Apr 08

(To read the entire "The (Opportunity) Costs of Security” series, check out the articles below...

- Two Supercomputers Diverged in the Woods

- Even More Ways to Use the World's Fastest Supercomputer

- How the NYPD Became the CIA: The (Opportunity) Costs of Security

- The (Opportunity) Costs of the First Iraq War

- The (Opportunity) Costs of ANOTHER War with Iraq

- Spying is Killing Us: My Argument to Win Intelligence Squared, “Spying Keeps You Safe”)


It’s a sometime tactic among conservatives, when debating economics, to suggest to their liberal opponent to “take an econ class”. It happened two years ago on Facebook and Twitter when I published “The Chicago School of Counter-Insurgency”. When he was in college, our conservative uncles told Eric C, an avowed liberal, to “take an econ class” so many times that he borrowed an econ textbook from a friend and read the whole thing. 

Well, after a year of business school, I can say that I did take an economics course. [Eric C editorial: And since Michael C won’t write it, I will: he also made Dean’s list each quarter. #twinbrag.]

The criticism that I should take an economics course seemed particularly off when it came to “Getting Rid of the Chicago School of Counter-Insurgency”, because I didn’t mean to attack an entire subject matter, merely one particular ideological branch of economics that wildly underestimates the role of behavior in economics.

These attacks stung because I love economics. I love using economics--among many topics in B-school--to help explain the way the world works. B-schools make future MBA students take economics precisely because it has so many useful concepts.

Take opportunity costs. Opportunity costs are the benefits a firm foregoes by selecting a strategic option. In layman's terms, by choosing to do one thing, it means you can’t do another. In literary terms, for Eric C, Frost couldn’t walk down two paths. In business, choosing to build a factory means choosing not to use those funds to increase employee salaries, for example.

All decisions have opportunity costs, the advantages and costs of all other alternatives. Smart firms treat opportunity costs holistically, factoring in non-monetary costs like human capital, time, logistics and intangible benefits. (Though they usually convert them to the same unit, most frequently dollars.)

After 9/11, America as a nation responded to the threat of terrorism by passing the Authorization for Utilization of Military Force, the Patriot Act, the Intelligence Reform Act and hundreds of other authorizations and budget decisions. Each of these decisions by Congress, President Bush, and President Obama had opportunity costs. In liberal terms, spending a dollar on terrorism means not spending that dollar on economic stimulus, food stamps, or veterans. In conservative terms, every dollar spent means another dollar taken from taxpayers. In neo-conservative terms, every dollar spent raises the deficit.

With this in mind, we have to ask, knowing the concept of opportunity costs, was all that terrorism spending a good use of money?

We've described before and linked to the few lone voices making the intellectual argument that terrorism is rare, how unlikely it is to ever affect you or your loved ones lives. (Several times actually.) We've tried to explain how safe as a society we really are. But I’ve never written about the wasted money in terms of what we stand to lose as a society.

Why? Because opportunity costs are often abstract and especially hard to value. Fortunately, I think I have found a few prime examples of opportunity costs that I can measure. Even better, I will get to apply a little bit of back-of-the-envelope, consulting-interview-style, economic analysis to measure their impact. Obviously, I will have to make some assumptions and I will struggle to find a lot of the data.

In total, though, this is an exercise America needs to perform. Unfortunately for America, the security state doesn’t have itinerant economists trawling it for insights unlike, say, sports. Still, America shouldn’t forget the opportunity costs of the war on terror.

I mean, conservatives wanted us to take an economics course, right?

Jan 21

(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.)

Since we put up a post two week ago called, “The Worst Media Coverage of Lone Survivor”, it probably makes sense that we would offer up a corrective. Today we present the best articles we’ve read about Lone Survivor (film). In other words, the takes that break out of the typical reporting.

Or re-reporting, which is what most reporters did. The vast majority of reporters wrote mostly uncritical takes on Lone Survivor, simply repeating how realistic the film was, emphasizing SEALs were on set, mentioning the heroism of everyone involved, and ignoring any possible errors.

A few journalists and writers have analyzed Lone Survivor from a more skeptical lens. We want to celebrate those takes today.

1. “‘Lone Survivor’ film review by an Afghan combat vet who fought Ahmad Shah.” by Mark Perna, Don’t Ever Call Me a Hero. Obviously, we can’t stand the criticism that “if you haven’t been, there you can’t say anything” because we feel that the duty of citizens is to analyze and question their government and military. But no internet troll could accuse Mark Perna of “not having served” since Perna deployed as a marine to Kunar province at the time of Operation Red Wings, later conducting missions to drive Ahmad Shah out of the region. While praising the film, Perna does make one point super clear (that we have said for a long time): “This film is fiction” and he lists some of those fictions based on his personal experience. Take that to heart and read the review.

(Perna had previously taken issue with the line from the trailer where “Shah killed 20 marines the week before” that we called out as well.)

2. Jake Tapper on The Lead. Here is what we respect most about Jake Tapper: among the dozens (and possibly hundreds) of reporters who interviewed Marcus Luttrell in the run-up to Lone Survivor, Tapper was the only one who asked a unique question. This, more than anything, is what threw off Luttrell. Tapper’s question wasn’t out of bounds; he merely gave his honest emotional take--that it feels so hopeless, and senseless--that men died that day.

But Tapper didn’t stop there. Though he is a huge supporter of the military, he also questions the orders of commanders. He pointed out a fact that was almost completely ignored in the run-up to Lone Survivor’s release: why hasn’t a single officer been held accountable for the mistakes made before, during and after Operation Red Wings? In short, after reading Ed Darack’s article in the Marine Corps Gazette, Tapper knows that there is more to the Operation Red Wings story than Lone Survivor let on. It was refreshing journalism.

3. “Jake Tapper is Getting Attacked For Saying What Many are Thinking about Afghanistan by Paul Szoldra, Business Insider. Of course, right wing outfits and some conservative Twitterzens immediately took to denouncing Jake Tapper as un-American and un-patriotic. Szoldra provides his well-reasoned opinion--as always--writing that attacking Tapper for asking reasonable questions isn’t insulting the troops. As he writes, ‘It's time we have an adult non-screaming-at-each-other conversation about what we want to accomplish in Afghanistan, as well as an objective assessment of whether we are succeeding.”

He also quotes Andrew Exum from Twitter, “"No matter where you come down on the war in Afghanistan, if you've never questioned whether it's worth it, you're not thinking critically." We agree.

4. “Thoughts on Lone Survivor” by Don Gomez, Carrying the Gun. On V fav Don Gomez makes an amazing comparison between Lone Survivor and John Wayne’s The Green Berets. Each film celebrates special operators above all else, without bothering with the messiness of the why. While that can be a strength, it can also lead to charges of being insanely pro-military. Great take.

5. “Navy Hobnobs With Hollywood But Keeps Journalists In The Dark” by Katie Rucke, The Mint Press News. Rucke repeated a question asked by Martha Raddatz on ABC’s This Week (a question that few other reporters have asked): why did the Pentagon and Navy Special Warfare grant Peter Berg nearly unlimited access, but won’t offer that same access to reporters? The answer isn’t hard to figure out: directors provide better publicity than the media.

Of course that doesn’t make it right.

6. Is Lone Survivor pro-war? Two different articles have asked this question. First, The Atlantic’s Calum Marsh repeated the idea that every war film is a pro-war film. (Which sparked quite a debate online.) Then, Salon wrote about this topic after Lone Survivor’s strong opening weekend, even calling it a propaganda piece.

7. “Real-Life "Lone Survivor" Marcus Luttrell Really Hates the Liberal Media” by Asawin Suebsaeng, Mother Jones. A collection of Marcus Luttrell’s quotes about the liberal media. Mother Jones responded to some of the discussion on the right wing blogosphere by listing many of the moments in Lone Survivor where Marcus Luttrell insulted, defamed or blamed the liberal military for the deaths of his fellow Navy SEALs.

8. “Lone Survivor and Truth” by Leo, Hit the Woodline. Two things about this post. First, it’s another wonderful factual correct-the-record article from someone who dealt with the aftermath of Operation Red Wings. Leo writes about not just the inaccuracies, butwhy they matter in war reporting.   

