Jan 28

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2013", please click here.)

"A physicist, a chemist and an economist are stranded on an island, with nothing to eat. A can of soup washes ashore. The physicist says, "Lets smash the can open with a rock." The chemist says, "Let’s build a fire and heat the can first." The economist says, "Lets assume that we have a can-opener..."

Old Economist Joke

A long time back, on a topic completely unrelated to the NSA scandal, I found this link to a post on the Crooked Timber blog which described, “The Correct Way to Argue with Milton Friedman”.

In short, if you find yourself engaged in an argument with Milton Friedman, or a disciple, you usually find yourself accepting some initial, key assumption. If you accept this assumption, you will find yourself, several logical conclusions later, trapped in a losing position like a player losing a queen in chess. In the Crooked Timber post, they demolish the initial, key assumption that renters and landlords have equal power in a negotiation. On paper, they can both be profit-maximizing individuals. In reality, no one doubts that landlords have much, much more power than renters.     

This brings me to a widely-cited and referenced article published in Foreign Policy, called “Evil in a Haystack” by intelligence analyst J.M. Berger (of IntelWire.com), where Berger explains to the layperson how the NSA uses meta-data to stop terrorism.

While I love J.M. Berger’s work on the whole, I couldn’t help but think of the “The Correct Way to Argue with Milton Friedman” post when I read his article.

I’ll concede this: J.M. Berger accurately describes how the NSA goes about using meta-data. But let me make this shocking accusation: His description shows the single key flaw which undermines most intelligence agencies. Mainly, Berger presents an authoritative and unwavering belief in the accuracy of intelligence. Along the way, he presents a case study for “over-confidence bias” in action. And he does this all without ever thinking about the consequences to the people (Americans) who turn up in his searches. 

Berger starts by setting the scene:

“We start with a classic scenario. U.S. intelligence officials have captured an al Qaeda operative and obtained the phone number of an al Qaeda fundraiser in Yemen.”

When I read, “We start with a classic scenario...”, I see, “Let’s assume that...”.

Instead of saying, “intelligence officials believe” or, more accurately, “intelligence officials assume”, Berger has set the stage to show the efficacy of meta-data by giving the reader certainty: “We have captured an al Qaeda operative,” not “we have captured someone we believe is an al Qaeda operative.” Berger presents no doubt or hesitancy as to the identity of the suspects.

In real life, determining the facts is incredibly difficult.  Even determining an operative’s level of involvement is incredibly difficult. For instance, a CIA source could have fingered the suspect as an operative, but only did so in exchange for cash. Or under threat of blackmail. Or the person is an al Qaeda operative, but incredibly low on the totem pole. (Believe it or not, CIA bribes--er payments for information--usually escalate for information about more valuable people. This could incentivize the people giving the information to lie. I know, a liberal is bringing up incentives based on profit maximization but go with me here.)

You shouldn’t trust any intelligence analyst--or detective or district attorney or federal prosecutor or federal agent or military intelligence officer--who comes to you with absolute certainty. In psychology terms, it’s called the “over-confidence effect”. Studies show that whenever people have a “99% certainty”, they are often very wrong. In some extreme examples, people who rate their confidence as “99%” certain are right only 40% of the time. (Think political or sports forecasters if you want a daily repeating example.)

As a final point, this scenario hardly ever happens. I know Berger calls it a “classic”, but really intelligence analyst hardly ever come across a smoking gun to begin their investigation.

Nevertheless, the analyst proceeds to investigate the phone number, which leads to finding more suspects:

In our example data, the result is a list of 79 phone numbers that were involved in an incoming or outgoing call with the fundraiser's phone within the last 30 days. The fundraiser is a covert operator and this phone is dedicated to covert activities, so almost anyone who calls the number is a high-value target right out of the gate.

This is how bad intelligence happens. Berger’s analyst doesn’t just start with absolute certainty, he proceeds down an investigation and triples his assumptions:

    1. Assumes the target must be a covert, al Qaeda fundraiser.

    2. Assumes anyone who calls phone must also be a high-value target.

If the fictional analyst is correct, then he has indeed identified 79 new targets. If he is wrong, than 79 largely innocent people could now be investigated and added to intelligence databases. For instance, say the blackmailed or bribed “al Qaeda” member from above fingered a perfectly harmless Hawala business-owner. With all these assumptions, when will the intelligence analyst find out his mistake? A Hawala business-owner certainly acts like an al Qaeda financier, but with completely different ends.

Berger then proceeds to show how the analyst keeps plumbing at meta-data including expanding the size of the list of possible contacts, cross-referencing data in other databases, creating new reports on possible contacts, expanding the search to many American phone numbers (even with possible inaccuracies) and even initiating wiretaps on Americans, all without needing anything more than the word of a detainee in some foreign country (who may be under “enhanced interrogation”).

This expansive scope of government powers, based only on hunches and tips, really frightens strong civil liberties proponents like myself. It should frighten small government types as well. To assuage your fears, though, Berger trots out a favorite trope...

For one thing, U.S. policies are still informed by the idea that all terrorist attacks should be interdicted. A frequently expressed corollary to that premise states that, while tradeoffs against civil liberties might be bad in the abstract, those issues are meaningless when faced with a ticking time bomb…

I believe the NSA/intelligence community must have a guidebook which says, “When in doubt, bring up a ticking time bomb”. It also has the corollary, “If anyone questions your funding, bring up 9/11 (with personal example of what you were doing when you watched the planes hit for added emotional pull).” The issues with Berger’s analyst aren’t ticking time bombs, it’s about bad intelligence. And that bad intelligence violates the civil rights and liberties of Americans enshrined in the Constitution.

Jan 27

To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2013", read the articles below: 

- Assumptions in a Haystack: Milton Friedman, J.M. Berger and the NSA

- Why They Leak (Or Better, Why They Don't)

- Think Again Pt. 1: The Intelligence Community (After Reading Their Budget) Part 1

- We're All Ordinary Americans: Getting Orwellian on the NSA

- Think Again Pt. 2: The Intelligence Community (After Reading Their Budget)

- Think Again: The Intelligence Community (After Reading Their Budget) Part 3

Eric C asked me after the initial batch of Edward Snowden NSA disclosures if we had just found our “Most Thought Provoking Event of 2013”. (Check out our past "On V's Most Thought Provoking Events", click here for 2009, click here for 2010, click here for 2011, and click here for 2012.)

I said, “No, why would we have?”

Then the leaks kept coming. And coming. And coming. Then it turned out that James Clapper was lying. Then a super-majority in Congress came out to support...the NSA. Then President Obama claimed that he had planned to restart this debate, allegedly without Snowden’s disclosures.

Then I read--with great interest--the pro-NSA crowd defend the NSA on cable news, in blogs and on Twitter. I also noted heaps and gobs of misinformation, mostly from NSA defenders.

After following the story for a few weeks, I went on a plane trip to visit some friends. I pulled out my iPad, attached a keyboard and planned to capture some of my thoughts. 5,000 words later, my flight landed and I called Eric C.

“Yeah, the NSA disclosures are the On V Most Thought Provoking Event of 2013.”

What do we hope to provide with yet more articles on a topic that has already generated millions of printed words? As always, unique takes you (hopefully) won’t read elsewhere. For instance:

- A post trying to find the last time an intelligence or security agency willfully disclosed bad information about itself.

- A post describing why so few leaks happen, using my business school knowledge of economics and organizational behavior.

- A post debunking the idea that China and Russia haven’t already infiltrated our intelligence agencies, a la Snowden.

Yeah, unique takes. (We’ll also have a post on the most unique takes on the Ed Snowden NSA disclosures as well.) The sad fact is most of the millions of articles on the NSA simply reported the most recent disclosures and took the same quotes from the same officials on background. Even the analysis tended to repeat the same political talking points.

So expect nearly a dozen posts (if not more) and hopefully some guest posts in other media. Overall, what is the theme you can expect? Well, the first theme is bi-partisanship. Our posts take a viewpoint both civil libertarians and left-wing radicals can respect: the government has immense power and we shouldn’t automatically trust it. Trust but verify, if you will. We also feel that this is the constitutional position. Any scholar of the revolutionary period knows that most of the founders (except for Alexander Hamilton) deeply mistrusted concentrated power. Since both political parties have deep ties to the intelligence-security-military establishment now-a-days, this is a unique viewpoint you don’t often hear.

You can also expect plenty of calls for more government transparency, less classification in general, and more incentives to support whistleblowers. You’ll also find heaping doses of skepticism about the intelligence community’s effectiveness. This comes from personal experience.

And that last point is probably the viewpoint you will hear more than any other. If you want to know what inspires us in this event, re-watch 60 Minutes’ NSA hagiography. It treated the analysts as superheroes, terrorism as an omnipresent threat, and the NSA as veritable truth teller.

We don’t agree with any of those positions, and we hope to provide that unique context to these unprecedented disclosures. (Only a short six months after everyone else started.)

Jan 21

(To read all of our Lone Survivor posts, please click here. The most important post is "A List of the Mistakes and Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality" so read that first if you are new to the blog or this topic.)

Since we put up a post two week ago called, “The Worst Media Coverage of Lone Survivor”, it probably makes sense that we would offer up a corrective. Today we present the best articles we’ve read about Lone Survivor (film). In other words, the takes that break out of the typical reporting.

Or re-reporting, which is what most reporters did. The vast majority of reporters wrote mostly uncritical takes on Lone Survivor, simply repeating how realistic the film was, emphasizing SEALs were on set, mentioning the heroism of everyone involved, and ignoring any possible errors.

A few journalists and writers have analyzed Lone Survivor from a more skeptical lens. We want to celebrate those takes today.

1. “‘Lone Survivor’ film review by an Afghan combat vet who fought Ahmad Shah.” by Mark Perna, Don’t Ever Call Me a Hero. Obviously, we can’t stand the criticism that “if you haven’t been, there you can’t say anything” because we feel that the duty of citizens is to analyze and question their government and military. But no internet troll could accuse Mark Perna of “not having served” since Perna deployed as a marine to Kunar province at the time of Operation Red Wings, later conducting missions to drive Ahmad Shah out of the region. While praising the film, Perna does make one point super clear (that we have said for a long time): “This film is fiction” and he lists some of those fictions based on his personal experience. Take that to heart and read the review.

(Perna had previously taken issue with the line from the trailer where “Shah killed 20 marines the week before” that we called out as well.)

