Jan 10

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

In the last week, almost every major news source has published something about Lone Survivor (film). The majority of these reviews or making-of stories relied on promotional material provided by the production. Some of the stories coupled the promotional material with the chance to interview Marcus Luttrell, Peter Berg, Mark Wahlberg or some other stars.

The incredible lack of journalistic curiosity has, obviously, disappointed us, along with the absence of fact-checking. But a few news outlets that we hold to a bit higher standard have really gone above and beyond in journalistic malpractice. If any of these sources had bothered to look up a single detail using either the U.S. Navy’s official documents, Ed Darack’s research or Marcus Luttrell’s memoir, they would have found the answers (or contrary accounts) to their questions.

(For nearly every mistake or correction, head over to our huge list here.)

To help clear up the record, here is our fact checking of the media reports around Lone Survivor (film and memoir):

ABC News

Men’s Journal

The Los Angeles Times

Associated Press by way of NPR, The Washington Post and Salon

60 Minutes

HBO Original Documentaries, Will of the Warrior

NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday

PBS’ Charlie Rose

Star-Telegram’s “The Big Mac Blog”


ABC News:

On ABC’s This Week, journalist Bob Woodruff asked a series of leading questions without challenging any of the responses. Many of the questions seem designed to mislead the viewer.

WOODRUFF: Ahmad Shah was right in your sight. Why didn't you shoot him, was it because you weren't getting a order?

LUTRELL: Right. Yes, sir.

“WOODRUFF: What are the rules of engagement?

LUTTRELL: Who knows?

WOODRUFF: You mean it just depends on where you are? You make the decision yourself.

WOODRUFF: There isn't an official protocol that was...

WAHLBERG: I was shocked even yesterday, finding out that, while we have these rules of engagement that are kind of constantly changing, nobody else does. Nobody else has to answer to any of that.

WOODRUFF (voice-over): With the vote, the SEALs let the herders go…

A whole bunch of corrections here:

Correction 1: Luttrell didn’t shoot Shah because that wasn’t the intention of the mission. As we recently updated our list of differences and mistakes, the SEAL team’s mission was never to shoot Shah. They were deliberately only a reconnaissance unit whose mission was to get eyes on Shah. A larger team of SEALs and marines was the lead element in the mission. (This fact was almost completely neglected in the movie’s briefing scene as well.)

Further, Luttrell never mentions in the memoir actually spotting Shah, as is portrayed in the film. Thus, either the film or the memoir is wrong. (We tend to think the film embellished the detail.)

Correction 2: There was no vote. This fact is in dispute between Luttrell and Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy’s family. Based on Luttrell’s various contradictory statements, we cannot establish what actually happened. (We can, however, say that no media outlet has actually asked Luttrell why his story changed on this very sensitive topic.)

Correction 3: Rules of engagement do NOT change mission to mission and every other country has rules of engagement. While there are legitimate criticisms about ROE, these statements are both completely false and inflammatory. Every country signed to the Geneva Conventions--including every ally America has in NATO--has ROE. Further, rules of engagement do not change mission to mission, and the leaders in Afghanistan tend to update them on an annual basis. Meanwhile these changes have always maintained soldier’s right to self-defense while adhering to the laws of land warfare. Further, the laws of land warfare are a topic taught to every soldier in basic training, every officer in their initial training, and a subject trained on by every unit before they deploy.

Men’s Journal:

In an article praising Lone Survivor for its dedication to realism and accuracy, reporter Stayton Bonner included this line:

“The film recounts the two-hour firefight that pitted Luttrell's team against some 100 armed Taliban fighters.”

Correction: As we’ve written about, Luttrell and his fellow SEALs weren’t attacked by 100 men. Based on Ed Darack’s analysis, including video footage, the actual number was around 8-10 fighters. Even the U.S. Navy’s Medal of Honor Official Citation only counts 30-40 fighters. Either number is a far cry from 100 insurgents. (Or the 200 insurgents Luttrell has referenced in speeches.)

NBC News:

NBC News has featured the Luttrell story twice. They first had Marcus Luttrell on the Today Show in 2007 when his memoir hit shelves. They recently updated their reporting, again on the Today Show, this time interviewing Gulab alongside. One exchange sticks out, starting at minute 1:55:

Kate Snow: “In the end, you voted to let them go.”

Marcus Luttrell: “Yeah I did... [pause]...Yeah, that’s what we did...”

KS: “Do you regret the decision [to let the goatherders go]?”

ML: “No.”

