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The Tale of the Tape: The (Dis)Similarities Between Luttrell, Mortenson and Montalvan

(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’re still kind of shocked no major media outlet has yet covered the inaccuracies (which we discussed in depth in this series) in Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson’s war memoir Lone Survivor, especially since Luttrell has a second book coming out next week and Peter Berg--the planned director for the upcoming film adaptation of Lone Survivor--has Battleship coming out this month.

But to make the disparity clear, we want to compare Lone Survivor to two other “debunked” memoirs, Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea and Luis Carlos Montalvan’s Until Tuesday. Looking at the tale of the tape, we hope some enterprising journalist will see they should investigate Marcus Luttrell’s Lone Survivor.

The Mistakes

Lone Survivor

- Inflates the number of attackers from 30-40 insurgents (according to the official Navy Medal of Honor citation) to over 100. (Later, in interviews, this number increases to 200.)

- Misidentifies the target as a high ranking lieutenant of Osama Bin Laden (he wasn’t) and a member of al Qaeda (he wasn’t).

- Fails to explain the larger purpose of the marine-led mission, Operation Red Wings.

- Claims a vote took place during the mission that the father of Lt. Mike Murphy and other military officers doubt took place.

- Gets the title wrong (Operation Redwing versus Operation Red Wings) and more.

Three Cups of Tea

From Wikipedia:

“- The story recounted in Three Cups of Tea about Mortenson getting lost and separated on the way down from K2, ending up in Korphe in Pakistan, and promising to build a school did not actually take place.

- The story recounted in Stones into Schools about Mortenson's capture by the Taliban did not occur. His purported kidnappers state he was a guest and the Taliban did not exist in the country at that time.

- Schools that the Central Asia Institute claims to have built either have not been built, have been built and abandoned, are currently used for other purposes such as grain storage, or have not been supported by CAI after they were built.”

Until Tuesday

According to an AP investigation:

- Claims Montalvan shot an attacker, but a fellow soldier claims that he did not.

- Exaggerates the injuries Montalvan sustained in the attack.

- Exaggerates why he was attacked, claiming it was an assassination attempt.

- Exaggerates a car bombing.

So while Mortenson fabricated more events than Luttrell, Montalvan certainly didn’t. Maybe Lone Survivor escaped scrutiny because it isn’t as popular. Let’s see.


Lone Survivor

- In Eric C’s opinion, the most popular war memoir released by a soldier since 9/11.

- Lone Survivor reached number one on the New York Times bestseller list, remains a top twenty New York Times bestseller and has spent at least 70 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.

- The movie adaptation of Lone Survivor starts filming in September, starring Mark Wahlberg and directed by Peter Berg.

- Marcus Luttrell has appeared on NBC's Today Show, every Fox News show, and has so many popular speaking engagements lined up, The Hollywood Reporter wrote an article about it.

- On a personal level, three different people recommended Lone Survivor to me. That’s three more times than any other war memoir.

- Michael found a copy of Lone Survivor in Afghanistan, ironically, in the Korengal valley.

Three Cups of Tea

- In Michael C’s opinion, until the debunking, the most popular book related to Pakistan in America.

- Reached number one on the New York Times bestseller list, and remained on the list for four years, only dropping once the media scrutiny got too intense.

- Mortensen was interviewed everywhere, like Parade magazine, USA Today, Outside magazine, and others.

- One of our high school teachers recommended the book to us. It also became required reading for soldiers deploying to Afghanistan.

- Michael also found a copy of this book in the Korengal library.

Until Tuesday

- Eric C hadn’t heard of it until it got debunked.

- Appeared on The New York Times bestseller list at #19.

- Waterman Entertainment bought the film rights, according to Variety.

- Doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, at least not one that shows up on Google.

So Lone Survivor is probably tied with Three Cups of Tea in popularity, but way ahead of Until Tuesday. Did the media cover the the discrepancies equally?

Media Coverage

Lone Survivor

- Blog posts on On Violence.

- A Marine Corps Gazette article by Ed Darack.

- A website by Ed Darack.

Three Cups of Tea

- An expose by Jon Krakauer and 60 Minutes.

- According to Google News, the Three Cups of Tea controversy had at least 485 news articles written about it...this week alone.

- Last year, every major news outlet covered the Three Cups of Tea controversy.

Until Tuesday

- The AP investigated Montalvan and the facts in Until Tuesday.

- ABC News, The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, The New York Times “At War”, and the Army Times all ran stories on the controversy.

Far and away, Three Cups of Tea got the most coverage, with Until Tuesday pulling in a strong second with Lone Survivor a distant, distant third. Maybe Lone Survivor has a really heartwarming message that causes journalists to avoid debunking it.


