I missed the recent interview with Marcus Luttrell on “60 Minutes.” And I haven’t seen the movie “Lone Survivor” — although I plan to. But I have just read the book, a national best-seller by the same name, and it’s one that I appreciated enormously, even though I had one issue with it.
If you don’t know the story, Luttrell was a Navy SEAL, part of a four-man team in 2005 that left their base in northern Afghanistan on a covert mission that would take them into the Hindu Kush mountains near the Pakistan border. Their goal: to capture or kill an Al Qaeda leader. Within 24 hours of being dropped in by helicopter, three of the SEALs lay dead. Only Luttrell was left clinging to life with a gunshot wound to his left leg and multiple injuries from repeated falls down the mountainside as he and his teammates tried to retreat.
Marcus Luttrell, right, was the only survivor among a four-man SEALs team ambushed in 2005 near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
Luttell, with co-author Patrick Robinson, provides an astonishing insider’s view of what it’s like to be a member of the elite of the elite of the nation’s military. In exhausting detail, he tells of the incredible physical and mental challenges required of those who aspire to join the SEALs. Weeks of daily drills on land and on water — jumping, climbing, running, swimming, carrying heavy logs overhead, countless push-ups — with only a couple of hours of sleep each night. Hardened instructors demand unrelenting teamwork and resourcefulness, all of it aimed at narrowing down a class of more than 100 hopefuls to a select few.
But this survival-of-the-fittest approach is entirely justified given the high-risk missions these men are asked to take on in the name of the United States. I totally admire and completely respect these patriots who lay their lives on the line and pledge to fight until their dying breath. They are members of an exclusive fraternity who deserve all the accolades they receive for their military prowess.
Luttrell describes himself as a God-fearing Christian, East Texas redneck who, along with his twin brother Morgan, set out as teenagers to become SEALs. With the help of a former Green Berets sergeant who lived nearby, they went through a pre-SEAL training program and both made it into the ranks of the elite.
The 6-foot-5, 240-pound Luttrell puts you on the mountainside with the four-man SEAL team as they take on an estimated 100-plus Taliban fighters, who are heavily armed and adept at navigating the rocky terrain. The fighting is fierce, the odds are nearly impossible, and Luttrell agonizes as he watches the other three Americans die, battling to the end.
Spoiler alert No. 1:
The deadly encounter begins shortly after the SEALs come upon three Afghan goatherders, members of the Pashtun tribes that have lived for centuries in the Hindu Kush. The men are unarmed and the SEALs must decide whether to kill them as suspected Taliban loyalists or let them go and hope they are not collaborators.
“If this came to a vote, as it might, Axe [one of the other SEALs] was going to recommend the execution of the three Afghans. And in my soul, I knew he was right. We could not possibly turn them loose. But my trouble is, I have another soul. My Christian soul. And it was crowding in on me. Something kept whispering in the back of my mind, it would be wrong to execute these unarmed men in cold blood. And the idea of doing that and then covering our tracks and slinking away, like criminals, denying everything, would make it more wrong.
“To be honest, I’d have been happier to stand ’em up and shoot them right out in front. And then leave them. They’d just be three guys who’d found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. Casualties of war. And we’d just have to defend ourselves when our own media and politicians back in the U.S.A. tried to hang us on a murder charge.”
And here is where Luttrell’s views as a front-line warrior cause me to squirm. Militarily, I understand why they’d want to remove the threat. Morally, I understand their hesitation. I cannot imagine myself in their shoes, nor would I ever want to be.
Yet this is the type of situation we ask our ground troops to assess in the moment and trust that they will make the right decision, whatever that might be. Even before describing this scene, Luttrell makes it clear he has nothing but animosity toward “the liberal media” for its reporting on prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib and questionable killing of civilians. He never names any particular news organization. Rather, he makes repeated generalizations that accuse the U.S. media of undermining the American military, stopping just short of accusing reporters of aiding and abetting the enemy.
Never mind that journalists, especially those embedded with U.S. troops, seek to provide as a complete a picture as possible of the successes, failures, challenges and complications of our military presence abroad. It’s not journalists who are urinating on blindfolded prisoners. It’s not journalists who are killing unarmed civilians. It’s not journalists who drew up the rules of engagement. It’s military and civilian leaders alike whose job it is to hold our troops accountable. It’s journalists’ role to report on those things and, through editorial commentary, provide a basis for all the rest of us to make judgments about the wisdom and cost of our going to war.
Of course, getting the facts right is essential. And Luttrell does point out (again without naming specific news organizations) that some media outlets caused confusion and grief when they mistakenly reported him among the dead SEALs. I agree that’s inexcusable. But his beef goes beyond that regrettable error.
“I am left feeling that no matter how much the drip-drip-drip of hostility toward us is perpetuated by the liberal press, the American people simply do not believe it,” Luttrell writes. “They are rightly proud of the armed forces of the United States of America. They innately understand what we do. And no amount of poison about our alleged brutality, disregard of the Geneva Convention, and abuse of the human rights of terrorists is going to change what most people think.”
Make no mistake. I absolutely honor the passion and self-sacrifice that Luttrell and others bring to their work. I only wish he were more understanding of the role of the press as a watchdog for those of us who do support U.S. troops but who also recognize the need to hold them accountable. War is a dirty, awful business and Luttrell reminds us that the Taliban have conducted themselves with brutality. That’s true. Yet I also remember going to see “The Fog of War” and listening as the late Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, prime architect of the Vietnam War, and Sen. John McCain, the former POW, both argued that Americans must hold themselves to a higher standard when it comes to torture and war crimes.
Spoiler alert No. 2:
Luttrell’s rescue and survival are nothing short of miraculous. And without revealing details, I will say only that he recognizes he owes his life to a decision by Pashtun villagers who came upon the injured SEAL and rather than turn him over to the Taliban, invoked the ancient honor code of their people and took him back to their village, vowing to protect him at all costs.
How easy it would have been for them to leave him for dead or his eventual discovery by Taliban fighters. Seems to me Luttrell benefited from the villagers’ sense of moral obligation to help a wounded human being when they could have easily chosen otherwise.
More reading: An Oregon man was among the 8 SEALs and 8 Army Stalkers who were aboard a helicopter sent in to rescue Luttrell’s stranded SEAL team when they were shot down by the Taliban, killing everyone aboard. Read the Portland Tribune’s story about Jeffrey Lucas of Corbett.