Correction 1: There was no vote. See above for the explanation.

Correction 2: Marcus Luttrell deeply regretted letting the goatherders go in his memoir. If anything, the memoir if filled with regret (page 206). Luttrell clearly said he regretted the decision to release the goatherders, a fact he first repeated on the Today Show with Matt Lauer, where Lauer read his words back to him from Lone Survivor (memoir).

The Los Angeles Times:

On Violence’s favorite “banter buddy” from the KCRW podcast The Business (we legitimately enjoy his work), John Horn, interviewed Luttrell for his paper. Here’s the most egregious section:

“It was more than a little hard for Luttrell to recount his ordeal in print. "I didn't want to write the book. I'm a private person," he said of his memoir, co-written by Patrick Robinson. He was compelled to pen it, he said, by his superiors.

"It was the Navy's idea, not mine," the 38-year-old Luttrell said. "They felt the story needed to be set straight."

His commanding officers were equally assertive in recommending that he support a movie adaptation, which opened to solid reviews in New York and Los Angeles on Friday before expanding into national release Jan. 10.

"I didn't want to do a movie," Luttrell said. "But Hollywood was going to do it with or without us. That's what came across the wire."

Correction 1: The U.S. Navy cannot compel you to write a book. Besides being outside the scope of his job duty, the U.S. Navy actually prefers to have its sailors not publish books. Further, the Special Operations community publicly says it discourages its troops from writing books. In this rare case, his command probably did support his writing, but that’s still a far cry from compelling someone to write it.

Correction 2: Marcus Luttrell wanted to write Lone Survivor (memoir). He did. In repeated interviews, he said that he personally wanted to set the record straight. Further, there was a significant monetary incentive to publish a memoir. (He signed a seven figure book deal which likely included participation in the film’s success.)

When the Lone Survivor memoir came out four years ago, Luttrell told the The New York Times about why he wanted to write the book on his own volition, which contradicts the quotes he gave to John Horn:   

“Mr. Luttrell, 31, first started thinking of writing a book because he was frustrated by media accounts of the battle...

“So he talked to his Navy superiors, hired a lawyer and searched for a writer…

“Little, Brown won it in an auction for a seven-figure advance...”

Correction 3: Hollywood was NOT going to make Lone Survivor without Luttrell’s involvement. Absolutely not. As a long time Hollywood watcher--and someone incredibly well versed in film production and marketing--Horn should know that first and foremost Hollywood cannot make a movie without someone’s book or life rights. Further, Lone Survivor (film) consistently struggled to find film financing, and eventually turned to two individuals with ties to organized crime and cocaine trafficking to make the film. Finally, Lone Survivor (film) also only happened because of Peter Berg’s desire to see it made. In fact, to even distribute it, Universal required Berg to first helm Battleship. Arguably, if Luttrell had refused to support a movie by not giving his rights and refusing to do publicity, it never would have happened.

This is also evidenced by the extreme lack of Hollywood films about Afghanistan. With the release of Lone Survivor, the number of films about the war in Afghanistan jumps to...1, Lone Survivor. To sum, Hollywood would not have made this film but for Marcus Luttrell, Little/Brown and Peter Berg fighting to make it happen.

Associated Press by way of NPR, The Washington Post and Salon:

An AP article by Jake Coyle deserves mention for an uncritical look at the Department of Defense’s role in supporting Hollywood films. Coyle’s article made it onto NPR, Salon and The Washington Post:

“Luttrell would rather not talk about any of it. He went along with "Lone Survivor" and wrote the book at the urging of his superiors...

For films like ‘Black Hawk Down’ and ‘Lone Survivor,’ the commonality is the notion that this is an important opportunity to set the record straight or at least to portray things as they believe they happened,” says Philip Strub, head of the Defense Department’s Film and Television Liaison Office.

It can make for a thorny mix of fictionalization, artist license and classification issues. Berg consulted frequently with military liaisons and the Navy Office of Information while writing the script.

“I read the after-action reports,” says Berg. “I looked at the autopsies. I went to Iraq. I met all these guys. We just followed the blue print that Latrell laid out in his book. We never set out to do something non-Hollywood or Hollywood. We just literally told the story.”

Correction 1: Luttrell wanted to write Lone Survivor (memoir). See the above correction.

60 Minutes:

When we wrote about Marcus Luttrell’s 60 Minutes’ interview last month in “Luttrell No Longer Stands By his Mistakes: Lone Survivor vs. the 60 Minutes Interview”, we were so gobsmacked by that fact that Luttrell completely changed his story that we didn’t call out 60 Minutes for failing to ask any hard questions about the changes in Luttrell’s story.

