May 26

(A few weeks ago, I unfavorably compared the Bush administration's response to 9/11 with the Eisenhower Administration's response to launch of Sputnik. Eisenhower choose investments that aided America's long term growth; President Bush didn't. Today I recommend my post-9/11 investment.)

Recently, I heard a talk by a seasoned Human Intelligence professional--the type of guy who's been around the world a few times. He deftly described our intelligence system as designed "to find metal objects, be they missiles, tanks, or ships." What the US really needs, he went on to say that, is the ability to look inside someone's head.

Obvious, impossible, but true. And a fact that is routinely overlooked. Our intelligence community has improved its human intelligence since 9/11, but we have a long, long way to go. This isn't just an intelligence failure; this is a military, national security and cultural failure.

The main reason we can't collect human intelligence is that we don't speak the right languages. We don’t have enough agents, operatives, spies, and Human Intelligence collectors who speak Arabic, Persian, Pashtun, Urdu, Chinese, and countless other needed languages.

If right after 9/11, President Bush redirected the billions we spend on technology (or just a fraction of some of the billions) towards a massive foreign language training program, not only would America be safer, our economic future would be brighter. Funding engineering research helped America win the Cold War, but also launched a computer revolution; funding foreign language training will help America defeat Islamic radicalism, but will also launch America into the globalized business world.

As soon as he entered office, President Bush approved the “No Child Left Behind” Act. Demanding accountability through test scores, it increased federal education funding by 12 billion dollars from 2001 to 2007. Investing in education is investing in the future. After 9/11, though, the program wasn’t dramatically altered. The administration didn't see the connection between education, foreign languages and terrorism. President Eisenhower saw that an interstate highway would usher in an industrial boom; President Bush couldn't see that foreign language education will usher in a globalization boom.

Don't consider this a knock on Republicans, Democrats didn't see it either, and neither did the media. When discussing education reform, we talk about reading, writing and math; no one talks about foreign languages.

Fixing the Gap

Q: What do you call someone who speaks three languages?
A: Trilingual

Q: What do you call someone who speaks two languages?
A: Bilingual

Q: What do you call someone who speaks one language?
A: American (H/T Foreign Policy Watch)

How many high schools offer Chinese classes? How many elementary schools offer Arabic? I grew up in California and we didn't even start Spanish until middle school. Our university system has plenty of grants and scholarships for scientists and engineers, but few for foreign languages.

We need to fix the gap. America should immediately double, then triple, the bonus given to our service members who speak critical languages (like Arabic, Chinese, Urdu or Persian). It should offer full scholarships for students studying foreign languages with only a two-year service requirement upon graduation--be it the military, CIA, FBI or other three letter agency. America shouldn't go in half-heartedly either, this effort should be in the billions of dollars range.

At the same time, Congress should offer grants to schools to radically overhaul their foreign language programs. To provide immediate language training, we should aim our sights at colleges. For our long-term future, elementary schools should institute foreign language training. High schools should then make four-year foreign language training mandatory.

As I see it, not only terrorism, but globalization--the same force that energizes international terrorism--necessitates culturally literate individuals who can speak multiple languages. Training a core of foreign language experts will initially benefit our national security, and will eventually benefit businesses and academics. As On The Media reported last week, America has trouble translating Chinese newspapers. If we can't even read Chinese newspapers, how can we conduct complex business relationships?

Fortunately, we aren't too late. Even now America could regain the foreign language edge throughout the world. We are a diverse melting pot of every culture in the world. If our government invested the resources--and I mean billions of dollars--we could capture a key edge for future global interaction.

May 24

(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.)

To Peter Berg and Universal Pictures,

We're begging you, please don't make a Lone Survivor movie.

According to news reports, you stopped work on Lone Survivor to film an adaptation of Battleship (yes, the board game). We never thought we'd say this, but we're glad that you're making a Battleship movie. It gives you time to reconsider the mistake of filming Lone Survivor.



There are way too many reasons not to make this film. Here are nine:

Reason 1: The backlash will be gigantic.

Remember the backlash from Soldiers against the Hurt Locker? Lone Survivor will get a full blown tidal wave, and from more than just the milbloggers. Liberals will think it is too ideological, and Soldiers will think it is too over-the-top. Based on what some people wrote in our comment threads, even SEALs laugh at Luttrell.

Reason 2: Luttrell got his facts wrong.

As we wrote on Wednesday, Luttrell exaggerated the importance of his target Ahmad Shah, totally misunderstood why the US went to Iraq, and even over-estimated the number of fighters in the ambush. How can you take this book seriously after reading mistakes like these?

