Aug 15

(Spoiler warning: This post contains massive, “The Wall”-sized spoilers for Game of Thrones. This is a show that deserves not to be spoiled, so proceed at your own peril.)

Game of Thrones is incredibly violent. Amazingly violent. It’s more unusual for episode to not contain some act of violence. But connecting this show, philosophically, to our site isn’t easy. Outside of a pat “violence sucks” message, there usually isn’t anything else to say. (This happens with a lot of favorite pieces of art. They’re violent, but we can’t shoehorn them onto the blog.)

But a few years ago, after reading about the audience’s reactions to Jaime Lannister raping his sister Cersei in the fifth episode of the fourth season, I found my angle: Game of Thrones proves the world is getting safer, which we posted about two weeks ago. We had so much material, including our responses to potential rebuttals to our argument, that we had to have a second post to hit it all.

Rebuttal 1: Who says this? Who really believes this?

Basically, I can imagine some people, in response to our piece, saying, “Of course the world today is safer than 600 years ago.” I mean, you couldn’t tell by the rhetoric of politicians--which we’ve quoted multiple times--who scream about how unsafe the world is today. Hell, the Republicans just made it the central talking point of their convention.

If you need quantitative proof, Slate published a piece trying to find the worst year in human history. The poll results at the bottom show 9% of people--on a liberal website--voted for 2016. Another 5% voted 2003, which is insane.

Rebuttal 2: No seriously, who is actually saying this?


A number of neo-racist groups--like the new white supremacy movement, the “alt-right” or the “neo-reactionaries” that have spread online--base their very existence on claiming that democracy has fundamentally made the world a more dangerous place. The solution--for this very fringe movement--is a return to monarchy with heaping doses of racism. I (Eric C) accidentally stumbled onto all this (in a post on TechCrunch) a day before Vox wrote a big piece on it.

Basically, the idea that the world is falling apart undergirds a new, burgeoning anti-democratic, racist ideology. Again, proving that the world is safer matters.

Rebuttal 3: Some outlets are (finally) reporting that the world is getting safer.

In a way. Sometimes. Kind of.

Fact-checking Trump’s acceptance speech, many news outlets reported that America is actually statistically safer than it was 8 years ago (when Obama took office) or 38 years ago (when the country apparently fell apart in 1968). Perhaps this is becoming the new norm for critics and reporters on the left? Or is it just a temporary response to a candidate most on the left abhor?

I‘d guess the latter. Take this headline from Slate two weeks ago: “More of the same: Gun Violence/Terrorism Edition”. On the Fivethirtyeight podcast, one of the reporters said, “Yes, the world is a dangerous place”. On Vox’s The Weeds, Ezra Klein described the world in similar terms. (We still love both of these shows.) So no, this idea hasn’t taken hold yet.

Rebuttal 4: Game of Thrones shouldn’t have depicted rape period.

We first wrote yesterday’s post two years ago after the Jaime/Cersei rape debacle. Since then, there was the Sansa rape by Ramsay Bolton that caused a sitting U.S. Senator to stop watching the series.

But as distasteful and opposed to rape as we are, if you want to depict the past realistically, you have to include rape. (But you don’t have to show it, and Game of Thrones had the rapes occur off camera.) As our post lays out, rape was a part of life in the past, especially during war. Game of Thrones made this clear in the first episode, when Daenerys was raped by Khal Drogo.

It wasn’t just the rape that was bad in the Middle Ages. Back then, women were property. A huge cultural shift occurred over the 20th century when the idea that women were independent agents, not marital property or birthing vehicles, came into being. In Game of Thrones’ world, women don’t decide who they can marry or who they can divorce. (Though, in fairness, Game of Thrones depicts powerful women leading behind the scenes.)

In other words, Sansa’s rape wasn’t a crime. It was daily life for women. More people should know this.  

Rebuttal 5: What about modern instances of slavery, torture, homicide, and so on?

I can already hear readers pushing back against each example in our post, asking, “What about modern day slavery? Or sexual assault on college campuses? Or the Charlie Hebdo shooting? Or Guantanamo Bay and waterboarding? Don’t those show society hasn’t improved at all?”