But put this interview next to the Benghazi story...or the NSA story...or the Susan Rice profile...or the Jose Rodriguez interview from last year...well, you get the idea. Frankly, we think 60 Minutes is incapable of doing a story that’s critical of the national security establishment.

HBO Original Documentaries, Will of the Warrior:

Last week, HBO aired a documentary, Will of the Warrior, about Marcus Luttrell and Lone Survivor. A couple of inaccuracies stand out:

Correction 1: The documentary included an interview with Billy Shelton, an Army veteran who lied to Luttrell about his service and the number of tours he did in Vietnam.

Correction 2: The documentary includes archival footage of Luttrell’s interview with Matt Lauer on The Today Show incorrecting stating how many enemy attacked the SEALs.

NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday

Longtime On Violence readers know that we love NPR. We link to them all the time. Unfortunately, Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin really stumbled when she interviewed Marcus Luttrell a couple weeks ago. Luttrell told Rachel Martin:

MARCUS LUTTRELL: We did have an uneasy feeling, going in. The intel on the numbers kept changing. And then when we got overrun, it was such a large force that - the numbers have been speculated, anywhere from 60 to 80, to 80 to over 100. And it was all of that. I have 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.

Correction: The SEALs were NOT attacked by 60, 80 or 100 fighters. Not that we have to rehash it, but find out more here.

The good news is that one question did have an interesting answer about Lone Survivor (film) changing the facts:

“MARCUS LUTTRELL: ...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, Marcus. We agree.

PBS’ Charlie Rose

Wow, there’s a lot of bad in this interview, which is unfortunate, because we like public media. But, man, the version of the story Luttrell tells Charlie Rose, well, it contradicts the movie, his book and reality. Here are the quotes:

Once the book came out and did what it did, then obviously Hollywood came knocking on the door. And it was one of those situations...an ultimatum was basically dropped on us, saying we’re going do this movie with or without y’all. So you can be a part of it and help us out to make sure it’s as authentic as possible, or you can let us go with what we think is right.” (minute 6:00)

Our mission was a special reconnaissance sniper overwatch intent. We were sent out to capture/kill a high ranking individual in bin Laden’s army. Had his own militia at his disposal. Conventional forces had been chasing him for probably about two years. Finally they slid him across our desk.” (minute 12:00)

We would have rather gotten into an engagement with 200 taliban militia than to get it wrong in that situation.” (minute 14:00)

“Shah killed twenty marines last week. Twenty.” Matt Axelson, from Lone Survivor (Clip from the film, minute 22:00)

This is not a vote.” Mike Murphy, from Lone Survivor (Clip from the film, minute 22:00)

Correction 1: Hollywood CAN’T make a movie without your life rights if you're not famous. And as we mentioned above, this film wasn’t a slam dunk. Universal clearly delayed this project for years, because of the failure of other war films. Without Luttrell’s support--especially making himself available for publicity--Hollywood would not have made this film. Even if a producer made the movie without Luttrell’s rights, they couldn’t use the name Lone Survivor, which was the most marketable part of the book. Maybe Luttrell’s book contract stipulated that the publisher could sell the films rights, but that’s not “Hollywood” demanding to make a movie and delivering an ultimatum.

Correction 2: Ahmad Shah was NOT affiliated with al Qaeda. The “bin Laden’s army” part has irritated us since the book was released, because calling al Qaeda an “army” dramatically overstates their capabilities.

Correction 3: The marines were in charge of this mission. They didn’t “slide a paper” across their desk. It was a joint operation between two branches, specifically for access to the air support that Special Operations forces used.

Correction 4: The SEALs were not attacked by “200 taliban militia”. What more can we say about this one? Oh, I know: it contradicts the account Luttrell gave to NPR above.

Correction 5: 20 marines were not killed by Shah the week before the mission.

Correction 6: As far as the vote goes, that contradicts the memoir. We wish Charlie Rose would have followed up on this.

Star-Telegram’s “The Big Mac Blog”

Not only does this interview have misleading information, but Luttrell tees off on some political subjects. Here are some select quotes:

“I’ve run over 300 combat missions in my career, a lot worse than Red Wing. We didn’t take as many casualties.”

"They think I got out, wrote the book, and that’s not it. The book was the idea of the military’s. I was in Iraq when it was on Amazon. I was doing what I was told."

