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.]

Dec 30

(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.)

I (Eric C) saw the film Lone Survivor a few weeks ago at a special screening hosted by “The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith”. (Goldsmith, who also publishes an e-magazine on screenwriting called Backstory, regularly hosts screenings for upcoming films with screenwriters panels afterward. If you want to work in the film industry, this is a must-listen podcast. If you live in Los Angeles, you should be on the email list.)

Near the end of the question and answer session (also available on iTunes), Peter Berg told the audience:

“I’m sure there are murmurs...There are people who hated the book in the SEAL community, in the military community. There’s people who hate Marcus Luttrell. Not a lot of them. But go online, it’s all there. The beautiful internet. Everybody gets keyboard courage, and says all kinds of things.” (minute 1:22:00 on the podcast)

Which is funny, because Peter Berg followed those keyboard-courage-endowed haters’ advice almost to a T.

By haters, I’m referring, of course, to Michael C and myself, who, along with Ed Darack, have led the effort to correct the historical record on Operation Red Wings. I doubt that Peter Berg expected one of those haters to be in the audience...or to take a picture with him after the screening.

Mostly, I don’t get why Peter Berg mocked us when he agreed with everything we wrote. The Lone Survivor film is good for all the reasons that the Lone Survivor memoir is bad. Peter Berg is a good filmmaker, so he avoided all the mistakes Luttrell and Robinson made when they wrote the memoir. Frankly, I hope they watch the film to realize how they should have written the book.

So what does the Lone Survivor film not do?

1. Politics. Our biggest problem with Lone Survivor (memoir) wasn’t its inaccuracies; it was with its politics. The book is endlessly political, and explicitly and repeatedly blames liberals and the media for the deaths of every Navy SEAL that day. What does Peter Berg think of politics?

There was an active decision to not politicize it...I did not want to make a film that created political discussion over a discussion about who these men were.” (minute 1:11:00)

Unlike the book, in Lone Survivor (film) there are no WMDs or al Qaeda training camps in Iraq, no mentions of George W. Bush, no politics, either liberal or conservative. And it’s a better film for it.

2. Rules of Engagement. Yes, in a crucial scene in the middle of Lone Survivor (film), the SEALs debate the Rules of Engagement, but those ROEs aren’t vilified the way Luttrell vilifies them in his memoir. The discussion is balanced and even-handed, with two characters debating their options. Good art asks questions instead of giving answers.

Lone Survivor (film) asks questions; Lone Survivor (book) gives answers.

3. The Vote. A few weeks ago, Roberto commented on the site:

“Further, some of the things you claim to be false are highly speculative such as the “vote” contraversy. [sic] Im aware that its not customary for battlefield decisions to be subject to democracy but this isnt your everyday military unit and to suggest you have insight into their methodology based off of, well frankly nothing, makes you seem a little pretentious. Im [sic] aware other SEALs have also criticized this claim but again, exigent circumstances can lead to breaking SOPs and the main point is: no one but those 4 men were there.”

Fair enough, Roberto, but what about that fact that in the book Marcus Luttrell clearly writes, “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...’” (pg. 207) and in the film no vote takes place? As Peter Berg said in the Q&A, “Mike Murphy made that decision. There wasn’t a vote.” (minute 00:54:00)

4. The Writing. The writing in Lone Survivor (memoir) is terrible. And I mean terrible. We did post after post after post on it. It’s uninteresting and cliched.

Peter Berg let the actors improvise their dialogue until they found something good. I’m not going to pretend like it’s perfect, (One character's wife wants a horse. Awww!) but it’s a million times more competent than the writing in the book. Most importantly, no characters memorize crosswords in their head.   

5. Pacing. In the memoir, way too much time is spent away from the action, discussing Iraq, training, the home front, political rants. Lone Survivor (film) pares all this down into one tight, brutal story. It’s about the mission and only the mission...just like the book should have been.

5. The Inaccuracies. According to the question and answer session after the screening, Peter Berg believes that Luttrell choose him to tell his story was because of the meticulous amount of research he does before every film. And in doing that research, Berg (must have) learned a few things, like...the actual name of the mission, the actual size of the group attacking the SEALs, who Ahmad Shah actually was, etc.

