(Normally, we start the year with our “Most Intriguing Event of the Year”. But since Lone Survivor hit theaters across the country on January 10th, we’re devoting this week to that topic.
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 a counter-insurgency lesson happens on a hill-side in Afghanistan, and Americans don’t care, did anyone ever really learn it?
As the most popular memoir and film about Afghanistan, Lone Survivor now has the subtle distinction of being the single most popular piece of media about Afghanistan...period. (To everyone who comments, “Why are you still writing about this?” That’s one reason why.) Since Lone Survivor has lots of subtle (and not-so-subtle) counter-insurgency lessons embedded in the narrative, the book and the movie will have a profound effect on American’s understanding of counter-insurgency warfare.
Most viewers of Lone Survivor won’t realize that sound counter-insurgency practices actually saved Marcus Luttrell’s life on that hillside on that fateful June day. While I don’t fault Peter Berg for trying to tell a tight story centered almost entirely on the battle, this focus skews Americans’ understanding of COIN. Worse, some of Berg’s decisions (like the final battle) will irrevocably mislead Americans on how politics works in Afghanistan.
Here are some counter-insurgency lessons largely missed in the both the Lone Survivor film:
1. The villagers who rescued Luttrell--including Gulab--did so as much for politics as for pashtun-wali.
To be clear, Gulab’s adherence to the Afghanistan cultural behavior commonly called in the West “pashtun-wali” motivated Mohammed Gulab to shelter Marcus Luttrell. However, another key motivating factor was the extremely local politics in the extremely divisive Kunar province.
As Ed Darack describes in Victory Point:
“The people of the Shuryek Valley, into which the gulch fed, had traditionally been at odds with villagers of the Korangal Valley, particularly those of Chichal, bumping heads over grazing-land boundaries. And while not overly friendly to American forces, people on the Shuryek side of the Sawtalo Sar hadn’t proved nearly as supportive of anticoalition militia forces as those of the Korangal.” (page 148)
To make a very crude analogy, after getting in a firefight with the Bloods, Luttrell was rescued by the Crips. So yes, Gulab rescued Luttrell because his honor, but it didn’t hurt that Gulab could hurt his political rivals in the process. If Luttrell had fallen down the other side of the mountain, even pashtun-wali wouldn’t have saved his life.
Even that depiction, though, is too simplistic. Afghan politics, riven for years by civil war, are incredibly complicated. One paragraph won’t do it justice.
Neither will a two hour film. Most media portrayals boil the politics of Afghanistan down to Taliban/evil versus America/good. Most people in Afghanistan don’t fall neatly into one side or the other. Instead, almost every villager I met with also met with insurgents. A simple “good versus evil” story fails to capture this nuance.
2. Salar Ban had an excellent relationship with coalition forces in the region due to a sound counter-insurgency strategy executed by the marines in Kunar.
The marines stationed in Kunar--specifically Camp Blessing--went above and beyond to develop positive relationships with locals. (I don’t have time in this post to tell the entire story, so read Victory Point pages 148-154 for the details). They expanded the “soft” side of military operations, including Medical Civil Action Patrols. While the Korengalis weren’t receptive to this outreach (as they have been historically hostile to outsiders), villagers in the Shuryak valley were. One of these villagers was Mohammad Gulab, who eventually rescued Luttrell. As Victory Point describes it, by using positive outreach relationships took a “quantum leap forward”.
This explains why he was out in the hillsides following the attack in Operation Red Wings. He was looking for Luttrell to help out the Americans. As Gulab himself told it on the Today Show:
“Gulab said he had been trying to warn Luttrell.
“I was trying to tell him I wasn't Taliban. I know that many enemy was looking for him in the mountains," he said through a translator. "And I was trying to warn him that you must be careful."
Frankly, the gains the marines made were incredible, and laid the groundwork so that, when Gulab saw a bleeding and dying Luttrell, he would remember the goodwill Americans in the region had extended him. Any scenes involving marines working in day-to-day counter-insurgency obviously didn’t make it into the film.
3. Ahmad Shah deeply understood local politics and understood counter-insurgency theory.
The film makes Shah out to be a one-note, blood-thirsty tyrant. Lone Survivor (film) introduces Shah to viewers by having him march into Gulab’s village and chop someone’s head off. (Screenplay page 3a-5) The screenplay even describes him as a villain from the Wild West. No, literally,“This Shah and crew feels like an old school western bad guy moving through a cow town.”