Reason 3: Lone Survivor is too political.

Luttrell is off-puttingly political. War stories shouldn’t be political, they should be honest. Black Hawk Down worked because it ignored politics. It told the story of Army Rangers in an awful situation, but it told it forthrightly. Lone Survivor doesn’t come close to this level of honesty.

Reason 4: Wait for a better story.

The battle of VPB Wanat. The attack at COP Keating. Operation ROCK Avalanche. The Pat Tillman Ambush/Incident. Peter Berg, you could tell countless stories that have more honesty and importance than Lone Survivor, without the political rants or exaggeration.

Even better, tell the stories of memoirists who wrote about Afghanistan. Our personal favorite is Brandon Friedman's The War I Always Wanted. Craig Mulaney's The Unforgiving Minute, though it has problems, is infinitely better than Lone Survivor.

Reason 5: Lone Survivor will get soldiers killed.

Simply put, Luttrell doesn't get counter-insurgency. If Soldiers followed Luttrell’s advice, they will either get themselves or innocent civilians killed in Afghanistan. (We'll have more on this in the future.)

Reason 6: Luttrell needlessly vilifies Muslims and Afghans.

Luttrell labels all Muslims--Shia, Sunni, Persians, Afghans, and Middle-Easterners--as hate-filled terrorists. This is ignorance at its best. First, not even 1% of Muslims are terrorists, and two, terrorists can be from Africa, Japan, Pakistan, or even America (think Timothy McVeigh, the Unabomber or Eric Robert Rudolph). I can't imagine why a director or a studio would want to promote hate-filled propaganda.

Reason 7: Lone Survivor prevents political discourse.

You can’t call liberals evil, hold them responsible for the death of your friends, and then have a courteous political discourse. Afghanistan shouldn't be a Democratic issue or Republican issue, it should be an American issue. Letting partisan politics get in the way of serious security issues disgusts us.

Reason 8: It will ruin the history of Afghanistan for years.

Michael C takes this personally. Many Vietnam veterans don’t like Vietnam war movies because that is how most Americans will remember Vietnam. Many active service hated the Hurt Locker because it mis-represented the experience of Iraq. A Lone Survivor movie would do the exact same for Afghanistan. Please don't make the same mistake again.

Reason 9: We didn't even touch the surface last week.

We only like to really post three to four times a week at On Violence. But we've posted 7 times last week to accommodate Lone Survivor's awfulness. One bad review wouldn't do. My original unfinished review reached 2,000 words. Eric had six pages of notes. So did Michael. On almost every topic--facts, ROE, literary merits, political context--Lone Survivor gets something wrong. (We have two posts in the wings on Lone Survivor's writing and counter-insurgency understanding. Stay tuned.)

How You Can Help: Hopefully, Peter Berg and Universal will see our posts, or read Ed Darack's Victory Point, and do the right thing and stop this film. Please retweet this post, like it on facebook or link to it, so everyone knows how truly awful Lone Survivor is an awful book.

And if someone recommends Lone Survivor to you, don't listen.

May 21

(To read all of our Lone Survivor posts, please click here. The most important post is "A List of the Mistakes and Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality" so read that first if you are new to the blog or this topic.)

Just because Luttrell got his facts wrong, criticized the rules of engagement needlessly, and misunderstands counter-insurgency, that doesn’t mean his memoir is bad art. Misguided definitely, but not necessarily a poor piece of writing.

Except Lone Survivor is a bad piece of writing, and I hope it will be forgotten in twenty years.

Though I want to be glib about how bad this book is, it also makes me sad. As you comb deeper through Lone Survivor's layers, you see that it is a tragedy, both in narration and presentation. There are five layers to Lone Survivor, and the first four layers obscure the fifth, deepest layer: the guilt that Luttrell feels for surviving. Luttrell created this story to hide that guilt from himself.

Lone Survivor’s first layer is the surface plot: a Navy SEAL, after completing his torturous training, heads to Afghanistan with three men on a mission to capture an anti-American enemy. Taliban fighters ambush the SEALs, and only Marcus Luttrell survives, taking refuge from a generous Pashtun village until Army Rangers rescue him. A good plot, if Luttrell were a good writer. Instead, he lingers too long in all the wrong places, Lone Survivor’s primary literary flaw.

The second layer is Luttrell’s personal moral, that, because of inner strength, determination, American/Navy SEAL superiority and Jesus, he survived his SEAL training and subsequent ambush in Afghanistan. This is both vain and ridiculous.

