(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):
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.
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 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]?”
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).
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.