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Book Review - Lone Survivor
June 10, 2008
“I tried to get a hold of myself. But 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!’ It was a desperate appeal in the mountains of a foreign land. It was a scream cried out in the echoing high canyons of one of the loneliest places on earth. It was the nearly unrecognizable cry of a mortally wounded creature. And it was a plea I could not answer. I can’t forget it. Because it was made by one of the finest people I ever met, a man who happened to be my best friend.”
In 2005, Marcus Luttrell was part of a four-man mission in the mountains of Afghanistan. A member of the elite Navy SEALs, he was tasked with killing a Taliban leader who had close ties with Osama bin Laden. This small team was hidden outside a village, surveying the area and looking for their target, when a small group of goat herders stumbled upon them. The soldiers quickly detained the two men and the teenage boy and debated what they should do. The most obvious solution and the one that would be most conducive to their mission would be to immediately execute their prisoners. But when the four soldiers put it to a vote, it was determined that they should let these people go. Morality won over personal preservation. But was it morality or fear? “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 I suddenly flashed on the prospect of many, many years in a U.S. civilian jail alongside murderers and rapists.” The former prisoners quickly and inevitably reported to the Taliban leaders and the SEALs were soon fighting for their lives. Before long three of the men were dead and the fourth, Luttrell, was running for his life (though not before the Americans killed somewhere around 100 enemy soldiers. Don’t mess with the SEALs!). It was a terrible slaughter, made worse when a helicopter carrying a rescue force was shot down, killing sixteen more Americans.
Lone Survivor tells the story of this mission through the eyes of Luttrell, the only man who lived to tell the tale. The book was released to great acclaim and has become a fixture on the bestseller lists. While the book is in many ways a typical war story (a description of SEAL training camp, tales of combat, lots and lots of bad language and tales of remarkable heroism) it goes beyond the story to share at least a couple of very important statements about warfare today. And this is, I think, where the reader stands to benefit most.
One of this book’s most important statements is that the current rules of engagement soldiers are required to adhere to are irrational and are the product of politicians who are far from the action. “Any government that thinks war is somehow fair and subject to rules like a baseball game probably should not get into one. Because nothing’s fair in war, and occasionally the wrong people do get killed.” American soldiers are being forced to fight in situations where they are almost guaranteed to take casualties because of restrictive rules of engagement. These rules may make sense to politicians safely ensconced in their Washington offices, but they are utterly unfair and unsafe on the battlefield. Luttrell states clearly and emphatically that these rules are costing lives and that the United States should not be willing to fight wars that she cannot fight to win.
The other important statement is about the role of the media in modern warfare. Luttrell’s disgust for the media knows no bounds. “It’s been an insidious progression, the criticisms of the U.S. Armed Forces from politicians and from the liberal media, which knows nothing of combat, nothing of our training, and nothing of the mortal dangers we face out there on the front line.” “I promise you, every insurgent, freedom fighter, and stray gunman in Iraq who we arrested knew the ropes, knew that the way out was to announce that he had been tortured by the Americans, ill treated, or prevented from reading the Koran or eating his breakfast or watching the television. They all knew al-Jazeera, the Arab broadcasters, would pick it up, and it would be relayed to the U.S.A., where the liberal media would joyfully accuse all of us of being murderers or barbarians or something. Those terrorist organizations laugh at the U.S. media, and they know exactly how to use the system against us.” Those of us who have watched recent wars from afar can attest that this is exactly the case. The media, and particularly the liberal media, seems too often to side with the bad guys. Soldiers are fighting brutal warfare, all the while more terrified of their own nation’s press than the guys shooting at them. They hardly know who the real enemy is.
Lone Survivor is an enjoyable book, typical in many of its facets, but atypical in its deeper message. It is a book Americans would do well to read and to consider. (Do be warned, in case you missed it earlier, that Luttrell is a solider and he uses the language of a soldier.)