The third layer is the political thesis: Luttrell’s fellow SEALs died because liberal politicians and the liberal media hamstring the military and Soldiers--with Rules of Engagement, negative coverage, and a diffuse hatred of all things military. If we just freed our military from legal restrictions, (read: allow the killing of civilians, in this case a fourteen year old boy) this war would be over. As Luttrell puts bluntly, “I can say from first hand experience that those rules of engagement cost the lives of three of the finest US Navy SEALS who have ever lived.” (Read Michael's counter-argument here.)

This political message runs counter to the fourth layer running throughout Lone Survivor: the unintended irony. A neutral village saves Lutrell's life, even though Luttrell would have shot the villagers if he had had any strength left. Not shooting civilians saved his life.

There could have been a really poignant layer here, a SEAL filled with hate for his enemy discovers they are a compassionate and loyal people. Hell, Luttrell even writes about how he discovered the Pashtun-Wali code after his mission. In a novel, this would be character growth. Luttrell, though, regresses. He's written an entire book dedicated to perpetuating the negative stereotyping that almost killed him. Luttrell sprinkles Lone Survivor with unintended counter-insurgency lessons like this.

Finally, there is the dark core, the fifth level of sadness that permeates Lone Survivor. Ultimately, I read it is as a psychological story told from the clues you pick up along the way: nightmares haunt a slightly unbalanced warfighter after he witnesses the horrific battlefield death of three comrades. "Again in my mind I heard that terrible, terrible scream, the same one that awakens me, bullying its way into my solitary dreams night after night, the confirmation of guilt. The endless guilt of the survivor. "Help me Marcus! Please help me!" Unable to process his survivor's guilt, he creates a fiction about what happened: 20-30 attackers turns into 200. The team's tactical mistakes--losing communication with higher, not choosing to evacuate faster, deciding to let the goat herders go--become the fault of ROE. The death of his fellow SEALs becomes the fault of liberals, politicians and the media.

The fifth level explains all the other levels: the political rants, his personal moral, the irony, the mindless, angry rants. This isn't a story about ROE. It's a story about Marcus Luttrell, broken by the loss of his best friend and fellow soldiers, unable to salve his pain. He blames the liberal media, liberal politicians, Al Qaeda and Islam. This event broke him, but he can’t admit that. Instead, he rages impotently at other scapegoats and the world.

However, this last completely unintentional layer does not make Lone Survivor worth reading at all.

May 19

(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.)

As I wrote on Monday, I take Marcus Luttrell's Lone Survivor personally. I lived in the Korengal valley; I walked the trails on the other side of the Sawtalo Sar. Knowing the Korengal, Luttrell’s story just confused me. Take the number of people in Ben Sharmak’s army, Luttell puts it at up to 200.

When I first read that line, it didn’t sound right. But I couldn’t prove that Luttrell was wrong, I merely had my suspicions.

So I searched for the original "after-action report" for the ambush of SEAL Team 10, to find out more about “Ben Sharmak” and his army. I couldn't find it, but I did find this incredible site for the book Victory Point. The author Ed Darack, corrects several of Luttrell's glaring errors.

The mistakes in Lone Survivor aren't minor, they are gaping holes. Here are the seven worst:

1. The title.

The Marine Battalion--3rd Battalion of the 3rd Regiment--that initially planned the mission used sports teams to name their missions. Previous missions were called Spurs, Mavericks and Celtics, and after all the Texan and Boston team names were used up, the 3/3 Marines decided to switch to hockey names. Luttrell’s Operation Redwing doesn’t exist; the mission was called Operation Red Wings, like the Detroit hockey team.

I understand that little details and facts will be lost in such a crazy attack, but getting the mission name wrong is bizarre, especially getting it wrong in the first draft, second draft, manuscript, galley proof and paperback edition. For the rest of our posts we will refer to the mission as Operation Red Wings, to be factually accurate.

2. Satellite versus cellular phone.

Marcus Luttrell repeatedly refers to his team's satellite phone as a cell phone. Cell phone use in Afghanistan is exploding (literally and figuratively) all over the country, but not in the Korengal valley. They didn't have cell phone coverage when I was there in 2008, and they definitely didn't have it in 2005. What Luttrell is most likely referring to is a satellite phone that can be used anywhere in the world, most commonly called Thuraya.

What he doesn't clarify, and this is slightly off topic, is why SEAL Team 10's team leader waited so long call higher headquarters with the cellular/satellite phone. Even after their radios failed to contact higher headquarters they waited to use the satellite phone until the ambush had started. They had a very poor communication plan, without solid backups.