Pinker debunks that criticism on his website:

“There is an enormous difference between a clandestine, illegal, and universally decried practice in a few parts of the world and an open, institutionalized, and universally approved practice everywhere in the world.”

Torture, rape, slavery and other modern horrors were accepted and even celebrated in the past. Today, only criminals engage in them. Take slavery. Some people will point out that there are more slaves today than in the 1800s. But the highest estimates--which are almost surely over-estimates by interest groups--estimate that the modern world has 29 million slaves. Divided by the global population, that’s .003% of the population. So yeah, huge improvement.

We actually left off numerous improvements in the modern world, including religious fanaticism, entrenched racism and sexism, or the general improvements in healthcare or technology.

The world is so much better today.

Rebuttal 6: But this is a fantasy show...

This complaint comes from my dad who didn’t understand the point of our guest post. In short, Game of Thrones has dragons. Why look at it realistically?

Because George R. R. Martin based his series on the past. He made it realistic...then added dragons and zombies. If you can’t get past the fantasy elements of Game of Thrones, I’d recommend watching Rome, HBO’s less-fictional, historical predecessor to Game of Thrones. All of the same instances of violence occur. Slavery? Check. Torture? Check. Rape? Check.

Aug 08

So...Marcus Luttrell’s speech wasn’t all that exciting from an On V perspective. (Hence why it took so long to post this.) He didn’t recap his own personal story (which is the main thing we wanted to fact check) or say anything noteworthy. Instead, he delivered a standard convention speech, albeit one filled with conservative talking points. (Though he did endorse Donald Trump, and what can be more disappointing than that?) Nor did the media cover it all that much, with much bigger news--like Melania Trump’s plagiarism charges--taking the spotlight on the first night.

We plan to analyze the whole Republican foreign policy night (“Make America Safe Again”) in greater detail before the election. And we’ll fact check as many claims as we can (repeating “Americans are actually quite safe”, ad nauseum).

Still, Luttrell’s speech wasn’t entirely honest. Most of the coverage centered on the fact that Luttrell went off teleprompter in the middle of his talk. AOL ran the headline, “Navy Seal Marcus Luttrell goes off-script at RNC in stunning tear-jerker speech”. Breitbart had something similar.

Here is Jody Avirgan from FiveThirtyEight describing that moment:

“Halfway through his speech, Marcus Luttrell said that he wasn’t used to teleprompters, and that he was just going to speak from the heart. The crowd here in Quicken Loans Arena ate it up. It was a great moment of showmanship. The catch? Given our vantage point behind the stage, we could see that every subsequent word of his speech was also in the teleprompter. Great theater takes practice, folks.”   

What else to say about that?

Next up, Jake Tapper sent a tweet and mentioned on air that Marcus Luttrell was a part of “Operation Red Wing”, and linked to Luttrell’s website. We took a screenshot the day of the speech. To be clear, this is still the wrong name as the mission was Operation Red Wings, named after the hockey team.

As Neil O’Hanlon said on Twitter, “7 out of 8 letters isn’t bad.”

Jul 25

(Though many don’t want to believe it, the world is getting safer. There will be an end to war, someday, if the world works towards it. To read the rest of our posts on “The World is Getting Safer”, click here.)

Donald Trump definitely made America seem like a dystopian hellscape last week at the convention. (See Seth Myers on Late Night for good coverage.) Trump’s theme was clear: the world is in chaos. With multiple wars in the Middle East, terrorist attacks in Europe, police shootings, and violence at political rallies, everything seems to be falling apart.

Trump wasn’t the only person spreading fear this year. Almost every Republican candidate for president--from mild-mannered Jeb Bush to bombastic Chris Christie--told the electorate during the Republican primaries that we live in truly “dangerous” and “perilous” times. Donald Trump and the Republican National Convention just made it their official theme.

Republican politicians aren’t alone in fear mongering. Democrats like Diane Feinstein believe we live in a “dangerous world”. Even a liberal commentator like Jon Stewart--who just called Trump out for fear-mongering on The Late Show--ended his run on The Daily Show (in the second to last episode) saying, “'The world is demonstrably worse than when I started.”

We need some perspective on how great we really have it.

And for that, we turn to the fantasy world of Game of Thrones.