Second, the comments section is insane.

9. “The Myth of Reality in ‘Lone Survivor” by Benjamin Busch, The Daily Beast. Not only is this a very thorough, well-written, and well-argued review of the film and the facts of Lone Survivor, Busch does something I can’t believe I didn’t do: he quoted Tim O’Brien. From The Things They Carried, “If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.” (I originally wrote about that quote here.) This could be Lone Survivor’s (film) greatest sin.

Well put.

10. The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith. This isn’t a unique take, per se, but getting the chance to see Lone Survivor early gave us the launching pad to write the post listing the differences between the book, the film and reality.

Mainly, though, for a podcast with filmmakers, we felt Jeff Goldsmith did more research and asked harder questions than 99% of the rest of the media. Check it out.

Jan 08

(Normally, we start the year with our “Most Intriguing Event of the Year”. But since Lone Survivor hits 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.)

Last month, we received this comment from Roberto in “Luttrell No Longer Stands By his Mistakes”: 

“...but I implore you to decide if the difference between “redwing” and “Red Wings” is as significant as you make it out to be when compared to the sacrifices that were made June 28th 2005.”

This weekend, commenter Jay wrote:

“What is to be gained by spending time and effort pointing out the difference between Lutrell’s account and the film?”

In short, Roberto and Jay are summarizing a comment we frequently receive by email, “Why spend so much time on this topic, especially being critical, when we could just say, ‘These men are heroes,’ and be done with it?”

Frankly, Operation Red Wings is too important to simply let one account define the narrative. If Operation Red Wings is important--and we believe it is--then we want to help set the record straight.

First, Operation Red Wings was historically important. Until that point, the previous high in US combat casualties occurred during Operation Anaconda, shortly after the initial invasion of Afghanistan. (Although, a non-combat helicopter crash in Ghazni did claim 17 lives earlier in 2005.) Partially, due to Operation Red Wings, US commanders decided to replace the marines in the Pech River Valley with a brigade from the 10th Mountain Division, which increased the total number of boots on the ground in both Kunar and the Pech River specifically. This eventually led to the 173rd Airborne Brigade deploying to Afghanistan with even more soldiers.

Both the marines, the 10th Mountain brigade and the 173rd took significant casualties in Kunar province and its surroundings. These casualties, in part, led to a surge in news coverage, including a Nightline special on the Korengal Valley and Sebastian Junger’s embed with Battle Company, which led to the book War and the Academy Award nominated documentary Restrepo. This surge in news coverage, coupled with the Iraq War winding down, helped lead to the “Afghan surge”.

If Operation Red Wings hadn’t happened (or had turned out differently), you could make a case those events wouldn’t have happened. (From a personal perspective, I also ended up deploying to Kunar with the 173rd.)

Secondly, Operations Red Wings was important tactically to the military. The U.S. military learned quite a few lessons from the battle, if not explicitly than implicitly; small “strategic recon” units all but disappeared. Generals put specific size limits on coalition patrols, which affected my deployment to Afghanistan on a daily basis (I had a lot of crazy ideas that violated a lot of policies). Aviation units also put a lot more restrictions on where and when they could fly, which restricted offensive operations.

Operation Red Wings is also now wildly popular in military circles as a case study, primarily used as an ethical dilemma which begins and ends with the goatherders compromising the SEALs. Most of the other tactical issues--like proper insertion methods, the role of small patrols, the need for redundant comms, the larger counter-insurgency operations in Kunar, and the role of terrain in hidesights (which are/were extremely important to most units deploying to Afghanistan)--were largely overlooked.

Of course, Operation Red Wings’ success as a case study is partly due to the success of Luttrell’s Lone Survivor memoir. As we’ve written before, Lone Survivor (memoir) is probably the single most read book about Afghanistan. Now, with the movie possibly earning an Oscar nomination and box office success, more Americans will see this film more than any other piece of media about the war in Afghanistan. We believe this will influence how Americans think about the war in Afghanistan (and even how they feel about counter-insurgency) more than any other form of media.

It doesn’t seem right that one account by one former SEAL--who has incredibly strong political views--should dominate the entire discussion around this important event, especially if he got many of the core facts wrong. This battle raised important issues, and Lone Survivor (both film and memoir) have consistently emphasized the heroism and honor of the troops involved instead of tackling those tough issues.

Meanwhile, the larger discussion of Lone Survivor has started and ended with the decision to let the goat herders go, and not the operational decision-making before, during and after the mission. We keep coming back to Lone Survivor to tell those other stories, make those other connections and provide other viewpoints.

If Operation Red Wings is important--and it is--then getting the facts right is important

(This is also why we keep recommending that readers who want to learn a lot more about Operation Red Wings and the Pech River Valley in 2005 should read Victory Point by Ed Darack.)

Jan 07

(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"--the article below--so read that first.)

Since Lone Survivor (film) gets released in theaters next week, Michael C and I have been doing a lot of writing on it over the past few days. After a certain point, we decided that the best thing to do would be to write one, giant article listing off the differences between the memoir, the film and the actual history of Operation Red Wings.

If anyone finds a mistake or difference we missed, please let us know. Also, if you find a mistake in this article (and you can write a polite/respectful email), please let us know.

Some notes first:

- We’ll begin with the differences between the book and movie. Then, since we’ve covered some of this material before, we’ll list the mistakes in the book and movie versus reality (with lots of links). At the end, we’ll provide a references section to the major works on Operation Red Wings. We hope this can be a resource and easy link for anyone on the internet to learn about Lone Survivor.

- This is not a full and complete list, but it is our best attempt to make one. We also do not have a screener of Lone Survivor (film), so we may change or add to the list after we see the film again.

- Discrepancies between the memoir and film could have one of two explanations: Peter Berg changed the film to make it more exciting or Luttrell’s memoir is even more inaccurate than we thought.

- Page numbers come from the paperback version of Lone Survivor. Page numbers for the screenplay come from the version hosted online by Universal Pictures.

- We did make some judgement calls, deciding what’s important versus what isn’t. Small dialogue changes are unimportant to us; changing events are. For example, in the memoir, an Afghan doctor pulls the shrapnel from Luttrell’s leg; in the film, Marcus does it himself. For critics who think the film turned soldiers into super heroes, this change would be exhibit A.

Without further ado, the differences between Lone Survivor (film), Lone Survivor (memoir) and reality:


The Differences Between the Lone Survivor Memoir and Film

Marcus Luttrell Nearly Dies in the Opening and Closing of the Film

Was Ahmad Shah in “Luttrell’s Sights”? Would Luttrell Have Shot Him?

Ahmad Shah’s Missing Earlobes

Who Stumbled Upon Luttrell?

What Type of Sidearm did the SEALs Use? And Why Was it Changed?

Which Local Afghan Found Luttrell?

Did the SEALs Have Rope?

Marcus Luttrell is Almost Beheaded by Ahmad Shah’s Soldiers

Marcus Luttrell Pulls A Bullet From His Leg

How the Afghans Alerted the Military

The Final Battle from Lone Survivor (Film)

Did Luttrell Stab Someone with a Knife at the End of Operation Red Wings?

Luttrell is Rescued by U.S. Military

Gulab Doesn’t Stay Behind in Salar Ban

The Mistakes or Exaggerations

Number of Afghan Fighters Who Attacked the SEALs?

Estimated Size of Ahmad Shah’s Enemy Force Before Operation Red Wings?

Ahmad Shah: Major al Qaeda Leader or Osama bin Laden lieutenant?

The Number of Marines Killed by Ahmad Shah before Operation Red Wings?

Did the SEALs Take a Vote on What to Do with the Goatherders?

Who Planned and Led Operation Red Wings?

What was the Name of the Operation?

The Name of the Village

Ahmad Shah, Member of the Taliban?

How many Insurgents Died during Operation Red Wings?

Cellular phone or satellite phone?

Ahmad Shah versus Ben Sharmak

Billy Shelton Was Not a Green Beret



The Differences Between the Lone Survivor Memoir and Film

Marcus Luttrell Nearly Dies in the Opening and Closing of the Film

Lone Survivor (film) opens with voice over as a dying Marcus Luttrell is airlifted back to a military base. As the plane lands, Marcus Luttrell literally dies:

“Surgical pack working franticly [sic] to save Luttrell.