3. Taliban in Iraq?

In the chapter where Luttrell runs around Iraq with his SEAL buddies on snatch-and-grab missions, he describes Saddam Hussein as in league with the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Simply wrong. This continues another unintentional--I hope--theme of Lone Survivor: lumping insurgent and terrorist groups together with no regard for the truth. Throughout his text he confuses, Taliban, Al Qaeda, Shia, Sunni, and other groups, while ignoring the other militants in Afghanistan.

4. Saddam had WMD?

Luttrell claims Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, going so far as to say that this is a "fact." It's hard to take the rest of the book seriously after reading that.

5. Saddam harbored Al Qaeda too?


He also claims that getting rid of Saddam was necessary to remove Al Qaeda training camps in Iraq. Again, I can’t imagine an educated reader taking Luttrell seriously after three mistakes that horribly misrepresent the US invasion of Iraq.

The last three points also show the bizarre world view of Marcus Luttrell. Everywhere he goes in the Middle East he sees Muslims as terrorists, and a crazy worldwide conspiracy to kill Americans. With such a viewpoint, it is hard to imagine him winning hearts and minds anywhere, but we’ll get into that in a later post.

6. An Army of 200?

In Lone Survivor, "Ben Sharmak," is one of the baddest dudes in all of Afghanistan. A dude who buddies around with Osama bin Laden. A bad mamma-jamma that may have had a hand in 9/11. And as I said earlier, he also runs an army of 80 to 200 insurgent/terrorists.

Except that--again heads up to Victory Point-- “Ben Sharmak” (real name Ahmad Shah), wasn't a high value target, or even a medium level target. He was barely on the Special Operations radar. He was affiliated with Hezb Il Gulbuddin, not Al Qaeda. And he never had 80 to 200 men under his control. Later videos, produced by Sharmak, feature between 8-10 men.

200 fighters is a huge number of troops, especially for the Korengal. If Afghanistan is sparsely populated, than the Korengal valley is virtually empty. Villages, if you call them that, have maybe ten or twelve families. The families eke out meager livings. Twenty fighters makes sense; 200 is ridiculous.

In a final bit of irony, Ahmad Shah only became a big player after news of his successful SEAL ambush made headlines.

7. An Attack by 6 or 8

I understand why Luttrell described Ahmad Shah as a big time Taliban leader, it a better story. So how else do you spice up a battle scene? Simple, add more people.

In Lone Survivor, Luttrell speculates that the ambush had probably 140 people in it, if not more. He describes his team as mowing down dozens of enemy. He describes multiple patrols of Taliban scouring the countryside for him. It feels like Luttrell is taking on an army.

Except that he didn’t. The ambush probably only used 8-10 of Ahmad Shah’s men, with “accidental guerillas” making up the rest. The ambush succeeded because of the use of RPGs, machine guns and terrain, not overwhelming numbers. Of course, explaining plunging fire is complicated, its much easier to simply say he faced a Taliban horde. In Luttrell's initial after-action report, according to Ed Darack in the Marine Corps Gazette, he said only 20-35 Taliban fighters were involved in the ambush. When Lone Survivor came out, the number climbed with every media appearance or speech.

The huge mistakes are mindboggling. How do you explain this? Well, Ed Darack, albeit without specifically mentioning Luttrell by name, sums it up perfectly (We haven't been able to get a copy of Victory Point yet, as soon as we do we will let our readers know what we think.):

"I think that the narrative of a four-man Navy SEAL team being deployed to take on a group of hundreds under the leadership of the right-hand man of the world's most wanted individual has all the makings of an edge-of-your-seat military action thriller. But it doesn't happen in reality. And it certainly wasn't the case in Red Wings."

May 19

(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.)

Page 177:
"That's one of the real problems in that country[Afghanistan]--everyone has a gun."

Really? I wonder how Luttrell feels about gun rights? Here's a video of Luttrell speaking before the NRA.

(H/t to Weekend Update)

May 18

(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.)

Dilemma, Greek for "double proposition." In English, being stuck between a rock and a hard place. Reading Lone Survivor felt like slogging through the world's longest ethical dilemma. 

As Luttrell tells it:

SEAL Team 10 inserted into the Sawtalo Spur in Konar Province on a reconnaissance mission to find a high value target. Due to lack of cover, three Afghan goat herders--two men and a fourteen year old boy--stumble upon their hide-sight. In other words, they were "soft compromised" (discovered by unarmed civilians).