Now, compare that description to Marcus Luttrell’s memoir:
“The Taliban moves around these mountains only by the unspoken approval tacit permissions of the Pashtuns, who grant them food and shelter.” (pg. 284)
“The jihadists seem to have a some kind of hammerlock on tribal loyalties, using a whole spectrum of Mafia-style tactics, sometimes with gifts, sometimes with money, sometimes with promising protections, sometimes without outright threats. The truth is, however, neither al Qaeda or the Taliban could function without the cooperation of the Pashtun villages.” (pg. 311)
“This armed gang of tribesman, who were hell-bent on driving out the Americans and the government, could not function up here in these protective mountains entirely alone. Without local support their primitive supply line would perish. Armies need food, cover and cooperation, and the Taliban could only engage in so much bullying before these powerful village leaders decided they preferred the company of the Americans.” (pg. 341)
In reality, Shah was more politician than gangster. As the above quotes show, he had to work with and court the support of the locals in the valley.
Unlike the decision to leave out the marines, which I understand from a plot standpoint, this decision was made to paint a simpler, and less realistic, story. Just imagine another, more realistic scene. A Taliban shura. Gulab is there as are dozens of village elders, drinking tea. Shah makes his case that he could keep out the Americans and hunt any who come to the Sawtalo Sar. This scene would capture the “essential experience” or the “truth” of Operation Red Wings better than the scene in the film. Yet, Peter Berg chose a deliberately provocative and relatively rare phenomenon over a mild-mannered and realistic shura scene.
Worse, the true life events would have worked fine in this film. Imagine...
- a scene where Gulab explains to Luttrell why Ahmad Shah couldn’t enter the village.
- a scene where Gulab discusses why Shah needs local support.
- a scene where Shah explains to his own men why he doesn’t simply march in and kill everyone in Salar Ban. (Which would also make him three-dimensional and realistic.)
- a scene of Shah evacuating to Pakistan within days after the attack….like he did in real life.
Any of those scenes would have been radical and extraordinary. But keeping Shah as a blood-thirsty tyrant/terrorist fits with American stereotypes much better.
4. Ahmad Shah would never have attacked fellow Afghan villagers.
In the film Lone Survivor, Ahmad Shah attacks the village of Salar Ban in one last attempt to grab Luttrell. In real life, he didn’t.
What matters isn’t that Shah didn’t attack; it’s why he didn’t attack. Ahmad Shah didn’t invade the village of Salar Ban because he knew that he would lose support of the local people and the valley if he hurt the villagers. As Luttrell himself writes:
“And then we both heard the opening bursts of gunfire, high up in the village.
“There was a lot of it. Too much. The sheer volume of fire was ridiculous, unless the Taliban were planning to wipe out the entire population of Sabray. And I knew they would not consider that because such a slaughter would surely end all support from these tribal villages up here in the mountain.
“No, they would not do that. They wanted me, but they would never kill another hundred Afghan people...in order to get me…
“These lunatics…[were] firing randomly into the air and aiming at nothing…” (pg. 339)
“...they had not dared to conduct a house-to-house search for fear of further alienating the people and, in particular, the village elder.” (pg. 341)
All armies fight under political constraints. Some have fewer constraints than others, but they all have limits on the violence they can inflict in war. This applies to insurgents in Afghanistan. While Shah certainly would have killed Luttrell had he surrendered or not (a violation of the Geneva Conventions and a war crime), he still prevented his men from attacking other Afghan villagers, because this would have cost him support.
You won’t learn any of these lessons from the film. Lone Survivor (film) ends with a gigantic battle as the Taliban invade Gulab’s village. This doesn’t make sense (nor happened). As Luttrell explains above, such an attack would verge on suicidal for Shah. To get back to the theme of these posts--why accuracy matters in the Lone Survivor film--there isn’t a compelling reason for including the final firefight. It didn’t take place in real life, and it doesn’t somehow capture Marcus Luttrell’s experience any better than not including it.
And it permanently misinforms viewers of the film.
Everyone keeps saying that Americans don’t understand the wars that we’re fighting. That so few people were in the military, and we can’t relate to their stories. But Lone Survivor (film) had more advisors than a medieval prince. Yet none of the SEALs on set pointed out these nuanced counter-insurgency lessons to Peter Berg.
(That, unfortunately, probably has more to do with the state of counter-insurgency theory and its adoption in the special operations world than anything else.)