Each week the show offers helpings of war, torture, rape, incest, mass murder, terrorist insurgencies, beheadings and so on, which should just depress us more. But it’s actually refreshing. Contrasting the pessimism of the daily news to this dark but wonderful TV show, we can’t help thinking, “Man, the world is so much safer today.”

Game of Thrones is a fun world to visit, but I can’t imagine anyone wanting to stay. If modern times are “perilous”, how would you describe the Middle Ages? Despite the anxiety that pervades our culture, when compared to the past, we’re living in a modern golden age.

And Game of Thrones proves it. Unlike past fantasy authors, Martin based his world on actual European history. George R.R. Martin has said numerous times that he places a high premium on accuracy. “My novels are epic fantasy, but they are inspired by and grounded in history,” he told The New York Times.  Along with accuracy in food (lamprey pie), dress (velvet doublets) and weapons (two-handed greatswords), Martin’s Westeros is an excellent analogue for the ugliness and violence of Europe of hundreds of years ago (specifically, the eras of the Hundred Years War and the War of the Roses). A trip through that world reveals just how much more dangerous and violent it was compared to contemporary times.

(Wall-sized spoilers abound for the rest of this article.)


Two seasons ago Jaime raped his sister Cersei and some fans got upset. Last season, Ramsay Bolton raped Sansa Stark, outraging many, many fans, including US senators. Viewed from a modern perspective, Sansa’s rape was disgusting. Show that scene to someone from the 1300s and they’d wonder why people were upset. Arranged marriages among royal families were an unquestioned part of life in the past, along with subsequent marital rape.

Sansa’s rape was far from the only sexual assault in the world of Game of Thrones--214 instances and counting in the books. Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane uses war as an excuse to rape as many people as he can. Sansa almost got raped by a mob in season two. And the series opened with Daenerys getting raped by Khal Drogo in the same circumstances as Sansa. (I’m not sure the Dothraki can even have consensual sex.) As Martin has said, in response to criticism both two seasons ago and last season, rape has always been a part of war. To not depict it would artificially sanitize his medieval world.   

Today, governments work to stop sexual violence. For one of the first times in human history, politicians have opened investigations into sexual assault in the military. Husbands can no longer legally rape their wives. This isn’t to say there still isn’t work to end sexual assault--there is--but we have come a long way.


One of the scariest parts of Game of Thrones is watching someone travel. Anywhere. As Catelyn Stark found out travelling to the Vale, even armed guards can’t keep you safe. You could be murdered at any point, or in the best case scenario, robbed of your savings, which Sandor Clegane did two seasons ago to a person giving him room and board. Or you could get captured by pirates with an interest in dwarf penises.

Homicide today is not what it was in the past. According to Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, 14th century England had a murder rate that was 95% greater than it is today. In the short term, as has been widely reported in Slate and other outlets, the murder rate has declined, in some cases below levels in the 1950s and even early 1900s.


In the world of Game of Thrones, slavery is illegal in Westeros, but it’s legal in Essos. And boy howdy is it legal, with an entire region named Slaver’s Bay. The people of Astapor castrate slave warriors and the people of Meereen crucify slaves who rebel.

Until the middle 1800s, slavery was legal in most of the world, including Asia, Africa and Europe. The ugliest and most infamous example was probably the Transatlantic slave trade between 1525 and 1866, when slavers shipped 12.5 million slaves across the Atlantic. (Almost 2 million of them died during the trip.)

Cruel and Unusual Punishment

Game of Thrones leans heavily on the Westerosi tradition of “trial by combat”, in which someone accused of a crime can fight their way out of it. This was really only practiced in Germany. Trials by ordeal, on the other hand, were quite common in Europe, forcing people to endure starvation, drowning and fire to prove their innocence. Though many think this only applied to witches, it was actually quite common.

The “justice system” of the medieval world was barbaric and capricious, often catering to the mob. Criminals found guilty weren’t taken to prison, they were paraded through the streets (like Cersei walking naked through the streets of King’s Landing), then ritually tortured (like having their nipples torn off with hot pincers), and then killed in gruesome ways (like being ripped apart by horses). The guillotine was actually invented as a more humane method of capital punishment.


