Nov 24

Our nation doesn’t understand its heroes. Just ask Marcus Luttrell (from Lone Survivor):

“It’s been an insidious progression, the criticisms of the U.S. Armed Forces from politicians and from the liberal media, which knows nothing of combat, nothing of our training...”

“Knows nothing”? Maybe that was true when Luttrell co-wrote Lone Survivor, but as we wrote in “The Loudest "Quiet Professionals" Start Screaming: Hollywood Edition” and “The Political Navy SEAL” , the media can’t get enough of SEALs. These “quiet professionals” have become stars, especially in the “mainstream media” (though we hate that term).

60 Minutes has led the charge on glorifying SEALs. In the last few years, On V favorite Scott Pelley has done two stories about SEALs. In the first, he--like every other reporter on the planet--reported on the Osama bin Laden raid. However, he followed this story with another in-depth piece about this SEAL rescue. Lara Logan has gotten in on the action too. And 60 Minutes did a story on Luttrell. None were critical of SEALs at all.

Then there is the whole sub-genre of SEAL articles just about killing Osama bin Laden. Esquire featured the most notorious version with “The Shooter”, with some odd sections about why “the shooter” doesn’t have health care. (Another “shooter” also recently outed himself.) ABC News also featured another SEAL explaining why they shot Osama on sight. Vanity Fair’s Mark Bowden published an entire book on the subject, and compared his writing to Mark Owen’s book No Easy Day. Peter Bergen questioned “The Shooter”’s accuracy as well on CNN. Another “shooter” also recently outed himself, again no one can really prove if he did or didn’t do the job. He also gave a talk last year at a Republican fundraiser.

But what if you prefer reading and avoiding the mainstream media? How will you ever find books about the Navy SEALs? You won’t. The SEALs are just too damn secretive.

Unless, of course, the Navy grants access to a photographer. Take this contradictory passage from an article by NBC News. The article opens with the lines, “Since the U.S. Navy began its special Sea, Air, Land Teams, commonly known as the U.S. Navy SEALs, in 1962, little about them has been made public. That was on purpose.” Then a few paragraphs later...

“Mathieson has spent the last six years photographing and researching the SEALs. He recently published a definitive book on the SEALS with David Gatley titled, United States Naval Special Warfare/U.S. Navy SEALs. This is not an outsider’s peek inside the SEALs. Rather, Mathieson was given unique access to the inner workings of the secretive group because the Navy blessed his project.

Not so secretive, is it? It’s okay, the Washington Times used almost the exact same words to describe Mathieson’s book. (As if they read the same press release...) (H/T to Abu Muqawama.)

If you need more reading, USA Today gives you seven more options on books by SEALs recently released, including...

- Damn Few: Making the Modern SEAL Warrior by Rorke Denver

- SEAL Team Six: Memoirs of an Elite Navy SEAL Sniper by Howard E. Wasdin

- Inside SEAL Team Six: My Life and Missions With America’s Elite Warriors by Don Man

- Fearless: The Undaunted Courage and Ultimate Sacrifice of Navy SEAL Team SIX Operator Adam Brown by Eric Blehm

- Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson

- The Red Circle: My Life in the Navy SEAL Sniper Corps and How I Trained America’s Deadliest Marksmen by Brandon Webb

And they didn’t even include A Captain’s Duty, American Sniper, SEAL Target Geronimo or Luttrell’s second book Service.

Our point isn’t that Navy SEALs aren’t quiet professionals. The vast, vast majority are; they go about their service without writing about it, even after they get out.

Some SEALs, though, are ruining that for the rest.

Jun 17

When I joined the Army, like most impressionable young cadets, I dreamed Special Operations dreams. The Army path to becoming a modern John Matrix (Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando) roughly follows: 1. Branch Infantry. 2. Get my airborne wings. 3. Graduate from Ranger School. 4. Become an Army Ranger. 5. Join the Special Forces. 6. Go to Delta Force. 7. Go to the even more secretive Intelligence Support Activity.