“Who makes up the rules of engagement? I have no idea.”

Correction 1: It’s “Operation Red Wings”. Like the hockey team.

Correction 2: The military can’t make you write a memoir.

Correction 3: Not a correction as much as a statement of fact: the top officer in charge decides on Rules of Engagement under advisement from his staff. Luttrell might not know this, but he should.

[Update February 7th, 2014: We’ve updated this post to add in other examples from NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday, PBS’s Charlie Rose, and The Star-Telegram.]

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.

Dec 30

(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.)

I (Eric C) saw the film Lone Survivor a few weeks ago at a special screening hosted by “The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith”. (Goldsmith, who also publishes an e-magazine on screenwriting called Backstory, regularly hosts screenings for upcoming films with screenwriters panels afterward. If you want to work in the film industry, this is a must-listen podcast. If you live in Los Angeles, you should be on the email list.)

Near the end of the question and answer session (also available on iTunes), Peter Berg told the audience:

“I’m sure there are murmurs...There are people who hated the book in the SEAL community, in the military community. There’s people who hate Marcus Luttrell. Not a lot of them. But go online, it’s all there. The beautiful internet. Everybody gets keyboard courage, and says all kinds of things.” (minute 1:22:00 on the podcast)

Which is funny, because Peter Berg followed those keyboard-courage-endowed haters’ advice almost to a T.

By haters, I’m referring, of course, to Michael C and myself, who, along with Ed Darack, have led the effort to correct the historical record on Operation Red Wings. I doubt that Peter Berg expected one of those haters to be in the audience...or to take a picture with him after the screening.

Mostly, I don’t get why Peter Berg mocked us when he agreed with everything we wrote. The Lone Survivor film is good for all the reasons that the Lone Survivor memoir is bad. Peter Berg is a good filmmaker, so he avoided all the mistakes Luttrell and Robinson made when they wrote the memoir. Frankly, I hope they watch the film to realize how they should have written the book.

So what does the Lone Survivor film not do?

1. Politics. Our biggest problem with Lone Survivor (memoir) wasn’t its inaccuracies; it was with its politics. The book is endlessly political, and explicitly and repeatedly blames liberals and the media for the deaths of every Navy SEAL that day. What does Peter Berg think of politics?

There was an active decision to not politicize it...I did not want to make a film that created political discussion over a discussion about who these men were.” (minute 1:11:00)

Unlike the book, in Lone Survivor (film) there are no WMDs or al Qaeda training camps in Iraq, no mentions of George W. Bush, no politics, either liberal or conservative. And it’s a better film for it.

2. Rules of Engagement. Yes, in a crucial scene in the middle of Lone Survivor (film), the SEALs debate the Rules of Engagement, but those ROEs aren’t vilified the way Luttrell vilifies them in his memoir. The discussion is balanced and even-handed, with two characters debating their options. Good art asks questions instead of giving answers.

Lone Survivor (film) asks questions; Lone Survivor (book) gives answers.

3. The Vote. A few weeks ago, Roberto commented on the site:

“Further, some of the things you claim to be false are highly speculative such as the “vote” contraversy. [sic] Im aware that its not customary for battlefield decisions to be subject to democracy but this isnt your everyday military unit and to suggest you have insight into their methodology based off of, well frankly nothing, makes you seem a little pretentious. Im [sic] aware other SEALs have also criticized this claim but again, exigent circumstances can lead to breaking SOPs and the main point is: no one but those 4 men were there.”

Fair enough, Roberto, but what about that fact that in the book Marcus Luttrell clearly writes, “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...’” (pg. 207) and in the film no vote takes place? As Peter Berg said in the Q&A, “Mike Murphy made that decision. There wasn’t a vote.” (minute 00:54:00)

4. The Writing. The writing in Lone Survivor (memoir) is terrible. And I mean terrible. We did post after post after post on it. It’s uninteresting and cliched.

Peter Berg let the actors improvise their dialogue until they found something good. I’m not going to pretend like it’s perfect, (One character's wife wants a horse. Awww!) but it’s a million times more competent than the writing in the book. Most importantly, no characters memorize crosswords in their head.   

5. Pacing. In the memoir, way too much time is spent away from the action, discussing Iraq, training, the home front, political rants. Lone Survivor (film) pares all this down into one tight, brutal story. It’s about the mission and only the mission...just like the book should have been.

5. The Inaccuracies. According to the question and answer session after the screening, Peter Berg believes that Luttrell choose him to tell his story was because of the meticulous amount of research he does before every film. And in doing that research, Berg (must have) learned a few things, like...the actual name of the mission, the actual size of the group attacking the SEALs, who Ahmad Shah actually was, etc.