Remember in the middle of season two of Game of Thrones when Arya, captured by the Lannisters, watches as Lannister henchmen systematically torture dozens (hundreds?) of prisoners? Pretty brutal stuff, plucking one prisoner each day, at random, then torturing them to death.

And pretty realistic to medieval uses of torture. As Pinker told Scientific American about torture five hundred years ago:

“Religious instruction included prurient descriptions of how the saints of both sexes were tortured and mutilated in ingenious ways. Corpses broken on the wheel, hanging from gibbets, or rotting in iron cages where the sinner had been left to die of exposure and starvation were a common part of the landscape.”

The World Is Getting Better

We could go on, listing the multitude of ways the world has become less violent. (We haven’t even mentioned the decline in war, the end to institutionalized racism, and more.)

Over the last few years, a cottage industry has sprouted up among academics trying to prove this academically. Stephen Pinker, John Horgan, Joshua Goldstein, John Mueller and others have tried (vainly) to convince the world that war is decreasing in frequency, terrorism is more hype that danger, and that overall things are getting better. Pinker summed up the argument for Slate a few years ago, “The world is not falling apart”. Charles Kenny titled a piece for The Atlantic in December “2015: The Best Year in History for the Average Human Being”.

But this line of thinking hasn’t broken through. Thanks to the media’s steady stream of daily violence, people believe the world is a scary, dangerous place.

By giving us an accurate, bloody depiction of the ancient world, Game of Thrones may actually give people a sense of how good we have it now. Hopefully, sometime soon, politicians and pundits will stop complaining about the sorry state of the modern world.

Or perhap they’d rather live in Westeros?

Jul 18

(To read all of our Lone Survivor posts, please click here. The most important post is "A List of the Mistakes and Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality" so read that first if you are new to the blog or this topic.) we are again. For eagle-eyed observers following the news, you may have noticed that Marcus Luttrell is speaking at the Republican National Convention tonight. (Tonight’s theme is “Make America Safe Again”. Remember, these are the safest times in American history.) Honestly, we thought we were about done with Lone Survivor and its author, but Luttrell keeps himself in the news, especially as a Republican spokesperson.

We’ll be watching Marcus’ speech today (and hopefully live-tweeting @onviolence), looking to see if he either A. repeats misinformation (especially misinformation reporters could easily fact check) or B. rebuts his past statements or writing.

In case anyone is googling his name and landing at our website, here’s a quick summary:

- Marcus Luttrell continues to exaggerate or distort the facts about Operation Red Wings. (His website still calls it “Operation Red Wing” as of July 17th, 2016.) For a primer on all the mistakes and inaccuracies, check out our post here. For a mainstream feature article, check out the second half of R.M Schneiderman’s Newsweek cover story from last month, “Marcus Luttrell’s Savior, Mohammad Gulab, Claims ‘Lone Survivor’ Got It Wrong” and our reaction to it here. SOFREP has an in-depth discussion (alas, it’s behind a paywall) here. And finally, this all started with Ed Darack, so read his stuff here.

- Marcus Luttrell is a political figure, which both justifies this level of scrutiny and indicts the media for not providing it. This can’t be said enough.

- Operation Red Wings was an historically important mission for the U.S. military. Getting the facts right about it matters, as Michael C wrote about here. Also, as we’ll discuss later this week, the U.S. military never seriously investigated this failed operation.

- Despite the above two bullet points, the media (hate to say it, but “mainstream media”) has shown almost no interest in covering Luttrell’s persistent distortions. If we had to call one figure out in particular, it’d be Anderson Cooper, who regularly invites Luttrell on as a guest and did the really bizarre, softball 60 Minutes feature (our link here).

In honor of the convention, we’re posting a piece we tried--but failed--to get published last year, after the Brian Williams’ fiasco, comparing the Brian Williams and Bill O’Reilly controversies to Marcus Luttrell and Chris Kyles’ repeated inaccuracies, along with the media’s response to both.

The Media Shouldn’t Hold Veterans to a Different Standard than Brian Williams

In February of 2015, when Brian Williams admitted he fabricated a war story about his time in Iraq, the news media rightfully excoriated him. Anderson Cooper called it a “blow to the profession.” David Carr on CBS’s This Morning with Charlie Rose called Williams’ actions “dumb”. (Williams was demoted last month to MSNBC.) Also in February, Bill O’Reilly also came under fire for exaggerating his experiences in war zones (O’Reilly’s exaggerations literally filled a book).