2. Jake Tapper on The Lead. Here is what we respect most about Jake Tapper: among the dozens (and possibly hundreds) of reporters who interviewed Marcus Luttrell in the run-up to Lone Survivor, Tapper was the only one who asked a unique question. This, more than anything, is what threw off Luttrell. Tapper’s question wasn’t out of bounds; he merely gave his honest emotional take--that it feels so hopeless, and senseless--that men died that day.

But Tapper didn’t stop there. Though he is a huge supporter of the military, he also questions the orders of commanders. He pointed out a fact that was almost completely ignored in the run-up to Lone Survivor’s release: why hasn’t a single officer been held accountable for the mistakes made before, during and after Operation Red Wings? In short, after reading Ed Darack’s article in the Marine Corps Gazette, Tapper knows that there is more to the Operation Red Wings story than Lone Survivor let on. It was refreshing journalism.

3. “Jake Tapper is Getting Attacked For Saying What Many are Thinking about Afghanistan by Paul Szoldra, Business Insider. Of course, right wing outfits and some conservative Twitterzens immediately took to denouncing Jake Tapper as un-American and un-patriotic. Szoldra provides his well-reasoned opinion--as always--writing that attacking Tapper for asking reasonable questions isn’t insulting the troops. As he writes, ‘It's time we have an adult non-screaming-at-each-other conversation about what we want to accomplish in Afghanistan, as well as an objective assessment of whether we are succeeding.”

He also quotes Andrew Exum from Twitter, “"No matter where you come down on the war in Afghanistan, if you've never questioned whether it's worth it, you're not thinking critically." We agree.

4. “Thoughts on Lone Survivor” by Don Gomez, Carrying the Gun. On V fav Don Gomez makes an amazing comparison between Lone Survivor and John Wayne’s The Green Berets. Each film celebrates special operators above all else, without bothering with the messiness of the why. While that can be a strength, it can also lead to charges of being insanely pro-military. Great take.

5. “Navy Hobnobs With Hollywood But Keeps Journalists In The Dark” by Katie Rucke, The Mint Press News. Rucke repeated a question asked by Martha Raddatz on ABC’s This Week (a question that few other reporters have asked): why did the Pentagon and Navy Special Warfare grant Peter Berg nearly unlimited access, but won’t offer that same access to reporters? The answer isn’t hard to figure out: directors provide better publicity than the media.

Of course that doesn’t make it right.

6. Is Lone Survivor pro-war? Two different articles have asked this question. First, The Atlantic’s Calum Marsh repeated the idea that every war film is a pro-war film. (Which sparked quite a debate online.) Then, Salon wrote about this topic after Lone Survivor’s strong opening weekend, even calling it a propaganda piece.

7. “Real-Life "Lone Survivor" Marcus Luttrell Really Hates the Liberal Media” by Asawin Suebsaeng, Mother Jones. A collection of Marcus Luttrell’s quotes about the liberal media. Mother Jones responded to some of the discussion on the right wing blogosphere by listing many of the moments in Lone Survivor where Marcus Luttrell insulted, defamed or blamed the liberal military for the deaths of his fellow Navy SEALs.

8. “Lone Survivor and Truth” by Leo, Hit the Woodline. Two things about this post. First, it’s another wonderful factual correct-the-record article from someone who dealt with the aftermath of Operation Red Wings. Leo writes about not just the inaccuracies, butwhy they matter in war reporting.   

Second, the comments section is insane.

9. “The Myth of Reality in ‘Lone Survivor” by Benjamin Busch, The Daily Beast. Not only is this a very thorough, well-written, and well-argued review of the film and the facts of Lone Survivor, Busch does something I can’t believe I didn’t do: he quoted Tim O’Brien. From The Things They Carried, “If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.” (I originally wrote about that quote here.) This could be Lone Survivor’s (film) greatest sin.

Well put.

10. The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith. This isn’t a unique take, per se, but getting the chance to see Lone Survivor early gave us the launching pad to write the post listing the differences between the book, the film and reality.

Mainly, though, for a podcast with filmmakers, we felt Jeff Goldsmith did more research and asked harder questions than 99% of the rest of the media. Check it out.

Jan 15

(Normally, we start the year with our “Most Intriguing Event of the Year”. But since Lone Survivor hit theaters across the country on January 10th, we’re devoting this week to that topic.

To read all of our Lone Survivor posts, please click here. The most important post is "A List of the Mistakes and Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality" so read that first if you are new to the blog or this topic.)

If a counter-insurgency lesson happens on a hill-side in Afghanistan, and Americans don’t care, did anyone ever really learn it?

As the most popular memoir and film about Afghanistan, Lone Survivor now has the subtle distinction of being the single most popular piece of media about Afghanistan...period. (To everyone who comments, “Why are you still writing about this?” That’s one reason why.) Since Lone Survivor has lots of subtle (and not-so-subtle) counter-insurgency lessons embedded in the narrative, the book and the movie will have a profound effect on American’s understanding of counter-insurgency warfare.

Most viewers of Lone Survivor won’t realize that sound counter-insurgency practices actually saved Marcus Luttrell’s life on that hillside on that fateful June day. While I don’t fault Peter Berg for trying to tell a tight story centered almost entirely on the battle, this focus skews Americans’ understanding of COIN. Worse, some of Berg’s decisions (like the final battle) will irrevocably mislead Americans on how politics works in Afghanistan.

Here are some counter-insurgency lessons largely missed in the both the Lone Survivor film:

1. The villagers who rescued Luttrell--including Gulab--did so as much for politics as for pashtun-wali.

To be clear, Gulab’s adherence to the Afghanistan cultural behavior commonly called in the West “pashtun-wali” motivated Mohammed Gulab to shelter Marcus Luttrell. However, another key motivating factor was the extremely local politics in the extremely divisive Kunar province.

As Ed Darack describes in Victory Point:

The people of the Shuryek Valley, into which the gulch fed, had traditionally been at odds with villagers of the Korangal Valley, particularly those of Chichal, bumping heads over grazing-land boundaries. And while not overly friendly to American forces, people on the Shuryek side of the Sawtalo Sar hadn’t proved nearly as supportive of anticoalition militia forces as those of the Korangal.” (page 148)

To make a very crude analogy, after getting in a firefight with the Bloods, Luttrell was rescued by the Crips. So yes, Gulab rescued Luttrell because his honor, but it didn’t hurt that Gulab could hurt his political rivals in the process. If Luttrell had fallen down the other side of the mountain, even pashtun-wali wouldn’t have saved his life.

Even that depiction, though, is too simplistic. Afghan politics, riven for years by civil war, are incredibly complicated. One paragraph won’t do it justice.

Neither will a two hour film. Most media portrayals boil the politics of Afghanistan down to Taliban/evil versus America/good. Most people in Afghanistan don’t fall neatly into one side or the other. Instead, almost every villager I met with also met with insurgents. A simple “good versus evil” story fails to capture this nuance.

2. Salar Ban had an excellent relationship with coalition forces in the region due to a sound counter-insurgency strategy executed by the marines in Kunar.

The marines stationed in Kunar--specifically Camp Blessing--went above and beyond to develop positive relationships with locals. (I don’t have time in this post to tell the entire story, so read Victory Point pages 148-154 for the details). They expanded the “soft” side of military operations, including Medical Civil Action Patrols. While the Korengalis weren’t receptive to this outreach (as they have been historically hostile to outsiders), villagers in the Shuryak valley were. One of these villagers was Mohammad Gulab, who eventually rescued Luttrell. As Victory Point describes it, by using positive outreach relationships took a “quantum leap forward”.

This explains why he was out in the hillsides following the attack in Operation Red Wings. He was looking for Luttrell to help out the Americans. As Gulab himself told it on the Today Show:

Gulab said he had been trying to warn Luttrell.

“I was trying to tell him I wasn't Taliban. I know that many enemy was looking for him in the mountains," he said through a translator. "And I was trying to warn him that you must be careful."

Frankly, the gains the marines made were incredible, and laid the groundwork so that, when Gulab saw a bleeding and dying Luttrell, he would remember the goodwill Americans in the region had extended him. Any scenes involving marines working in day-to-day counter-insurgency obviously didn’t make it into the film.

3. Ahmad Shah deeply understood local politics and understood counter-insurgency theory.

The film makes Shah out to be a one-note, blood-thirsty tyrant. Lone Survivor (film) introduces Shah to viewers by having him march into Gulab’s village and chop someone’s head off. (Screenplay page 3a-5) The screenplay even describes him as a villain from the Wild West. No, literally,“This Shah and crew feels like an old school western bad guy moving through a cow town.”

Now, compare that description to Marcus Luttrell’s memoir:

The Taliban moves around these mountains only by the unspoken approval tacit permissions of the Pashtuns, who grant them food and shelter.” (pg. 284)

The jihadists seem to have a some kind of hammerlock on tribal loyalties, using a whole spectrum of Mafia-style tactics, sometimes with gifts, sometimes with money, sometimes with promising protections, sometimes without outright threats. The truth is, however, neither al Qaeda or the Taliban could function without the cooperation of the Pashtun villages.” (pg. 311)

This armed gang of tribesman, who were hell-bent on driving out the Americans and the government, could not function up here in these protective mountains entirely alone. Without local support their primitive supply line would perish. Armies need food, cover and cooperation, and the Taliban could only engage in so much bullying before these powerful village leaders decided they preferred the company of the Americans.” (pg. 341)

In reality, Shah was more politician than gangster. As the above quotes show, he had to work with and court the support of the locals in the valley.

Unlike the decision to leave out the marines, which I understand from a plot standpoint, this decision was made to paint a simpler, and less realistic, story. Just imagine another, more realistic scene. A Taliban shura. Gulab is there as are dozens of village elders, drinking tea. Shah makes his case that he could keep out the Americans and hunt any who come to the Sawtalo Sar. This scene would capture the “essential experience” or the “truth” of Operation Red Wings better than the scene in the film. Yet, Peter Berg chose a deliberately provocative and relatively rare phenomenon over a mild-mannered and realistic shura scene.

Worse, the true life events would have worked fine in this film. Imagine...

- a scene where Gulab explains to Luttrell why Ahmad Shah couldn’t enter the village.

- a scene where Gulab discusses why Shah needs local support.

- a scene where Shah explains to his own men why he doesn’t simply march in and kill everyone in Salar Ban. (Which would also make him three-dimensional and realistic.)