Peter Berg cut those inaccuracies from the film. (I mean, not the Ahmad Shah thing, but still, he cut a lot of the inaccuracies out.) We’ll dive into the other changes from the film to the memoir later this week.

So yes, some people on the internet may have keyboard courage. But as Lone Survivor (film) proves, sometimes they’re right.

You’re welcome.

Dec 19

(To read all of our Lone Survivor posts, please click here.)

Before I start my review of Lone Survivor (film), I have some caveats:

- First, the one, lingering problem with the Lone Survivor film is that it will lead people to read the Lone Survivor book. You know how we feel about that.

- Second, the movie is about Navy SEALs, the “quiet professionals” who have way too much publicity. Expect more posts on this next year.

- Third, Michael C hasn’t seen the film, so their could be glaring military inaccuracies I would miss.

That said, I’ll get straight my thesis: I loved Lone Survivor until the ending. I think Lone Survivor is one of the greatest war films ever made, with brutal, excruciating action sequences and great acting. But the ending is so egregiously wrong and over-the-top, I almost can’t recommend it.

Some specifics. Peter Berg shot the action very realistically, with the SEALs sighting their enemies through their rifles and taking them down systematically and professionally. I’ve never seen this type of directing before, and it absolutely works. It’s the type of war film that will make past war films--even the great ones--look dated.

As the battle gets more intense, so does the pain you feel. To escape their attackers, the SEALs literally jump off a cliff. Their falls are some of the best, most-realistic and brutal sequences I’ve ever seen on film. Literally, the audience I watched it with cringed with each fall. It makes you physically move in your chair. On the basis of these sequences alone, I would recommend the film.

What else can I write? The film looks gorgeous, shot with small, handheld cameras but not in a way that brings attention to itself. The acting is tremendous, particularly Ben Foster and Emile Hirsch, who just nail their scenes. I’m not a huge Mark Wahlberg fan, but he’s good in this role.

Technically, the film is a masterpiece.


But the ending is horrendous, for reasons I’ll describe later in a much longer post. Peter Berg essentially made up the ending. He took an already inaccurate book, corrected most of those mistakes, then got to the end and was like, “Screw it, I’m making something up.” And the changes are cliched and ridiculous.

I’d recommend seeing Lone Survivor when it airs on cable. But when Marcus Luttrell gets rescued after the firefight, you can press stop, and watch something else. As Michael C pointed out to me, it’s like the inverse Zero Dark Thirty. (We recommend skipping the first hour of that film.)

So yes, Lone Survivor is an incredible, but flawed, piece of filmmaking.

Dec 16

(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 week, friend of the blog Ed Darack pointed out a mistake in Lone Survivor (film) that we had previously missed when we reviewed the trailer. That mistake is...

Ahmad Shah killed 20 marines the week before Operation Red Wings.

Lone Survivor inaccuracies fall into roughly three categories: 1. Those we can prove definitively. (Like the name of the operation.) 2. Those we can say have no evidence to support them. (Luttrell’s past claims about the number of attackers.) 3. Theoretical mistakes. (The SEAL team had more than 2 options on the hill side.)

This mistake falls firmly in the first category.

In the new film, during the briefing before the operation, someone claims that Shah killed “20 marines” the week before. In full disclosure, Eric C didn’t notice this during his first viewing of the film. Though we haven’t had a chance to see the movie again, there’s good evidence this line made it into the final cut. First, Emanuel Levy writes in his review, “Shah killed 20 marines the previous week.” Further, the screenplay of Lone Survivor on UniversalPictureAwards.com has Lt. Commander Erik Kristensen saying, “We know Shah killed fourteen Marines last Tuesday in Kandahar.”

Oh, and it’s in the trailer. (At the 40 second mark.)

In his interview with 60 Minutes last Sunday, Marcus Luttrell echoed this theme, telling Scott Pelley, “[Ahmad Shah] was...killing Marines, Army, I mean, you name it.”

Of course, Luttrell amplified Ahmad Shah’s role even further in Lone Survivor (memoir) (page 179):

“...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.”

The truth is much less sexy. And fact-checkable, thanks to the work of iCasualties.org.