Peter Berg cut those inaccuracies from the film. (I mean, not the Ahmad Shah thing, but still, he cut a lot of the inaccuracies out.) We’ll dive into the other changes from the film to the memoir later this week.

So yes, some people on the internet may have keyboard courage. But as Lone Survivor (film) proves, sometimes they’re right.

You’re welcome.

Dec 19

(To read all of our Lone Survivor posts, please click here.)

Before I start my review of Lone Survivor (film), I have some caveats:

- First, the one, lingering problem with the Lone Survivor film is that it will lead people to read the Lone Survivor book. You know how we feel about that.

- Second, the movie is about Navy SEALs, the “quiet professionals” who have way too much publicity. Expect more posts on this next year.

- Third, Michael C hasn’t seen the film, so their could be glaring military inaccuracies I would miss.

That said, I’ll get straight my thesis: I loved Lone Survivor until the ending. I think Lone Survivor is one of the greatest war films ever made, with brutal, excruciating action sequences and great acting. But the ending is so egregiously wrong and over-the-top, I almost can’t recommend it.

Some specifics. Peter Berg shot the action very realistically, with the SEALs sighting their enemies through their rifles and taking them down systematically and professionally. I’ve never seen this type of directing before, and it absolutely works. It’s the type of war film that will make past war films--even the great ones--look dated.

As the battle gets more intense, so does the pain you feel. To escape their attackers, the SEALs literally jump off a cliff. Their falls are some of the best, most-realistic and brutal sequences I’ve ever seen on film. Literally, the audience I watched it with cringed with each fall. It makes you physically move in your chair. On the basis of these sequences alone, I would recommend the film.

What else can I write? The film looks gorgeous, shot with small, handheld cameras but not in a way that brings attention to itself. The acting is tremendous, particularly Ben Foster and Emile Hirsch, who just nail their scenes. I’m not a huge Mark Wahlberg fan, but he’s good in this role.

Technically, the film is a masterpiece.

But.

But the ending is horrendous, for reasons I’ll describe later in a much longer post. Peter Berg essentially made up the ending. He took an already inaccurate book, corrected most of those mistakes, then got to the end and was like, “Screw it, I’m making something up.” And the changes are cliched and ridiculous.

I’d recommend seeing Lone Survivor when it airs on cable. But when Marcus Luttrell gets rescued after the firefight, you can press stop, and watch something else. As Michael C pointed out to me, it’s like the inverse Zero Dark Thirty. (We recommend skipping the first hour of that film.)

So yes, Lone Survivor is an incredible, but flawed, piece of filmmaking.

Dec 16

(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 week, friend of the blog Ed Darack pointed out a mistake in Lone Survivor (film) that we had previously missed when we reviewed the trailer. That mistake is...

Ahmad Shah killed 20 marines the week before Operation Red Wings.

Lone Survivor inaccuracies fall into roughly three categories: 1. Those we can prove definitively. (Like the name of the operation.) 2. Those we can say have no evidence to support them. (Luttrell’s past claims about the number of attackers.) 3. Theoretical mistakes. (The SEAL team had more than 2 options on the hill side.)

This mistake falls firmly in the first category.

In the new film, during the briefing before the operation, someone claims that Shah killed “20 marines” the week before. In full disclosure, Eric C didn’t notice this during his first viewing of the film. Though we haven’t had a chance to see the movie again, there’s good evidence this line made it into the final cut. First, Emanuel Levy writes in his review, “Shah killed 20 marines the previous week.” Further, the screenplay of Lone Survivor on UniversalPictureAwards.com has Lt. Commander Erik Kristensen saying, “We know Shah killed fourteen Marines last Tuesday in Kandahar.”

Oh, and it’s in the trailer. (At the 40 second mark.)

In his interview with 60 Minutes last Sunday, Marcus Luttrell echoed this theme, telling Scott Pelley, “[Ahmad Shah] was...killing Marines, Army, I mean, you name it.”