Of course, as a nerd, I dreamed of doing intelligence work for Delta. (Or, as they’re called now, the Combat Applications Group (CAG).) The farthest I got was doing intelligence for 5th Special Forces Group. By the time I left the Army to pursue my MBA, the allure of CAG had worn off.

But it wasn’t just me who didn’t care about CAG/Delta; Americans don’t really carry either. America now loves its SEALs. Kick-started by SEAL Team 6’s assault on Osama bin Laden’s compound, the SEAL legend has morphed from puppy love into full-blown stalker obsession. The Navy SEAL’s emphasis on secrecy only fuels this passion. Oh, the Navy SEALs, America’s quiet professionals, they don’t brag, they keep to themselves, they don’t do interviews and they shun media coverage.

Except when they don’t.

Though they are “quiet professionals”, they make quite a bit of noise. (Find examples of SEALs or SEAL supporters boasting about their “quiet professionalism” here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.) While the last movie about Delta Force came out in the 80s (Fine, The Unit was probably Delta Force), Navy SEALs have filled American airwaves with their stories, silently and quietly in the news constantly since 2010.

On cable television alone, we have seen...

- The Military Channel cover SEALs 24/7. In a post last year, Eric C looked at the schedule for The Military Channel. That night, their schedule included the TV programs “Weaponology: Sniper Rifles”, “Weaponology: Navy SEALs”, “Secrets of Navy SEALs” and “Secrets of SEAL Team 6”. Notice a trend?

- Not to be outdone, the National Geographic channel rushed out a movie on the Osama bin Laden raid last year.

- Oh, and the Discovery Channel also filled us in on the secrets of SEAL Team 6, which again, are not very secret any more.

SEALs are even more prominent on the big screen. Though Hollywood made Navy SEALs in 1990, they hadn’t made a movie featuring these quiet professionals...until the Osama bin Laden raid. (SEALs made guest spots in Tears of the Sun (which no one saw) and Transformers (which also had Rangers).) Now our “quiet professionals” have starred in Act of Valor and Zero Dark Thirty two years ago, Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips last year, and Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor this year. And Clint Eastwood’s upcoming American Sniper comes out next year.

All of this reminds us of Marcus Luttrell’s outstanding description of SEALs from the introduction to Service:

In these pages, you’ll get a glimpse of our elite special operations warriors who occasionally make headlines but strongly prefer to remain anonymous, quiet professionals.

Coming from a man who has written two books (and sold one of them to become a film), we couldn’t agree less.

May 02

One of the curious sociological trends of the last twenty years has been the continuous drop in violent crime across America. Even during the economic downturn, crime didn't increase, as some pundits predicted. (My favorite prediction came from trained-sociologist/NFL linebacker Ray Lewis, who predicted a crime wave if the NFL didn’t return. Unfortunately, we couldn’t test his prediction.)

Sociologists point to a number of factors to explain the decrease: harsher sentencing guidelines, stricter penalties for lesser crimes, demographics, gun control laws, and even abortion or lead paint. Because of the complicated subject matter, we’ll probably never be able to link the decline to one specific cause.

Some of the credit, as well, must go to the police forces across America. Solving and preventing crimes has to have some effect. If the police helped lower the crime rate, American politicians could argue the American people got a good return on their investment.

Of course, not all police funding is created equal. Following 9/11, in an effort to defeat Al Qaeda, police departments across America purchased gobs of vehicles, weapons and gear under the guise of “counter-terrorism protection”, including up-armored vehicles, automatic weapons, CCTV cameras and basically anything they wanted. Some of this counter-terrorism spending might have had the unintended consequence of helping police fight ordinary, non-terrorist crime.

But a lot of it probably did nothing except waste money. For example, the NYPD’s Intelligence Unit, and their controversial, “Demographics” unit, which made the news last year in two different investigative reports. Today, I want to run the numbers to see the opportunity costs--in other words, other ways we could have spent the money that might have been effective--for the NYPD Demographics Unit.