Luttrell then lays out his SEAL team's three options, "1. Kill the goatherds quietly with knives, and throw them off the cliff. 2. Kill them right where they were, and cover up the bodies. 3. Turn them loose, and 'get the hell out of here.'" Really, there are only two options (hiding or not hiding bodies is really the same choice). SEAL Team 10 voted, and chose option three, "don't kill the Afghans." Almost the entirety of Luttrell's story sets up this ethical dilemma, a dilemma designed to show that Rules of Engagement in Afghanistan gets Soldiers killed.

I'm not surprised Luttrell only saw two options, human nature loves duality: prosecution or defense, Republicans or Democrats, pro-life or pro-choice, pro-guns or gun control, war hawk or dove, for or against with no middle ground. Marcus Luttrell describes his situation in dualist terms: kill or be killed. Military ethical dilemmas often fall into this trap: the ticking time bomb, children throwing rocks, or civilians acting as spotters are ethical dilemmas that are invariably presented with only two solutions.

If only this were the case, Luttrell presents us with a false dichotomy. Practically no military situation only has two solutions; most have multiple--if not dozens--of solutions. Critics of our ROE, like Luttrell in Lone Survivor, only present two options of which one option is always, "Follow ROE, and die" and the other is, "Disobey ROE, and live/win the war."

SEAL Team 10 didn't have only two options on that hill in Konar. Kill the goat herders, or let them live are only the first two. They could have tied the goat herders up. (In the book, Marcus Luttrell says that their team did not have anything to bind up the locals. But they had belts, shoe laces, the Afghan's own clothing, and rifle slings. It still stuns me that a SEAL team went out without even a tiny bit of 550 cord or zip ties.) They could have taken the goat herders prisoner, and released them at Asadabad. They could have made the goat herders walk with them, then released them when a helicopter was inbound. They could have released the kid, but kept the others until they were safely away.

In his eyes, Luttrell believed he only had two options. Since he voted for "be killed," he blames the rules of engagement for the deaths of his friends. In the memoir, he says: "Was I afraid of these guys? No. Was I afraid of their possible buddies in the Taliban? No. Was I afraid of the liberal media back in the U.S.A.? Yes," and then continues ranting about liberals and the rules of engagement.

There is no simple, cut-and-dried reason why three SEALs died in Konar Province that day. Leadership of his team, leadership of the SEALs, US policy in Afghanistan, technological failures, communication lapses, a failed Afghan government, lack of Apache gunship support, and countless other reasons--including enemy action--are why nineteen SEALs died heroically on that day. Rules of Engagement, or its misunderstanding may have contributed, but it wasn't the sole cause.

(Luttrell's story was used by Capt. Rick Rubel (Ret. USN) of the Military Officer's Association of America as a classic ethical dilemma. His write up basically summarizes Luttrell's story, but his thoughts show that morally releasing the Afghans was the ethical thing to do. I am huge fan of case studies, like the business ones from Harvard Business Review, but they are almost always left open ended, searching for creative solutions, not an either or proposition.)

May 18

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

Page 198:
"He was probably doing a New York Times crossword which he'd memorized word for word in his head."

Really? Why would anyone memorize a crossword "word for word"? If you have the time (and intelligence) to memorize a crossword, then you have the time (and intelligence) to finish it. Luttrell is grossly ignorant about many things, and you can add crosswords to that list. How his co-writer let this line get in to the final draft blows my mind.

                                       (Rob Curtis/Military Times)

(H/t to Weekend Update)

May 17

(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.)

From Page 10-11:

"...we had to be transported right through the middle of town to the U.S. air base on Muharraq Island for all flights to and from Bahrain. We didn't mind this, but we didn't love it either. 

That little journey, maybe five miles, took us through a city that felt much as we did. The locals didn't love us either. There was a kind of sullen look to them, as if they were sick to death of having the American military around them. In fact, there were districts in Manama known as black flag areas, where tradesmen, shopkeepers, and private citizens hung black flags outside their properties to signify Americans are not welcome.

I guess it wasn't quite as vicious as Juden Verboten was in Hitler's Germany. But there are undercurrents of hatred all over the Arab world, and we knew there were many sympathizers with the Muslim extremist fanatics of the Taliban and al Qaeda. The black flags worked. We stayed well clear of those places."

Really? Not quite as vicious as Juden Verboten? It is nothing like Juden Verboten or Hitler’s Germany, because the Jews weren’t a foreign military presence in Germany. Only in Luttrell’s mind could people of a another country protest the presence of foreign troops in their country, and they're the ones considered fascist.

                                      (Rob Curtis/Military Times)

(H/t to Weekend Update)