Of course, Luttrell amplified Ahmad Shah’s role even further in Lone Survivor (memoir) (page 179):

“...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.”

The truth is much less sexy. And fact-checkable, thanks to the work of iCasualties.org.

As Ed Darack writes in Victory Point, intelligence only linked Ahmad Shah to eleven attacks. Even if he had been responsible for all the deaths in that part of Afghanistan--when I deployed to Afghanistan/the Korengal valley, we called it N2KL: Nuristan, Nangahar, Kunar and Laghman--only three U.S. service-members died in all of 2005 because of hostile action. Two marines died in Laghman by enemy fire. (Which Shah could possibly have assisted, but most likely didn’t.) One soldier died in an IED blast near Asadabad in Kunar province. One marine drowned in the Pech River, also in Kunar. (I ended up living in both of the bases named after the casualties in Kunar of 2005, Camp Wright and Camp Joyce.)

Four is much less than 14 or 20, which is what makes this mistake so glaring. Worse, in all of Afghanistan in 2005, only 99 U.S. soldiers and marines died in total. In the week before Operation Red Wings, no soldiers or marines died in Kandahar province the week before, much less 14. Only one soldier died from a bomb in 2005 in Kunar up to that point. The worst loss of U.S. life in 2005 took place in Ghazni province in a non-hostile helicopter crash. Further, the majority of the fighting in Afghanistan was taking place in provinces far removed from Kunar and its environs. Specifically, many more casualties took place in Paktika, Paktia, Logar and other provinces.

So why did this new mistake come to pass? Like the initial Lone Survivor (memoir) mistakes, it makes for a much better story. The Universal Pictures’ Oscar website describe Ahmad Shah as a “high level al Qaeda” operative, when he was no such thing. The movie describes him killing 20 marines in one week, when he hadn’t killed that many people in the war period. The initial screenplay describes him as a national figure--Kandahar is hundreds of miles from Kunar--when he was at best a regional player. Turning Shah into a national, al Qaeda leader who is killing marines by the dozens makes him a much better villain, but it wasn’t true.

It turns out, the truth doesn’t sell very well.

Dec 08

(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.)

When we first wrote about Lone Survivor, we identified several clear mistakes:

1. The number of fighters involved (Luttrell put the number of enemies in interviews at over 100 when military documents kept it at 30-40.)

2. Ahmad Shah/”Ben Sharmak” (Luttrell claims he was a top al Qaeda commander and Osama bin Laden lieutenant when he wasn’t even in the Taliban, but allied with it.)   

3. The name of the mission (Red Wing versus Redwings)

4. The fact that a vote took place. (Though we can’t prove that it didn’t, the military is not a democracy.)

In addition to those mistakes, we also took issue with the idea that Luttrell only had a choice between killing the goatherders, or letting them go free. We believe the SEALS also had the options to take the goatherders captive or evacuate after they let them go, which they chose not to do.

Later, we pointed out in “Marcus Luttrell Stands by His Mistakes” that Luttrell repeats these inaccuracies ad nauseum, in interviews, speeches before the NRA and other political groups, and campaign ads.

All the mistakes above have been corrected by Marcus Luttrell in his most recent 60 Minutes interview. (We should also mention that Peter Berg also took out the mistakes in the Lone Survivor movie.) Below, we’ve cut paragraphs from the transcript of the 60 Minutes interview, to point out where Marcus Luttrell has changed his story.

Did they take a vote?

“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.”

How many people attacked?

“The first guy I saw had an RPG over each shoulder and an AK-47 and then there was about 30 or 40 guys in line with him.”

Ahmad Shah, al Qaeda or Taliban?

“Their job was to locate this man whom the four SEALs had only seen in grainy photographs. He was an elusive militia leader aligned with the Taliban named Ahmad Shah.

Anderson Cooper: Who was Ahmad Shah?

Marcus Luttrell: He had a group that he ran called the Mountain Tigers. He was creating all kinds of havoc out there in that particular region that he was in, killing Marines, Army, I mean, you name it.

Kill the Goatherders?

Actually, this one isn’t from Luttrell, it’s from a retired officer in the Navy.

