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)

May 17

We've collected all of our posts on Lone Survivor below. 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.

- Really!?! with Quotes from Lone Survivor Pt. 1

- Really!?! Quotes from Lone Survivor Pt. 2

- A 300 Page Ethical Dilemma

- Really!?! Quotes from Lone Survivor Pt. 3

- He Got The Title Wrong? and 6 More Mistakes from Luttrell's Lone Survivor

- A Literary Review of Lone Survivor

- An Open Letter to Universal and Peter Berg

- BTW, Insurgents Have Rules of Engagement As Well

- The Rules of Engagement are Democratic, and Thank God For That

- Haters Want to Hate or...If You Haven’t Been to Afghanistan Then F*** You Hippy and Get Off My Internets!

- Shout Out to Ed Darack and a First Look at Lone Survivor!

- Marcus Luttrell Stands by His Mistakes: An Update to Our Lone Survivor Week

- The Tale of the Tape: The (Dis)Similarities Between Luttrell, Mortenson and Montalvan

- A New Game: Spot the Navy SEAL!

- Lone Survivor on Counter-Insurgency: Read It, Then Do The Opposite

- On V’s Thoughts on the New “Lone Survivor” Trailer

- Weapons of Mass Dis-information: 5 Different Books By or About Navy SEALs That Repeat the Same Misinformation

- Luttrell No Longer Stands By his Mistakes: Lone Survivor vs. the 60 Minutes Interview

- Bad, Bad Ahmad Shah...the Baddest Shah in the Whole Damn Valley

- Eric C’s Lone Survivor (Film) Review: I (Almost) Loved This Movie

- You’re Welcome, Peter Berg: Why the Lone Survivor Film is Better than the Lone Survivor Memoir

- A List of the Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality

- It’s Not Just "Hollywood”: Why the Accuracy of Lone Survivor (Film) Matters

- Is Operation Red Wings Important?

- The Worst Media Coverage of Lone Survivor (film and memoir)

- Why Fact Checking Matters: On V in Other Places, Slate "How Accurate is Lone Survivor?”

- The Missed Counter-Insurgency Lessons in Lone Survivor (Film)

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

- More Updates on Lone Survivor

Since last December, Eric C has been diving into war memoirs. He's read the best of the best--O'Brien's The Things They Carried, Rooney's My War, Herr's Dispatches--and others that weren't quite as good, but none that were atrocious.

Until now. Marcus Luttrell's Lone Survivor is so over-the-top, so poorly written, and so bad, one review just won't cover it.  

A quick synopsisThe story follows Marcus Luttrell--a right-wing, Christian, Texan-then-American--through his SEAL training, deployment to Iraq, and finally, deployment to Afghanistan. On a routine reconnaissance mission, a group of unarmed Afghan civilians walk onto his team's observation post. After releasing the civilians, Taliban fighters storm their position, eventually killing the three other SEALs. Luttrell escapes, only to be sheltered from the Taliban by a friendly village, and later rescued by Army Rangers.

Why spend an entire week on one book? Three reasons:

First, Lone Survivor is a terrible book on almost every level: historical, political, military, and literary. I believe I could find something wrong, misleading, idiotic or poorly written on every page, and probably one of each. How bad is it? For instance, Luttrell writes that...

...Iraq had WMD’s. (This book was published in 2007)
...Iraq had Al Qaeda training camps and Taliban fighters.
...the military upper brass personally called on Luttrell and his fellow SEALs to save Afghanistan from Taliban invaders, in 2005, because Navy SEALs are the greatest, toughest, most skilled war fighters in the entire military. (Seriously, he wrote this.)
...twins can literally read minds. (He’s not joking.)
...America’s God (Jesus) is at war with Islam’s God (Muhammad) and American soldiers are on the front lines waging this war. God personally intervenes to save Luttrell's life multiple times, despite letting 19 other service men die that same day.
...rules/laws should not apply to soldiers, and the media should not report on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. (We assume this doesn't apply to Navy SEAL veteran memoirists.)
...Afghanistan had/has a democratically elected government.