“Pushing in on the flatline. Alarm screaming. Tight on Luttrell’s eyes starting to glaze over. Dying.” (Pages 1 - 2 of script.)

In the book, Luttrell is not in mortal danger. After the Army Rangers rescue Luttrell, he writes “First [the Army Rangers] radioed into base that I had been found, that I was stable and unlikely to die.” (page 352) They also, literally, stop and have tea with the locals, which you wouldn’t do with a dying man. Finally, when Luttrell makes it back to the base, instead of flatlining...

“...I tried to stand unassisted. I turned to the doc and looked him in the eye, and I told him, ‘I walked on here, and I’m walking off, by myself. I’m hurt, but I’m still a SEAL, and they haven’t finished me. I’m walking.” (page 357)

Was Ahmad Shah in “Luttrell’s Sights”? Would Luttrell Have Shot Him?

We didn’t pick up on this mistake until we watched ABC’s This Week from January 5th. ABC News’ Bob Woodruff asked Marcus Luttrell point blank if Ahmad Shah was in his sights. Instead of admitting that: 1. the film changed this for dramatic effect from the account in his memoir and 2. their mission was never to shoot Shah--instead a follow on force would insert and capture Shah to leverage him for intelligence--Luttrell says they didn’t take the shot because they didn’t have permission from higher.

First, Luttrell’s orders, in the book, are pretty clear: shoot Shah if he plans to evacuate.

We were not expected to take on this large bunch of wild-eyed killers. Indeed, we were expected to stay quieter than we had ever been in our lives. ‘Just find this bastard, nail him down, his location and troop strength, then radio in for a direct action force to come in by air and take him down.’ Simple, right?”

“If we thought he might be preparing an immediate evacuation of the village in which he resided, then we would take him out forthwith. That would be me or Axe.” (page 180)

In Lone Survivor (memoir), Luttrell and the SEALs never see Ahmad Shah. Rereading this section from the book last night, the timeline roughly goes: from pages 189 to 200, the SEAL team lands (page 189) and walk through the night. On page 197, dawn comes. On page 198, they’ve still not seen Shah, “Danny and I had to keep looking toward the village, trying to use the glass, peering at whatever there was to be seen. Which was nothing.” They have to move because of a fog bank. On page 199, they find the perfect spot to spy on the village:

And when we got there, I had to agree it was perfect, offering a brilliant angle on the village for the lens, the spotting scope and the bullet. It had sensational all-around vision. If [Shah] and his gang of villains were there, we’d get him.” (page 199)

But they don’t get to him. By page 200, they are still looking when the goatherders stumble onto their position.

Compare that to the film’s screenplay (page 30a):

Murphy locks his sight on Shah. Studying him.

MURPHY (CONT’D): Marcus.

Murphy hands the scope to Luttrell.

MURPHY (CONT’D): Four guys on the right. Tall guy. Red scarf. No earlobes.

Luttrell’s scope now trained on Shah.

Luttrell and Murphy both checking wrist bands. Photo of Shah.

Clear match.


MURPHY: Do you have a shot?

LUTTRELL: Jesus Mickey, with this little 556? I’d need to stalk at least a 1000 yards closer.

MURPHY: Gotta call it in.

Now compare those two accounts to Marcus Luttrell on ABC’s This Week:

BOB WOODRUFF: “Ahmad Shah was right in your sight. Why didn’t you shoot him? Is it because you weren’t getting the order?”

MARCUS LUTTRELL: “Right, yes, sir.”

Since Luttrell never included sighting Shah in his memoir, it is most likely that the SEAL team didn’t lay eyes on him. (That’s the sort of thing you’d remember for your book.) According to the movie, the reason the team didn’t take the shot was because they weren’t close enough, not because the comms weren’t working. Finally, the best reason he wasn’t in their sites is that upon hearing the helicopter insertion and finding the fast rope on the ground, Shah’s men were already combing the mountain side looking for Luttrell (and possibly using the goatherders as a reconnaissance unit).

Ahmad Shah’s Missing Earlobes

This is a small detail, but so specific we have to mention it. In the film, the soldiers repeatedly make a point that Ahmad Shah has no earlobes. From the script:

Axe studies an image of Shah.

AXE (CONT’D): No earlobes.

MURPHY: What’s that?

AXE: The guys got no earlobes. (page 14)

Later, when SEALs “spot” Shah--see this section on that mistake--it comes up again:

Murphy hands the scope to Luttrell.

MURPHY (CONT’D): Four guys on the right. Tall guy. Red scarf. No earlobes.

This detail, unfortunately, didn’t make the book. A quick Google book search, and a reread of the intelligence brief chapter, indicate no missing ear lobes.   

Ed Darack has some photos of Shah on his website, but they’re too grainy to verify if this was true. Frankly, we don’t know what the facts are, but a detail this specific probably should have been included in the memoir.

Who Stumbled Upon Luttrell?

In the film, two kids and an older man compromise the SEAL team. In the book, it’s two men and kid. “Like me, they noted that one of the three was just a kid, around fourteen years old.” (page 201)

Did the SEALs Have Rope?

I’m surprised I didn’t catch this mistake, but in the film, the SEALs describe tying the goatherders up as an option. From the film, “Two, we tie ‘em up. Hike out. Roll the dice. They’ll probably be eaten by wolves or freeze to death.”

In the book, they don’t have rope. “We didn’t have rope to bind them. Tying them up to give us more time to establish a new position wasn’t an option.” (page 206)

A couple thoughts. Not sure why this changed, but it certainly puts the SEALs in a better light. Though with the goatherders less than a mile away from the village, we doubt they’d freeze to death...especially if their goats stayed in place. This is an argument, by the way, from the book against killing the goat herders. “The main problem is the goats. Because they can’t be hidden, and that’s where people will look.” (page 203)

Finally, and this gets more philosophical, even though the SEALs didn’t have rope, they still had shoelaces, belts and other straps they could have used to tie up the goatherders. Further, for general information, U.S. Army Ranger school instructs its student to always carry 550 cord on every patrol, so it is strange the SEAL team didn’t bring that with them.

What Type of Sidearm did the SEALs Use? And Why Was it Changed?

The book, Lone Survivor, is very clear on what type of side arm the SEALs carried: a SIG-sauer 9mm pistol. He mentions it twice:

We loaded and stowed our essential equipment: heavy weaps (machine guns), M4 rifles, SIG-sauer 9mm pistols…” (page 11)

We all carried the SIG-sauer 9mm pistol.” (page 186)

In the film, the gun has been changed to a Beretta. A Google Book search of Lone Survivor has no mention of a Beretta. What’s interesting is not the change itself, but why the filmmakers changed the side arm: product placement. From the website Soldier Systems:

So how did it get there? Rumor has it that M9 manufacturer Beretta paid the movie’s producers an undisclosed sum of money (some say in the high 5 figures) to have their weapon included. In fact, Brand-in Entertainment has bragged about the Beretta’s insertion on their website. It’s just brand placement right? So much for insisting on accuracy.

We agree. You can’t brag and brag and brag about accuracy, specifically technical accuracy, if you’ll change a detail (however small) for money.

Which Local Afghan Found Luttrell?

After the battle, according to the book, Luttrell is found by a local man named Sarawa, who also tends to his wounds. “I saw the leader walk up to me. He smiled and said his name was Sarawa.” (page 282)

According to the film, a local man named Gulab rescues him:

A 30 year old male GULAB, the leader, strong rugged handsome, steps forward. Hands up in peace.

GULAB: Not Taliban.” (page 110)

According to Luttrell’s 60 Minutes interview, “That’s when an Afghan man appeared. Luttrell later learned his name was Mohammad Gulab.” Luttrell might have changed this detail to protect Gulab from retribution, but Gulab is mentioned by name later in the memoir.

Marcus Luttrell is Almost Beheaded by Ahmad Shah’s Soldiers

In the film, Ahmad Shah (or his lieutenant Taraq) comes to the village, grabs Luttrell, and drags him out to a log to behead him, literally raising a machete in the air. Luttrell is saved at the last minute by the local villagers, who fire off their AK-47s to threaten the attackers.

