Jun 02

After 9/11, as a naive high school student, I didn’t get it. How would invading Afghanistan stop terrorism? How would a military invasion change the fact that Muslims across the world hated America? I disagreed with classmates who argued that you can't spend money and expect the world to love you. I was stumped. I didn’t know how we could get the rest of the world to love us, or at least stop hating us.

Two weeks ago, I started looking back to the days after 9/11, playing "Monday morning quarterback" with the decisions of President Bush and Congress. I compared Bush with Eisenhower, a president who choose to invest in our long-term future domestically to solve a national security crisis abroad. To beat terrorism we don't need new weapons, we need to invest in foreign language training, an edge that will carry over to the globalized economy.

The Eisenhower analogy only goes so far. To stop terrorism, or the political violence that wracks the third world, we need a solution that isn't counter-insurgency. The proper analogy is the Marshall Plan. To prevent future wars in Europe, America invested in the Marshall Plan; to stop terrorism, America needs to invest in a new Global Marshall Plan. At the very least, we need to dramatically increase our foreign aid budget.

Like investing in education, this is an idea President Bush almost had. In 2003, he launched the most audacious health care initiative, ever. PEPFAR--President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief--spent 15 billion dollars on fighting HIV/AIDS in Africa and lowered the AIDS deaths on that continent by ten percent. Hate President Bush and republicans if you will, but this program delivered results on a serious world issue, while improving the good name of the US.

Like No Child Left Behind, the issue is one of scale. We spend the equivalent of our yearly foreign aid every month in Iraq. Factor in Afghanistan and regular defense spending, and there is no doubt we spend way more on war than peace. We often mention carrots and sticks, but our budget only buys large, expensive sticks. And sticks don't help development.

We should have increased our foreign aid and international presence immediately after 9/11. Fortunately it isn’t too late. Our government should immediately double our foreign aid budget, and we should take it from the defense budget. Seeing as one aircraft carrier is about 4.5 billion dollars, and doesn't do squat to fight terrorists, the money is there.

Basically we need US billionaires to take the lead. Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett have done their part. Unfortunately, after those three, the push for philanthropy ground to a halt. We need our billionaires to do more frankly. I don't know how we convince the billionaires, short of using crazy taxation policies I don't agree with. I admit this is a pipe dream, but it would help our world stature.

Finally, we need to reinstate the Peace Corps or USAID in a meaningful way. It should be funded at least as well as one of our military branches. And it should strive to get away from government contracting as much as possible. One of the great failures of foreign aid is the addition of multi-national corporations as an extra-layer of bureaucracy between our government and the people we are trying to help.

I said investing in the world would improve the US’s long term future, but I haven’t explained how. The way I see it, huge swaths of the world live on a dollar a day. In other words, they have to buy food, and necessities, and nothing else. That means no IPADs, no Fords, and no Coca-Cola. If the rest of the world could buy more goods, then they will need the services the US can provide. We funneled what will eventually be trillions into the war in Iraq, money that didn’t end up returning to American shores.

May 31

Reader Joel forwarded me this article by C.J. Chivers in the NY Times. In short, a pit viper bit an Afghan boy on the face in Helmand province. The boy’s father brought him to the nearest Marine COP hoping the US could save his life. After fighting with higher headquarters, a helicopter picked up the boy and moved him to Kandahar, where it looks like he will survive.

Joel then asked this question: “To what extent does this actually, ‘win hearts and minds?’ Can anyone confirm whether or not the village this boy is from has become more accepting of US forces?”

Counter-insurgency is a war of inches and degrees. This individual incident won't win the war, the survival of this one boy will only change how his father feels about the US. Then again, maybe it won’t. It probably won't even affect his entire village. The bigger question is whether the policy of evacuating seriously wounded Afghans will eventually win over the population.

Because in the short term the effects of one single mission are hard to identify. I wrote about this when I described two Medical Civil Action Patrols (MEDCAP) my company conducted in Konar province. One succeeded wildly; the other failed miserably. Trying to figure out why was a next to impossible task. Again, victories in counter-insurgency show up over time, not single moments. It's like some sort of militaristic Chinese proverb: to fell the counter-insurgency tree, one must use many swings. By swings we mean MEDCAPs.

This isn't to say we have no way of knowing if we are winning. Our Human Intelligence Collection Teams can determine the “atmospherics” of local populations through polling. Most maneuver commanders tend not to employ them in this capacity, instead they try to target the bad guys. Modern polling can accomplish wonders. Determining if villages love us or hate us isn't as hard as we make it out to be.