- a scene of Shah evacuating to Pakistan within days after the attack….like he did in real life.

Any of those scenes would have been radical and extraordinary. But keeping Shah as a blood-thirsty tyrant/terrorist fits with American stereotypes much better.

4. Ahmad Shah would never have attacked fellow Afghan villagers.

In the film Lone Survivor, Ahmad Shah attacks the village of Salar Ban in one last attempt to grab Luttrell. In real life, he didn’t.

What matters isn’t that Shah didn’t attack; it’s why he didn’t attack. Ahmad Shah didn’t invade the village of Salar Ban because he knew that he would lose support of the local people and the valley if he hurt the villagers. As Luttrell himself writes:

And then we both heard the opening bursts of gunfire, high up in the village.

“There was a lot of it. Too much. The sheer volume of fire was ridiculous, unless the Taliban were planning to wipe out the entire population of Sabray. And I knew they would not consider that because such a slaughter would surely end all support from these tribal villages up here in the mountain.

“No, they would not do that. They wanted me, but they would never kill another hundred Afghan people...in order to get me…

“These lunatics…[were] firing randomly into the air and aiming at nothing…” (pg. 339)

“...they had not dared to conduct a house-to-house search for fear of further alienating the people and, in particular, the village elder.” (pg. 341)

All armies fight under political constraints. Some have fewer constraints than others, but they all have limits on the violence they can inflict in war. This applies to insurgents in Afghanistan. While Shah certainly would have killed Luttrell had he surrendered or not (a violation of the Geneva Conventions and a war crime), he still prevented his men from attacking other Afghan villagers, because this would have cost him support.

You won’t learn any of these lessons from the film. Lone Survivor (film) ends with a gigantic battle as the Taliban invade Gulab’s village. This doesn’t make sense (nor happened). As Luttrell explains above, such an attack would verge on suicidal for Shah. To get back to the theme of these posts--why accuracy matters in the Lone Survivor film--there isn’t a compelling reason for including the final firefight. It didn’t take place in real life, and it doesn’t somehow capture Marcus Luttrell’s experience any better than not including it.

And it permanently misinforms viewers of the film.

Everyone keeps saying that Americans don’t understand the wars that we’re fighting. That so few people were in the military, and we can’t relate to their stories. But Lone Survivor (film) had more advisors than a medieval prince. Yet none of the SEALs on set pointed out these nuanced counter-insurgency lessons to Peter Berg.

(That, unfortunately, probably has more to do with the state of counter-insurgency theory and its adoption in the special operations world than anything else.)

Jan 13

(Normally, we start the year with our “Most Intriguing Event of the Year”. But since Lone Survivor hit theaters across the country on January 10th, we’re devoting this week to that topic.

To read all of our Lone Survivor posts, please click here. The most important post is "A List of the Mistakes and Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality" so read that first if you are new to the blog or this topic.)

To avoid burying the lede, please check our recent article over at Slate on Lone Survivor. If you’re a regular reader, you’ve probably read the article it is based on here. Either way, we’re both pretty heavy Slate readers (and we regularly cite Dahlia Lithwick for her excellent legal reporting), so we’re excited to contribute to that great website.

So check it out.

Before we go, though, we want to tell a story which captures how Slate--and specifically staff writer Forrest Wickman--went above and beyond to do the due diligence this story requires.

After we published our magnum opus listing every important difference or mistake in Lone Survivor, we tried to get the word out to the journalists we respect. We sent a lot emails...and received one response.

Then, in the middle of last week, Forrest Wickman of Slate.com’s “Browbeat” blog reached out saying he loved the piece. He even went a step further asking if Slate could repurpose it. We immediately said yes. Based on the behavior of most journalists, we expected it to end there.

Thank God it didn’t. Forrest did what every editor should do: he asked us for our research for any facts that, by this point, we consider common knowledge. He asked us for links or citations. He also double checked our quotes to ensure accuracy. (The whole process took two days.)

In short, Forrest did what we expect editors everywhere--no matter how busy they are--to do: check the facts.

Unfortunately, virtually no major media outlets did this. As we wrote last Friday, Luttrell is on record repeating contradictory information to multiple news outlets...none of those news outlets double-checked what he told them.

So thanks again Slate.com for the opportunity to contribute and for doing due diligence.

Jan 10

(Normally, we start the year with our “Most Intriguing Event of the Year”. But since Lone Survivor hits theaters across the country today, we’re devoting this week to that topic.

To read all of our Lone Survivor posts, please click here. The most important post is "A List of the Mistakes and Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality" so read that first if you are new to the blog or this topic.)

In the last week, almost every major news source has published something about Lone Survivor (film). The majority of these reviews or making-of stories relied on promotional material provided by the production. Some of the stories coupled the promotional material with the chance to interview Marcus Luttrell, Peter Berg, Mark Wahlberg or some other stars.

The incredible lack of journalistic curiosity has, obviously, disappointed us, along with the absence of fact-checking. But a few news outlets that we hold to a bit higher standard have really gone above and beyond in journalistic malpractice. If any of these sources had bothered to look up a single detail using either the U.S. Navy’s official documents, Ed Darack’s research or Marcus Luttrell’s memoir, they would have found the answers (or contrary accounts) to their questions.

(For nearly every mistake or correction, head over to our huge list here.)

To help clear up the record, here is our fact checking of the media reports around Lone Survivor (film and memoir):

ABC News

Men’s Journal

The Los Angeles Times

Associated Press by way of NPR, The Washington Post and Salon

60 Minutes

HBO Original Documentaries, Will of the Warrior

NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday

PBS’ Charlie Rose

Star-Telegram’s “The Big Mac Blog”


ABC News:

On ABC’s This Week, journalist Bob Woodruff asked a series of leading questions without challenging any of the responses. Many of the questions seem designed to mislead the viewer.

WOODRUFF: Ahmad Shah was right in your sight. Why didn't you shoot him, was it because you weren't getting a order?

LUTRELL: Right. Yes, sir.

“WOODRUFF: What are the rules of engagement?

LUTTRELL: Who knows?

WOODRUFF: You mean it just depends on where you are? You make the decision yourself.

WOODRUFF: There isn't an official protocol that was...

WAHLBERG: I was shocked even yesterday, finding out that, while we have these rules of engagement that are kind of constantly changing, nobody else does. Nobody else has to answer to any of that.

WOODRUFF (voice-over): With the vote, the SEALs let the herders go…

A whole bunch of corrections here:

Correction 1: Luttrell didn’t shoot Shah because that wasn’t the intention of the mission. As we recently updated our list of differences and mistakes, the SEAL team’s mission was never to shoot Shah. They were deliberately only a reconnaissance unit whose mission was to get eyes on Shah. A larger team of SEALs and marines was the lead element in the mission. (This fact was almost completely neglected in the movie’s briefing scene as well.)

Further, Luttrell never mentions in the memoir actually spotting Shah, as is portrayed in the film. Thus, either the film or the memoir is wrong. (We tend to think the film embellished the detail.)

Correction 2: There was no vote. This fact is in dispute between Luttrell and Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy’s family. Based on Luttrell’s various contradictory statements, we cannot establish what actually happened. (We can, however, say that no media outlet has actually asked Luttrell why his story changed on this very sensitive topic.)

Correction 3: Rules of engagement do NOT change mission to mission and every other country has rules of engagement. While there are legitimate criticisms about ROE, these statements are both completely false and inflammatory. Every country signed to the Geneva Conventions--including every ally America has in NATO--has ROE. Further, rules of engagement do not change mission to mission, and the leaders in Afghanistan tend to update them on an annual basis. Meanwhile these changes have always maintained soldier’s right to self-defense while adhering to the laws of land warfare. Further, the laws of land warfare are a topic taught to every soldier in basic training, every officer in their initial training, and a subject trained on by every unit before they deploy.

Men’s Journal:

In an article praising Lone Survivor for its dedication to realism and accuracy, reporter Stayton Bonner included this line:

“The film recounts the two-hour firefight that pitted Luttrell's team against some 100 armed Taliban fighters.”

Correction: As we’ve written about, Luttrell and his fellow SEALs weren’t attacked by 100 men. Based on Ed Darack’s analysis, including video footage, the actual number was around 8-10 fighters. Even the U.S. Navy’s Medal of Honor Official Citation only counts 30-40 fighters. Either number is a far cry from 100 insurgents. (Or the 200 insurgents Luttrell has referenced in speeches.)

NBC News:

NBC News has featured the Luttrell story twice. They first had Marcus Luttrell on the Today Show in 2007 when his memoir hit shelves. They recently updated their reporting, again on the Today Show, this time interviewing Gulab alongside. One exchange sticks out, starting at minute 1:55:

Kate Snow: “In the end, you voted to let them go.”

Marcus Luttrell: “Yeah I did... [pause]...Yeah, that’s what we did...”

KS: “Do you regret the decision [to let the goatherders go]?”

ML: “No.”

Correction 1: There was no vote. See above for the explanation.

Correction 2: Marcus Luttrell deeply regretted letting the goatherders go in his memoir. If anything, the memoir if filled with regret (page 206). Luttrell clearly said he regretted the decision to release the goatherders, a fact he first repeated on the Today Show with Matt Lauer, where Lauer read his words back to him from Lone Survivor (memoir).

The Los Angeles Times:

On Violence’s favorite “banter buddy” from the KCRW podcast The Business (we legitimately enjoy his work), John Horn, interviewed Luttrell for his paper. Here’s the most egregious section:

“It was more than a little hard for Luttrell to recount his ordeal in print. "I didn't want to write the book. I'm a private person," he said of his memoir, co-written by Patrick Robinson. He was compelled to pen it, he said, by his superiors.

"It was the Navy's idea, not mine," the 38-year-old Luttrell said. "They felt the story needed to be set straight."

His commanding officers were equally assertive in recommending that he support a movie adaptation, which opened to solid reviews in New York and Los Angeles on Friday before expanding into national release Jan. 10.

"I didn't want to do a movie," Luttrell said. "But Hollywood was going to do it with or without us. That's what came across the wire."

Correction 1: The U.S. Navy cannot compel you to write a book. Besides being outside the scope of his job duty, the U.S. Navy actually prefers to have its sailors not publish books. Further, the Special Operations community publicly says it discourages its troops from writing books. In this rare case, his command probably did support his writing, but that’s still a far cry from compelling someone to write it.