Lone Survivor

- Luttrell wishes he had killed the two goat herders and the fifteen year old boy.

- He hopes the military relaxes rules of engagement and that the media quits reporting unfavorably on the military.

Three Cups of Tea

- Mortensen promotes the idea that If we build schools in Afghanistan, we’ll create peace.

Until Tuesday

- Dogs help PTSD recovery.

- Montalvan has spoken out against the Iraq war, and advocated for increased veteran benefits.


eight comments

It is no surprise that Luttrell has another book coming out. He will probably have more after that, if he cares to. People like the story and they won’t let truth get in the way. That is no surprise because for most people, the closest they get to real life, let alone battle type real life, is the movies. Nowadays most don’t even have a relative or friend who can fill them in. When their only experience is the movies, something that is like a movie has more of a ring of reality than real life does. So something like Lone Survivor is real because it is close to their “experience.”

A previous example of this is the Bravo Two Zero/Andy McNab sage. He made almost all of that up, as detailed in The Real Bravo Two Zero, and yet his literary career marches on, for over 20 years. The Real Bravo Two Zero is a very good book if you haven’t read it.

I seem to remember reading somewhere, maybe in something by Mr. Darack, that the actual number of Taliban who got Luttrell’s group was 9-12. Am I remembering that correctly?

@ Carl – That’s correct. Accoridng to research by Ed Darack, that’s the number he estimates.

You know I didn’t think long enough before I made my obvious comment about people liking Luttrell’s story so much they won’t debunk it. Duh. Why do they like it so much? Just as you guys asked.

I think there are two reasons. First, Luttrell’s story involved others who are dead. That means those guys can’t be asked and if people question his story they may feel they are questioning the integrity of the dead somehow. Because those guys aren’t around to defend themselves, it seems somehow improper. Which in turn means Luttrell and the Navy are very clever manipulators of peoples’ good side. They have set up a situation whereby if you question Luttrell, you question the courage and professional competence of dead guys who were undoubtedly brave but also made some very bad errors. Civilians especially don’t want to do that.

The second reason relates to something I read a long time back commenting on Mr. Darack’s story. The person wouldn’t accept it because of something like “Can you really believe that our best warriors could be taken by a handful of people in mandresses? No. It couldn’t be.” Mortensen’s and Montalvan’s stories are about them alone. It isn’t so hard to go after an individual. But Luttrell and the Navy made Luttrell’s story about us, the whole country because it was the SEALs. If you were to debunk his story it wouldn’t be just him you were to discredit, it would mean the US got beat by a squad wearing flip flops. We can’t have that. Somehow the SEALs got themselves into a place where SEALs=USA. The Marines probably envy that.

I can’t disagree with either of your arguments, but the second point irritates me. It doesn’t matter who you are—Delta, Ranger, SEAL, SF, SAS, or whoever—if you are ambushed by two machine guns with the high ground and surprise, you will almost always lose. Almost always. I can’t stress the power of machine guns. Two machine guns (PKMs if I remember Darack correctly) are a huge amount of fire power. But that is hard to communicate to most people, and likely won’t make the film either.

The one interesting part that is like questioning the dead, but is legitimate is the idea that Lt. Murphy took a vote. I definitely believe he gathered the input of his men (I did this all the time as a PL), but I do believe he made the decision on his own. Also I don’t believe he said, “If we kill these goatherders the liberal media will come after us.” That just doesn’t sound realistic

The contrasting responses (or lack thereof) between the problems/inaccuracies/​politics-pushed of Luttrell’s memoir as compared to Greg Mortenson’s memoirs says more about early 21st C America, particularly domestic civil-military affairs, than any of the authors.

Had not heard of “Until Tuesday” until this commentary.

Michael C.: Just out of curiosity, do you think an American infantry squad should carry a GPMG? Let’s say you could determine what the squad could carry or not, SAPI plates or not etc. I am asking because the German WWII infantry squad was built around an MG 34 or MG 42 and the Brits (I think) built sections around a Bren gun.

Carl, I have re-org’ed the U.S. Army in my head many times. And on paper too. I tend to believe we should increase the number of maneuver units, while holding the number of support units. (So battalions should have four line companies with one heavy weapons company (which would include scouts/mortars) then a combo HHC/Support company.

As to your question, yes and no. I think each platoon should have the option to give each squad an MG, which means each platoon should have three MGs, not two. However, some missions are perfect for going without the machine gun, like the one Luttrell was on. I know many commanders mandate that every patrol in Afghanistan have a machine gun. That with body armor makes small unit patrolling (I mean like four people going out to scout) incredibly difficult if not impossible.