Even though the Army screws up metrics all the time, there are ways of measuring progress. Having the level of violence plummet in Iraq showed progress. Having elections in Iraq showed progress. Training more Afghan police will show progress. Measuring success is possible--even seeing how many hearts and minds we have won--if we use the right metrics.

The core of Joel's question is whether we can win Afghan's hearts. Frankly, I don't see how this action couldn't help but convince one father, and possible mother, to support the US. Do drowning victims hate life guards? Do students hate organizations that gave them scholarships? Do cancer survivors hate their doctors?

The answer is no. Saving a boy's life will buy the US at least some goodwill. No one hates the person who saved their life, whereas denying the ability to save a life will almost certainly engender hatred. They see our money, wealth and health care, the natural reaction is to be upset if we don't share it. This goes for curing someone's club foot, or saving a little girl's eye sight. In the long term, building a sustainable Afghan medical capacity will bring us generations of good will; in the mean time, we should do what we can.

One MEDEDVAC won't win the war in Afghanistan, but thousands might. Some Afghans might still hate Americans despite billions in aid, but in the long term I believe they will come around.

May 28

(To read the entire "War Memoirs" series, please click here.)

Of the many mistakes in Marcus Lutrell's Lone Survivor, perhaps the one that upset me the most was his opinion. Luttrell injects his opinion onto every other page, and it reads terribly. This led to my theory on war memoirs: keep your opinion out of it. Especially if you're angry.

That is, until I read Andy Rooney's World War II memoir, My War. It is all opinion. And it is amazing.

If you've watched Sixty Minutes at all since 1979, then you know Andy Rooney is TV's premier opiner, delivering hilarious and cantankerous opinions for nearly 30 years. Rooney was also a soldier and a reporter during World War II, and My War should be considered a pinnacle of the genre. (I'm not planning on starting a World War II memoirs project, I'm up to my neck in post 9/11 memoirs as is. Anyways the novels of World War II--Slaughterhouse-Five, Catch-22, The Naked and the Dead, From Here To Eternity, Gravity's Rainbow--are much better than its memoirs.) My War exemplifies what a memoir can, and can't, do well.

Like The Things They Carried, another book with a lot of opinion, the strongest characteristic of My War is that Andy Rooney understands the limitations of the memoir as a medium. In the prologue, Rooney writes, "If you're pleased with the way you've been remembering some of the major events of your life, don't set out to write a book about them. The chances are, they weren't that way at all." He goes on to say that his facts are probably wrong, and that he is going to censor the profanity in his memoir. This is refreshing: he puts all his cards on the table.

Rooney flouts memoir convention. His book contains almost no dialogue, and even mocks the dialogue in historical fiction. Structurally his book begins and ends with awkward non-war based book-ends, but even Rooney admits there really isn’t a reason why. Explaining why he included the last chapter on his trip to Los Angeles to write a screenplay, “Somehow the brief time we spent in Hollywood...attaches itself in my mind to the war.”

Freed from these conventions, Andy Rooney fills his book with his opinions. He muses on football, the military, the media, old friends, old enemies, patriotism and dozens of other topics. Most of them are hilarious. After thirty years of writing, Andy Rooney knows what is funny, and how to phrase a punchline. Rooney has a great eye for what is memorable, honed from years working as a reporter. He waxes poetically about his favorite typewriter or the Jeep, and he discusses all of the taboo topics, like animals dying, the idiocy and consequence of unfeeling leadership, and how the occupied hate the occupiers. Almost every page has something interesting on it.

Written 50 years after the fact, Rooney is free to write about everything that happened to him without censoring himself. This includes admitting he lost the Jeep the Army gave him, or describing a Medal of Honor winner as a "f***-up" (One of the rare curse words in the book.)

On the "f***-up, Andy Rooney both doesn't censor himself regarding the Army or the military, and is keenly aware of how ridiculous and bureaucratic the Army is/was. The Army gives a Medal of Honor to someone who doesn’t deserve one, while snubbing another division of medals of any type. In a telling passage on field drills: “You put down your olive-drab blanket on the hard clay and laid out on that every single item the Army had issued you...It was a tedious experience. Your canteen had to be in exactly the right place on the blanket in relation to your rifle...This is how a peacetime Army thinks wars are won.”

Rooney is critical of almost everything, from the Army to General Patton to war in general. After a number of memoirs that toe the line, desperately avoiding criticizing anyone or anything, this was refreshing. Most importantly--and this is a big distinction between this war memoir and others--Rooney is critical of himself. He includes embarrassing scenes where he cruelly pranks a good friend, or fails to return photographs to a soldier, or describes the petty grudges he holds. He understands himself, which means he understands others.

