Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Book Review: The Lone Survivor- Marcus Luttrell & Patrick Robinson

I've hesitated a long time to read this book.  I first discovered Patrick Robinson late high school or early college while looking at the very limited selection of audiobooks on CD at might local library.  Robinson is most well known for his fiction, and frequently writes about special forces and submariners, but I was nervous about this book because I knew there'd be death and lots of it, just from the title.  I'll get a criticism out of the way, not mine but others, that the operation was Red Wings and not Redwing, which sound pretty much the same on audio.  Anyway, I knew from the book cover that this Operation was the greatest loss of life of Special Forces in US Military history (summer 2005).  It was a short book (on audio only 4 CDs, average young adult novel is 7-8) and spent a lot of time (first 1-1.5 discs) talking about training and giving background on the team members.  Once they were inserted into Afghanistan the four member ground team started the trek to find their target, a Taliban leader Ahmad Shah.
While scouting the local village a group of goat herders came up and surprised them.  They were unable to contact their commanders and according to Marcus and the book put it up to a vote whether to kill unarmed civilians.  This has been another criticism of the book, both that they would consider killing them when their operational orders and the Geneva Convention doesn't allow it and that it was put up to a vote rather than just to the commander.  Then things went bad quick, in fact I was surprised at how quickly it turned ugly.  The goat herders went on to inform the local Taliban that they were there and they were ambushed by a much larger force.  This is another, and my, criticism of the book.  According to the book the group that came to attack them ranged from 80 to 200 strong, and at times it seemed liked the numbers just grew.  As the Navy SEALs fell back there was a point where they were facing 50.  They killed some more and were still fighting 50, and then killed some more and there were still 50.  I understand that in the chaos of battle it might be hard to estimate the oppositions strength, but the numbers in the book were inconsistent.  According to Wikipedia, they were inconsistent with Marcus's debriefing as well, where the force was 35-50 and public commendations later stayed below or near 50.  As things fell apart members of the team began to be picked off, and eventually the commander used his emergency cell phone to call in support.  This is where the casualty count gets high because the rescue team that came in had 16 other special forces members and the helicopter they were coming in on was taken out by a rocket launcher from a Taliban bunker and all on board were lost.
Marcus managed to give the Taliban the slip and eventually find water and began to climb back uphill.  Sometime early the next day he encountered some locals near the stream and they took him in and hid and protected him.  The Taliban didn't want to fight the local tribe leaders or violate traditional law so they let him be for a while.  Eventually through combined US military and local tribesmen efforts Marcus was rescued and able to tell the story of his fallen brothers.
There is no doubt the actions of these men were heroic and the loss of their lives was tragic, but despite that there were some things I did not like.  First off, several times the authors ranted against the liberal media and how they would end up putting them on trial if they killed innocent civilians and how the rules of engagement should be relaxed and left the the decision of trained soldiers who have experience with combat.  I strongly disagree with this position because "War is terrible, but we must not become terrible in waging war."  That is one of the key differences between us and tyrannical or terrorist leaders and groups.  Also, although he claims a position of not Republican or Democrat, but Patriot, the book has obvious political positions it tries to advance.  I respect what these men did and I understand that there may be times where Rules of Engagement need to be broken, but would this had turned out any better if they had killed the goat herders or if they had been discovered by other means, if the opposing force was so strong, and possibly fortified or lucky, I'm not sure.  And if they had gotten away with it, should they have?  What would you do if you're stuck up on a mountain and you know that killing or not killing innocent civilians would result in your discovery and possibly death.  I do not envy that they were put in that terrible position, but I am glad they held to the moral high ground.
I'm reminded of one of my dad's favorite stories about the second US War in Iraq, I seem to recall it was right after Shock and Awe started, and an American medical soldier pulled an injured Iraqi off the field and carried him to the hospital tent and a Limey reporter from Reuters called out to him and said "Can't you see he's an Iraqi?" and the solider shouted back, "Can't you see he's injured; it's what we do."  I think we should be different than our enemy, and I'm glad, despite their loss, that is what these SEAL members did.

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