As Ed Darack writes in Victory Point, intelligence only linked Ahmad Shah to eleven attacks. Even if he had been responsible for all the deaths in that part of Afghanistan--when I deployed to Afghanistan/the Korengal valley, we called it N2KL: Nuristan, Nangahar, Kunar and Laghman--only three U.S. service-members died in all of 2005 because of hostile action. Two marines died in Laghman by enemy fire. (Which Shah could possibly have assisted, but most likely didn’t.) One soldier died in an IED blast near Asadabad in Kunar province. One marine drowned in the Pech River, also in Kunar. (I ended up living in both of the bases named after the casualties in Kunar of 2005, Camp Wright and Camp Joyce.)

Four is much less than 14 or 20, which is what makes this mistake so glaring. Worse, in all of Afghanistan in 2005, only 99 U.S. soldiers and marines died in total. In the week before Operation Red Wings, no soldiers or marines died in Kandahar province the week before, much less 14. Only one soldier died from a bomb in 2005 in Kunar up to that point. The worst loss of U.S. life in 2005 took place in Ghazni province in a non-hostile helicopter crash. Further, the majority of the fighting in Afghanistan was taking place in provinces far removed from Kunar and its environs. Specifically, many more casualties took place in Paktika, Paktia, Logar and other provinces.

So why did this new mistake come to pass? Like the initial Lone Survivor (memoir) mistakes, it makes for a much better story. The Universal Pictures’ Oscar website describe Ahmad Shah as a “high level al Qaeda” operative, when he was no such thing. The movie describes him killing 20 marines in one week, when he hadn’t killed that many people in the war period. The initial screenplay describes him as a national figure--Kandahar is hundreds of miles from Kunar--when he was at best a regional player. Turning Shah into a national, al Qaeda leader who is killing marines by the dozens makes him a much better villain, but it wasn’t true.

It turns out, the truth doesn’t sell very well.

Dec 08

(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.)

When we first wrote about Lone Survivor, we identified several clear mistakes:

1. The number of fighters involved (Luttrell put the number of enemies in interviews at over 100 when military documents kept it at 30-40.)

2. Ahmad Shah/”Ben Sharmak” (Luttrell claims he was a top al Qaeda commander and Osama bin Laden lieutenant when he wasn’t even in the Taliban, but allied with it.)   

3. The name of the mission (Red Wing versus Redwings)

4. The fact that a vote took place. (Though we can’t prove that it didn’t, the military is not a democracy.)

In addition to those mistakes, we also took issue with the idea that Luttrell only had a choice between killing the goatherders, or letting them go free. We believe the SEALS also had the options to take the goatherders captive or evacuate after they let them go, which they chose not to do.

Later, we pointed out in “Marcus Luttrell Stands by His Mistakes” that Luttrell repeats these inaccuracies ad nauseum, in interviews, speeches before the NRA and other political groups, and campaign ads.

All the mistakes above have been corrected by Marcus Luttrell in his most recent 60 Minutes interview. (We should also mention that Peter Berg also took out the mistakes in the Lone Survivor movie.) Below, we’ve cut paragraphs from the transcript of the 60 Minutes interview, to point out where Marcus Luttrell has changed his story.

Did they take a vote?

“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.”

How many people attacked?

“The first guy I saw had an RPG over each shoulder and an AK-47 and then there was about 30 or 40 guys in line with him.”

Ahmad Shah, al Qaeda or Taliban?

“Their job was to locate this man whom the four SEALs had only seen in grainy photographs. He was an elusive militia leader aligned with the Taliban named Ahmad Shah.

Anderson Cooper: Who was Ahmad Shah?

Marcus Luttrell: He had a group that he ran called the Mountain Tigers. He was creating all kinds of havoc out there in that particular region that he was in, killing Marines, Army, I mean, you name it.

Kill the Goatherders?

Actually, this one isn’t from Luttrell, it’s from a retired officer in the Navy.

“Retired Vice Admiral Joe Maguire says the only options the SEALs really had were to take the goat herders captive and try to get evacuated by helicopter or let them go.”

Oh, and the name of the mission?

“They were part of a larger mission called Operation Red Wings.”

Appropriately enough, we didn’t actually buy a copy of Lone Survivor, the book, until two weeks ago. Eric C, after he saw Lone Survivor, the movie, bought a copy of the memoir to see if the ending of the film is completely made up. (Spoiler alert: it is.) And in that copy of Lone Survivor all of the mistakes remain. The inaccurate number of attackers, the al Qaeda affiliation for Ahmad Shah, and the vote.

Hell, the title still reads “Operation Redwing”.

So everyone who rushes out to buy a copy of this book will remain woefully misinformed.