“Retired Vice Admiral Joe Maguire says the only options the SEALs really had were to take the goat herders captive and try to get evacuated by helicopter or let them go.”

Oh, and the name of the mission?

“They were part of a larger mission called Operation Red Wings.”

Appropriately enough, we didn’t actually buy a copy of Lone Survivor, the book, until two weeks ago. Eric C, after he saw Lone Survivor, the movie, bought a copy of the memoir to see if the ending of the film is completely made up. (Spoiler alert: it is.) And in that copy of Lone Survivor all of the mistakes remain. The inaccurate number of attackers, the al Qaeda affiliation for Ahmad Shah, and the vote.

Hell, the title still reads “Operation Redwing”.

So everyone who rushes out to buy a copy of this book will remain woefully misinformed.

Oct 08

For 42% of Americans, Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction when America invaded. They believe this because, after invading Iraq, the U.S. did indeed fail to find weapons of mass destruction. (Another 25% have no idea.)

The other 30% or so? Why do they still think Saddam Hussein was harboring weapons of mass destruction? Mostly, because they watch Fox News. They might, however, also read war memoirs by or about Navy SEALs.

A while back, Michael C found this tidbit in an article on Wired’s “Dangerroom” blog about the politics in Chuck Pfarrer’s non-fiction account of SEAL Team 6.   

“Author Chuck Pfarrer is taking flack over his account of the Osama bin Laden raid in his new revisionist history, SEAL Target Geronimo. But that’s overshadowed another big problem with the book: Pfarrer’s claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction are absolutely bananas.

"To read SEAL Target Geronimo is to get sucked into a vortex of WMD insanity. Pfarrer says that Saddam Hussein had dangerous, active chemical, biological and nuclear programs up until the day of his downfall. Worse, those weapons made it into the hands of Osama himself. Why didn’t you know about it? Because craven politicians and the lying media hid the truth about what U.S. military weapons experts uncovered.”

Unfortunately, I’m not shocked. Why? Because this would only be the second book I’ve read by a Navy SEAL that makes this ridiculous claim. Yeah, I’m talking about Lone Survivor. Here’s what Luttrell and Patrick Robinson actually wrote about WMDs and Iraq:

“You may remember the CIA believed they had uncovered critical evidence from the satellite pictures of those enormous government trucks rolling along Iraq’s highways: four of them, usually in convoy, and all big enough to house two centrifuges. The accepted opinion was that Saddam had a mobile spinning program which could not easily be found, and in fact could be either lost and buried in the desert or alternatively driven across the border into Syria or even Jordan.

“Well, we found those trucks, hidden in the desert, parked together. But the inside of each one had been roughly gutted. There was nothing left. We saw the trucks, and in my opinion someone had removed whatever they had contained, and in a very great hurry.

“I also saw the al Qaeda training camp north of Baghdad. That had been abandoned, but it was stark evidence of the strong links between the Iraqi dictator and Osama bin Laden’s would-be warriors. Traces of the camp’s military purpose were all around. Some of the guys who had been in Afghanistan said it was just about a direct replica of the camp the United States destroyed after 9/11.”

When the movie comes out and people ask us, “Well, how bad is Lone Survivor actually?” I’ll respond, “Read this passage.” Luttrell not only argues that Saddam had WMDs, he argues that Iraq harbored Al Qaeda terror camps, which is so insane and so factually wrong words fail me. This is why we find Lone Survivor so distasteful.

So that’s it. Only two SEAL memoirs describe WMDs in Iraq...wait, what another memoir by a Navy SEAL repeats this claim? This example comes from American Sniper by Chris Kyle. (It’s also being turned into film.)

“At another location, we found barrels of chemical material that was intended for use as biochemical weapons. Everyone talks about there being no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but they seem to be referring to completed nuclear bombs, not the many deadly chemical weapons or precursors that Saddam had stockpiled.

“Maybe the reason is that the writing on the barrels showed that the chemicals came from France and Germany, our supposed Western allies.

“The thing I always wonder about is how much Saddam was able to hide before we actually invaded. We’d given so much warning before we came in, that he surely had time to move and bury tons of material. Where it went, where it will turn up, what it will poison —I think those are pretty good questions that have never been answered."

