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Is Operation Red Wings Important?

(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.)

twelve comments

And a kudos to Roberto for phrasing his comment in a respectful way, which stands in a stark contrast to most pro-Lone Survivor fans who quickly descend to insults in response.

“one former SEAL—who has incredibly strong political views”

He or his ghost writer?

Luttell is incredibly conservative. He endorsed rick perry for president, he speaks at conservative conferences, including the NRA, and just this weekend he challenged American rules of engagement.

Don’t be fooled: Luttrell cowrote that book and signed off on it. We have a post on this next week.

Sven, in this case I think the writer’s politics clearly align with Luttrell’s politics.

Further, a writer must be responsible for any and everything they put in a book with their name on it. If they dispute anything, then they must publicly retract it. Since Luttrell has—if anything—repeated most of the inaccuracies from the book, he clearly has validated it.

What you are suggesting is a Documentary. I am thinking something such as Frontline. Hollywood has made a film of this and of course they are going to indulge in the most visual and visceral portions of the battle. And yes the story line will be sensationalized; ITS HOLLYWOOD. I did read Victory Point and indeed there were stories just as gripping. That being said, it too was a bit protracted with its lauding of the Marines. I am not suggesting to dismiss ML’s inaccuracies or his political rant. But the movie doesn’t seem to go there by your own admission. I believe you should give the average reader more credit. It isn’t hard at all to surmise that yes the battle was costly and horrific but in the end, it was those ROE that influenced the decision to keep him alive.

Hollywood has made a film of this and of course they are going to indulge in the most visual and visceral portions of the battle. And yes the story line will be sensationalized; ITS HOLLYWOOD.

It’s one thing to pay selective attention to certain events and to take creative liberties with others in the interest of storytelling and then to acknowledge that that has been done. So far, there doesn’t seem to have been much of that kind of acknowledgement in the case of this movie.


I see more issues with the book than the movie. I’m sure it was a daunting task to attempt to convey all the points in the book in two hours. One thing I have to ask is, how can anyone really expect a soldier to be that 100% accurate after sustaining that much head impact. Really I think the crossword puzzle comment spoke to that; it made no sense. Frankly I don’t think the “liberties” in the movie were that egregious. The book and his speeches on the otherhand are a different matter. Victory Point really should be required reading to accompany the memoir. It did make the story much more complete.

@Bill MC – I am fine with liberties in the movie. But why does Berg repeatedly insist in every interview his intention was to hew as close to the truth as possible? Why doesn’t he say, “We fictionalized large chunks, including the last third of the movie. We felt this made a more exciting story, while staying close to what happened.”

Couldn’t he also admit that he had more bad guys in his film and deliberately set out to portray Shah as more powerful than he was in real life? He could say these things, but then the movie might not make as big a splash at the box office.

One thing I have to ask is, how can anyone really expect a soldier to be that 100% accurate after sustaining that much head impact.

That’s an excellent point. One of the things I was taught about oral histories is that “the general and the infantryman had very different views of the war” and that something is going to be missed if you don’t get both. And there are all kinds of other evidence that should be brought in for corroboration if the intent is to get things as right as possible.

I saw the movie, it left me awestruck. I did not see a political agenda in the movie. I saw a movie by a true Ironman who wanted to memorialize his Comrades in Arms. I confess I haven’t read the book but will if I can (not much of a book reader since the internet).

I agree, Red Wings is important and does raise issues that are not addressed in Lone Survivor, but why should we demand that LS address those issues? Lone Survivor is the book that ML wanted to write, a flawed memoir to fallen comrades, not a well reasoned and thought out examination of the ROE and military tactics. You might not find it “right” that LS dominates the conversation of Red Wings or like the focus on heroism but it’s not realistic to expect ML to have written the book you wanted. My advice, go write it yourself. LS has given you a platform to raise these very important issues and topics that you would never have had otherwise. I understand that’s what the blog is trying to accomplish but IMHO it’s a poor forum. You are getting caught up and sidetracked with details and personal politics that are far less important than the vital issues raised. Unless you have evidence that major sections or claims of his book are clearly false these threads are counter productive. ML should and must be held accountable to the truth but you come off as trying to cast doubt on the entire story by building a mountain of small errors and inconsistencies. Perhaps this is a case of where there is smoke there is fire but I don’t see it from what’s presented here.

LS is poorly written and contains unnecessary political comments that I also find troubling. More importantly, you are correct in taking issue with his assertion that the ROE and the liberal media led to the death of those 3 soldiers. Please focus on that and the other issues Red Wings raises from the perspective of a decorated soldier that served in Afghanistan and leave the noise out of the discussion. That’s a book I really would like to read. I suspect I am not alone.

The exaggerations and misrepresentation by the memoir and the movie were unnecessary and do nothing but cast doubt on an otherwise heroic story of US arms in Afghanistan.

This was a Marine orchestrated operation of which Luttrell’s team was merely participating. It was Marine infantry that eventually decimated Shah’s militia. However, that doesn’t fit the super hero image sought by the memoir and book. Heck I guess if you blatantly make up 20 Marine casualties then you could embellish any other angle to this story.

And look, all sacrifices in these wars, were worthy. Some gave more than others, as all wars go. Overt embellishments not necessary.

And if you think the criticism too harsh, think next that Lutrell published this story and made a movie and is no doubt a millionaire for it. No need to feel sorry for him. He made a choice to present this kind of story, in this very public way. There are many veterans among us who sacrificed as much if not more without the same opportunity, or, given the opportunity, would be content with their honorable service contributions and sacrifice.