This doesn’t occur in the film’s screenplay. On page 115, Taraq, one of Ahmad Shah’s lieutenants, puts a knife to Luttrell’s throat in the room where he is staying, then the villagers stop him.

In reality, none of this happened. The Taliban does enter Luttrell’s room and begins beating him. (As Luttrell describes it, “I didn’t give that much of a shit. I can suck this kind of crap up, like I’ve been trained. Anyway, they didn’t have a decent punch among them.” page 294) The village elder then enters the room, and commands the Taliban to leave. The whole ordeal takes about six hours. As Luttrell explains, his life was never in danger:   

I found out later [the village elder] was forbidding [the Taliban] from taking me away. I think they knew that before they came, otherwise I’d probably have been gone by then...They hardly said a word while this powerful little figure laid down the law. Tribal law, I guess…

“Upon the departure of the village elder, six hours after they’d arrived...the Taliban suddenly decided to leave.” (page 297)

Marcus Luttrell Pulls A Bullet From His Leg

In the film, Luttrell removes a bullet from his leg. According to my recollection of seeing the film, Luttrell does this himself after a young boy gets him a knife. According to the script, Gulab helps:

Gruesome bullet removing sequence. Blood. Screaming digging scraping out bullets and shrapnel from Luttrell’s back and legs. Gulab digs with a knife. Pours water on the wounds. The little boy holds Luttrell’s hands and whispers to him.” (page 119)

According to the book, none of this happens. As soon as they reach the village, the locals give him medical aid. And there’s no bullet to be found:

“...watching as Sarawa went to work. He carefully cleaned the wounds to my leg, confirming what I had suspected, that there was no bullet lodged in my left thigh. Indeed, he located the bullet’s exit…

“Then he took out a small surgical instrument and began pulling metal shrapnel out of my leg. He spent a long time getting rid of every shard from that RPG he could find.” (page 290)

Update: Later interviews with Marcus Luttrell confirm this version of events. As Luttrell told Charlie Rose, “[The villagers] saved my life by doctoring me up, using their medical supplies on me.” (minute 27:00)

How the Afghans Alerted the Military

In the film, an old man heads over a mountain to alert the military to Luttrell’s location. In the script:

MARINE: We’ve got a report of a letter asking for assistance.

“COMMANDER: From who?

“MARINE: Marcus Luttrell. Sir, they did a hand writing comparison and its [sic] does appear to be Luttrell.” (page 119)

In the book, the village elder walks to Asadabad to alert the military to Luttrell’s presence, but that’s ultimately not how the military found fim. Instead, Luttrell uses a radio air-dropped by the military:

Before we left, I asked them how the hell they’d found me. And it turned out to be my emergency beacon in the window of the little rock house in the mountain.” (page 351)

60 Minutes tells a similar story. “He was finally rescued by U.S. forces who had been scouring the mountains.”

The Final Battle from Lone Survivor (Film)

Lone Survivor (film) ends with the village of Kandish fending off a Taliban attack in a gigantic firefight. From the script:

The two men staring at each other as an incoming RPG slams into the house. Huge explosion.

“Frantic screaming from outside...Luttrell grabbing his vest and gun moving out just as a 2nd RPG detonates destroying the rest of Gulab’s house…

“Taraq attacks with his men.

“Brutal fight. Hand to hand, gun to gun. Gulab shot, Marcus shot again.” (page 121)

This fight continues, with a Marcus Luttrell sequence we’ll get to in the next section, until American planes and helicopters comes to the rescue.

In Lone Survivor (memoir) or reality, none of this happened. Gulab’s house isn’t destroyed, nor do the Taliban ever fire shots into the village. Gulab isn’t shot and Marcus isn’t shot again.

On page 336, it seems like the Taliban is going to attack, and Luttrell prepares for a firefight. But instead of attacking, they shoot bullets into the air, to scare the villagers. The most important reason is why they don’t attack: the Taliban can’t afford to lose the support of the villagers. Luttrell makes this very clear in the memoir:

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 mountains.

“No, they would not do that. They wanted me, but they would never kill another hundred Afghan people...in order to get me…(page 339)

...[the Taliban] would not risk causing major disruption to the day-to-day lives of the people. I’d been [in Sabray] for five nights now and...and the Taliban had crossed the boundaries of Sabray only twice…” (page 341)

Later, Ahmad Shah and his men actually find Luttrell and Gulab on a flat field on the edge of the village. Do they attack? No. Why?

The presence of Gulab made it a complete standoff, and [Shah] was not about to call in his guys to shoot the oldest son of Sabray’s village elder.” (page 345)

Gulab and Ahmad Shah actually have a discussion at this point, then Shah leaves.

Did Luttrell Stab Someone with a Knife at the End of Operation Red Wings?

In the film, as a battle rages on in the village, Marcus Luttrell stabs an attacker with a knife:

The Taliban is on top of Luttrell, choking him, killing him. Luttrell’s hands claw at the man, digging into earth, grasping for wood, a stone, anything….when...a KNIFE, is slapped into Luttrell’s hand…

“Marcus buries the knife into the neck of the fighter.” (page 122)

In Lone Survivor (memoir), Luttrell never writes about attacking an enemy combatant while he’s being rescued. I can’t even find a relevant page from Lone Survivor (memoir) to dispute it because it diverges so radically from the book.

Update: Marcus Luttrell told NPR host Rachel Martin...

“...but I didn't kill anybody with a knife. And I remember sitting back and laughing. I go why did you put that in there? What does that have to do with anything? I mean, the story itself, I think, is enough to where you wouldn't have to embellish anything."

We agree.

Luttrell is Rescued by U.S. Military

In the film, the military comes to the rescue of Luttrell in a roar of gunships and men descending from helicopters:

We see gunners targeting. The 40mm firing with extreme precision...Air Force Search and Rescue Helicopter airmen charge out of the chopper toward Luttrell.” (page 122)

In the book, the Rangers find Luttrell in the forest as he and Gulab walk back to the village after Gulab spoke with Ahmad Shah.

But right behind him, bursting through the undergrowth, came two U.S. Army Rangers in combat uniform, rifles raised...Behind me, with unbelievable presence of mind, Gulab was roaring out my BUD/S class numbers he’d seen on my Trident voodoo tattoo: “Two-two-eight! It’s Two-two-eight!”...

“By this time there was chaos on the mountain. Army guys were coming out of the forest from all over the place...

“They moved into action immediately. An army captain ordered a team to get me up out of the forest, onto higher ground…

“The atmosphere was unavoidably cheerful, because all the guys felt their mission was accomplished…

“The army threw up a security perimeter all the way around Sabray.

“The guys rustled up some tea and we settled down for a detailed debriefing.” (page 348-352)

I included all of these quotes above to clarify how safe Luttrell was once he was rescued. Again, they had time for tea.

Gulab Doesn’t Stay Behind in Salar Ban

In the film Lone Survivor, Gulab stays behind after Luttrell leaves. From page 123 of the script, “The US Airmen separate Marcus from Gulab, Marcus is too weak to resist...Gulab steps back as the helicopter takes off.” (page 123)

In the book, he joins Luttrell on the helicopter ride. “The guys helped me into the [helicopter] cabin, and Gulab joined me.”

The Mistakes or Exaggerations

Number of Afghan Fighters Who Attacked the SEALs?

Simply put, the SEALs on the hill that day were overwhelmed by an enemy force with superior numbers and superior fire power that held the high ground. However, there is a huge difference between an 8-10 men squad-sized enemy force and a 200 man infantry company-sized enemy force. Frankly, the Korengal and Shuryak valleys--the geographic region of Operation Red Wings--are very sparsely populated and could not support an enemy force of 200 people. This discrepancy is what first piqued our curiosity in Lone Survivor.

