of course, as he does this, he sinks further and further into depression and repression. As he says in his “Acknowledgments:” “A year after deploying home from Afghanistan, my life was in shambles. Depressed and lost, I had strayed from the warrior path.” [p. 363] He didn’t question, even then, “the warrior path” or whether that path was the right path for America to follow in Afghanistan. Interestingly, he never looked outside himself, and so he could not see how his state of being, his “dis-ease,” was a product of more than his own character.
And this lack of insight, this inability to question “the warrior path,” is most notable given that he thanks, “first and foremost, [his] loving wife, Laurie,” who “saved [him] and gave [him] purpose,” and who is “the glue that holds our family together and the most wonderfully compassionate person I’ve ever known.” [p. 363] One could be forgiven for thinking that Sean Parnell has been blinded by his faith in “the warrior path,” in “leadership,” and by a politics that values both of these phenomena more highly than the love and compassion that may have saved Lt. Parnell. It is a rather remarkable state of affairs.