Correction 2: Marcus Luttrell wanted to write Lone Survivor (memoir). He did. In repeated interviews, he said that he personally wanted to set the record straight. Further, there was a significant monetary incentive to publish a memoir. (He signed a seven figure book deal which likely included participation in the film’s success.)

When the Lone Survivor memoir came out four years ago, Luttrell told the The New York Times about why he wanted to write the book on his own volition, which contradicts the quotes he gave to John Horn:   

“Mr. Luttrell, 31, first started thinking of writing a book because he was frustrated by media accounts of the battle...

“So he talked to his Navy superiors, hired a lawyer and searched for a writer…

“Little, Brown won it in an auction for a seven-figure advance...”

Correction 3: Hollywood was NOT going to make Lone Survivor without Luttrell’s involvement. Absolutely not. As a long time Hollywood watcher--and someone incredibly well versed in film production and marketing--Horn should know that first and foremost Hollywood cannot make a movie without someone’s book or life rights. Further, Lone Survivor (film) consistently struggled to find film financing, and eventually turned to two individuals with ties to organized crime and cocaine trafficking to make the film. Finally, Lone Survivor (film) also only happened because of Peter Berg’s desire to see it made. In fact, to even distribute it, Universal required Berg to first helm Battleship. Arguably, if Luttrell had refused to support a movie by not giving his rights and refusing to do publicity, it never would have happened.

This is also evidenced by the extreme lack of Hollywood films about Afghanistan. With the release of Lone Survivor, the number of films about the war in Afghanistan jumps to...1, Lone Survivor. To sum, Hollywood would not have made this film but for Marcus Luttrell, Little/Brown and Peter Berg fighting to make it happen.

Associated Press by way of NPR, The Washington Post and Salon:

An AP article by Jake Coyle deserves mention for an uncritical look at the Department of Defense’s role in supporting Hollywood films. Coyle’s article made it onto NPR, Salon and The Washington Post:

“Luttrell would rather not talk about any of it. He went along with "Lone Survivor" and wrote the book at the urging of his superiors...

For films like ‘Black Hawk Down’ and ‘Lone Survivor,’ the commonality is the notion that this is an important opportunity to set the record straight or at least to portray things as they believe they happened,” says Philip Strub, head of the Defense Department’s Film and Television Liaison Office.

It can make for a thorny mix of fictionalization, artist license and classification issues. Berg consulted frequently with military liaisons and the Navy Office of Information while writing the script.

“I read the after-action reports,” says Berg. “I looked at the autopsies. I went to Iraq. I met all these guys. We just followed the blue print that Latrell laid out in his book. We never set out to do something non-Hollywood or Hollywood. We just literally told the story.”

Correction 1: Luttrell wanted to write Lone Survivor (memoir). See the above correction.

60 Minutes:

When we wrote about Marcus Luttrell’s 60 Minutes’ interview last month in “Luttrell No Longer Stands By his Mistakes: Lone Survivor vs. the 60 Minutes Interview”, we were so gobsmacked by that fact that Luttrell completely changed his story that we didn’t call out 60 Minutes for failing to ask any hard questions about the changes in Luttrell’s story.

But put this interview next to the Benghazi story...or the NSA story...or the Susan Rice profile...or the Jose Rodriguez interview from last year...well, you get the idea. Frankly, we think 60 Minutes is incapable of doing a story that’s critical of the national security establishment.

HBO Original Documentaries, Will of the Warrior:

Last week, HBO aired a documentary, Will of the Warrior, about Marcus Luttrell and Lone Survivor. A couple of inaccuracies stand out:

Correction 1: The documentary included an interview with Billy Shelton, an Army veteran who lied to Luttrell about his service and the number of tours he did in Vietnam.

Correction 2: The documentary includes archival footage of Luttrell’s interview with Matt Lauer on The Today Show incorrecting stating how many enemy attacked the SEALs.

NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday

Longtime On Violence readers know that we love NPR. We link to them all the time. Unfortunately, Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin really stumbled when she interviewed Marcus Luttrell a couple weeks ago. Luttrell told Rachel Martin:

MARCUS LUTTRELL: We did have an uneasy feeling, going in. The intel on the numbers kept changing. And then when we got overrun, it was such a large force that - the numbers have been speculated, anywhere from 60 to 80, to 80 to over 100. And it was all of that. I have recently talked to one of the villagers who saved my life. And he was in constant contact with the Taliban. And he says that there was over 100. I'm sticking with the latter, from 60 to 80.

Correction: The SEALs were NOT attacked by 60, 80 or 100 fighters. Not that we have to rehash it, but find out more here.

The good news is that one question did have an interesting answer about Lone Survivor (film) changing the facts:

“MARCUS LUTTRELL: ...but I didn't kill anybody with a knife. And I remember sitting back and laughing. I go why did you put that in there? What does that have to do with anything? I mean, the story itself, I think, is enough to where you wouldn't have to embellish anything."

We agree, Marcus. We agree.

PBS’ Charlie Rose

Wow, there’s a lot of bad in this interview, which is unfortunate, because we like public media. But, man, the version of the story Luttrell tells Charlie Rose, well, it contradicts the movie, his book and reality. Here are the quotes:

Once the book came out and did what it did, then obviously Hollywood came knocking on the door. And it was one of those situations...an ultimatum was basically dropped on us, saying we’re going do this movie with or without y’all. So you can be a part of it and help us out to make sure it’s as authentic as possible, or you can let us go with what we think is right.” (minute 6:00)

Our mission was a special reconnaissance sniper overwatch intent. We were sent out to capture/kill a high ranking individual in bin Laden’s army. Had his own militia at his disposal. Conventional forces had been chasing him for probably about two years. Finally they slid him across our desk.” (minute 12:00)

We would have rather gotten into an engagement with 200 taliban militia than to get it wrong in that situation.” (minute 14:00)

“Shah killed twenty marines last week. Twenty.” Matt Axelson, from Lone Survivor (Clip from the film, minute 22:00)

This is not a vote.” Mike Murphy, from Lone Survivor (Clip from the film, minute 22:00)

Correction 1: Hollywood CAN’T make a movie without your life rights if you're not famous. And as we mentioned above, this film wasn’t a slam dunk. Universal clearly delayed this project for years, because of the failure of other war films. Without Luttrell’s support--especially making himself available for publicity--Hollywood would not have made this film. Even if a producer made the movie without Luttrell’s rights, they couldn’t use the name Lone Survivor, which was the most marketable part of the book. Maybe Luttrell’s book contract stipulated that the publisher could sell the films rights, but that’s not “Hollywood” demanding to make a movie and delivering an ultimatum.

Correction 2: Ahmad Shah was NOT affiliated with al Qaeda. The “bin Laden’s army” part has irritated us since the book was released, because calling al Qaeda an “army” dramatically overstates their capabilities.

Correction 3: The marines were in charge of this mission. They didn’t “slide a paper” across their desk. It was a joint operation between two branches, specifically for access to the air support that Special Operations forces used.

Correction 4: The SEALs were not attacked by “200 taliban militia”. What more can we say about this one? Oh, I know: it contradicts the account Luttrell gave to NPR above.

Correction 5: 20 marines were not killed by Shah the week before the mission.

Correction 6: As far as the vote goes, that contradicts the memoir. We wish Charlie Rose would have followed up on this.

Star-Telegram’s “The Big Mac Blog”

Not only does this interview have misleading information, but Luttrell tees off on some political subjects. Here are some select quotes:

“I’ve run over 300 combat missions in my career, a lot worse than Red Wing. We didn’t take as many casualties.”

"They think I got out, wrote the book, and that’s not it. The book was the idea of the military’s. I was in Iraq when it was on Amazon. I was doing what I was told."

“Who makes up the rules of engagement? I have no idea.”

Correction 1: It’s “Operation Red Wings”. Like the hockey team.

Correction 2: The military can’t make you write a memoir.

Correction 3: Not a correction as much as a statement of fact: the top officer in charge decides on Rules of Engagement under advisement from his staff. Luttrell might not know this, but he should.

[Update February 7th, 2014: We’ve updated this post to add in other examples from NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday, PBS’s Charlie Rose, and The Star-Telegram.]

Jan 08

(Normally, we start the year with our “Most Intriguing Event of the Year”. But since Lone Survivor hits theaters across the country on January 10th, we’re devoting this week to that topic.

To read all of our Lone Survivor posts, please click here. The most important post is "A List of the Mistakes and Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality" so read that first if you are new to the blog or this topic.)

Last month, we received this comment from Roberto in “Luttrell No Longer Stands By his Mistakes”: 

“...but I implore you to decide if the difference between “redwing” and “Red Wings” is as significant as you make it out to be when compared to the sacrifices that were made June 28th 2005.”

This weekend, commenter Jay wrote:

“What is to be gained by spending time and effort pointing out the difference between Lutrell’s account and the film?”

In short, Roberto and Jay are summarizing a comment we frequently receive by email, “Why spend so much time on this topic, especially being critical, when we could just say, ‘These men are heroes,’ and be done with it?”

Frankly, Operation Red Wings is too important to simply let one account define the narrative. If Operation Red Wings is important--and we believe it is--then we want to help set the record straight.

First, Operation Red Wings was historically important. Until that point, the previous high in US combat casualties occurred during Operation Anaconda, shortly after the initial invasion of Afghanistan. (Although, a non-combat helicopter crash in Ghazni did claim 17 lives earlier in 2005.) Partially, due to Operation Red Wings, US commanders decided to replace the marines in the Pech River Valley with a brigade from the 10th Mountain Division, which increased the total number of boots on the ground in both Kunar and the Pech River specifically. This eventually led to the 173rd Airborne Brigade deploying to Afghanistan with even more soldiers.

Both the marines, the 10th Mountain brigade and the 173rd took significant casualties in Kunar province and its surroundings. These casualties, in part, led to a surge in news coverage, including a Nightline special on the Korengal Valley and Sebastian Junger’s embed with Battle Company, which led to the book War and the Academy Award nominated documentary Restrepo. This surge in news coverage, coupled with the Iraq War winding down, helped lead to the “Afghan surge”.

If Operation Red Wings hadn’t happened (or had turned out differently), you could make a case those events wouldn’t have happened. (From a personal perspective, I also ended up deploying to Kunar with the 173rd.)

Secondly, Operations Red Wings was important tactically to the military. The U.S. military learned quite a few lessons from the battle, if not explicitly than implicitly; small “strategic recon” units all but disappeared. Generals put specific size limits on coalition patrols, which affected my deployment to Afghanistan on a daily basis (I had a lot of crazy ideas that violated a lot of policies). Aviation units also put a lot more restrictions on where and when they could fly, which restricted offensive operations.