Here’s another example, not as egregious, but still wrong, also from a book about Navy SEAL Lieutenant Patrick Murphy, SEAL of Honor.

“Saddam Hussein remained a threat for his refusal to allow international weapons inspectors to account for his known inventory of known chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction...”

If you have to repeat the word known twice in one sentence, that thing is probably not known.

Finally, from the book Fearless: The Undaunted Courage and Ultimate Sacrifice of Navy SEAL Team SIX Operator Adam Brown by Eric Behm

“And in Iraq Adam remembered this photo of a Kurdish girl lying dead on the street, eyes open, after Saddam Hussein had gassed her whole town. All this argument about whether or not they had weapons of mass destruction--that was proof enough for Adam that they not only had them but that Saddam Hussein had used them against his own people.”

In conclusion, that’s five memoirs or non-fiction books--all about SEALs--by five different authors who all repeat the same, patently wrong information. I searched about 11 books or memoirs from Navy SEALs to research this post. About half of them repeated this patently false claim. Wow.

Don’t think that this has an effect? In an old post from My Pet Jawa (we'd link to it, but the site now redirects to an ad), the author writes, about Luttrell’s claims, “Maybe the libs should just try calling him a delusional chickenhawk warmonger who had no idea what he saw with his own two eyes.”

That’s my fear. When Lone Survivor and American Sniper open in box offices around the country, people will go out and buy these books. They’ll read passages like the ones above and say, “Huh. Saddam did have WMDs.”

And that’s how society remains misinformed.

Oct 01

(To read the entire "COIN is Boring” series, please click here.)

As I writer, I think about mediums. Not psychics, but art mediums, wondering which ones will survive into the future. I ask myself, “If someone wants to write something that will affect the most people, what should they write?” In the 1300s, great writers wrote epic poetry. In the 1600s, plays. In the 1800s through the middle of the 2000s, novels.

In the 1950s, film became the most important art medium in the modern world. More people see films than read novels. More importantly, more people respect films than respect novels. I could discuss The Godfather or Pulp Fiction with almost anyone; good luck finding someone who’s actually read DeLillo’s Underworld. Few novels change the world these days. A few films do just that every year. (As far as other modern mediums go, TV came into its own in the early 2000s and video games are far, far too immature in content to even consider them.)

Which brings me to the series we’ve been writing for four weeks now: how do films handle counter-insurgency?

Not terribly well.

How do I know? Because we’ve already written about how Hollywood ignores counter insurgencies. In “The "Battle Mentality" of Hollywood”, we describe Hollywood’s focus on the “decisive battle”, using Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and the most recent Alice in Wonderland remake as examples:

“Movies are only two hours long. With the occasional exception, a film can only depict a single battle, or a handful of battles, never the war. Also, the three act structure of Hollywood scripts--ingrained in the minds of Hollywood executives--does not have much flexibility. Executives, screenwriters and directors must deliver a climax, and the decisive battle is a tremendous climax.”

Most insurgencies last decades; most films--chronologically--last a couple of days. Insurgencies rise and fall on the success of dozens of groups and actors; a film can only follow a few individuals. Counter-insurgencies most often end with a whimper (for example, the Iraq War); Hollywood films end with a bang. It’s why Return of the Jedi chronicled the final climactic destruction of the Empire while ignoring the Ewok insurgency that raged for years on the forest moon of Endor.

Which doesn’t mean there are no films about counter-insurgency. The guys at Kings of War made a fine list a few years ago, but take another look at their selections. Those films aren’t popular. And some of the movies--Spartacus, Full Metal Jacket--are technically about insurgencies, but not really about coalition building or coercing populations. And yes, The Battle for Algiers and Lawrence of Arabia depicted counter-insurgency masterfully, but how many Americans have actually seen those movies?

You could argue that Hollywood made a whole bunch of cinematically great, popular films about the Vietnam War--which was an insurgency--like Platoon, Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket, We Were Soldiers, and arguably Apocalypse Now (It’s a great film; I just don’t think it’s really about Vietnam.)