Increasing the size of the enemy that day makes for a much, much better story though. Numbers sell, and as Lone Survivor became more popular, the size of the enemy force that day increased with each telling. (Interestingly, the Lieutenant Murphy’s Medal of Honor Citation and Summary of Action contradict each other.) Here are the various descriptions of the number of enemy that attacked:

Accurate accounts:

Ed Darack in Victory Point: 8-10 enemy with a machine gun

Luttrell After Action Report: 20-30 enemy

Lt. Murphy Medal of Honor Citation: 30-40 enemy

Inaccurate accounts:

Lt. Murphy Medal of Honor Summary of Action: over 50 enemy

Marcus Luttrell on Today Show: 80-100 members of the Taliban

Lone Survivor (memoir): 140-200 enemy

Marcus Luttrell speeches after Lone Survivor: 200 enemy

Lone Survivor (screenplay): 50 enemy. “A solid line of at least fifty Taliban in firing positions on top of the hill above them.” (page 80)

Marcus Luttrell on NPR in January 2014: The intel on the numbers kept changing. And then when we got overrun, it was such a large force that numbers have been speculated anywhere from 60 to 80 to 80 to over 100. And it was all of that. I had recently talked to one of the villagers who saved my life. And he was in constant contact with the Taliban. And he says that there was over 100. I'm sticking with the latter, from 60 to 80."

Other various media outlets

Estimated Size of Ahmad Shah’s Enemy Force Before Operation Red Wings?

While any intelligence efforts in Afghanistan are fraught with confusion, before Operation Red Wings, the marines in Kunar believed Ahmad Shah led up to 20 people, according to Ed Darack. In Lone Survivor (memoir), this balloons to 200 people, an unreasonably large size. Here the various descriptions which exaggerate the size of Ahmad Shah’s “army”.

Accurate accounts:

Ed Darack in Marine Corps Gazette: up to 20 enemy combatants

Lone Survivor (film) screenplay: “we are estimating ten men” (page 18)

Inaccurate accounts:

Lone Survivor (memoir): Shah led 80-200 enemy combatants

Lone Survivor (film) trailer: “that’s a lot more than ten guys. That’s an army.”

Lone Survivor (film) screenplay: “Quick shots of the Taliban army. Feels like 150 men.” (page 74)

Ahmad Shah: Major al Qaeda Leader or Osama bin Laden Lieutenant?

Ahmad Shah was an insurgent leader in Afghanistan, which is why the marines in the Pech launched Operation Red Wings. However, there is a huge difference between a local, Afghan insurgent leader and an al Qaeda operative. Prior to Operation Red Wings, Ahmad Shah was not a member of al Qaeda and had never met Osama bin Laden.

Accurate accounts:

Lt. Murphy Medal of Honor citation: “a high-level, anti-coalition militia leader”

Lt. Murphy Medal of Honor Summary of Action: “Shah led a guerrilla group known to locals as the "Mountain Tigers" that had aligned with the Taliban and other militant groups close to the Pakistani border.”

Lone Survivor trailer: “senior Taliban commander”

* See below for discussion of term “Taliban”

Inaccurate accounts:

Lone Survivor (memoir): “a leader of a serious Taliban force” (page 178); “He was also known to be one of Osama bin Laden’s closest associates.” (page 179)

Lone Survivor (film) award website: “a high-level al Qaeda operative”

Lone Survivor (film) Production Notes, Site and Universal Award website: “a high-level al Qaeda operative”

Other various media outlets

The Number of Marines Killed by Ahmad Shah Before Operation Red Wings?

This is a mistake we didn’t identify in our initial post on the Lone Survivor memoir because Luttrell didn’t make a specific claim on how many people Shah had killed in the time before Operation Red Wings. The film Lone Survivor does make the claim in multiple places that Shah killed 20 marines in the week before Operation Red Wings. As iCasualties.org clearly shows--and have no doubt that US military casualties are meticulously recorded--the U.S. had not lost 20 marines in the week before Operation Red Wings.

Further, as mentioned above and in Darack’s reporting, Shah was a local player, not a regional leader. Kandahar is hundreds of miles from Kunar, and well outside Shah’s area of operations.

Accurate accounts:

iCasualty.org: No marines died in Kandahar in the week before Operation Red Wings. Only 3 U.S. soldiers or marines died in 2005 before Operation Red Wings.

Ed Darack in Victory Point: Shah was linked to 11 attacks.

Mark Perna, Don’t Ever Call Me a Hero: “There were 5 Marines killed by hostile in Afghanistan during the ENTIRE WAR at that point (and a total of 20 Marines if you add non-hostile fire incidents—most of them not even in Afghanistan—casualty information can be searched HERE at iCasualties.org). A friend, Kevin Joyce, was the only Marine killed the week before Operation Red Wings. He drowned in the Pech River and he was the first friend of mine lost in war. Your film narrative—your Hollywood Hero image—denies the reality of what I experienced in favor of something “more compelling.” Not to mention that it disrespects the lives of the 19 sailors and airmen who were killed in Operation Red Wings themselves. Their loss had to have some greater meaning—and of course, if 19 special forces troops died, then 20 Marines must’ve died right?”

Inaccurate accounts:

Lone Survivor (memoir): : “...suffice it to say [Ahmad Shah] was a serious Taliban force, a sinister mountain man known to make forays into cities and known to have been directly responsible for several lethal attacks on U.S. Marines, always with bombs...had already murdered many of my colleagues in the U.S. Marines.” (page 179)

60 Minutes interview with Marcus Luttrell: “He was killing Marines, Army, I mean, you name it.”

Lone Survivor trailer 1: “Shah killed twenty marines last week. Twenty.”

Lone Survivor trailer 2: “Shah killed twenty marines last week. We let him go, 40 more will die next week.”

Lone Survivor (film) screenplay: “Shah just killed twenty marines last week…” (page 51)   

Did the SEALs Take a Vote on What to Do with the Goatherders?

This is the most publicized mistake in the memoir Lone Survivor. Lieutenant Michael Murphy’s family specifically and publicly refuted Luttrell’s account that the SEALs took a vote and that Luttrell cast the deciding vote on what to do. In his 60 Minutes interview, Luttrell appears to retract his account, without admitting the error in his book.

Accurate accounts:

Peter Berg in The Q&A Podcast: “Mike Murphy made that decision. There wasn’t a vote.” (minute 00:54:00)

Lone Survivor screenplay: No vote takes place.

Lone Survivor trailer: “This is not a vote.”

Lone Survivor (film): No vote takes place.

60 Minutes: “Luttrell told us the unit discussed what to do and were divided.  In the past he’s 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.

“Anderson Cooper: What did Mike finally decide to do?

“Marcus Luttrell: Oh, we cut 'em loose.”

Inaccurate accounts:

Lone Survivor (memoir): “The deciding vote was mine and it will haunt me till they rest me in an east Texas grave. Mikey nodded, ‘I guess that’s two votes to one...’” (page 207)

Marcus Luttrell on the Today Show: Agrees with Matt Lauer when he says, “You took a vote.”

Marcus Luttrell’s personal website: “After taking a vote and basing their decision on ROE, Michael Murphy made the final decision to let them go.”

Who Planned and Led Operation Red Wings?

This mistake is primarily a gigantic sin of omission in the Lone Survivor film and a sin of misdirection in the Lone Survivor memoir, which almost entirely ignores the role of marines in conceiving, planning and leading Operation Red Wings. The marines brought in SEALs to gain access to aviation support.

Accurate accounts:

Ed Darack in Marine Corps Gazette: “but 2/3 sought the integration of only a SOF aviation support element, not ground forces. The SOTF...responded that 2/3 could be granted 160th support, but only if SOF ground personnel undertook the opening two phases of RED WINGS and were tasked as the lead, supported elements with full OPCON (inclusive of 2/3) for these phases. With no alternatives, battalion staff agreed...The NAVSOF element planned the specifics of these first two phases of RED WINGS with 2/3’s staff providing input...”

Inaccurate accounts:

Lone Survivor (memoir): “Almost every morning Chief Healy would run the main list of potential targets past Mikey, our team officer, and me. He usually gave us papers with a list of maybe twenty names and possible locations, and we made a short list of the guys we considered we should go after.” (page 179)

Lone Survivor (film): No mention of larger Marine mission. No mention of SEALs finding their own targets.

What was the Name of the Operation?