Operation Red Wings is also now wildly popular in military circles as a case study, primarily used as an ethical dilemma which begins and ends with the goatherders compromising the SEALs. Most of the other tactical issues--like proper insertion methods, the role of small patrols, the need for redundant comms, the larger counter-insurgency operations in Kunar, and the role of terrain in hidesights (which are/were extremely important to most units deploying to Afghanistan)--were largely overlooked.

Of course, Operation Red Wings’ success as a case study is partly due to the success of Luttrell’s Lone Survivor memoir. As we’ve written before, Lone Survivor (memoir) is probably the single most read book about Afghanistan. Now, with the movie possibly earning an Oscar nomination and box office success, more Americans will see this film more than any other piece of media about the war in Afghanistan. We believe this will influence how Americans think about the war in Afghanistan (and even how they feel about counter-insurgency) more than any other form of media.

It doesn’t seem right that one account by one former SEAL--who has incredibly strong political views--should dominate the entire discussion around this important event, especially if he got many of the core facts wrong. This battle raised important issues, and Lone Survivor (both film and memoir) have consistently emphasized the heroism and honor of the troops involved instead of tackling those tough issues.

Meanwhile, the larger discussion of Lone Survivor has started and ended with the decision to let the goat herders go, and not the operational decision-making before, during and after the mission. We keep coming back to Lone Survivor to tell those other stories, make those other connections and provide other viewpoints.

If Operation Red Wings is important--and it is--then getting the facts right is important

(This is also why we keep recommending that readers who want to learn a lot more about Operation Red Wings and the Pech River Valley in 2005 should read Victory Point by Ed Darack.)

Jan 07

(To read all of our Lone Survivor posts, please click here. The most important post is "A List of the Mistakes and Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality"--the article below--so read that first.)

Since Lone Survivor (film) gets released in theaters next week, Michael C and I have been doing a lot of writing on it over the past few days. After a certain point, we decided that the best thing to do would be to write one, giant article listing off the differences between the memoir, the film and the actual history of Operation Red Wings.

If anyone finds a mistake or difference we missed, please let us know. Also, if you find a mistake in this article (and you can write a polite/respectful email), please let us know.

Some notes first:

- We’ll begin with the differences between the book and movie. Then, since we’ve covered some of this material before, we’ll list the mistakes in the book and movie versus reality (with lots of links). At the end, we’ll provide a references section to the major works on Operation Red Wings. We hope this can be a resource and easy link for anyone on the internet to learn about Lone Survivor.

- This is not a full and complete list, but it is our best attempt to make one. We also do not have a screener of Lone Survivor (film), so we may change or add to the list after we see the film again.

- Discrepancies between the memoir and film could have one of two explanations: Peter Berg changed the film to make it more exciting or Luttrell’s memoir is even more inaccurate than we thought.

- Page numbers come from the paperback version of Lone Survivor. Page numbers for the screenplay come from the version hosted online by Universal Pictures.

- We did make some judgement calls, deciding what’s important versus what isn’t. Small dialogue changes are unimportant to us; changing events are. For example, in the memoir, an Afghan doctor pulls the shrapnel from Luttrell’s leg; in the film, Marcus does it himself. For critics who think the film turned soldiers into super heroes, this change would be exhibit A.

Without further ado, the differences between Lone Survivor (film), Lone Survivor (memoir) and reality:


The Differences Between the Lone Survivor Memoir and Film

Marcus Luttrell Nearly Dies in the Opening and Closing of the Film

Was Ahmad Shah in “Luttrell’s Sights”? Would Luttrell Have Shot Him?

Ahmad Shah’s Missing Earlobes

Who Stumbled Upon Luttrell?

What Type of Sidearm did the SEALs Use? And Why Was it Changed?

Which Local Afghan Found Luttrell?

Did the SEALs Have Rope?

Marcus Luttrell is Almost Beheaded by Ahmad Shah’s Soldiers

Marcus Luttrell Pulls A Bullet From His Leg

How the Afghans Alerted the Military

The Final Battle from Lone Survivor (Film)

Did Luttrell Stab Someone with a Knife at the End of Operation Red Wings?

Luttrell is Rescued by U.S. Military

Gulab Doesn’t Stay Behind in Salar Ban

The Mistakes or Exaggerations

Number of Afghan Fighters Who Attacked the SEALs?

Estimated Size of Ahmad Shah’s Enemy Force Before Operation Red Wings?

Ahmad Shah: Major al Qaeda Leader or Osama bin Laden lieutenant?

The Number of Marines Killed by Ahmad Shah before Operation Red Wings?

Did the SEALs Take a Vote on What to Do with the Goatherders?

Who Planned and Led Operation Red Wings?

What was the Name of the Operation?

The Name of the Village

Ahmad Shah, Member of the Taliban?

How many Insurgents Died during Operation Red Wings?

Cellular phone or satellite phone?

Ahmad Shah versus Ben Sharmak

Billy Shelton Was Not a Green Beret



The Differences Between the Lone Survivor Memoir and Film

Marcus Luttrell Nearly Dies in the Opening and Closing of the Film

Lone Survivor (film) opens with voice over as a dying Marcus Luttrell is airlifted back to a military base. As the plane lands, Marcus Luttrell literally dies:

“Surgical pack working franticly [sic] to save Luttrell.


“Pushing in on the flatline. Alarm screaming. Tight on Luttrell’s eyes starting to glaze over. Dying.” (Pages 1 - 2 of script.)

In the book, Luttrell is not in mortal danger. After the Army Rangers rescue Luttrell, he writes “First [the Army Rangers] radioed into base that I had been found, that I was stable and unlikely to die.” (page 352) They also, literally, stop and have tea with the locals, which you wouldn’t do with a dying man. Finally, when Luttrell makes it back to the base, instead of flatlining...

“...I tried to stand unassisted. I turned to the doc and looked him in the eye, and I told him, ‘I walked on here, and I’m walking off, by myself. I’m hurt, but I’m still a SEAL, and they haven’t finished me. I’m walking.” (page 357)

Was Ahmad Shah in “Luttrell’s Sights”? Would Luttrell Have Shot Him?

We didn’t pick up on this mistake until we watched ABC’s This Week from January 5th. ABC News’ Bob Woodruff asked Marcus Luttrell point blank if Ahmad Shah was in his sights. Instead of admitting that: 1. the film changed this for dramatic effect from the account in his memoir and 2. their mission was never to shoot Shah--instead a follow on force would insert and capture Shah to leverage him for intelligence--Luttrell says they didn’t take the shot because they didn’t have permission from higher.

First, Luttrell’s orders, in the book, are pretty clear: shoot Shah if he plans to evacuate.

We were not expected to take on this large bunch of wild-eyed killers. Indeed, we were expected to stay quieter than we had ever been in our lives. ‘Just find this bastard, nail him down, his location and troop strength, then radio in for a direct action force to come in by air and take him down.’ Simple, right?”

“If we thought he might be preparing an immediate evacuation of the village in which he resided, then we would take him out forthwith. That would be me or Axe.” (page 180)

In Lone Survivor (memoir), Luttrell and the SEALs never see Ahmad Shah. Rereading this section from the book last night, the timeline roughly goes: from pages 189 to 200, the SEAL team lands (page 189) and walk through the night. On page 197, dawn comes. On page 198, they’ve still not seen Shah, “Danny and I had to keep looking toward the village, trying to use the glass, peering at whatever there was to be seen. Which was nothing.” They have to move because of a fog bank. On page 199, they find the perfect spot to spy on the village:

And when we got there, I had to agree it was perfect, offering a brilliant angle on the village for the lens, the spotting scope and the bullet. It had sensational all-around vision. If [Shah] and his gang of villains were there, we’d get him.” (page 199)

But they don’t get to him. By page 200, they are still looking when the goatherders stumble onto their position.

Compare that to the film’s screenplay (page 30a):

Murphy locks his sight on Shah. Studying him.

MURPHY (CONT’D): Marcus.

Murphy hands the scope to Luttrell.

MURPHY (CONT’D): Four guys on the right. Tall guy. Red scarf. No earlobes.

Luttrell’s scope now trained on Shah.

Luttrell and Murphy both checking wrist bands. Photo of Shah.

Clear match.


MURPHY: Do you have a shot?

LUTTRELL: Jesus Mickey, with this little 556? I’d need to stalk at least a 1000 yards closer.

MURPHY: Gotta call it in.

Now compare those two accounts to Marcus Luttrell on ABC’s This Week:

BOB WOODRUFF: “Ahmad Shah was right in your sight. Why didn’t you shoot him? Is it because you weren’t getting the order?”

MARCUS LUTTRELL: “Right, yes, sir.”

Since Luttrell never included sighting Shah in his memoir, it is most likely that the SEAL team didn’t lay eyes on him. (That’s the sort of thing you’d remember for your book.) According to the movie, the reason the team didn’t take the shot was because they weren’t close enough, not because the comms weren’t working. Finally, the best reason he wasn’t in their sites is that upon hearing the helicopter insertion and finding the fast rope on the ground, Shah’s men were already combing the mountain side looking for Luttrell (and possibly using the goatherders as a reconnaissance unit).

Ahmad Shah’s Missing Earlobes

This is a small detail, but so specific we have to mention it. In the film, the soldiers repeatedly make a point that Ahmad Shah has no earlobes. From the script:

Axe studies an image of Shah.

AXE (CONT’D): No earlobes.

MURPHY: What’s that?

AXE: The guys got no earlobes. (page 14)

Later, when SEALs “spot” Shah--see this section on that mistake--it comes up again:

Murphy hands the scope to Luttrell.

MURPHY (CONT’D): Four guys on the right. Tall guy. Red scarf. No earlobes.

This detail, unfortunately, didn’t make the book. A quick Google book search, and a reread of the intelligence brief chapter, indicate no missing ear lobes.   

Ed Darack has some photos of Shah on his website, but they’re too grainy to verify if this was true. Frankly, we don’t know what the facts are, but a detail this specific probably should have been included in the memoir.

Who Stumbled Upon Luttrell?

In the film, two kids and an older man compromise the SEAL team. In the book, it’s two men and kid. “Like me, they noted that one of the three was just a kid, around fourteen years old.” (page 201)

Did the SEALs Have Rope?