Seeing the outrage over Williams and O’Reilly fabricating events in a war zone and the media’s continued obsession with debunking non-fiction memoirs, it made us ask: what about Republican political operatives who happen to be veterans--specifically former Navy SEALs Marcus Luttrell and Chris Kyle? Why aren’t they held to the same exacting standard, especially when they use their stories to push Republican candidates and endorse conservative policies like gun rights?

Take Lone Survivor, the story of Marcus Luttrell and Operation Red Wings. Both the film and memoir of Lone Survivor contained massive inaccuracies on par with the Williams and O’Reilly exaggerations. We’ve spent years debunking the claims of Luttrell in his memoir Lone Survivor on our blog, On Violence. For those not familiar, Marcus Luttrell was part of a four man sniper team whose position was discovered by three goat herders in Afghanistan. After freeing the Afghans, the team was attacked by insurgents, and only Luttrell survived.

Luttrell’s memoir has significant discrepancies from official military reports about the battle. In his memoir and later speeches, Marcus Luttrell claims 200 men attacked his team while the U.S. Navy’s official documents said it was closer to 50. Other reports have cited 20 to 30 attackers (and some even lower). In the memoir and interviews, Luttrell falsely claims that the target of the operation, Ahmad Shah, was a high level Taliban operative with ties to Osama bin laden. Neither claim is true. In both interviews and his memoir, Luttrell claims Shah had killed many, many Marines in the months before the mission, when only five Marines had died in Afghanistan at that point and none were killed by Shah. Luttrell also claims he saw evidence of WMDs and, more shockingly, an al Qaeda training camp in Iraq. (And there are many more mistakes, including getting the title of the operation wrong.)

When Charlie Rose interviewed Marcus Luttrell before the release of Lone Survivor (the film), he let Luttrell repeat many of these exaggerations, including Luttrell saying, “We were sent out to capture/kill a high ranking individual in bin Laden’s army.” Charlie Rose also played a clip from the film repeating the claim that 20 Marines died the week before in Afghanistan, when in reality no Marines had died, a fact easily discovered by using

Most egregiously, in his memoir, Luttrell claimed the SEAL team took a vote over whether or not they should kill three goatherders. During Marcus Luttrell’s appearance on 60 Minutes with Anderson Cooper--in addition to ignoring the other discrepancies and exaggerations in Luttrell’s memoir--Cooper only casually mentions that in, “the past [Luttrell has] been criticized for saying they took a vote… something that’s not supposed to happen in SEAL teams because it’s up to the team leader to make a decision.” But Cooper didn’t ask Luttrell why he wrote that in his book, why Luttrell told Matt Lauer on the Today Show that they took a vote, or ask Luttrell why he changed his story. In other words, ask the same questions the media asked of Brian Williams.

And on the same night Anderson Cooper described Brian Williams’ actions as a “blow to the profession”, who was his earlier guest? Marcus Luttrell.

Outside of an article we wrote for Slate and a piece by Ed Darack in The Marine Corp Gazette, no major media outlet has asked Luttrell about the discrepancies in his book versus reality, compared to the thousands of new stories about Brian Williams. [Update: As of today, Newsweek is the only exception.] Despite Marcus Luttrell endorsing Rick Perry for President (twice) and regularly appearing as a pundit on Fox News, he has not been held to the same standard as journalists. He also joined other Navy SEALs in founding a company they bill as a “movement” that runs paid speaking tours and sells ammunition.

Perhaps you could explain away Marcus Luttrell’s exaggerations as minor details, but Chris Kyle of American Sniper fame made up at least three stories since he left the military: he claimed he punched Jesse Ventura in the face (Ventura later sued Kyle for defamation and won), he claimed he shot looters in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and he claimed that he killed two men who attempted to carjack him in Texas. (Like Luttrell, Kyle also claimed he saw evidence for WMDs in Iraq, something not even the current crop of Republicans running for president think is the case.)

