Lone Survivor, the tale of outgunned Americans on the run in Afghanistan, is now a hit film. Culture meets the one who got away
Jeff Dawson Sunday Times Culture, 26 January 2014
In Marcus Luttrell’s 2007 bestseller, Lone Survivor, an account of his time as a US Navy Seal in Afghanistan, the author makes no bones over what held the biggest fear for him — not the Taliban, not death, but “the liberal media back in the USA”.
On the fateful day of June 28, 2005, Luttrell had been dropped into the Hindu Kush mountains as part of a four-man reconnaissance squad, its mission — Operation Red Wings — to confirm the presence of Ahmad Shah, an al-Qaeda big-beard reportedly holed up in a remote Taliban camp. While on stakeout, high on the frosty slopes, the Seals were stumbled upon by a trio of unarmed goatherds supplying the encampment. Knowing that these men would probably reveal their position, they took them captive and kicked around the moral conundrum.
“The military decision was clear,” Luttrell says. “These guys could not leave there alive.” Yet it wasn’t the Geneva Convention that prompted the Seals to turn the men loose, it was how “termination” might play on CNN. “I suddenly flashed on the prospect of many years in a civilian jail alongside murderers and rapists.”
The Seals knew they had signed their death warrant. Sure enough, the goatherds bounded down to alert the Taliban. Outnumbered 10 to 1 by hardened, AK-47-toting insurgents, the Seals were engaged in a firefight to the bitter end. Petty Officer Luttrell has a message for the powers that be: “If you don’t want to get into a war where things go wrong, where the wrong people sometimes get killed, then stay the hell out of it in the first place.”
In the flesh, this farm boy from Texas is not what you expect of a decorated American war hero: a big, lumbering chap with an off-duty goatee, rumpled hair and full-sleeve tattoos snaking down from under his sports T-shirt. He wears shapeless old jeans and battered trainers. As he shuffles into the chichi New York hotel room, he fixes you with dark, cautious eyes, the polite yes-sirs and Bible Belt reserve incongruous in Manhattan. As if to ease his discomfort, he has brought along his golden labrador, Mr Rigby.
Luttrell backtracks a bit on the book’s rhetoric. It’s been misinterpreted. “I’m not a political person. I’m a middle-of-the-road kind of guy,” he insists. It’s just, once politicians have ceded a situation to the military, they should “step out of the way and let us do our job”.
That Luttrell is here is a miracle. Shot numerous times, with a broken pelvis and vertebrae, and shrapnel wounds to his legs, he tumbled down a mountainside, acquainting himself with every conifer and rock en route. Three hours later, already assumed dead by his superiors, he packed dirt into his wounds to stem the bleeding, crawled seven miles to a stream and waited for the Taliban and a videotaped blade to the neck.
Mercifully, he was discovered by Pashtun tribesmen, including Mohammad Gulab, the local police chief and son of the village elder. Under the ancient code of lokhay, the Pashtun were compelled to take in a wounded warrior of any persuasion, no matter that it would — and did — bring the wrath of the Taliban upon them. Six days on, shunted around hiding places, Luttrell was sneaked to US Army Rangers.
For his bravery, he was awarded the Navy Cross, as were, posthumously, his colleagues Danny Dietz and Matt Axelson. His ranking officer and best pal, Mike Murphy, earned a posthumous Medal of Honor, the highest US military decoration. Luttrell’s gong hangs heavily. A Chinook helicopter with 16 backup troops had been downed by a rocket-propelled grenade, killing all on board, which made Operation Red Wings one of America's worst special-ops disasters since the Second World War. Luttrell’s book was his tribute to the fallen.
To the memorial, you can add the film version. Directed and written by Peter Berg, Lone Survivor stars Mark Wahlberg as Luttrell and Taylor Kitsch as Murphy. “They did a good job of capturing the essence of what went down on the mountain that day,” Luttrell says, though he stresses that some of what happened is still classified. But what possessed him to get into bed with Hollywood?
It turns out Berg had earned his stripes, embedding himself with a Seals platoon in Iraq for a month, doing all the necessary spadework, much as he had done for his previous war-on-terror flick, The Kingdom. Knowing the families were all going to see this film, we wanted to get it right,” Berg says. “These men go and fight because they’re told to by people they don’t know in Washington DC or Nato or the UN, and we don’t really have an opportunity to understand what that means. We need to honour not only the men who died, but the seriousness of sending men to war.”
Lone Survivor has been a runaway hit in the US. In its backs-against-the-wall action, bullets don’t eviscerate, but sting and zap like a plague of incendiary mosquitos, death by a thousand titanium-tipped cuts.
Berg has done away with the first half of the book and cut to the action, as the Seals crawl through the spectacular verdant slopes of the Hindu Kush (actually New Mexico). From the ominous vibe that descends to the satellite phone not working and their only means of summoning rescue being an ordinary mobile phone, you know it ain’t good. Crucially and fatally, that phone call can only be made from exposed high ground (for which Murphy sacrificed himself). With the encircling foe taking pops at will, the film has the feel of an old-fashioned western — as Luttrell puts it, “Little Bighorn with turbans”.
He returned to service, but was eventually invalided out. It’s no secret that he found civilian life a struggle. (He has a twin brother who is still a Seal.) When Berg met him, he was a classic example of survivor’s guilt, wallowing at home, his house a shrine to his brethren. He’s married now, happy, with three kids. “I lost my team-mates, families lost a son — but the way we look at it is, they died a good death, a soldier’s death, and you can’t ask for anything more honourable than that.”
That other hero, Gulab, who told the Taliban where to stick it, has visited the Luttrell ranch near Houston. Back home, though, his family has been forced into hiding. Eight years on, Luttrell is still trying to secure him a green card.