I’m surprised I didn’t catch this mistake, but in the film, the SEALs describe tying the goatherders up as an option. From the film, “Two, we tie ‘em up. Hike out. Roll the dice. They’ll probably be eaten by wolves or freeze to death.”

In the book, they don’t have rope. “We didn’t have rope to bind them. Tying them up to give us more time to establish a new position wasn’t an option.” (page 206)

A couple thoughts. Not sure why this changed, but it certainly puts the SEALs in a better light. Though with the goatherders less than a mile away from the village, we doubt they’d freeze to death...especially if their goats stayed in place. This is an argument, by the way, from the book against killing the goat herders. “The main problem is the goats. Because they can’t be hidden, and that’s where people will look.” (page 203)

Finally, and this gets more philosophical, even though the SEALs didn’t have rope, they still had shoelaces, belts and other straps they could have used to tie up the goatherders. Further, for general information, U.S. Army Ranger school instructs its student to always carry 550 cord on every patrol, so it is strange the SEAL team didn’t bring that with them.

What Type of Sidearm did the SEALs Use? And Why Was it Changed?

The book, Lone Survivor, is very clear on what type of side arm the SEALs carried: a SIG-sauer 9mm pistol. He mentions it twice:

We loaded and stowed our essential equipment: heavy weaps (machine guns), M4 rifles, SIG-sauer 9mm pistols…” (page 11)

We all carried the SIG-sauer 9mm pistol.” (page 186)

In the film, the gun has been changed to a Beretta. A Google Book search of Lone Survivor has no mention of a Beretta. What’s interesting is not the change itself, but why the filmmakers changed the side arm: product placement. From the website Soldier Systems:

So how did it get there? Rumor has it that M9 manufacturer Beretta paid the movie’s producers an undisclosed sum of money (some say in the high 5 figures) to have their weapon included. In fact, Brand-in Entertainment has bragged about the Beretta’s insertion on their website. It’s just brand placement right? So much for insisting on accuracy.

We agree. You can’t brag and brag and brag about accuracy, specifically technical accuracy, if you’ll change a detail (however small) for money.

Which Local Afghan Found Luttrell?

After the battle, according to the book, Luttrell is found by a local man named Sarawa, who also tends to his wounds. “I saw the leader walk up to me. He smiled and said his name was Sarawa.” (page 282)

According to the film, a local man named Gulab rescues him:

A 30 year old male GULAB, the leader, strong rugged handsome, steps forward. Hands up in peace.

GULAB: Not Taliban.” (page 110)

According to Luttrell’s 60 Minutes interview, “That’s when an Afghan man appeared. Luttrell later learned his name was Mohammad Gulab.” Luttrell might have changed this detail to protect Gulab from retribution, but Gulab is mentioned by name later in the memoir.

Marcus Luttrell is Almost Beheaded by Ahmad Shah’s Soldiers

In the film, Ahmad Shah (or his lieutenant Taraq) comes to the village, grabs Luttrell, and drags him out to a log to behead him, literally raising a machete in the air. Luttrell is saved at the last minute by the local villagers, who fire off their AK-47s to threaten the attackers.

This doesn’t occur in the film’s screenplay. On page 115, Taraq, one of Ahmad Shah’s lieutenants, puts a knife to Luttrell’s throat in the room where he is staying, then the villagers stop him.

In reality, none of this happened. The Taliban does enter Luttrell’s room and begins beating him. (As Luttrell describes it, “I didn’t give that much of a shit. I can suck this kind of crap up, like I’ve been trained. Anyway, they didn’t have a decent punch among them.” page 294) The village elder then enters the room, and commands the Taliban to leave. The whole ordeal takes about six hours. As Luttrell explains, his life was never in danger:   

I found out later [the village elder] was forbidding [the Taliban] from taking me away. I think they knew that before they came, otherwise I’d probably have been gone by then...They hardly said a word while this powerful little figure laid down the law. Tribal law, I guess…

“Upon the departure of the village elder, six hours after they’d arrived...the Taliban suddenly decided to leave.” (page 297)

Marcus Luttrell Pulls A Bullet From His Leg

In the film, Luttrell removes a bullet from his leg. According to my recollection of seeing the film, Luttrell does this himself after a young boy gets him a knife. According to the script, Gulab helps:

Gruesome bullet removing sequence. Blood. Screaming digging scraping out bullets and shrapnel from Luttrell’s back and legs. Gulab digs with a knife. Pours water on the wounds. The little boy holds Luttrell’s hands and whispers to him.” (page 119)

According to the book, none of this happens. As soon as they reach the village, the locals give him medical aid. And there’s no bullet to be found:

“...watching as Sarawa went to work. He carefully cleaned the wounds to my leg, confirming what I had suspected, that there was no bullet lodged in my left thigh. Indeed, he located the bullet’s exit…

“Then he took out a small surgical instrument and began pulling metal shrapnel out of my leg. He spent a long time getting rid of every shard from that RPG he could find.” (page 290)

Update: Later interviews with Marcus Luttrell confirm this version of events. As Luttrell told Charlie Rose, “[The villagers] saved my life by doctoring me up, using their medical supplies on me.” (minute 27:00)

How the Afghans Alerted the Military

In the film, an old man heads over a mountain to alert the military to Luttrell’s location. In the script:

MARINE: We’ve got a report of a letter asking for assistance.

“COMMANDER: From who?

“MARINE: Marcus Luttrell. Sir, they did a hand writing comparison and its [sic] does appear to be Luttrell.” (page 119)

In the book, the village elder walks to Asadabad to alert the military to Luttrell’s presence, but that’s ultimately not how the military found fim. Instead, Luttrell uses a radio air-dropped by the military:

Before we left, I asked them how the hell they’d found me. And it turned out to be my emergency beacon in the window of the little rock house in the mountain.” (page 351)

60 Minutes tells a similar story. “He was finally rescued by U.S. forces who had been scouring the mountains.”

The Final Battle from Lone Survivor (Film)

Lone Survivor (film) ends with the village of Kandish fending off a Taliban attack in a gigantic firefight. From the script:

The two men staring at each other as an incoming RPG slams into the house. Huge explosion.

“Frantic screaming from outside...Luttrell grabbing his vest and gun moving out just as a 2nd RPG detonates destroying the rest of Gulab’s house…

“Taraq attacks with his men.

“Brutal fight. Hand to hand, gun to gun. Gulab shot, Marcus shot again.” (page 121)

This fight continues, with a Marcus Luttrell sequence we’ll get to in the next section, until American planes and helicopters comes to the rescue.

In Lone Survivor (memoir) or reality, none of this happened. Gulab’s house isn’t destroyed, nor do the Taliban ever fire shots into the village. Gulab isn’t shot and Marcus isn’t shot again.

On page 336, it seems like the Taliban is going to attack, and Luttrell prepares for a firefight. But instead of attacking, they shoot bullets into the air, to scare the villagers. The most important reason is why they don’t attack: the Taliban can’t afford to lose the support of the villagers. Luttrell makes this very clear in the memoir:

And then we both heard the opening bursts of gunfire, high up in the village.

“There was a lot of it. Too much. The sheer volume of fire was ridiculous, unless the Taliban were planning to wipe out the entire population of Sabray. And I knew they would not consider that because such a slaughter would surely end all support from these tribal villages up here in the mountains.

“No, they would not do that. They wanted me, but they would never kill another hundred Afghan people...in order to get me…(page 339)

...[the Taliban] would not risk causing major disruption to the day-to-day lives of the people. I’d been [in Sabray] for five nights now and...and the Taliban had crossed the boundaries of Sabray only twice…” (page 341)

Later, Ahmad Shah and his men actually find Luttrell and Gulab on a flat field on the edge of the village. Do they attack? No. Why?

The presence of Gulab made it a complete standoff, and [Shah] was not about to call in his guys to shoot the oldest son of Sabray’s village elder.” (page 345)

Gulab and Ahmad Shah actually have a discussion at this point, then Shah leaves.

Did Luttrell Stab Someone with a Knife at the End of Operation Red Wings?

In the film, as a battle rages on in the village, Marcus Luttrell stabs an attacker with a knife:

The Taliban is on top of Luttrell, choking him, killing him. Luttrell’s hands claw at the man, digging into earth, grasping for wood, a stone, anything….when...a KNIFE, is slapped into Luttrell’s hand…

“Marcus buries the knife into the neck of the fighter.” (page 122)

In Lone Survivor (memoir), Luttrell never writes about attacking an enemy combatant while he’s being rescued. I can’t even find a relevant page from Lone Survivor (memoir) to dispute it because it diverges so radically from the book.

Update: Marcus Luttrell told NPR host Rachel Martin...

“...but I didn't kill anybody with a knife. And I remember sitting back and laughing. I go why did you put that in there? What does that have to do with anything? I mean, the story itself, I think, is enough to where you wouldn't have to embellish anything."

We agree.

Luttrell is Rescued by U.S. Military

In the film, the military comes to the rescue of Luttrell in a roar of gunships and men descending from helicopters:

We see gunners targeting. The 40mm firing with extreme precision...Air Force Search and Rescue Helicopter airmen charge out of the chopper toward Luttrell.” (page 122)

In the book, the Rangers find Luttrell in the forest as he and Gulab walk back to the village after Gulab spoke with Ahmad Shah.

But right behind him, bursting through the undergrowth, came two U.S. Army Rangers in combat uniform, rifles raised...Behind me, with unbelievable presence of mind, Gulab was roaring out my BUD/S class numbers he’d seen on my Trident voodoo tattoo: “Two-two-eight! It’s Two-two-eight!”...

“By this time there was chaos on the mountain. Army guys were coming out of the forest from all over the place...

“They moved into action immediately. An army captain ordered a team to get me up out of the forest, onto higher ground…

“The atmosphere was unavoidably cheerful, because all the guys felt their mission was accomplished…

“The army threw up a security perimeter all the way around Sabray.

“The guys rustled up some tea and we settled down for a detailed debriefing.” (page 348-352)

I included all of these quotes above to clarify how safe Luttrell was once he was rescued. Again, they had time for tea.

Gulab Doesn’t Stay Behind in Salar Ban

In the film Lone Survivor, Gulab stays behind after Luttrell leaves. From page 123 of the script, “The US Airmen separate Marcus from Gulab, Marcus is too weak to resist...Gulab steps back as the helicopter takes off.” (page 123)

In the book, he joins Luttrell on the helicopter ride. “The guys helped me into the [helicopter] cabin, and Gulab joined me.”