This is the most corrected mistake from Luttrell’s Lone Survivor (memoir). The name of the mission was “Operation Red Wings”, a fact supported by the Medal of Honor citation, Summary of Action, the U.S. Navy and every other source that didn’t rely on Marcus Luttrell’s original memoir for information. This fact was corrected by Peter Berg in his film. [Update 4 Jan 2014: Marcus Luttrell, in a documentary released on HBO this week, once again referred to "Operation Red Wing".]

Accurate accounts:

Lt. Murphy Medal of Honor Citation and Summary of Action, Victory Point, Lone Survivor (film), and Marcus Luttrell’s personal website.

Inaccurate accounts:

Lone Survivor (memoir) (from a copy purchased in December): “The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing”

Marcus Luttrell in Will of the Warrior documentary (released 4 Jan 2014): ”The book is the debrief...If you have any questions about what happened in Operations Red Wing, there it is right there.” 

Marcus Luttrell in Star-Telegram in January 2014: “I’ve run over 300 combat missions in my career, a lot worse than Red Wing.”

The Name of the Village

Probably for security reasons, Luttrell changed the name of the village to from Kandish to Sabray. According to Ed Darack’s Victory Point, the name of Gulab’s village is Salar Ban.

Ahmad Shah, Member of the Taliban?

The media and advertisements for Lone Survivor repeatedly refers to Ahmad Shah as a Taliban leader. In reality, the truth comes closest to the U.S. Navy’s Medal of Honor Summary of Action that Shah was “aligned” with the Taliban and other militant groups. (This same citation goes on to use Taliban interchangeably with “insurgent”.) As Ed Darack has written about extensively, Shah was much more closely aligned with Hezb il Gulbuddin, another insurgent group in Afghanistan. The best description is therefore “insurgent leader”, not Taliban leader.

In fairness to the media, Luttrell and Lone Survivor (film), the difference between insurgent groups in Afghanistan is a nuance the vast most do not understand. In fact, many if not most soldiers, don’t understand the difference. For instance, even I made this mistake as a young platoon leader in Afghanistan, describing all insurgents as “Taliban” when most in my area of operations were not.

How many Insurgents Died During Operation Red Wings?

Multiple accounts--including the U.S. Navy--have put forward extremely high enemy casualty accounts during the battle between the SEALs and Shah’s men. The key here is that both the U.S. Navy and Luttrell claim the SEALs killed 35 enemy, not created 35 casualties (which includes dead and wounded).

The reality is that we will probably never know exactly how many insurgents died on the Sawtalo Sar that day. That said, the number of casualties sustained by the enemy, at the least, could not have exceeded the number of enemy involved in the fight. Further, if 50 insurgents attacked, then 35 dead insurgents means the SEALs killed 70% of the opposing force, which is virtually unheard of in warfare.

Inaccurate accounts:

Washington Post article about Marcus Luttrell: 35 bodies on the ground

U.S. Navy Summary of Action: “An estimated 35 Taliban were also dead.”

Lone Survivor (memoir): “We must have killed fifty or more of them” (page 221)

Lone Survivor (film): At least 23 enemy are killed (from The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith)

Cellular phone or satellite phone?

The SEAL team inserted into the ridge line with a radio and a back up satellite phone as an emergency. Marcus Luttrell’s memoir refers to this phone as a “cell phone” throughout the book. This mistake has been corrected in the upcoming film.

Accurate accounts:

Lone Survivor (film) screenplay, trailer and film

Inaccurate accounts:

Lone Survivor (memoir)

Ahmad Shah versus Ben Sharmak

As we’ve covered before, Luttrell changed the name of the operation’s target from Ahmad Shah to Ben Sharmak for security purposes. The name “Ben Sharmak” only appears in Lone Survivor (memoir).

Billy Shelton Was Not a Green Beret

Lone Survivor (memoir) spends much more time than the film describing Luttrell’s childhood and training in the lead up to Operation Red Wings. One of the men who figures prominently in his early life is a local man named Billy Shelton, who helped prepare the Luttrell boys for SEAL training. Luttrell and Robinson describe him as a former Special Forces soldier who served in Vietnam. This was not the case. (We believe that this mistake was not Luttrell’s fault, but his editor should have fact checked the account.)

Accurate accounts:

This Ain’t Hell: “Well, it adds a nice dimension to the story, but unfortunately, Billy Shelton had been lying to the Luttrell brothers – he’d never been in the Special Forces. According to records, Specialist Five Shelton was a truck driver and a general’s chauffeur at Fort Eustis, Virginia....

“No Special Operations training, no jump school, not even a CIB.”

Inaccurate accounts:

Lone Survivor (memoir): “...a former Green Beret sergeant who lived close by. His name was Billy Shelton…Billy had a glittering army career in combat with the Green Berets in Vietnam and, later, serving on a government SWAT team.” (page 55)


[Update, 4 Jan. 2014: We've updated the post to add a quote from the documentary Will of the Warrior to the section, "What was the Name of the Operation?".

Update 5 Jan 2014: We've updated the post to add the section, "Billy Shelton Was Not a Green Beret".

Update January 15th, 2014: We've updated the post to add the section, “Was Ahmad Shah in “Luttrell’s sights”?”. We’ve also included a personal account from a marine who was a part of Operation Whalers to the section, “The Number of Marines Killed by Ahmad Shah before Operation Red Wings?

Update February 7th, 2014: We've updated the post to add the sections, “Ahmad Shah’s Missing Earlobes”, “Who Stumbled Upon Luttrell?”, “Did the SEALs Have Rope?” and "What Type of Sidearm did the SEALs Use? And Why Was it Changed?". We’ve also added small updates to the sections “Number of Afghan Fighters Who Attacked the SEALs?”, “Did Luttrell Stab Someone with a Knife at the End of Operation Red Wings?”, “What was the Name of the Operation?” and “Marcus Luttrell Pulls A Bullet From His Leg”.]


He Got the Title Wrong? And Six More Mistakes from Luttrell’s Lone Survivor”, OnViolence.com

Bad, Bad Ahmad Shah...the Baddest Shah in the Whole Damn Village”, OnViolence.com 

Marcus Luttrell Stands By His Mistakes: An Update to Our Lone Survivor Week”, OnViolence.com

Luttrell No Longer Stands by His Mistakes: Lone Survivor vs. the 60 Minutes Interview”, OnViolence.com

OPERATION RED WINGS – What Really Happened?” by Ed Darack, Marine Corps Gazette, January 2011

Misinformation page”, Darack.com

Sawtalo Sar page”, Darack.com

Lieutenant Mike Murphy Medal of Honor Official Citation

Lieutenant Mike Murphy Medal of Honor Summary of Action   

Lone Survivor (film) website

Lone Survivor (film) Trailers

Lone Survivor (film) Universal Award Site including synopsis and screenplay   

Lone Survivor (film) Production Notes

The Q&A Podcast featuring Lone Survivor (film) and Peter Berg

Today Show appearance by Marcus Luttrell on June 12th, 2007. Accessed via this Youtube video.

The Sole Survivor”, WashingtonPost.com, June 10th, 2007


Jan 07

(Normally, we start the year with our “Most Intriguing Event of the Year”. But since Lone Survivor hits 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.)

Michael C and I have actually been kind of surprised (and pleased) at the overwhelmingly positive response to last Thursday’s post, “A List of the Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality”. Like any widely-shared post, we’ve also received some criticism. Mostly the two criticisms are, first, “Does this matter?” (We’ll address that criticism tomorrow.) The second most common criticism we’ve received is:

Everyone knows movies aren’t real!

For example, from Jay, “It’s a movie made for entertainment. No one should walk away and think ‘now I know what it was like on the ground.’” Or from Juan on Doctrine Man’s Facebook page, “Just a simple thought. If you go to the movies to learn history lessons, then you might want to consider going back to school...” Or from Rick, also on Doctrine Man’s Facebook page, “anyone who looks to Hollywood for truth has other problems”.

To this criticism, I have five rebuttals:

1. Lone Survivor is being marketed as a film that captures “the essential experience” of those SEALs.

From the “Production Notes” distributed to all major film reviewers:

“Although Lone Survivor takes the creative liberties necessary to make a movie, it is committed to preserving the essential experience of what these men endured on their mission. It is a realistic, timeless and isolated portrait of the sacrifices that one small band of warriors made...and how one survived to tell their tale.”

