Regardless of whether I believe in the war in Iraq or Afghanistan (how can one “believe” in war anyway), the fact is, the United States is in the middle of conducting these wars, they are ongoing, and young Americans die there almost every day. In order to understand the implications on the nation and particularly the people we send there to do our dirty business, is critical not only to follow the news, but to get as much first-hand eyewitness information as possible, short of going there. I certainly would not recommend traveling to Iraq or Afghanistan to anyone (except maybe to my favorite travel author Carl Hoffman. So I embarked on reading a few books. Within days of finishing Where Men Win Glory, I picked up, on the recommendation of a coworker, Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell. The book has deeply and probably lasting affected my attitudes about the U.S. military, the Rules of Engagement the military applies, our political system of armchair generals and the way our “liberal media” portrays all things war.
Marcus Luttrell, a Navy SEAL was the lone survivor of the Operation Red Wing debacle, the worst special operations disaster in history, where 20 Navy SEALs and Army rescue soldiers died. The Navy SEALS are among the most highly trained soldiers in the world and they are usually deployed only in small teams of four or six men. They are generally deployed behind enemy lines either in very dangerous sniper missions, or in reconnaissance or rescue operations. Being a Navy SEAL is one of the world’s toughest jobs to get into, and definitely one of the world’s most dangerous. In the book Lone Survivor, the author tells the story of Operation Red Wing from the front lines. And a gut-wrenching story it was.
First he leads us through his upbringing. We find out why he wanted to be a SEAL and then he spends considerable time on taking us through the training, in excruciating detail and with shocking clarity. I had no idea what we do to Navy SEAL aspirants on the peaceful island of Coronado, right in my neighborhood. Learning of the training of SEALs alone is worth reading this book. I will just describe one of the methods, to give you a sense.
The Pacific Ocean off Coronado, except during high summer, is usually colder than 60 degrees, generally much colder, and very rough. The SEAL training happens mostly along the beach. In battle fatigues and boots, the soldiers do mile-long runs in the sand, push ups, crunches and every other routine thinkable. Regularly, starting at 5:00 in the morning and throughout the day and night, the instructors would yell “get wet and sandy” and that means the entire group runs into the ice-cold surf, fully dressed, until submerged, then comes out and rolls in the sand, until covered with sand like human sand crabs. Of course, the sand gets into everything. Start out your day like this at 5:00 in the morning, and imagine being freezing, wet and sandy all day while you’re doing your training, until deep into the night, and you get a picture.
The picture above shows Luttrell’s team, before they went on the mission. Except for Luttrell (4th man from the left), all men in this picture died that day in June 2005.
Eventually, after years of training, they get deployed. In Operation Red Wing the objective is to take out a high-ranking Taliban commander with a record of countless casualties and attacks on both U.S. and Afghan targets. Four of them are deployed high in the mountains ready to stake out a village where the Taliban commander with an estimated army of 100 to 200 men is suspected to be ensconced. They dig in and wait. As bad luck would have it, three goat herders, two adults and one 14-year-old boy, with a herd of about 100 goats, stumble upon them. The SEALs hold them at gunpoint while they decide their fate. Of course, they need to kill them, lest they run and alert the Taliban. And here comes the rub:
There are only four SEALs against possibly 200 armed and highly trained Taliban fighters. They are on very steep and difficult terrain where it is almost impossible to flee or retreat. If they let the goat herders go and they talk, they will be attacked within hours. They cannot communicate with them, but the body language of the Afghans suggests hate of the infidels, as they see them. If they kill them, the Taliban will surely find them, take pictures and publish them on Al Jazeera, to be picked up by the American media. “US troops murder innocent and unarmed Afghan peasants in the high mountains.” Investigations will follow, and they risk standing trial for murder back in the United States and jail sentences. They make the fateful decision to let them go. They regret it in minutes and eventually pay the ultimate price for doing the right thing.
Here is the terrible irony: The SEALs were not afraid of being high in the mountains in almost impassable terrain, in freezing rain, for nights on end. They were not afraid of facing 200 enemy fighters. That’s 50 to 1 against them. But they were afraid of the American “Liberal Media” as Luttrell calls it, ripping them to shreds afterwards, and calling them murderers. Because of what the media back home will eventually talk about, they decided and made a terribly wrong military decision on the spot.
Eventually, the Taliban attack. Luttrell illustrates in detail what happens, and describes the valor of his comrades, who still fight, after each of them has been shot and badly wounded several times. Eventually they all die, except for Luttrell. The rescue party coming to help them is also obliterated. Luttrell is surviving through sheer will power, a good dose of luck and the passionate desire to tell the story.
This is how much I am going to tell you about the book and the story of Marcus Luttrell. Now I can’t help but comment on my own personal feelings and interpretations.
Luttrell, repeatedly and consistently, calls the American media the “liberal media.” It is very clear that the presence of our media and the way it tells the story of the war directly and fatally affected Operation Red Wing and cost American soldiers their lives. Liberal or not, there is something badly amiss here. Soldiers should not be dying because of media reporting.
Our Rules of Engagement, in essence, dictate that American forces cannot attack (or even shoot) until they are attacked. If a mob of a hundred bloodthirsty Taliban thugs comes storming at four American special forces soldiers who have the sniper skills and ability to take them out long before they become dangerous, they nevertheless have to wait until bullets fly around their heads before they can engage. This must be the stupidest military rule ever and of course has to have been written by some guy back safely in his leather chair in the Pentagon where his ass is not on the line. Of course it is the result of overreacting to reported atrocities in this war and others, going back to Vietnam and further. We should train our soldiers well (which we do) and when we decide to engage them, send them out into harm’s way, we need to give them the tools, the weapons and the power to decide they need to get the job done and get themselves home safely. Everything else is suicidal.
Luttrell sometimes carelessly divides the American public into “liberals” and non-liberals. Liberals are portrayed as weak, spineless, clueless and generally evil. I am not a liberal, but I listen to both sides of the media, and I have voted for the liberal candidates during the last election. I found myself personally denigrated by Luttrell at times, undeservedly.
Luttrell calls George W. Bush one of our “greatest presidents.” Ok, Bush was his president, a fellow Texan, Gung Ho and his commander-in-chief. It is befitting for a Navy SEAL to deeply respect his president, and it helps when he can identify with his goals and objectives. But all of that does not a great president make, sorry Marcus. I am sorry for the loss of your comrades, the 20 of Operation Red Wing, and the thousands since 2001 who perished in the Middle East, but I do not believe we should have invaded Iraq, and I strongly believe that a truly great president would not have gotten us into a mess of this magnitude in the first place.
Marcus Luttrell, the lone survivor of Operation Red Wing showed incredible strength, will power, endurance, belief in his mission, character under extreme pressure (by not killing the goat herders) and love for his country. He witnessed the horrible loss of his best friends and comrades next to him under terrible battle conditions. It does not matter if I agree with Luttrell on everything he said. It does not matter if I approve of the mission he was on in the first place. He is almost 20 years younger than I am, yet I respect his judgment and his experience, and he has earned my deepest respect and gratitude. This man is a real hero, a giant next to the pseudo heroes of millionaire sports or entertainment figures, a hero who has truly earned the title.
Only because Luttrell got out did I have the immense honor to read about the incredible valor and indomitable spirit, in the face of their own death, of Murph, Axe and Danny, the three SEALs that died next to Marcus that day.
I will never know about hundreds and thousands of other soldiers who lost their lives on nameless mountainsides in the dirt, the hot sun, 8000 miles from home, completely alone, because there was nobody around who witnessed their valor and survived to tell their story. Nonetheless, I know they were out there and I owe them.