The Mistakes or Exaggerations

Number of Afghan Fighters Who Attacked the SEALs?

Simply put, the SEALs on the hill that day were overwhelmed by an enemy force with superior numbers and superior fire power that held the high ground. However, there is a huge difference between an 8-10 men squad-sized enemy force and a 200 man infantry company-sized enemy force. Frankly, the Korengal and Shuryak valleys--the geographic region of Operation Red Wings--are very sparsely populated and could not support an enemy force of 200 people. This discrepancy is what first piqued our curiosity in Lone Survivor.

Increasing the size of the enemy that day makes for a much, much better story though. Numbers sell, and as Lone Survivor became more popular, the size of the enemy force that day increased with each telling. (Interestingly, the Lieutenant Murphy’s Medal of Honor Citation and Summary of Action contradict each other.) Here are the various descriptions of the number of enemy that attacked:

Accurate accounts:

Ed Darack in Victory Point: 8-10 enemy with a machine gun

Luttrell After Action Report: 20-30 enemy

Lt. Murphy Medal of Honor Citation: 30-40 enemy

Inaccurate accounts:

Lt. Murphy Medal of Honor Summary of Action: over 50 enemy

Marcus Luttrell on Today Show: 80-100 members of the Taliban

Lone Survivor (memoir): 140-200 enemy

Marcus Luttrell speeches after Lone Survivor: 200 enemy

Lone Survivor (screenplay): 50 enemy. “A solid line of at least fifty Taliban in firing positions on top of the hill above them.” (page 80)

Marcus Luttrell on NPR in January 2014: The intel on the numbers kept changing. And then when we got overrun, it was such a large force that numbers have been speculated anywhere from 60 to 80 to 80 to over 100. And it was all of that. I had recently talked to one of the villagers who saved my life. And he was in constant contact with the Taliban. And he says that there was over 100. I'm sticking with the latter, from 60 to 80."

Other various media outlets

Estimated Size of Ahmad Shah’s Enemy Force Before Operation Red Wings?

While any intelligence efforts in Afghanistan are fraught with confusion, before Operation Red Wings, the marines in Kunar believed Ahmad Shah led up to 20 people, according to Ed Darack. In Lone Survivor (memoir), this balloons to 200 people, an unreasonably large size. Here the various descriptions which exaggerate the size of Ahmad Shah’s “army”.

Accurate accounts:

Ed Darack in Marine Corps Gazette: up to 20 enemy combatants

Lone Survivor (film) screenplay: “we are estimating ten men” (page 18)

Inaccurate accounts:

Lone Survivor (memoir): Shah led 80-200 enemy combatants

Lone Survivor (film) trailer: “that’s a lot more than ten guys. That’s an army.”

Lone Survivor (film) screenplay: “Quick shots of the Taliban army. Feels like 150 men.” (page 74)

Ahmad Shah: Major al Qaeda Leader or Osama bin Laden Lieutenant?

Ahmad Shah was an insurgent leader in Afghanistan, which is why the marines in the Pech launched Operation Red Wings. However, there is a huge difference between a local, Afghan insurgent leader and an al Qaeda operative. Prior to Operation Red Wings, Ahmad Shah was not a member of al Qaeda and had never met Osama bin Laden.

Accurate accounts:

Lt. Murphy Medal of Honor citation: “a high-level, anti-coalition militia leader”

Lt. Murphy Medal of Honor Summary of Action: “Shah led a guerrilla group known to locals as the "Mountain Tigers" that had aligned with the Taliban and other militant groups close to the Pakistani border.”

Lone Survivor trailer: “senior Taliban commander”

* See below for discussion of term “Taliban”

Inaccurate accounts:

Lone Survivor (memoir): “a leader of a serious Taliban force” (page 178); “He was also known to be one of Osama bin Laden’s closest associates.” (page 179)

Lone Survivor (film) award website: “a high-level al Qaeda operative”

Lone Survivor (film) Production Notes, Site and Universal Award website: “a high-level al Qaeda operative”

Other various media outlets

The Number of Marines Killed by Ahmad Shah Before Operation Red Wings?

This is a mistake we didn’t identify in our initial post on the Lone Survivor memoir because Luttrell didn’t make a specific claim on how many people Shah had killed in the time before Operation Red Wings. The film Lone Survivor does make the claim in multiple places that Shah killed 20 marines in the week before Operation Red Wings. As iCasualties.org clearly shows--and have no doubt that US military casualties are meticulously recorded--the U.S. had not lost 20 marines in the week before Operation Red Wings.

Further, as mentioned above and in Darack’s reporting, Shah was a local player, not a regional leader. Kandahar is hundreds of miles from Kunar, and well outside Shah’s area of operations.

Accurate accounts:

iCasualty.org: No marines died in Kandahar in the week before Operation Red Wings. Only 3 U.S. soldiers or marines died in 2005 before Operation Red Wings.

Ed Darack in Victory Point: Shah was linked to 11 attacks.

Mark Perna, Don’t Ever Call Me a Hero: “There were 5 Marines killed by hostile in Afghanistan during the ENTIRE WAR at that point (and a total of 20 Marines if you add non-hostile fire incidents—most of them not even in Afghanistan—casualty information can be searched HERE at iCasualties.org). A friend, Kevin Joyce, was the only Marine killed the week before Operation Red Wings. He drowned in the Pech River and he was the first friend of mine lost in war. Your film narrative—your Hollywood Hero image—denies the reality of what I experienced in favor of something “more compelling.” Not to mention that it disrespects the lives of the 19 sailors and airmen who were killed in Operation Red Wings themselves. Their loss had to have some greater meaning—and of course, if 19 special forces troops died, then 20 Marines must’ve died right?”

Inaccurate accounts:

Lone Survivor (memoir): : “...suffice it to say [Ahmad Shah] was a serious Taliban force, a sinister mountain man known to make forays into cities and known to have been directly responsible for several lethal attacks on U.S. Marines, always with bombs...had already murdered many of my colleagues in the U.S. Marines.” (page 179)

60 Minutes interview with Marcus Luttrell: “He was killing Marines, Army, I mean, you name it.”

Lone Survivor trailer 1: “Shah killed twenty marines last week. Twenty.”

Lone Survivor trailer 2: “Shah killed twenty marines last week. We let him go, 40 more will die next week.”

Lone Survivor (film) screenplay: “Shah just killed twenty marines last week…” (page 51)   

Did the SEALs Take a Vote on What to Do with the Goatherders?

This is the most publicized mistake in the memoir Lone Survivor. Lieutenant Michael Murphy’s family specifically and publicly refuted Luttrell’s account that the SEALs took a vote and that Luttrell cast the deciding vote on what to do. In his 60 Minutes interview, Luttrell appears to retract his account, without admitting the error in his book.

Accurate accounts:

Peter Berg in The Q&A Podcast: “Mike Murphy made that decision. There wasn’t a vote.” (minute 00:54:00)

Lone Survivor screenplay: No vote takes place.

Lone Survivor trailer: “This is not a vote.”

Lone Survivor (film): No vote takes place.

60 Minutes: “Luttrell told us the unit discussed what to do and were divided.  In the past he’s been criticized for saying they took a vote… something that’s not supposed to happen in SEAL teams because it’s up to the team leader to make a decision.

“Anderson Cooper: What did Mike finally decide to do?

“Marcus Luttrell: Oh, we cut 'em loose.”

Inaccurate accounts:

Lone Survivor (memoir): “The deciding vote was mine and it will haunt me till they rest me in an east Texas grave. Mikey nodded, ‘I guess that’s two votes to one...’” (page 207)

Marcus Luttrell on the Today Show: Agrees with Matt Lauer when he says, “You took a vote.”

Marcus Luttrell’s personal website: “After taking a vote and basing their decision on ROE, Michael Murphy made the final decision to let them go.”

Who Planned and Led Operation Red Wings?

This mistake is primarily a gigantic sin of omission in the Lone Survivor film and a sin of misdirection in the Lone Survivor memoir, which almost entirely ignores the role of marines in conceiving, planning and leading Operation Red Wings. The marines brought in SEALs to gain access to aviation support.

Accurate accounts:

Ed Darack in Marine Corps Gazette: “but 2/3 sought the integration of only a SOF aviation support element, not ground forces. The SOTF...responded that 2/3 could be granted 160th support, but only if SOF ground personnel undertook the opening two phases of RED WINGS and were tasked as the lead, supported elements with full OPCON (inclusive of 2/3) for these phases. With no alternatives, battalion staff agreed...The NAVSOF element planned the specifics of these first two phases of RED WINGS with 2/3’s staff providing input...”

Inaccurate accounts:

Lone Survivor (memoir): “Almost every morning Chief Healy would run the main list of potential targets past Mikey, our team officer, and me. He usually gave us papers with a list of maybe twenty names and possible locations, and we made a short list of the guys we considered we should go after.” (page 179)

Lone Survivor (film): No mention of larger Marine mission. No mention of SEALs finding their own targets.

What was the Name of the Operation?

This is the most corrected mistake from Luttrell’s Lone Survivor (memoir). The name of the mission was “Operation Red Wings”, a fact supported by the Medal of Honor citation, Summary of Action, the U.S. Navy and every other source that didn’t rely on Marcus Luttrell’s original memoir for information. This fact was corrected by Peter Berg in his film. [Update 4 Jan 2014: Marcus Luttrell, in a documentary released on HBO this week, once again referred to "Operation Red Wing".]

Accurate accounts:

Lt. Murphy Medal of Honor Citation and Summary of Action, Victory Point, Lone Survivor (film), and Marcus Luttrell’s personal website.

Inaccurate accounts:

Lone Survivor (memoir) (from a copy purchased in December): “The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing”

Marcus Luttrell in Will of the Warrior documentary (released 4 Jan 2014): ”The book is the debrief...If you have any questions about what happened in Operations Red Wing, there it is right there.” 

Marcus Luttrell in Star-Telegram in January 2014: “I’ve run over 300 combat missions in my career, a lot worse than Red Wing.”

The Name of the Village

Probably for security reasons, Luttrell changed the name of the village to from Kandish to Sabray. According to Ed Darack’s Victory Point, the name of Gulab’s village is Salar Ban.

Ahmad Shah, Member of the Taliban?

