(To read all of our “Lone Survivor” posts, please click here.)
We’ve criticized Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson’s Lone Survivor so many times, in so many different ways, it may feel like there is nothing else left to say.
Au contraire. We’ve yet to tackle the most relevant topic to On Violence: fighting and winning counter-insurgencies, particularly the one in Afghanistan.
While Lone Survivor doesn’t pretend to be a counter-insurgency manual, Luttrell frequently offers counter-productive (and even dangerous) advice about how to fight counter-insurgencies. No soldier or marine should ever look to Marcus Luttrell for guidance.
Here are the worst parts from Lone Survivor relating to counter-insurgency:
Issue 1: Identifying the Enemy
You can't beat an insurgent if you can't identify them. As we noted in our post on the mistakes in Lone Survivor, Luttrell, describing his experience in Iraq, lumps "al Qeada or Taliban, Shiite or Sunni, Iraqi or Foreign, a freedom fighter for Saddam" together. Reread that. He thought he was facing the Taliban in Iraq.
In Afghanistan, he doesn’t distinguish between the various groups like the Taliban, Haqqani network, Hezb-e Islami Gulbadin (HiG), or Al Qaeda. He claimed his arch-nemesis Ben Sharmak (aka Ahmad Shah) was a serious Taliban bad guy, when in reality he was more closely identified with the HiG group. In two places, he links the Taliban with 9/11, which stretches the truth. He writes, "Taliban fighters were nothing like so rough and dirty as Afghan mountain peasants. Many of them had been educated in America," a more accurate description of Al Qaeda than the Taliban. He then says that Kunar was "the place where the destruction of the WTC was born and nourished". That’s just flat wrong. (Most of al Qaeda’s training was based around Kandahar, which is in the south. The Taliban barely controlled Kunar province.)
In maneuver war, firepower wins. In irregular wars, intelligence wins. Lone Survivor doesn’t convey that nuance.
Issue 2: Empathy
No army loves its enemies. But you do need to understand them. And even empathize them.
The best counter-insurgents and insurgents can at least empathize with the people they work for and live with. Lone Survivor misses this. Luttrell describes Afghanistan as "the place where a brand of evil flourishes that is beyond the understanding of most Westerners." Or thumbing his nose at a place that is, in his words, "Primitive with a big P." Hard to empathize with people you consider savages. Or people Luttrell calls, “hate-filled.” If you can’t empathize with the population, you will never be able to separate them from the insurgents.
Issue 3: Hardcore Terrorists and Accidental Guerrillas
In addition to exaggerating the number of insurgents he faced, Luttrell exaggerates their importance. He identifies every Taliban fighter as a hardcore terrorist. The real world isn't so simple, though. Many insurgents, as described by David Kilcullen, are temporary fighters fighting for local causes, like honor or against a perceived invader. Most likely the ambush facing the SEALs was not an expertly trained, company-sized element, but a small group of insurgents (allied with the HiG) bolstered by local Korengalis fighting for their honor.
I say again, intelligence versus firepower.
Issue 4: SEALs as Counter-Insurgents
Special Operations troops, like Rangers, SEALs and Delta Force, fill a vital need in counter-insurgencies, conducting direct action missions. But that doesn’t mean all special operations troops are good for all counter-insurgency missions.
For instance, in one mission, Luttrell said it "required interrogation, a skill at which we were all very competent." But he was never trained in interrogation (we know because Luttrell goes over every single piece of training he ever received), so how could he competently interrogate someone? Or even do so legally since interrogations on objectives have to be approved by an officer equivalent in rank to an Army Colonel or Navy Captain? And, again legally, interrogations must be performed by trained human intelligence professionals. So how did Luttrell do them?
The idea of SEALs as counter-insurgents bothers me because it shows how much Luttrell doesn’t know about his role in the larger war machine. If he thinks he can do intelligence, direct action missions, and reconnaissance, (plus who knows how many other missions) and if he thinks his SEALs will win the war by themselves, then he needs to learn a lot more about working with regular units.
Unfortunately, Luttrell’s attitude is all too common in special operations in general. (Check out this organization chart from Thomas Ricks’ blog to get an idea how little special operations and conventional units work together.)
Issue 5: Fighting the Right War
The way Luttrell talks about warfare, you would think he was fighting World War II, not battling insurgents in an irregular (political) war. For instance, Luttrell describes the Taliban crossing from Pakistan into Konar as, "this was a border hot spot, where multiple Taliban troop movements were taking place on a weekly, or even daily basis." It sounds like he is describing the Germans moving into Poland, except that isn't how the Taliban operates. They move in small units when possible, and live off the population. Saying "insurgent cells crossed the border" makes way more sense than saying the Taliban conducted "troop movements".
But this thinking makes sense for a commando who wants to fight the enemy straight up. You can see this when Luttrell describes his mission, “[al queda and taliban remnants] were preparing to start over, trying to fight their way through the mountain passes...And our coming task was to stop them." Why send in SEALs? “In general terms, we believe there are very few of the world’s problems we could not solve with high-explosive or a well-aimed bullet.”
In reality, a well-aimed bullet is only one tool amongst many needed to defeat an insurgency.
Which is a shame because Luttrell almost gets it.
Just because the bulk of Lone Survivor misunderstands counter-insurgency doesn't mean that Lutrell/Robinson didn't slip in one good nugget of counter-insurgency wisdom. In one sentence, they sum up how to defeat an insurgency: "the key to winning was intel, identifying the bomb makers, finding the supplies, and smashing the Taliban arsenal before they could use it."
He identified that the key to winning is intelligence. As I said several times in this post, in an irregular war like Afghanistan, intelligence, not maneuver, wins the day. Yet the rest of Lone Survivor fails to mention where the SEALs got their intelligence (Marine Corps daily patrols), the value of winning over locals (Luttrell seems stunned the local tribes protected him) and building up the Afghan security forces (Luttrell’s mission is U.S. only). Instead, he talks about the value of direct action missions (”there are very few of the world’s problems...”) to the exclusion of all else.
Again, Lone Survivor isn’t a counter-insurgency manual. But far more Americans have read/will see Lone Survivor and will learn more about Afghanistan from this book/movie than any other source. It is a shame they will come away with the exact wrong ideas about how to wage this type of war.