Yet the most important falsehood told by Chris Kyle is this: despite claims on American Sniper’s website that Kyle “donated the proceeds of American Sniper to the families of his fallen friends”, according to court transcripts, less than 2% of the over $3 million in book royalties went to charity.

Promoting American Sniper when it was released in January, outside of a few blog posts, the majority of media coverage ignored Kyle’s tall tales. On February 9th, after covering the Brian Williams scandal, Anderson Cooper closed his show by announcing the CNN special Blockbuster: The Story of American Sniper. This special didn’t debate any of the above fabrications, including Katrina, Jesse Ventura or shooting the carjackers.

Luttrell and Kyle used their bestselling memoirs to promote Republican politics and profit. Both American Sniper and Lone Survivor are filled with political rants against liberals, the media and the military’s rules of engagement. Marcus Luttrell tours the country giving speeches for conservative groups, like the NRA, Glenn Beck’s rally, and Rick Perry’s 2012 presidential campaign. He’s also started selling gun ammunition. Taya Kyle, Chris Kyle’s widow, recently gave a speech at an NRA convention. And she has her own memoir coming out in the next couple of months. Tara Kyle also joined Marcus Luttrell in founding their company-styled as a philanthropy Team Never Quit.

And a few weeks ago, both Taya Kyle and Marcus Luttrell endorsed Rick Perry for president and joined him on-stage for the announcement. [Update: And now, of course, Luttrell is supporting Donald Trump for president and speaking at the RNC.]

We criticize veterans from the position of one who served. One half of our writing team deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq as an officer in the US Army. We believe we (veterans) should be held to the same standard as the rest of society. The fact that Luttrell and Kyle have profited from exaggerating their stories upsets many veterans, just like Brian Williams’ exaggerations.

In the end, Brian Williams has been replaced with Lester Holt. Last year, Holt did NBC News’ segment on Lone Survivor and this year covered American Sniper. He didn’t cover any of the mistakes or exaggerations of either Luttrell or Kyle, and in fact, allowed deliberately false information to stand.

In other words, veterans continue to get a pass.

Jun 13

(To read the rest of our coverage on foreign policy, the military and the presidential primaries, please click here.)

“On Violence, what do you think of Serial’s second season on Bowe Bergdahl?”

We’ve been asked that question a lot, by friends and family, by people in the military and outside it, and by people we meet online. The whole gamut.

But usually we don’t say anything, and we haven’t written anything about Bergdahl since Serial: Season Two dropped. Which feels unusual because we dubbed Bowe Bergdahl’s release one-half of our most thought provoking event of the half year back in 2014, where we, mainly, debunked some instant criticism heaped on President Obama for securing Bergdahl’s release by the Taliban.

So why not address Serial: Season Two sooner? Fear of the rabbit hole. I (Michael C) knew that as soon as I started listening, I’d be flooded with post ideas. And I was right. As I listened to the first episode, I was flooded with ideas, which I’ll now roll out over the next several months.

But before we get there, let’s start simpler. At the beginning. With the theme music. At almost exactly 4 minutes into episode one, the Republican candidate for President says:

“In the old days, deserters were shot, right? [CHEERS]”

Usually, this is where I would let out the snark on Donald Trump and lambast this position. Except I have to be honest: I’ve made this argument. At two separate parties, I prefaced my opinion on Bergdahl--really to convey the seriousness of what he did--by saying that, in the olden times, America executed deserters.


To be fair, just because someone is odious doesn’t mean their positions are similarly odious by default. We’ve gone at the reverse of this quite a bit in our “Quotes Behaving Badly” series. Just because Einstein said something doesn’t make it witty and just because Hitler said something doesn’t make it inherently evil.

I can admit though, I was wrong on this point. Just a moment of self-reflection reveals this to be a bad argument. And I have three variations on this theme.

1. We don’t do a lot of things in general we used to do.

For instance, slavery. America, Great Britain and all the colonial powers used to take people from their homes in Africa in chains, ship them across the sea, and hold them in bondage. This bondage was enforced through corporal punishment, torture and murder.

Society also used to sacrifice animals, which used to be a common part of religion, including the Abrahamic tradition. I mean, if you go back far enough in time, religions used to sacrifice people.

