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Our Favorite "Unique Takes" on “Lone Survivor” (Film)

(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.

fifteen comments

You ask “why hasn’t a single officer been held accountable for the mistakes made before, during and after Operation Red Wings?”

It’s a valid question, but I counter with this: don’t most SOF NCOs consistently make the claim that they (the NCOs) plan their own missions (and do so with barely contained scorn for officers)? Granted, that’s not the case in this specific context, and further, in this instance it seems that some of the SOF planning principles were not adhered to, but it still strikes me as a bit of a double standard. If you screw up your own plan, they you should be prepared to be held accountable.

On a similar note, there’s a recurring trend in citations for awards and commendations. Soldiers get praised for doing a lot of fighting withdrawals, treating casualties in the middle of ambushes and so on. There are far fewer awards for successfully prosecuting a mission. That suggests that there was a lot of poor preparation (intelligence analysis, course of action development, planning braches and sequels, aligning resources etc), and would make one think there should be a lot of officers being fired. At the same time, command teams (and there-s a term that could be the subject of a whole other discussion) are being consistently awarded commendations for leadership and planning. There’s an internal inconsistency here.

None of which answers your specific question, but it does make me think that military institutions aren’t really in tune with the actual conduct of our current wars. But here’s a hypothesis: maybe the officers at fault for Red Wings were all killed. We try not to speak ill of the dead, and in this instance the dead were posthumously decorated or commended in one manner or another. It’s simpler emotionally to mourn, honour and move on than it is to assign blame to the dead – not to mention the perception that creates of shifting blame to those who can no longer defend themselves. But that attitude also restricts capacity to learn and adapt.

From what I gather from Darack’s book it seems that it’s almost impossible to get a OK to make any type of decision without going through numerous layers of approval. By the time the OK is given to do anything, some many people have been involved, that you would have to fire everyone if things went bad.
A perfect example in Darark’s book is how long it took to get approval to respond to Lt Murphy’s call for help. The troubling thing is that now one seems to be willing to buck the system even when lives are at stake. In Darack’s book you read about the Marine Lt Col having a QRF ready to go but waits for three hours waiting on a OK. At what point can you say “ F It ,I cant wait any longer, it’s my call”…. If its even possible in today’s military.

That’s an interesting point with regard to the deceased officers. In think when it comes to injury or death, we have a very forgiving military. It appears that there is some looking the other way when mistakes are made and lives lost. The rub here is that ML takes it to a whole different level; he has capitalized on it. To add insult to injury, he has injected politics into the rational for some of the adverse outcome. I will give him the benefit of the doubt and believe that indeed he did not want his fellow SEALS to be forgotten. But after Hollywood got hold of the story, and with his help, it loses much of its relevance.

“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. – See more at: “http://www.onviolence.com/?e=770#comm”“:http://www.onviolence.com/?e=770#comm”

I also agree – and I further agree that there’s a time for a soldier to discuss something and a time to get on with the job. In any event, there’s a well thought out article in the Canadian Military Journal that examines the issue of whether the mission was “worth it.” http://www.journal.dnd.ca/vol14/no1/page..

To summarise, it notes that the default intent behind the question is almost always “is it worth the loss of life.” He then notes the short term benefits (disruption of AQ and there having been no dramatic large-scale acts of terror in the US – it’s hard to quantify that, and he doesn’t get into the math comparing the cost of a 9/11-style attack with the cost of waging a decade-long war, let alone get into opportunity costs). He also notes various aspects of progress in Afgh (again, without looking at opportunity costs), and notes how missions evolve. This latter is relevant if anyone is interested in how non-American political systems make decisions on the use of force.

I won’t say the author convinces me of worth, but at least it’s a more intelligent discussion than one finds in most places on the issue. Of course, it’s also in a peer-review journal (which surprised me when I first learned that) and not a paperback mass market publication.

A more important question needed to be asked is, to what extent is it worth it? Specifically, what is the metric that explains the involvement has reached its maximum benefit to cost. That seems to be where most nations have had a difficult time with and to date, we are still trying to decide. Have our forces with the help of other nations, succeeded in rooting out AQ and eliminating an environment that breeds terrorists like Bin Laden? I think most Americans are ready to see what course the Afgan government and its people are prepared to take. It is then that a more definitive answer to the question, “was it worth it,” will be answered.

@Bill Mc

The way I see it, before you can determine whether or to what extent it is worth going to war, you need to have some clear goals. “Selection and maintenance of the aim” and “objective” are similar principles of war in different western doctrines. Without clearly defining the aim or objective it’s difficult to then determine whether or not what any effort might be worth.

Nice discussion so far.

I think Tim O’Brien is wrong. To make such s broad statement about a phenomena that encompasses such a huge variety of human experience over such broad expanse of time can’t help but be wrong. For example in West’s book The Village are contained two letters Ho Yan Trao and Ho Chi wrote to Sgt. White’s family when Sgt. White went home. In the context of the book and the time those letters are uplifting. And I never heard anybody question the truth of that book. This doesn’t mean we should run out and start wars to improve our moral fibre. That would be criminal. But it does mean that the force of the point Mr. O’Brien’s statement is meant to make is lessened because it is untrue.

