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Disgrace: Heroism and SEALs debased
on December 9, 2013
Endorsing this book requires ignoring basic military protocols, suspending the laws of physics, and disregarding the capabilities of the human body. This review of Mr. Luttrell's supposed non-fiction work will be confined to his last operation in Afghanistan, and based on his words. While reading, I made five pages of notes, but I'll not include ALL of that here. What follows is the abbreviated version. Had this book been billed as fiction, I would never have read it. It may be asking too much, but the author's story is best evaluated through a soldier's eyes and experience--but, common sense should be sufficient.
What do we know about this operation for certain? Mr. Luttrell and three other SEALs were inserted into the mountains of Afghanistan, made contact with the enemy, and only Mr. Luttrell was not KIA. Much of the author's account presents difficulties for two reasons:
1. His words make clear a lack of professionalism and simple soldierly common sense;
2. His account of the running firefight is too demanding of the reader's credulity.
His team had a "bad feeling" about the mission, and so took an additional three magazines (Why not more?) apiece for their main personal weapon. The author noted that they were traveling light (carrying 45 lbs.). Yet, they decline to take along an M-60 machine gun because of the weight (Additionally, though not mentioned, all of the team members would have had to carry extra ammo for the machine gun). That excuse is laughable; it is a non-reason and an illegitimate one in the military. While these issues reveal an oddly unprofessional attitude, they are minor compared to what follows in Mr. Luttrell's account. It appears to me that they did not respect their enemy. Mr. Luttrell is very clear that he considers the enemy as ill-trained, crazed, fanatical and murderous cutthroats.
The author makes a point that this operation would require stealth more than at any time in his career. Yet, hours after being inserted, they were still wandering around, now, in the daylight. What about a small thing such as noise discipline? He and his team members were laughing and cursing, throwing berries and distracting the guy on guard. Basic trainees are more disciplined.
Taking the SEALs completely by surprise, a couple of Afghani goatherds actually penetrate the SEALs' position. So, what to do with them? Surely, the mission has been compromised, has it not? The SEALs crudely debate the idea of killing the Afghani civilians in cold blood. Because the officer in command is incapable of making a decision on his own, they try to communicate with HQ for guidance. That effort fails so they vote: Kill them or let them go? (The civilians could not be tied up because as Mr. Luttrell lamely explains, they did not have rope. My God, the equipment of four men could have provided ties.) To put it mildly, all of this does not reflect well on the OIC, or his team. A wise officer seeks opinions from his experienced subordinates, but voting? This officer should have known immediately that killing unarmed civilians is out of the question and done his duty. In any case, the SEALs released their prisoners and moved a few hundred meters away--mission continues.
When the SEAL team starts taking enemy fire, they respond as any disciplined unit would: they get down and return fire. Mr. Luttrell is the main character in this firefight. It is he who initiates the firefight, it is he who sees his comrades get hit, it is he alone who witnesses the act which wins his commander the CMH, it is he who while dragging a wounded SEAL to safety (after dropping his weapon, thereby reducing his unit's defensive fire to 50%), is confronted by a smiling enemy soldier a few meters distant and about to kill them both, when in the nick of time, another SEAL drills the smiling Afghan between the eyes--perfect.
All this time, according to Mr. Luttrell, the SEALs are taking uninterrupted heavy fire (AK, grenade, RPG) from a larger enemy force. But how much larger? The numbers are wildly inconsistent. Mr. Luttrell strongly suggests about 200 Taliban soldiers were engaged. Other sources, including the commendation he received, indicate far fewer. (One important authority puts the number of enemy at 8-10 men. Mr. Luttrell's four-man unit placed themselves in a textbook, tactically worst-case, position; a single enemy firing on their position could have been fatal to one or more of the SEALs.) Is it likely that Mr. Luttrell could have been so acutely aware of the details among the SEALs? Or, is it more likely that he was pouring fire on targets to his front, and only vaguely aware of what was going on to his left and right? In a small-unit firefight, even a squad leader barely knows what is going on except to yell out very basic commands. Memory is another casuality when adrenalin, action and excitement have taken over a soldier's being. Mr. Luttrell does not seem to have any memory loss.
The SEALs had to fall back to avoid being overrun. Unfortunately, they had to truly take a leap of faith because their first fallback position was at the end of an unknown steep slope. They threw themselves down the first slope and continued the fight. Eventually, three of the SEALs are killed. Finally, Mr. Luttrell is alone, and for the moment safe enough to take a breather. To get to this point Mr. Luttrell threw himself down 6 - 9 (I actually stopped counting) different steep slopes/cliffs--All without a broken bone or the loss of his weapon. After a number of these lucky falls, he addresses the reader and accepts that he might not be believed--which is a reasonable expectation. What is the probability that falling down a steep hill, multiple times, with an unsecured weapon will result in no injuries and a weapon close at hand? The author tells us that God literally intervened to save him--again, multiple times!
Given the picture painted by Mr. Luttrell, his four-man team made serious tactical mistakes. Furthermore, they did not understand their enemy, and worse, they did not respect that enemy.
There is much more to say about Mr. Luttrell's story, but I am so disgusted by it that I'll not continue examining it. Mr. Luttrell's false narrative, reveals a man with the judgement and temperament of a benighted ten-year-old. Bravado, necessary during training, is quickly discarded in the field when facing a real enemy. But, the author has an incapacity in this regard, and so constructs a fantasy. In addition to his stunted character, his conduct, too, may be questionable. In this connection, I am reminded of another Marcus--Major Marcus Reno of Custer's regiment in 1876; He did not acquit himself well as a soldier during the Little Bighorn fight. He survived, but his life forever after was ugly and ended badly.
Finally, I would like to ask the reader where is the heroism of this small unit of SEALs? If you accept the word of Mr. Luttrell about the sacrifice of his commanding officer, what was heroic about the actions of the remaining three SEALs? After exhibiting unforgivable incompetence, they simply did their duty. They did their job--they fought--too late. Sadly, for our side, they paid the logical and predictable price for their failures. Let us not forget, too, that this team's failures caused the deaths of close to twenty other American servicemen. Despite our not knowing how Mr. Luttrell avoided paying that price in full, the dead deserve our respect, affection, admiration and a Purple Heart.