Peter Berg has explicitly stated that he wanted to make the most accurate film possible. "I've never felt more pressure to get a film right," Berg told Men’s Journal. Speaking with Jeff Goldsmith for the Q&A, Berg brought up research multiple times, “For me, everything good that I think I’ve ever done has come from research...For both films, research was the key.” (Min 16:00) Berg goes on to talk, at minute 18:00, about how Luttrell choose him to turn Lone Survivor into a movie because of this attention to detail. Berg mentioned this research on The BS Report as well.

That makes the mistakes in this film more important, not less.

2. Film critics and the media are promoting the film as an accurate, realistic portrayal.

Many critics and reporters have praised Lone Survivor (film) for its accuracy:

Jocelyn Noveck for the AP: “...expertly rendered account of a disastrous 2005 military operation in Afghanistan...And he's executed that approach with admirable skill, down to using autopsy reports to get the number of wounds a soldier suffered exactly right.”

Ethan Sacks for the NY Daily News: “‘Lone Survivor’ features some of the most realistic military combat scenes ever filmed.”

Betsy Sharkey for the Los Angeles Times: “...with a gruesome energy and a remarkable reality...The production and costume designers have paid a great deal of attention to the details, from the uniforms and tribal robes, to the bullet wounds and blood. It certainly adds to the film's verisimilitude.”

A.A. Dowd for The AV Club: “...gruelingly committed to realism...unrelenting, hyper-real way”

These reviewers--aka the experts--believed in Lone Survivor’s authenticity.

3. Most viewers who see Lone Survivor will accept what they see on screen as true.

I know this thanks to science. A study by Duke researchers shows that students who watch historical films learn the inaccuracies in those films, even when they’re told to research the inaccuracies later. They still remember the mistakes, and repeat them on tests.

4. I was fooled.

One of the things I initially praised about Lone Survivor was the battle scene, which was expertly done. Except, as some critics have pointed out, much of that battle scene is unrealistic, or at least one-sided. Mainly, our troops--the SEALs--take down 23 enemy fighters, usually with just one or two expertly placed bullets. The SEALs, on the other hand, take bullet after bullet without stopping.

As Michael C had to point out to me, this just isn’t how war really works. A rugged Afghan mountain man will take roughly the same amount of punishment as a rugged American soldier/SEAL. In our opinion, our better trained SEALs likely shot a lot of the insurgents. But that doesn’t mean they killed those insurgents that easily, which the movie repeatedly shows.

But I didn’t know that when I saw the film. I thought it was perfectly accurate. As probably the most skeptical viewer of Lone Survivor in the country, if I got fooled, anyone could.

5. Lone Survivor (film) is not accurate.

If a film has a 4,300 word blog post rebutting its inaccuracies, that film didn’t capture the “essential experience” of the operation. From Ahmad Shah “killing 20 marines” the week before Operation Red Wings to the fictionalized third act, the film gets a lot of things wrong. And viewers will remember those mistakes even though they shouldn’t. And despite beliefs to the contrary, most Americans will believe these events actually happened.

Most viewers will not know that Marcus Luttrell never survived a final firefight in the village that rescued him, unless they stumble upon our blog.

So feel free to shrug off the mistakes as no big deal. Or as simply, “Hollywood”. But know that these films will permanently misinform many, many people.

Sep 26

(To read the rest of our posts on the 2013 Oscars, please click here.

To check out other “On V Updates to Old Ideas”, please click here.)

On Tuesday, I wrote a glowing review of The Invisible War, the Oscar-nominated documentary on sexual assault in the military. It’s one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen.

Since I’ve been following this issue for years now, I want to share some updates on the topic in general. More specifically, I want to respond to the biggest mainstream criticism I have read…

Rosa Brooks Doesn’t Think Sexual Assault is a Problem in the Military

More precisely, she doesn’t think it’s a greater problem than rape in the civilian world. As Rosa Brooks writes in Foreign Policy...

“Sexual assault in the military is a genuine and serious problem, but the frantic rhetoric may be doing more harm than good. It conceals the progress the military has made in developing effective sexual assault prevention and response programs, and it distracts us from the even higher rates of sexual violence in comparable civilian populations.”

While we admire Rose Brooks, this article has several significant problems. First, I don’t think the military has made progress addressing sexual assault, unless Rosa Brooks is referring to the last six months or so, which seems odd (and unlikely). As NPR and The Invisible War point out, in 2011, only 96 reported cases of sexual assault went to court-martial. For some anecdotal evidence, it took over a year for the Navy to bring charges against three Naval Academy football players. (Don’t worry, the Academy charged the victim with drunkenness in “no time at all” in the words of The New York Times.) Situations like this just don’t occur in the civilian world--at least the victims don’t get charged with crimes before their attackers.

Mainly, though, I don’t agree with Brooks’ numbers. Check out the numbers in this article, this article and the Wikipedia page on the issue, then compare them to her numbers. Fifteen percent of female veterans who return from war zones have experienced “military sexual trauma”. (More on this phrase later in this post.) That number is way higher than annual civilian sexual assault rates.

My explanation for the difference is that Rosa Brooks mixed lifetime rape statistics with yearly rates in the military. A recent article in The New Yorker on the Steubenville rape case cited the CDC’s estimate that 20% of all women experience rape or attempted rape in their lifetimes. Based on the numbers I cited above, that’s the about the same rate for women in the military...except military careers don’t last a lifetime.

I would also flip this issue on its head: if civilian sexual assault rates are the same as the military, then America has a rape problem. It still needs to be addressed.

Actually, Read That New Yorker Article

Because it is fantastic. Ariel Levy fairly depicts both sides of the Stuebenville rape case, telling a complex and difficult narrative different than most of the breathless cable coverage of this story.   

A Legitimate Criticism of The Invisible War

One of the best criticisms I found of The Invisible War was that it didn’t focus enough on male-on-male rape in the US military. Though the film featured one victim of male sexual assault, clearly the film focused on women. As James Dao of The New York Times points out, most victims of rape in the military are men.

Amanda Marcotte, at Slate, connects this to society’s beliefs about rape:

“...what this astonishing number demonstrates is the truth of what feminists have been saying about sexual assault all along: It is not caused by an overabundance of sexual desire, but is an act of violence perpetrated by people who want to hurt and humiliate the victim, using sex as a weapon.

“That’s why comments such as Sen. Saxby Chambliss’s during the Senate hearings on rape in the military are not just offensive, but flat-out wrong. Chambliss acknowledged the gravity of the problem but ended up minimizing it by saying, ‘Gee whiz, the hormone level created by nature sets in place the possibility for these types of things to occur.’ These kinds of comments perpetuate the myth that rape is not that big of a deal, the result of miscommunication, or caused by men being just too damn horny and ladies being just too damn sexy to not rape.”

How We (Don’t) Talk About Rape

First, Katie Halper at Jezebel lambasts an AP article that confuses sex with rape. (They’re not the same thing.)

Next up, Joshua Kors, in his article, “Winning the Language War, Defeating 'Military Sexual Trauma'” breaks down how the military’s use of the acronym MST (Military Sexual Trauma) obscures the horror of the actual act. He even interviews On Violence language favorite Geoffrey Nunberg to get his opinion. A must read.

Finally, The New York Times’ “Talking Note” blog explains that the military has had a “zero tolerance” policy for sexual assault for over twenty years now. Since so many soldiers have been reassigned after rape cases, how can they have a zero tolerance policy?

World War II and Rape

Here’s the thing about sexual assault and the military: it didn’t happen in the Greatest Generation’s time. That’s what’s so disappointing about the current crisis. Oh wait...

“In her new book, "What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France," Roberts writes that while heroism abounded during liberation, for some Allied troops, command of geographical territory meant command of sexual territory, as well. As they entered and occupied the port towns of Le Havre, Reims, Cherbourg and Marseilles, many soldiers took what they wanted - when and where they wanted - from the French female population.”

Sep 17

(With our thoughts on Syria published (for now), we return to our 2013 Academy Awards coverage. To read the rest of our posts on the 2013 Oscars, please click here.)

Unlike Argo, whose inaccuracies were treated with a collective media shoulder shrug--the few articles correcting the record were short and off the front page--the inaccuracies in Zero Dark Thirty created a (relative) media maelstrom.

