As I pulled into the theater parking lot Thursday night, I caught a few seconds of headlines of the day’s news. The radio announcer reported that three Americans had been killed in the crash of a U.S. military plane in eastern Afghanistan. I was headed in to see Lone Survivor, a movie based on a memoire by Marcus Luttrell, the sole survivor of Operation Red Wings, a failed June 2005 mission in the Kunar Province of northeastern Afghanistan. The wide release of the movie opened in theaters across the country Friday.
The headline from the day’s news was a stark reminder that the story I was about to see was far from over. Other headlines this past week included former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ revelations that President Obama not only didn’t have confidence in the surge of 30,000 troops to Afghanistan in 2010 which he had ordered but that he was convinced the surge would fail. This came on the heels of the loss of Fallujah in Iraq’s Anbar Province to an al-Qaeda affiliate within the last week.
I went into the theater with a heavy heart.
The film begins with documentary footage of the rigors of Navy SEAL training and quickly moves to Bagram, Afghanistan where the SEALs were stationed. While awaiting their mission, we are introduced to Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), a Navy Hospital Corpsman Second Class and his three brothers-in-arms, Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Petty Officer Second Class Danny P. Dietz (Emile Hirsch), and Petty Officer Second Class Matthew Axelson (Ben Foster).
In short order the SEALs are seen preparing for the first phase of Operation Red Wings, a reconnaissance and surveillance mission targeting Ahmad Shah, a key Taliban leader and ally of Osama bin Laden.
The four-man team fast-roped into the Hindu Kush. They hiked over rugged terrain to a mountain ridge above a village where intelligence indicated Shah and his men were sheltered. The mission is soon compromised, however, when the SEAL’s position was discovered by local goatherds. Bound by the rules of engagement, the SEALS were compelled to let the goatherds go free knowing the American’s position would quickly be revealed to Shah.
In the book, Luttrell is critical of these rules calling them “a clear and present danger.” “I can say from firsthand experience that those rules of engagement cost the lives of three of the finest U.S. Navy SEALs who have ever served. I’m not saying that, given the serious situation, those elite American warriors might not have died a little later, but they would not have died right then, and in my view would almost certainly have been alive today.”
In addition to the rules of engagement, Luttrell writes that he wrestled with his faith as a Christian because while killing unarmed civilians was wrong, he knew that releasing the herdsmen would expose the SEALs to mortal danger.
The SEALs were soon ambushed by Shah. From this point on the film is raw, gritty, bloody and not for the faint of heart. Writer and director Peter Boyd, who created and directed Friday Night Lights, delivers a graphically vivid, gut-wrenching account of the firefight that ensued between the four commandos and dozens of Taliban fighters who were equipped with AK-47s and RPGs.
While the Americans were well-trained, they were outmanned and outgunned, and the mountain terrain proves to be a perilous battleground. A quick reaction force attempted to provide the SEALs support, but one of the two responding helicopters was downed by an RPG, killing the eight 160th Army Special Operations Aviators and crew on board and the eight Navy SEALs who were passengers. At the end of the prolonged firefight, Luttrell alone is alive though badly wounded. He is unexpectedly rescued by tribal Pashtuns who care for him and protect him from the Taliban until he was extracted by Army Rangers and Green Berets a week later.
Yes, there are numerous differences between Luttrell’s memoire and the movie. Screenwriters often take license to condense a story from text to film. Those details are not what matters. And yes, the book shares a great deal about Luttrell’s Christian faith and how he saw the hand of God in protecting him throughout his ordeal, while the film focuses instead on the skills and heroics of the SEALs and the hell that is war.
But those distinctions aren’t what is important either. And no, this isn’t the best war story ever told. There is nothing poetic about the prose and the use of vulgarities in Luttrell’s narrative is at times extreme. And it’s not about the acting, directing, or special effects, which are all worth the price of admission.
What’s important about this film and the book is that they serve to ask some serious questions of us as a nation, like after more than a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq what does it mean to “support our troops?”
How do we support our troops when a bi-partisan budget deal is approved by Congress and signed by the president that trims pension increases for working-age military retirees? In testimony before Congress on October 13, 2011, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said, “…we can not break faith with those that have served and deployed time and time again and were promised the benefits of this retirement program. Those benefits are going to be protected under any circumstance.” Do we really want to renege on promises made to those who have answered a call to serve and sacrifice for our country?
And when we talk about issues of unemployment facing our country, why is it that the unemployment rate among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans is over 10 percent while the national unemployment rate is just under 7 percent? And what can be done about that? How can we help soldiers transfer the skills learned in the military to the civilian workforce?
And how do we better help those veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder to better assimilate back into civilian life? The suicide rate for veterans is alarmingly high. Data released Thursday by the Department of Veterans Affairs shows that over the past few years male veterans under the age of 30 had a 44 percent increase in the rate of suicides. According to department estimates, 22 veterans a day take their own life.
And shouldn’t we make sure that the person we elect as Commander-In-Chief believes in the missions in which he or she send our troops? When the former Defense Secretary Robert Gates charges in his new book to be released on Tuesday that “the only military matter, apart from leaks, about which I ever sensed deep passion on (the president’s) part was ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’” you just have to wonder what is wrong with a nation who fails to understand that the first and most important role of the president is national security and defense.
And how do we support our troops when we announce an exit strategy before we have a winning strategy? How do we tell the widows, parents and children whose loved ones died in the service of our country that their deaths were not in vain when we have abandoned the areas where American blood was spilled, like in Fallujah and Ramadi where al-Qaeda is resurging? If we proceed with withdrawing our combat troops from Afghanistan by year’s end as proposed by the Obama administration, won’t that lead to a collapse of the central government and a resurgence of the Taliban?
When I went into the theater I had a heavy heart. When I came out I was angry and I had far too many unanswered questions.
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