I finally got around to seeing Lone Survivor, though after reading Marcus Luttrell’s book by the same title, I wasn't all that enthusiastic about seeing what I knew would be a grisly account of a U.S. Navy Seal Unit shredded in the mountains of Afghanistan.
It was not, as some have suggested, a “testament to the brave men and women who serve in the U.S. military.” For one thing, there wasn’t a single female character in the film, aside from photos of one SEAL’s (Matt Axelson’s) wife. The film neither sought out females for gratuitous “eye candy,” nor to make fictional heroines out of thin air. I find that commendable in this age. I’m almost certain that there are, as yet, no female members of the Special Forces and definitely none in the SEALS.
I've worked with a number of former Special Forces members and they, rightly or wrongly (probably rightly), tend to look down on the non-combatant members of the Military, or at least hold the members of their own elite fraternities in much higher regard.
The film starts off with some background on the individuals involved and the extreme training they go through...a training that washes out the vast majority of the candidates by forcing each member to force their bodies to do things they wouldn't believe they could do...like simulated drowning – being tossed into a pool with hands and feet bound and rescued well after they’d run out of air. Rescued members are shown unconscious, having the water pumped out of their lungs.
The Military Channel has long shown documentaries about “Hell Week,” so most people already know that these are the best we've got. Few, if any members of Congress could’ve passed such rigors at the height of their youth, It’s unlikely that many, if ANY professional athletes could make the cut as well.
Some might rightly note, “How many of these guys would make any professional rosters?” Probably very few, but the skill sets are completely different, whereas athletes fine tune their bodies to do a set of specific tasks extremely well, these guys seek to master a very wide range of skill sets without regard to their own bodies at all. They condition themselves to force their bodies beyond its natural parameters.
At heart, the film shows the disaster that is the misguided view that “America can win modern wars with very few ‘boots on the ground’ by relying on drones, air support and some strategically placed Special Forces Units.”
It’s a badly misinformed viewpoint because it never works. It didn't work in Somalia, when an American Ranger Battalion went in light and took heavy losses as a result.
AND it didn't work here in Operation Red Wing, where 6 SEALS were attacked by over 200 Taliban insurgents.
Tasked with finding a Taliban leader who’d killed 20 U.S. Marines the week before, they trek out into the mountains of Afghanistan and track down this Taliban leader. Almost as soon as they spot him, an old man and two young boys herding some goats discover the SEALS, who quickly capture them. The three goat herders carry a radio that links to the Taliban camp below, so they know that these are NOT friendlies. At that point they’re forced to make a fateful decision...of their three choices; (1) kill them right there, (2) gag them and tie them to trees and let them get eaten by animals of freeze to death overnight, or (3) let them go, abort the mission and head to higher ground for extraction.
It’s decided that the “rules of engagement” demand that they let the three go. That turns out to be a disastrous decision in this case, for when they reach the peak of the mountain they’re on, they’re still unable to establish good communication and within hours are surrounded by heavily armed Taliban insurgents where they take withering fire, while inflicting massive casualties among the enemy. Thankfully, neither the book nor the film glorifies battle, as it shows the horrific wounds these guys endure as they literally fight to the death. After being chased all over the hilly terrain, most of them are forced to fight on with multiple gunshot wounds, and traumatic injuries from falling down crevices, slamming off rocks and trees, etc. Luttrell does a good job of showing that the firefight offered no glory, only massive amounts of fear and pain, as these elite warriors are literally shredded by an “army” that outnumbers them by well over 30 to 1.
When one of them finally is able to make contact with their base, the rescue helicopters are forced to respond without their accompanying gunships, which had been commandeered by another task-force. One of the helicopters is dropped with an RPG, killing its entire crew and the other is forced to abandon its rescue mission, leaving Luttrell and Axelson to fend for themselves.
They wind up split up and Axelson is killed, while Luttrell survives by hiding in a rocky crevice where he stays overnight.
When he starts hiking out the next day, dragging one badly torn up leg, and suffering numerous other gunshot wounds and other traumatic injuries, he comes across a small pool of water, where he is found by villagers as he was washing out some of his wounds.
They take him back to their village, where the man and his son who found him protect him from the Taliban according to their code of Pashtunwali - "Pashtunwali promotes self-respect, independence, justice, hospitality, love, forgiveness, revenge and tolerance toward all (especially to strangers or guests)." The very same people who embrace the codes of Melmastia (hospitality) – “showing hospitality and profound respect to all visitors, regardless of race, religion, national affiliation or economic status and doing so without any hope of remuneration or favor,” and Nanawatai (asylum) – “derived from the verb meaning to go in, this refers to the protection given to a person against his or her enemies...people are protected at all costs; even those running from the law must be given refuge until the situation can be clarified,” ALSO embrace Badal (“justice”/revenge) – “to seek justice or take revenge against the wrongdoer. There is considered to be no time limit to the period in which revenge can be taken. Justice in Pashtun lore needs elaborating: even a mere taunt (or "Paighor") is regarded as an insult which usually can only be redressed by shedding the taunter's blood. If he is out of reach, his closest male relation must suffer the penalty instead. Badal may lead to a blood feud that can last generations and involve whole tribes with the loss of hundreds of lives. Normally blood feuds in this male-dominated society are settled in a number of usually violent ways.”
Luttrell's account shows the complexities of these engagements and how poorly America understands such cultures. It seems to suggest that there MUST be a better way to fight terrorism than this haphazard, half in, half out approach we've used for over a decade.
Marcus Luttrell was fortunate enough to have been found by Pashtun villagers who actually saved him from his Taliban pursuers in accordance with their own code, even at great risk to themselves (the village was subsequently attacked by Taliban insurgents).
Luttrell (the lone survivor of Operation Red Wing) was brought back with an onboard defibrillator on the helicopter ride back to the base.
The film ends showing all the members killed in that action, the 6 SEALs and those aboard the helicopter downed when it came to rescue them. It showed photos of them in the Military juxtaposed with those from their outside lives. It also showed Marcus Luttrell returning to that Afghan village to emnbrace the family that saved his life.
Neither the book nor the film is as much a “testament” as a cautionary tale of how we so easily and cavalierly sacrifice the very best America has to offer on a misguided tactic that has consistently failed us – “Too light to fight, freeze at night.” In many ways, it's as vociferously an anti-war movie as has ever been made. In fact it echos a book by David Starr Jordan that came out 99 years ago this coming march, titled War and the Breed (https://archive.org/details/warandbreedrela01jordgoog), which makes the case that war is the most dysgenic exercise ever undertaken by man, because it kills off and maims the best - the youngest, bravest and strongest, leaving only, in Jordan's words, "the weaklings and wastrels" to breed and pass along their defective traits, thereby weakening each nation a hundred fold.
I agree with a West Point graduate I know, “If you’re not ready to risk 10,000 casualties, DON’T risk 10.” If an engagement isn't worth a massive risk, than find another way to resolve the conflict.
ESPECIALLY don’t risk 10 of the irreplaceable best!