A second reason such a broad statement can’t be true is it to closely reflects cultural and personal sensibilities. Mr. O’Brien’s statement resonates with people in the here and now, especially the Western here and now. If the same thing had been said to Genghis Khan’s troopers after the destruction of the Khwarezmian Empire or to Corte’s Conquistadors after the final taking of Mexico, they likely would have responded with a quizzical look.

@ Carl – Fair point. The quote comes from one of my favorite stories, “How to tell a true war story”, that elaborates on the point. And the quote itself is much longer. I’d check it out, it’s a great book.

It seems to me the Warrior Creed and Respect is missing in regard to Lone Survivor, the Book and the Movie. PO2 Luttrell was a highly trained special operator but an E5 albeit the cream of the crop. This Clausewitz level analysis some are seeking seems misplaced and misguided. It’s a movie. It was Marcus’s story and his account plain and simple to keep the memory of his teammates alive. Some here seem to be seeking a War College level critical analysis. You won’t find it in the movie or the book because no one in the civilian world would read it or care. They’d throw it in the round file after reading the introduction. His story was meant to be drama and emotion….the way he feels day and night.

I was in the Pentagon and saw real world/real time reports. This was a coordinated C2 attack which orchestrated a PR video shoot down of the QRF force. Having neutralized a sophisticated plan and S/R team, the Taliban new QRF TTP and controlled the terrain for an effective military operation. Anyone suggesting a force less than 10 is living in the fog of folklore and rumor. They don’t know the facts.
Was OP Red Wing a causality of planning, unity of effort or a Taliban who got lucky or a Taliban who studied TTP and made their own luck count when luck was needed? Hell who knows? That’s not the point of the book or movie. The guy is trying to explain the Warrior Creed and what Warriors will do for one another. The book is about brotherhood in Combat not a Clausewitz level analysis.

There is plenty of Clausewitz level analysis required on OIF/OEF that would make the Lone Survivor look pale in comparison. Let’s start with the failed IED fight and why in 04 and 05 100s were maimed for life. Let’s start with why it took blood flowing in buckets before a main IED countermeasure effort was started, let’s debate the lost souls in the first two years before a paralyzed Washington military establishment could find their ass with both hands. Let’s debate how folks who still dress like warriors from Jesus Christ day were able to salvage 1950 technology, washing machine controls, and 20 year old cell phone technology and bring the most sophisticated military in the history of mankind to its knees before the military establishment could react. For Christ sake read Left of Boom or some other strategic level screw up but please stop analyzing an E5s account of how he lost his buddies and one who suffers greatly for why he survived and they didn’t.


If he shaded the truth, he deserves to be criticized. That is not staff college level analysis, that is a simple matter of can one human trust what another human says to be true. It ain’t a good thing if he can’t.

Now it is time to throw my evening hand grenade. It involves all this ‘warrior’ talk that is so fashionable in the today’s military. This is a quote that I found about that. It is from some Star Wars fan site but I think it derives originally from something Scipio Africanus said (Star Wars never came up with anything original).

“I’m not a warrior, I’m a soldier. There’s a difference. Warriors attack and conquer, they prey on the weak. Soldiers defend and protect the innocent—mostly from warriors.”

I think that is a great sentiment.

Here it is. I found it.

“My mother bore me a general, not a warrior.”


The quote is different but the general idea is the same.

There’s an interesting implication to Navy’s thought: the general public is more interested in, and presumably has greater confidence in the account of an E5 than in a more reasoned analysis of the situation in its broader context. Maybe this is because we’re more interested in emotion and drama than the facts behind combat. Maybe it’s because tactics and superficialities like chest rigs (touched on by SO elsewhere) interest us more than strategy. Maybe it’s because we view tales of individual heroism in combat as escapism, which we hold more important than truth. Maybe it’s because we’ve lost confidence in our officers because they never seem to be held accountable for mistakes, as discussed above (and including the whole list of blunders Navy points out).

One book and one movie can’t be held exclusively responsible for giving the public false impressions, but they are symptomatic of a larger problem concerning flawed knowledge of war and its consequences. Thomas Jefferson said: “Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.”

If the people are not well informed on matters of war and national security then the people are in no position to recognise when things go wrong.

As for the distinction between soldiers* and warriors (this one irritates me too), here’s another quote:

“The most fundamentally differentiating element, however, is context. Only soldiers can exist in a world of states and laws; warriors cannot. Real warriors are possible only in a pre-state world where individually applied force is the “final arbiter of human affairs”.” http://www.journal.forces.gc.ca/vo2/no2/..


  • the term “soldiers” being used in its generic sense to include all uniformed military personnel.

Recommend folks listen to the SOFREP iTunes podcast with ranger LEO and force recon Nealen. I think the discussion provides a more pragmatic answer to lone survivor. This sight is over thinking the entire issue. One must be careful not to over analyze. As they say, over analysis leads to paralysis.


No paralysis by me. After analysis of the info, the action taken was judge the truth hasn’t been well served.