Law Review: Lone Survivor
Lone Survivor, Peter Berg’s combat saga, is the story Operation RED WINGS, one of the most famous battles of America’s longest war. The film is partly based on a memoir by Petty Officer Marcus Luttrell, the only surviving member of a Navy SEAL reconnaissance and surveillance (R&S) team that Afghan insurgents all but wiped out in 2005. Some viewers will struggle to watch the film, which veers between brutal authenticity and unnecessary sensationalism. For others, the struggle will not end with one viewing because veterans, journalists, and others are still fighting over the RED WINGS story.
Luttrell’s memoir, co-written with novelist Patrick Robinson, is Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10. An immediate best-seller, the book raised eyebrows among those with knowledge of RED WINGS and its aftermath. Several apparent errors in the narrative led critics to suggest that co-author Robinson might have played an outsized role in its drafting, or that Luttrell was not familiar with aspects of the larger operation. Many of Lone Survivor’s apparent errors, since corrected, would probably only interest veterans and military scholars.
Berg’s film adheres mostly to Luttrell and Robinson’s account. It also features strong performances from action stalwarts Mark Wahlberg and Eric Bana as well as indie favorites Ben Foster and Emile Hirsch. Unsurprisingly, it omits the anti-liberal and anti-legal opinions peppered throughout the memoir. More significantly, Berg’s Lone Survivor changes the memoir’s narrative at crucial and troubling moment: the R&S team’s detention of three Afghan goatherds.
Spoilers follow, but nothing you haven’t seen in the commercials.
According to Luttrell and Robinson’s book, two Afghan boys and one Afghan man stumbled across the R&S team while the Americans were hiding a short distance away from a large force of heavily armed insurgents. The SEALs grabbed and subdued the three Afghans. Unable to call for help on their faulty radios, the team was in extremely serious danger if the goatherds revealed their presence to the insurgents. According to Luttrell and Robinson’s book, this put the team in a dilemma: whether to break the law by killing the prisoners, or risk their own lives by letting them go.
With the benefit of hindsight, armchair generals might ask why the SEALs did not withdraw and take the prisoners with them. Neither the book nor the film addresses this question, and from a moral and legal standpoint it does not matter. The best information available now indicates that, for some reason, it did not seem possible to bring the Afghans along, or the SEALs failed to consider this option. For whatever reason, the SEALs made the only legal choice (aside from withdrawal with their prisoners), and let the Afghans go.
The book’s account of how the SEALs reached this decision is troubling. According to the book, R&S team leader Lieutenant Michael Murphy asked his subordinates to vote on the prisoners’ fate. Petty Officer Matt Axelson voted to kill them. Petty Officer Danny Dietz abstained. Murphy, expressing concern about the “liberal media” and legal consequences, deferred his own vote to Luttrell, who decided the matter by voting to release the prisoners.
Hopefully, none of this is accurate. Officers should seek the counsel of their subordinates, especially skilled and experienced subordinates like Axelson, Dietz, and Luttrell, but putting a war crime to a vote would be beyond the pale. The laws that all four men were bound to uphold explicitly prohibit the killing of non-combatants and prisoners, and make no exception for extreme situations.
After the release of the Lone Survivor book in 2007, Michael Murphy’s father claimed that his son would never act in the way the memoir describes. He told newspapers that Luttrell had told the Murphy family a different story in 2005. Luttrell has since indicated that it was actually Murphy who decided to release the Afghans, although he still claims that the SEALs put the subject to a vote.
Peter Berg’s film version of Lone Survivor attempts to split the difference. Taylor Kitsch, who plays Murphy, says the SEALs have three options, one of which is to kill the prisoners. Wahlberg, Foster, and Hirsch, as the rest of the team members, argue the matter essentially as described in Luttrell and Robinson’s book, albeit without the colorful remarks about liberals, lawyers, and journalists. Kitsch then reappears, announces, “This is not a vote,” and orders the prisoners released.
Multiple commentators have argued that this story is probably not true. Hopefully they are right. With no evidence except the testimony of one witness, perhaps the vote story is best remembered as a useful literary device, an expression of what these courageous men might have thought in a fleeting moment of weakness, as it dawned on them that their professional duty required them to accept a severe personal risk.
With the decision thus awkwardly addressed, the movie version of Lone Survivor plunges its characters into a spectacular action sequence that dominates the rest of the film. Some of the scenes that follow will be too graphic for some viewers. In other scenes, Berg clearly sensationalizes the story, which is too bad for several reasons, not least because the truth of RED WINGS is incredible enough without enhancement.
It is also too bad that Berg and his filmmakers gave the SEAL’s decision to release their prisoners such short shrift. That decision, regardless of how it was made, is an important aspect of the RED WINGS story. Releasing the Afghans may have been an obvious legal and moral matter, but it was also a tremendous act of personal courage, as the ensuing battle showed. Luttrell and Robinson’s book avoids this conclusion, instead describing the decision to release the prisoners as a momentary lapse in judgment, worthy of a “f—ing liberal, a half-assed, no-logic nitwit, all heart, no brain, and the judgment of a jackrabbit.” One hopes that modesty, not disdain for the laws of war, is what prevents Luttrell from claiming his team’s deserved credit for their courageous restraint.
Lone Survivor also features Yousef Azami, Ali Suliman, Alexander Ludwig, and Jerry Ferrara. It is rated “R” for strong bloody war violence and pervasive language. It is two hours and one minute long. It will probably appeal to fans of Black Hawk Down and Zero Dark Thirty. Its gory images will disturb some viewers, and its liberties with the truth may annoy purists.
–by Austin Murnane, Entertainment Columnist