There is a danger that I only like the memoirs I agree with the most. Rooney is about as close to being a pacifist as you can be while still serving in a war. He's a democrat who believes "of all the things that men do - historically mostly men - fighting a war to kill other men is the most uncivilized." which is nearly the exact sentiment I wrote about here, so of course I should like the book he writes. I don't know the solution to this problem, but I recognize it exists.

There isn’t really a thesis in My War, except maybe that Rooney hates war, but comes to accept it. He opens the book as a pacifist, believing that “any peace is better than any war.” Or from Ernie Pyle "these are days...when you see things so horrible that you wonder what it is that can make this war worthwhile." Of course, that thing is the Buchenwald concentration camp. When Rooney finally goes there, he writes “I was ashamed for ever having considered refusing to serve in the Army...For the first time, I knew for certain that any peace is not better than any war.”

Of course, he still doesn’t love war. "When I get to thinking that perhaps there is a balance between the good things and the bad things about war, I think of Obie and Charley and I know there is nothing so good about war that it isn't overwhelmed buy the death of young men like them.” War may be exciting, but for Rooney it isn’t worth the price paid. If you saw this piece from the November 8th 60 Minutes (text here), then you know how he feels about war, even the one he was in.

May 27

(Today's post is a guest post by longtime reader Matty P. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines. We look forward to publishing reader posts on future Thursdays.)

I've always enjoyed Star Trek in its many forms because Gene Roddenberry used a vision of a more peaceful and advanced future for mankind as a conduit to discuss current socio-political controversies. Whether it was civil rights or the Cold War or creating super soldiers we cannot control, he attempted to provoke our preconception as well as entertain.

One of my favorite quotes was: "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one." It seemed a simplistic and honorable logic to live by.

Star Trek in its newest conception as a reboot seems a far departure from the original. The emphasis now on action and combat as opposed to the cleverly hidden mirroring of our own fears and social issues. I began to wonder how Star Trek as a concept has changed and how a concept like the aforementioned quote can so easily be adapted to fit our times.

I wondered about our needs; most prevalent among them, the simple need to continue to exist. I could begin to fit the needs of the many to different aspects. The need for security, per se. For example, we give our secret police power to restrict civil liberties or even take lives in the effort to keep us safe. It may sound like hyperbole to call the FBI, NSA, CIA, SS, etc. secret police, but in effect, are in point of fact, organizations that police our state while operating on principle of clearance levels and locked files and a need to know basis. Is this not an example of the needs of the few being outweighed by the needs of the many?

I apply the concept to torture and interrogation because it is logically the ultimate test of the absolutism of the axiom. Causing immense pain, basically destroying a human being in the service of a collective. Having a silent protector willing to bloody his hand and his soul by torturing a potential threat theoretically keeps me from harms way. Two men are sacrificed to protect tens, or hundreds, or more. Statistically, this is a net gain.

Now I say two men because two people are sacrificed in the name our sound sleep. We take the life of not just of the suspect but the interrogator as well. We've done something by asking this man or woman to inflict unbearable amounts of pain on a fellow human being, no matter what acts that the suspect has committed or plans to commit. We've allowed them to dehumanize themselves.

I put it this way: is a person humane if he or she beats a rabid dog to death for biting a child? No, it is in fact inhumane. This is an objective truth. However, it must be noted that this is my position based on the fact that the hypothetical child is not mine. Undoubtedly I would be far more outraged and apt to violence other than humanely putting the dog down if I had an emotional investment in who the dog attacked as my objectivity is compromised. Regardless, that act of beating a dog to death is inhumane objectively, and if I attempt it, it dehumanizes me.

This is of course only an analogy, an oversimplification to pose a moral question. It fails to encompass the scale of terrorism and war and human rights. A rabid dog is unlikely to kill and maim dozens or have information about the location of other rabid animals intending to harm to countless civilians. Nor is a dog a human being.

With regards to the quote that began me thinking, I want to conclude by placing a context on the quote above and hold this idea of "the needs of the many" to this context.

The character who states this, Spock, gives his life in order to save the lives of others. He gives it freely and without hesitation believing that his death results in the greater good. He did not, and I believe this is key, ask or command another to die. He forfeited his own life, not another's. If he were to do this, to order the death of subordinate the same principle begins to lose moral ground. Logically, it has the same effect; one dying in the place of many, but now Spock must take responsibility for a life. He must take responsibility for sending a man to his death.

Now for the loop-hole. As a society, I would say we should not condone torture to protect us. But what if we didn't? What if we punished and abhorred it? If we did this and individuals still took it upon themselves to dirty their hands without our consent or our thanks and even faced criminal punishment in an effort to protect the peace; would they then be justified? Would that be the needs of the many out-weighing the needs of the few?

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."