In almost every way, in every facet of society, the way we do things now is better than the past. That includes not shooting deserters. So yeah, we used to do a lot of things we don’t do any more.

2. We used to shoot people for a lot of crimes.

For instance, shoplifting, cutting down cherry trees, escaping multiple times as a slave, stealing cattle, or sodomy. So yes, we used to shoot deserters, but we used to shoot people for a lot of crimes we no longer use it for. So it isn’t a great argument.

3. We used to do a lot of things in warfare we don’t do anymore.

We’ll go into this in much more detail, but the most striking thing about the Bowe Bergdahl case, for me, is how much effort was expended in rescuing Bergdahl in the initial months after his desertion and capture. Literally, operations ground to a halt across Afghanistan to find a single soldier.

This just didn’t happen in prior wars. When B-29s flew over Germany in WWII, many of them didn’t return. Either because they were shot down, crashed or got lost. The Allies didn’t have the manpower to hunt down each missing plane. This applied to boats lost at sea and soldiers lost on the ground.

But warfare is different with an all volunteer force. We bring every single soldier back including their bodies. We’ll stop the war effort to do so, even if doing so would likely cause us to lose us the war. While the contemporary force refuses to admit this fact, we did not used to fight wars that way.

So Donald Trump is correct. We used to shoot deserters. We don’t anymore. That’s a good thing.

Jun 06

In the last few years, kick-started by the Osama bin Laden killing, Navy SEALs have dominated the military-themed universe. Of course, we were on this way early, starting with our week on Lone Survivor (as part of Eric C’s series on post-9/11 war memoirs). Since then, we’ve catalogued the films, the news stories, the political action committees and the books by and about Navy SEALs. (And listed the political inaccuracies contained therein.)

A new academic paper on this issue lays out the potential costs to the SEAL community. Navy SEAL Lieutenant Forrest Crowell, doing graduate work at the Naval Postgraduate School, has written his Master’s thesis called “Navy SEALs Gone Wild” that analyzes the degradation of the Navy SEAL’s ethos when it comes to publicity.

Here’s the opening paragraph:

“What would have happened if U.S. Navy SEALs had not killed Osama bin Laden, but rather he had been killed by a drone strike? Would President Obama’s administration have handled the publicity differently? Would the name and location of the drone operator’s unit have been released? Would the man or woman who pulled the trigger to release the missile have been lionized in mainstream American culture? Would Fox News have hired this drone operator to be a Fox News contributor, paid to comment on domestic and foreign policy? Would drone operators have materialized from the shadows to write tell-all books, star in movies, blog about sensitive drone operations, criticize the president, and run for political office on the platform that they were drone operators? (Hint: this is what many former SEALs are doing.)"

This is an amazing anecdote and really shows the stark differences between special operators and other soldiers. It also sets up the key challenge addressed by the paper: how can an elite unit that needs secrecy to thrive, survive when former members commoditize their experience?

Apparently the article has made the rounds in relatively small Naval Special Warfare community. This New York Times article describes a bit about that.

Take a read.

Jun 01

(To read all of our Lone Survivor posts, please click here. The most important post is "A List of the Mistakes and Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality" so read that first if you are new to the blog or this topic.)

As we wrote on Monday, Newsweek has a cover article on Mohammad Gulab’s struggles after saving the life of Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, the famed author of Lone Survivor. The piece also questions what actually happened on the mission, including some new information we wanted to highlight.

To start, Gulab’s account differs from Luttrell’s story in a number of ways. He starts by telling a different narrative about how the insurgents in the area discovered the SEALs:

“Gulab maintains the SEALs were far from the stealthy, superhuman warriors described in Lone Survivor. ] They didn’t die because they spared civilians, he says; they died because they were easily tracked, quickly outmaneuvered and thoroughly outgunned. The militants, like many others in the area, heard the helicopter drop the Americans on the mountain, Gulab claims. The next morning, they began searching for the SEAL’s distinctive footprints. The way Gulab heard it from fellow villagers, when the militants finally found them, the Americans were deliberating about what to do with the goat herders. The insurgents held back. After Luttrell and company freed the locals, the gunmen waited for the right moment to strike."

This calls into question the central argument of Lone Survivor (book) that restrictive ROE got the SEALs killed.