As soon as filming started, conservatives accused the Obama administration of leaking information to make itself look good. When people started seeing the film, liberals accused the filmmakers of pushing a pro-torture narrative. Senators and CIA chiefs got in on the action, debating what was and wasn’t true.

Not all inaccuracies are made equal. According to the article, “The Shooter” in Esquire, the finals scenes of the raid had some small, technical errors. I have to ask: who really cares if they shouted Osama bin Laden’s name or not? In the long run, that’s bad, but fixable. (All this assumes we can even figure out what happened.)

But that doesn’t mean those little mistakes can’t lead to huge misunderstandings. As Eric C pointed out when he reviewed the inaccuracies of Argo, changing a bunch of minor facts can change how Americans see their role in the world. As I wrote about a few weeks ago, this gives many Americans false views on foreign affairs, national security, intelligence and terrorism.

Zero Dark Thirty had so many little mistakes that we divided this post into two parts. Tomorrow’s will deal just with torture; today’s with the rest. So what are the biggest myths peddled by Zero Dark Thirty?

Myth 1: The CIA is super effective. Why isn't this true? See this whole post on topic. Remember, we didn't even know the CIA's budget until last month. The CIA doesn't release good records on successful and unsuccessful operations. They do, though, leak tantalizing stories of their successes in operative memoirs and Hollywood films, as we’ve written about before.

Myth 2: The bureaucracy still sucks. Just as Eric C pointed out with Argo, in Zero Dark Thirty, the federal government can’t do anything right, but intel folks come off looking like superstars. Mindless DC bureaucrats--the CIA station chief in Pakistan, then his replacement (he doesn't deny Maya's requests, he just says, "whatever" and shrugs), then the CIA officials in Washington D.C., then Obama's Chief of Staff--all delay finding Osama bin Laden. Interestingly, Bigelow and Boal never even say what changed Obama's mind, it just kind of happens with about 45 minutes left to go in the film. (That’s what we call a deus ex machina in the biz, folks.)

Myth 3: Terrorism is a grave, continuing threat. The film parades a series of terror attacks before the viewer: starting with the sounds of first responders, Flight 93 passengers and news reports on 9/11; then the 7/7 attacks; then showing the Islamabad Marriott Hotel bombing in Pakistan; and finally a suicide attack on a CIA compound in Afghanistan. It leaves the viewers with this conclusion: Osama bin Laden was planning and conducting terror attacks around the world and we needed to kill him.

This version of history is wildly wrong:

- The 7/7 attacks were conducted by homegrown extremists. While Al Qaeda did take credit for the attack, later intelligence discredited their involvement. In other words, they took credit after the fact, without providing logistical or material support.

- The Islamabad Marriott Hotel Bombing was not linked to Al Qaeda or Osama bin Laden. It may have been politically motivated or conducted by another Islamic group. Frankly, we don’t know. Including it, then, seems odd, considering this was a movie about Osama bin Laden.[ital]

- Finally, displaying terror attacks like this make terrorism seem common, even though it it incredibly rare. For proof, see this post, this post, this post, this video, this post, this article, this article or this article. Films like Zero Dark Thirty leave viewers emotionally scared, but logically misinformed.

Myth 4: Pakistan is dangerous for westerners. Not as dangerous as you think. In one scene, analyst Maya is attacked by gunmen entering the Embassy compound. As Guardian journalist Jon Boone describes, this type of scene has happened in Peshawar, but doesn’t really take place in Islamabad. Pakistan, like many third world nations, isn’t as safe as America. But it also isn’t a war zone where Westerners can’t leave their homes without fear of dying. There are parts which are very violent--you know, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas--but not Islamabad.

Myth 5: The CIA analysts approach their targets objectively. Actually, Zero Dark Thirty doesn't show this. They show one agent believing she is right, and doing whatever it takes to prove herself. Guess what? In the run-up to the Iraq War, countless analysts and case officers (and Vice Presidents/Secretaries of Defense) felt the exact same way about the threat of Iraq's WMDs. They desperately tried to make that case. They were wrong.

Throughout the investigation to find Osama bin Laden, plenty of analysts and case officers thought for sure they knew where he was. They were wrong too.

Sadly, the CIA, not the American public, will learn the wrong lesson from this. Instead of relying on data and evidence, they will think, "I will go down in history if I just trust my gut. Isn't that what leaders do?" Of course, they'll be wrong.

So watch Zero Dark Thirty. Enjoy it as a fictional spy story, equivalent to The Bourne Identity, 2 Guns or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. But don’t consider it in anyway, "based on true events". It wasn't, not even remotely.

Sep 03

(To read the rest of our posts on the 2013 Oscars, please click here.)

The world is a scary place. Every single day, terrorists plot to kill you and everyone you care about. But don’t believe me; believe the national security professionals who we pay large, large sums of money to keep us safe. From Fareed Zakaria's GPS 360 from a few years back:

Fareed Zakaria: It does sound so scary day after day. Most of it goes nowhere, amounts to nothing. Most of the threats don't materialize.

John Miller: It's not an accident. The idea is when you've got that type of collection, you've got that kind of indicators and warning, you're able to influence those events, either by stopping the threat, shutting it down, capturing the people, arresting them or otherwise making it not happen.

Or from David Remnick on The New Yorker’s political scene podcast:

“Well, on the other hand, since September 2001 we have not had a major terror attack. If you talk to anybody--honest people--who are...high up in the national security apparatus they will tell you that the briefings that they get, the chatter that they listen to, the things that are stifled quietly that we don’t always hear about, are frightening. And we want that to happen.”

Whenever a terror event happens--albeit rarely--somewhere in the world, former national security experts, paid by the networks, emerge to reiterate variations on the above theme. They tell you, ‘If only you read what I read, then you would be really fearful. And because we read about it, we can stop it, and we do, but we don’t tell you, but you should trust us we are doing this.”

I am calling this variation on last week’s post, “the Bernie Madoff problem”. In this case, the national security establishment wants us to believe that we owe it our safety. They say, “We keep you safe and stop all sorts of terrorism, but we can’t tell you any specifics. Just trust us.” The director of the NSA, to prove his agency’s efficacy, said that the program Edward Snowden had leaked had prevented 50 specific attacks. Those 50 attacks, however, later turned out to be wildly exaggerated (narrowed down to a handful at most), mostly overseas and not actually prevented by the NSA meta-data collection program.

Madoff asked his investors to trust him in a very similar way; those investors then lost all their savings.

Westerners are safe. Fantastically safe. The safest people in the history of the world. And terrorism is incredibly rare. But we don’t owe the the intelligence community for this safety. We don’t have any evidence that those possible attacks that John Miller or David Remnick’s sources referenced were ever going to actually happen.

Take this story (by way of Graham Allison by way of Andrew Sullivan) about reports of a nuclear bomb threat on NYC. It never materialized, primarily because the intelligence underlying it just wasn’t very good. Phrased differently, it came from tortured suspects who lied. But it still qualifies as very scary chatter that intelligence analysts read day after day.

The most relevant point David Remnick and Fareed Zakaria both made is that the terrorist chatter goes nowhere. It goes nowhere without any CIA involvement or influence, which national security types usually won’t tell you. You may ask, what about our elected officials who provide oversight? Surely they could see through this.

They could, if they had access. When it comes to intelligence, only eight--8--members of Congress have oversight to all intelligence activities. Eight in a body of over 500 people are trusted with “overseeing” our entire intelligence apparatus. By the way, hardly any Americans know this. The rest of the legislative committees on intelligence also have huge ties to intelligence contractors.

(We wrote the above paragraph before the NSA wiretapping revelation. If anything, the revelation underscores our point. Most of the politicians briefed on the program didn’t understand how the meta-data collection program actually worked. They had to rely on a handful of powerpoint slides, and nothing else. Then, Congress demanded a slew of briefings after the program was revealed.)

We spend more on intelligence than most other Western nations spend on their entire military. That spending means jobs, lobbying and influence. If the CIA had to prove its effectiveness--the way most conservatives demand other parts of the government do--it would have an awfully hard time doing so with numbers, facts and results.

But they do hear lots of scary chatter.