There are lots of terrible books on the military, but only one of them is ranked #343 on Amazon. (To compare, The Things They Carried ranks #402, Fick's One Bullet Away ranks #5,185, Mulaney's Unforgiving Minute ranks #7,805, The War I Always Wanted ranks over 100,000) Twice, total strangers recommended Lone Survivor to Eric C. Comment threads and reviews across the milblog community heap praise upon the book (take this example). And Universal Studios and Peter Berg (of Friday Night Lights fame) are adapting Lone Survivor into a major Hollywood film, scheduled for release in 2013.

That movie is my second reason; we want to stop it. This book should not be esteemed, should not be considered a paragon of the genre, and should not be recommended, ever. This book should be considered a joke, but instead will become a major motion picture. His story could be a good film, but the book Lone Survivor cannot.

My final reason is one of legacy, determining how we as a country will remember Afghanistan in our media, in our culture, and in our history. Like it or hate it, The Hurt Locker is the closest most Americans will ever get to Iraq. Many, if not most, veterans loathed that film for its awful portrayal of the war. But we were too late to stop it from winning the Best Picture Oscar. With Lone Survivor I won't make that mistake. It paints Soldiers, Afghans, ROE, counter-insurgency, and America in the worst possible light. I won't let another bad film define our current wars.

Unlike Marcus Luttrell, I didn't live on Bagram Air Field, I lived in Konar, Province. Marcus Luttrell flew in for missions, then flew right back out. I worked with Afghans everyday, meeting, talking and living with them. I came to respect them. Marcus Luttrell describes the people of Konar as peasants, evil, hate-filled and primitive; I dispute that. He called Konar a land of "hellish undercurrents and flaming hatreds." If your only interaction comes through a sniper scope, you won't understand Afghanistan or counter-insurgency, and that is why Lone Survivor deserves its own week.

May 10

On October 5th, 1957, America panicked. The day prior the USSR launched the first satellite into space, Sputnik 1. Soviet space technology threatened America, and the world. Under the leadership of President Eisenhower, America responded.

And the response was staggering. In less than a year, Congress created the Advanced Research Projects Agency, that would become DARPA. After that, President Eisenhower established funding to start NASA. Both the Army and Navy immediately prepared to launch satellites into space.

Congress also realized that America needed the long-term edge that science and engineering education provided. President Eisenhower and Congress set out to build the lasting intellectual advantage needed to win the Cold War. The National Defense Education Act poured billions of dollars (in the 1950s) into education. The National Science Foundation received an increase of a 100 million dollars for extra grants.

Less than twelve years after the launch of Sputnik, America became the first, and only nation, to put a man on the moon. In the long term, America became the world's foremost intellectual and scientific power, in space and beyond.

On September 12th, 2001, America panicked. Terrorism became a reality, and our national security priorities changed in an instant. Terrorism had replaced the USSR as the gravest threat to America’s national security. Under the leadership of President Bush, America responded.

Immediately, America invaded Afghanistan. Then a year and a half later, America invaded Iraq.

While all this was going on, America reorganized its homeland defense and created the third largest cabinet organization, the Department of Homeland Security. It again reorganized the intelligence services, but only by adding an additional job to the top of the pyramid.

A two-fold approach, foreign and domestic. The deployment of troops overseas, the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars, the employment of millions of people to confront terror. And the result? Terror attacks have been stopped, but not eliminated; two countries descended into insurgency and civil war; and in 2008 we entered the deepest and most severe recession of my lifetime, if not since the Great Depression. And the organization to respond to terrorist events and disasters, the Department of Homeland Security, utterly failed to help during Hurricane Katrina.

Worst of all, in my opinion, America did not grow. Our foreign policy invaded those countries we believed had attacked us; domestically we created a super-bureaucracy to fight terrorism. We didn’t invest in our people or infrastructure. This is not meant as a left/right, conservative/liberal, democrat/republican comment; it simply states the fact our government failed to invest in America's long term growth.

When President Eisenhower pushed to expand the Interstate Highway System, the year prior to the Sputnik launch, he used the Cold War to promote his agenda. While he was worried about a nuclear attack, he knew that America needed a robust transportation system for the future. Whether improving education, or building infrastructure, President Eisenhower used the threats facing America to invest in our future.

I truly believe we had a golden opportunity to invest in America's future on September 12th, 2001, but it didn't happen. On Wednesday I will describe how I think we should have done so, and where we can go from here.