“These men of the special forces have had other options in their lives, other paths, easier paths they could have taken. But they took the hardest path, that narrow causeway that is not for the sunshine patriot. They took the one for the supreme patriot, the one that may require them to lay down their lives for the United States of America. The one that is suitable only for those who want to serve their country so bad, nothing else matters.” Marcus Luttrell, Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10
I’ve seen a lot of war movies, but I’ve never been to war. I think there are some movies that depict war as a glorious endeavor, and others provides glimpses into the ugliness and horror that it must be. “Lone Survivor” falls into the latter category. But I don’t know from first hand experience, since I’ve never served, never had to take up arms. So when I see a movie I think does justice to a combatant’s view of a conflict, I’m grateful because I think we all need to understand what it’s really like, as best we can from inside the safety of our homes and borders.
I read Marcus Luttrell’s book, Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10, so when the movie premiered, I was eager to go watch it. That I knew how the story ended did not diminish my interest in seeing it. While Hollywood did take it’s usual liberties to embellish the story, the core truths are in the movie, and those truths are worth pondering.
The good guys are usually good, but not always. The four Navy SEALs portrayed in the story faced a moral dilemma early in Operation Redwing. Having been inadvertently discovered by Afghan goat herders who came from the village they were keeping under surveillance, what should they do? The rules of engagement did not permit harming civilians, and these goat herders were unarmed. However, the SEALs knew that releasing them would at least compromise their operation, and possibly endanger their own lives. As they debate what to do, they clearly consider the consequences of expediency – killing their prisoners – by recounting the crimes and punishments of fellow soldiers, making it clear that the good guys aren’t always good. In this story, the leader, after allowing debate, intervenes and makes the decision to follow the rules. The fateful decision is accepted without further debate and the goat herders are freed.
It’s hard to tell who the bad guys are. It’s easy to pick out the bad guys when they’re shooting at you with AK-47s and RPGs. But when they put down their weapons, skin color and attire are terribly unreliable indicators of who is on whose side. Amy Nicholson, who reviewed the film for LA Weekly, was highly critical of the SEAL’s attitude, which she summarized as “Brown people bad, American people good.” To make this statement, she must have walked out of the film before the scene where a brown-skinned Afghan villager rescued Luttrell. In the most tense, pressure-filled environment imaginable, the SEALs and others who are in harm’s way must make quick judgments about whom, among an intermingled population all dressed in civilian attire, is friend and foe. While tragic, it’s no surprise that they don’t always get it right.
War is complicated. The proposition of war sounds simple enough: destroy the enemy. The reality, however, seems much more complicated. Following the Operation Redwing briefing, one of the SEALs observes that “there are a lot of moving parts” to the plan. It is a maxim of war that once the first shot is fired, the battle plan goes out the window. In the case of Operation Redwing, the plan went out the window before the first shot was ever fired. The Achilles heel in this operation was communications. Had SEAL team 10 been able to communicate, an evacuation would likely have pulled them out instead of the fate they suffered.
War is ugly. Having never fought for my country, I can only imagine how terrible and ugly war is. “Lone Survivor” is important as a film if for no other reason than it helps us understand this ugliness. “Saving Private Ryan” perhaps is even more graphic in confronting viewers with the ugliness of war. These difficult but necessary glimpses of reality might cause some to conclude that peace on any terms is far better than the ugliness of war. But English economist and philosopher John Stuart Mill very eloquently expresses why this isn’t so:
“War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.”
“Lone Survivor” was difficult to watch, in part because I knew how the story would end. Yet, it is important to watch, because it prompts us to have gratitude for the exertions of better men – and women – than ourselves.