The next inaccuracy casts doubts on the severity of the firefight, questioning the number of rounds fired by Luttrell.

“More puzzling: While Luttrell wrote that he fired round after round during the battle, Gulab says the former SEAL still had 11 magazines of ammunition when the villagers rescued him—all that he had brought on the mission.”

In addition to those two new potential inaccuracies, the article provides further evidence that Luttrell’s account inflated both the number of enemy fighters and how many of those fighters the SEALs killed:

““[Luttrell’s claims] are exaggerated nonsense,” says Patrick Kinser, a former Marine infantry officer who participated in Operation Red Wings and read the former SEAL’s after action report. “I’ve been at the location where he was ambushed multiple times. I’ve had Marines wounded there. I’ve been in enough firefights to know that when shit hits the fan, it’s hard to know how many people are shooting at you. [But] there weren’t 35 enemy fighters in all of the Korengal Valley [that day].”


“The battle, Gulab claims, was short-lived. He wasn’t on the mountain with Luttrell but says everyone in the village could hear the gunfire. Gulab scoffs at the estimate by Naval Special Warfare Command that 35 Taliban died in the battle. (A Navy spokesman declined to comment on the matter.) But the Afghan claims the villagers and American military personnel who combed the mountain for the bodies of the dead SEALs never found any enemy corpses. (Andrew MacMannis, a former Marine Colonel who helped draw up the mission and was on scene during the search and recovery effort for the dead SEALs and other military personnel, says there were no reports of any enemy casualties.)"

Here are some other thoughts on the article:

First, especially in light of the rest of the article, one shouldn’t take everything Gulab says as gospel. He’s just one source. And he clearly has a bias, as the rest of the article shows. That said, one shouldn’t take everything Luttrell says as absolutely true, which almost every journalist who interviews him does. Schneiderman took a much more nuanced approach which is missing in a lot of quick hit journalism nowadays.

Second, this is a great article by R.M. Schneiderman, but we really wish he hadn’t repeated the inaccurate details of the mission before casting doubt on them later in the article. Schneiderman questions the basic facts of the story, using the amazing work by Ed Darack and links to our posts on Luttrell’s story changes, but only after he retells Luttrell’s original, and inaccurate, story. First, it’s a long article, so a lot of people just won’t finish it. (Thanks, internet.) Even worse, a lot of research has been done by psychologists that shows how difficult it is to change people’s minds when they are presented with inaccurate information. Some readers, even if they read the facts contradicting Luttrell’s story later in the story, will still be inclined to believe him.

Third, Schneiderman includes one possible explanation for some of the inconsistencies in the book Lone Survivor:

“Robinson says he interviewed Gulab extensively, took notes and double-checked details with the interpreter, but as with Lone Survivor ], he didn’t record the interviews.”

Finally, I, Eric C, remain frustrated at the double standard that the media holds for veterans. Last year, we wrote a piece--that we couldn’t get published--after Brian Williams got in trouble for exaggerating his personal experiences in combat zones. Also last year, two different memoirs (Primates of Park Avenue and On the Run) were accused of inaccuracies, and the accusations were widely covered in the mainstream media, including hundreds of blog posts and even taking up segments on cable news and morning news.

No one, it seems, cares about veterans exaggerating their details, at least not as much as liberal professors, nannies or news anchors. I have theories why, but I’m still disappointed.

May 16

(To read all of our Lone Survivor posts, please click here. The most important post is "A List of the Mistakes and Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality" so read that first if you are new to the blog or this topic.)

If you haven’t seen it, Newsweek has a cover story by R. M. Schneiderman on Mohammad Gulab, the man who rescued Marcus Luttrell (of Lone Survivor fame). The article focuses on Gulab’s troubles leaving Afghanistan after protecting Luttrell and the ensuing falling out between the two men. Schneiderman also details the discrepancies between Marcus Luttrell’s versions of events--linking to both the research of Ed Darack and yours truly--and he gives Gulab’s account of the battle, which differs from Luttrell’s.

The article is worth a read to understand the plight of civilians who who helped Americans (most often as interpreters) and now need to leave Afghanistan or Iraq. It also includes some new information (and new discrepancies) in the story of Lone Survivor, which we’ll highlight on Wednesday.