The media and advertisements for Lone Survivor repeatedly refers to Ahmad Shah as a Taliban leader. In reality, the truth comes closest to the U.S. Navy’s Medal of Honor Summary of Action that Shah was “aligned” with the Taliban and other militant groups. (This same citation goes on to use Taliban interchangeably with “insurgent”.) As Ed Darack has written about extensively, Shah was much more closely aligned with Hezb il Gulbuddin, another insurgent group in Afghanistan. The best description is therefore “insurgent leader”, not Taliban leader.

In fairness to the media, Luttrell and Lone Survivor (film), the difference between insurgent groups in Afghanistan is a nuance the vast most do not understand. In fact, many if not most soldiers, don’t understand the difference. For instance, even I made this mistake as a young platoon leader in Afghanistan, describing all insurgents as “Taliban” when most in my area of operations were not.

How many Insurgents Died During Operation Red Wings?

Multiple accounts--including the U.S. Navy--have put forward extremely high enemy casualty accounts during the battle between the SEALs and Shah’s men. The key here is that both the U.S. Navy and Luttrell claim the SEALs killed 35 enemy, not created 35 casualties (which includes dead and wounded).

The reality is that we will probably never know exactly how many insurgents died on the Sawtalo Sar that day. That said, the number of casualties sustained by the enemy, at the least, could not have exceeded the number of enemy involved in the fight. Further, if 50 insurgents attacked, then 35 dead insurgents means the SEALs killed 70% of the opposing force, which is virtually unheard of in warfare.

Inaccurate accounts:

Washington Post article about Marcus Luttrell: 35 bodies on the ground

U.S. Navy Summary of Action: “An estimated 35 Taliban were also dead.”

Lone Survivor (memoir): “We must have killed fifty or more of them” (page 221)

Lone Survivor (film): At least 23 enemy are killed (from The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith)

Cellular phone or satellite phone?

The SEAL team inserted into the ridge line with a radio and a back up satellite phone as an emergency. Marcus Luttrell’s memoir refers to this phone as a “cell phone” throughout the book. This mistake has been corrected in the upcoming film.

Accurate accounts:

Lone Survivor (film) screenplay, trailer and film

Inaccurate accounts:

Lone Survivor (memoir)

Ahmad Shah versus Ben Sharmak

As we’ve covered before, Luttrell changed the name of the operation’s target from Ahmad Shah to Ben Sharmak for security purposes. The name “Ben Sharmak” only appears in Lone Survivor (memoir).

Billy Shelton Was Not a Green Beret

Lone Survivor (memoir) spends much more time than the film describing Luttrell’s childhood and training in the lead up to Operation Red Wings. One of the men who figures prominently in his early life is a local man named Billy Shelton, who helped prepare the Luttrell boys for SEAL training. Luttrell and Robinson describe him as a former Special Forces soldier who served in Vietnam. This was not the case. (We believe that this mistake was not Luttrell’s fault, but his editor should have fact checked the account.)

Accurate accounts:

This Ain’t Hell: “Well, it adds a nice dimension to the story, but unfortunately, Billy Shelton had been lying to the Luttrell brothers – he’d never been in the Special Forces. According to records, Specialist Five Shelton was a truck driver and a general’s chauffeur at Fort Eustis, Virginia....

“No Special Operations training, no jump school, not even a CIB.”

Inaccurate accounts:

Lone Survivor (memoir): “...a former Green Beret sergeant who lived close by. His name was Billy Shelton…Billy had a glittering army career in combat with the Green Berets in Vietnam and, later, serving on a government SWAT team.” (page 55)


[Update, 4 Jan. 2014: We've updated the post to add a quote from the documentary Will of the Warrior to the section, "What was the Name of the Operation?".

Update 5 Jan 2014: We've updated the post to add the section, "Billy Shelton Was Not a Green Beret".

Update January 15th, 2014: We've updated the post to add the section, “Was Ahmad Shah in “Luttrell’s sights”?”. We’ve also included a personal account from a marine who was a part of Operation Whalers to the section, “The Number of Marines Killed by Ahmad Shah before Operation Red Wings?

Update February 7th, 2014: We've updated the post to add the sections, “Ahmad Shah’s Missing Earlobes”, “Who Stumbled Upon Luttrell?”, “Did the SEALs Have Rope?” and "What Type of Sidearm did the SEALs Use? And Why Was it Changed?". We’ve also added small updates to the sections “Number of Afghan Fighters Who Attacked the SEALs?”, “Did Luttrell Stab Someone with a Knife at the End of Operation Red Wings?”, “What was the Name of the Operation?” and “Marcus Luttrell Pulls A Bullet From His Leg”.]


He Got the Title Wrong? And Six More Mistakes from Luttrell’s Lone Survivor”, OnViolence.com

Bad, Bad Ahmad Shah...the Baddest Shah in the Whole Damn Village”, OnViolence.com 

Marcus Luttrell Stands By His Mistakes: An Update to Our Lone Survivor Week”, OnViolence.com

Luttrell No Longer Stands by His Mistakes: Lone Survivor vs. the 60 Minutes Interview”, OnViolence.com

OPERATION RED WINGS – What Really Happened?” by Ed Darack, Marine Corps Gazette, January 2011

Misinformation page”, Darack.com

Sawtalo Sar page”, Darack.com

Lieutenant Mike Murphy Medal of Honor Official Citation

Lieutenant Mike Murphy Medal of Honor Summary of Action   

Lone Survivor (film) website

Lone Survivor (film) Trailers

Lone Survivor (film) Universal Award Site including synopsis and screenplay   

Lone Survivor (film) Production Notes

The Q&A Podcast featuring Lone Survivor (film) and Peter Berg

Today Show appearance by Marcus Luttrell on June 12th, 2007. Accessed via this Youtube video.

The Sole Survivor”, WashingtonPost.com, June 10th, 2007


Jan 07

(Normally, we start the year with our “Most Intriguing Event of the Year”. But since Lone Survivor hits theaters across the country on January 10th, we’re devoting this week to that topic.

To read all of our Lone Survivor posts, please click here. The most important post is "A List of the Mistakes and Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality" so read that first if you are new to the blog or this topic.)

Michael C and I have actually been kind of surprised (and pleased) at the overwhelmingly positive response to last Thursday’s post, “A List of the Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality”. Like any widely-shared post, we’ve also received some criticism. Mostly the two criticisms are, first, “Does this matter?” (We’ll address that criticism tomorrow.) The second most common criticism we’ve received is:

Everyone knows movies aren’t real!

For example, from Jay, “It’s a movie made for entertainment. No one should walk away and think ‘now I know what it was like on the ground.’” Or from Juan on Doctrine Man’s Facebook page, “Just a simple thought. If you go to the movies to learn history lessons, then you might want to consider going back to school...” Or from Rick, also on Doctrine Man’s Facebook page, “anyone who looks to Hollywood for truth has other problems”.

To this criticism, I have five rebuttals:

1. Lone Survivor is being marketed as a film that captures “the essential experience” of those SEALs.

From the “Production Notes” distributed to all major film reviewers:

“Although Lone Survivor takes the creative liberties necessary to make a movie, it is committed to preserving the essential experience of what these men endured on their mission. It is a realistic, timeless and isolated portrait of the sacrifices that one small band of warriors made...and how one survived to tell their tale.”

Peter Berg has explicitly stated that he wanted to make the most accurate film possible. "I've never felt more pressure to get a film right," Berg told Men’s Journal. Speaking with Jeff Goldsmith for the Q&A, Berg brought up research multiple times, “For me, everything good that I think I’ve ever done has come from research...For both films, research was the key.” (Min 16:00) Berg goes on to talk, at minute 18:00, about how Luttrell choose him to turn Lone Survivor into a movie because of this attention to detail. Berg mentioned this research on The BS Report as well.

That makes the mistakes in this film more important, not less.

2. Film critics and the media are promoting the film as an accurate, realistic portrayal.

Many critics and reporters have praised Lone Survivor (film) for its accuracy:

Jocelyn Noveck for the AP: “...expertly rendered account of a disastrous 2005 military operation in Afghanistan...And he's executed that approach with admirable skill, down to using autopsy reports to get the number of wounds a soldier suffered exactly right.”

Ethan Sacks for the NY Daily News: “‘Lone Survivor’ features some of the most realistic military combat scenes ever filmed.”

Betsy Sharkey for the Los Angeles Times: “...with a gruesome energy and a remarkable reality...The production and costume designers have paid a great deal of attention to the details, from the uniforms and tribal robes, to the bullet wounds and blood. It certainly adds to the film's verisimilitude.”

A.A. Dowd for The AV Club: “...gruelingly committed to realism...unrelenting, hyper-real way”

These reviewers--aka the experts--believed in Lone Survivor’s authenticity.

3. Most viewers who see Lone Survivor will accept what they see on screen as true.

I know this thanks to science. A study by Duke researchers shows that students who watch historical films learn the inaccuracies in those films, even when they’re told to research the inaccuracies later. They still remember the mistakes, and repeat them on tests.

4. I was fooled.

One of the things I initially praised about Lone Survivor was the battle scene, which was expertly done. Except, as some critics have pointed out, much of that battle scene is unrealistic, or at least one-sided. Mainly, our troops--the SEALs--take down 23 enemy fighters, usually with just one or two expertly placed bullets. The SEALs, on the other hand, take bullet after bullet without stopping.

As Michael C had to point out to me, this just isn’t how war really works. A rugged Afghan mountain man will take roughly the same amount of punishment as a rugged American soldier/SEAL. In our opinion, our better trained SEALs likely shot a lot of the insurgents. But that doesn’t mean they killed those insurgents that easily, which the movie repeatedly shows.

But I didn’t know that when I saw the film. I thought it was perfectly accurate. As probably the most skeptical viewer of Lone Survivor in the country, if I got fooled, anyone could.

5. Lone Survivor (film) is not accurate.

If a film has a 4,300 word blog post rebutting its inaccuracies, that film didn’t capture the “essential experience” of the operation. From Ahmad Shah “killing 20 marines” the week before Operation Red Wings to the fictionalized third act, the film gets a lot of things wrong. And viewers will remember those mistakes even though they shouldn’t. And despite beliefs to the contrary, most Americans will believe these events actually happened.

Most viewers will not know that Marcus Luttrell never survived a final firefight in the village that rescued him, unless they stumble upon our blog.

So feel free to shrug off the mistakes as no big deal. Or as simply, “Hollywood”. But know that these films will permanently misinform many, many people.