But those Vietnam war films perfectly illustrate what I’m talking about. First, most of those films depicted the experiences of soldiers, not the Vietnamese. Second, America stopped making Vietnam War films.

That’s right. Hollywood no longer cares about Vietnam. The last two major films about Vietnam were We Were Soldiers, released in 2002, and Rescue Dawn, released in 2006. World War II has so many films still being made about it, Wikipedia divides the article up by decade. George Clooney and Matt Damon have another WWII movie coming out this winter.

The absolute failure of most post-9/11 war movies proves the case. After wave and wave of failure, even the most successful film about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, The Hurt Locker (net box office gross: less than $50 million) suffered at the box office...and it didn’t really cover counterinsurgency. Sure, filmmakers will someday make films--good, successful, accurate films--about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; I doubt they’ll cover counterinsurgency. They won’t have the time. (Lone Survivor touches on some of those issues, but I think you know how we feel about that.)

And like the Vietnam war, we won’t be making films about either war in forty years.

I wouldn’t make a film about an insurgency either. If Michael C and I had the opportunity, we’d make a film about Afghanistan, but it would depict a battle. Films can depict battles, not wars. The complexity of counter insurgency--virtually every insurgency--just can’t be covered in a two hour film. I’m not blaming Hollywood; I’m blaming the medium.

Sep 24

(To read the rest of our posts on the 2013 Oscars, please click here.)

Last month at a small get together during a trip down south to Orange County, I got stuck in the kind of conversation I hate, a conversation about rape.

I hate talking about rape, because 90% of the time the conversations turn to victim blaming, and this one was no different. In this case, we were discussing the military and rape. First, someone pointed out that the military got their statistics via anonymous surveys; that’s why the number of rapes were so shockingly high. Then the conversation turned to female soldiers not wanting to press charges, which must mean that they are lying. Or that they just got drunk--which violates UCMJ--then said they were raped to avoid getting in trouble.

After staying quiet for most of the conversation, I jumped in and explained why women don’t report the vast majority of rapes (listing off embarrassment, victim blaming, shame) but in the future, I know what I’ll do instead:

I’ll tell everyone to watch the documentary The Invisible War.

It is the most powerful, important, impactful and saddest documentary I’ve ever seen. The Invisible War literally brought me to tears numerous times. As a writer, it’s the most infuriating kind of thing to write about, because all I can do is hurl compliments at it. It’s so good, I literally can’t talk it up enough.

Watch it. Now. (It’s on Netflix)

If you have any doubt that rape in the military is a problem, you won’t after you see this film. (We’ll address some critiques tomorrow.) Based on extensive interviews with victims of rape, the film first proves that rape is a constant for women in the military (it backs up those interviews with the government’s own statistics), explains why the problem persists (a culture that refuses to address the issue and a command structure that cannot successfully investigate or prosecute rape charges), and closes by offering a solution to the problem (take rape cases out of the chain of command).

I mentioned above that it was one of the most impactful films I’ve ever seen. It didn’t just affect me; it also affected Capitol Hill. The Invisible War forced the issue of rape and the military onto the front pages, and, thank God, it seems to have stayed there.

I have to mention that this entire review may seem hypocritical. When I reviewed Restrepo and Exit Through the Gift Shop, I wrote, “Whatever the reason, I just don’t trust documentaries as a medium anymore.” I still feel that way. Most documentaries, whether liberal (Michael Moore), conservative (Dinesh D’Souza) or extremist (Loose Change, Zeitgeist), are incredibly misleading, almost designed to misinform. Even mainstream, issue-based documentaries use dubious statistics and editing tricks.

I don’t feel this way about The Invisible War. For one, all statistics provided in the film come from the U.S. government, which has repeatedly tried, and repeatedly failed, to address this issue. And when the government releases politically embarrassing statistics, that makes them more likely to be true. (Plus, the documentary takes the time to explain the methodology behind some of the statistics.)

Second, most of the film is just women--and men--describing their experiences. They put the facts out there, for you to judge.

It’s the best, most honest type of film. See it already.