First, let’s understand the scale of the organization. According to the AP, the NYPD Intelligence Unit had a budget of $62 million in 2012, of which the Demographics Unit was a major part. It also doesn’t get audited by the New York City Comptroller Office. Apparently, the NYPD Intelligence Unit operates in eleven foreign cities, and countless geographies within the U.S. outside of New York City.

Next, let’s try to define the best possible benefits of this program, as unrealistic as they may be. As I did last time, I am giving the Demographics Unit a huge benefit of the doubt. According to New York City, the NYPD Demographics unit helped break up 14 different terror attacks since 9/11. The closest anyone came to success was Faisel Shahzad attempting to use a car bomb in Time Square. So let’s make these assumptions:

    Number of attacks prevented since 9/11: 14

    Average dead per attack: 50

    Average life years lost per victim: 40

This means that the NYPD Demographics Unit saved--at the upper bounds of unrealistic optimism--potentially 700 citizens, or 32,000 life years (life years is the expected number of years a citizen is expected to live; or average life expectancy minus current age; I’ve estimated forty years per victim) in terror attacks since 9/11. For this analysis--this is what I mean by benefit of the doubt--we are going to assume the NYPD Demographics Unit helped avert every single terror attack.

Knowing that the NYPD Intelligence Unit had a budget of $62 million, and estimating that the demographics unit is only about half of that budget--a guess on my part--by my calculations, New York City has spent roughly $300 million on the Demographics unit alone since 9/11. If the unit saved 700 people as I calculated, that means it spent roughly $400,000 per life saved, or $10,000 per life year saved.

So what are the opportunity costs of the NYPD Demographics Unit? Well, the time of the officers serving and the costs to run its operations. Even though the NYPD has fantastic resources, it still has limits. So what if, instead of establishing the Demographics Unit, the NYPD focused on discouraging open air drug markets, establishing community policing programs, and conducting increased gang intervention? What if the NYPD focused on organized crime or financial wrong doing? What if they had simply put more cops on the street to go on patrol? Those different uses of men and money are the foregone opportunity costs of setting up the NYPD Demographics Unit.

The biggest opportunity is clearly preventing homicides. Since 9/11, New York City has seen 6,500 murders. Imagine if, instead of combating the relatively rare phenomenon of terrorism, New York City had plowed that $300 million into solving and preventing murders. If New York had prevented about 12% of all the murders since 9/11, then it shouldn’t have spent the money on counter-terrorism.

Or imagine if New York City plowed that $300 million into true rehabilitation efforts. One of the sad facts of American “justice” is that recidivism--committing a crime after you’ve already been convicted and released--is extraordinarily high, at 67%. Why? Most Americans shun the Christian virtue of forgiveness and refuse to hire or support criminals who have paid their debt to society. Imagine if that $300 million had gone into supporting and helping lower the recidivism rate in New York City, through training and job aid programs. You might actually save money...

But here’s the thing: neither of those two opportunity costs really matter. In reality, the NYPD Demographics Unit hasn’t been credited with helping to stop a single terror attack since 9/11.

Not. A. Single. One.

Many of the cases the NYPD cited above never even approached feasibility. For instance, one terrorist wanted to cut the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge. How he planned to attach enough explosives without attracting attention is unclear. Indeed, the likelihood he would have even made it to the bridge is doubtful.

So the break-even isn’t 12% of murders prevented...its simply saving one. If the NYPD could have saved even one additional life by not having the Intelligence Unit, than it would have been better to spend the money on stopping crime. That’s right, all that money and time spent on the demographics unit is almost completely wasted.

Apr 08

(To read the entire "The (Opportunity) Costs of Security” series, check out the articles below...

- Two Supercomputers Diverged in the Woods

- Even More Ways to Use the World's Fastest Supercomputer

- How the NYPD Became the CIA: The (Opportunity) Costs of Security

- The (Opportunity) Costs of the First Iraq War

- The (Opportunity) Costs of ANOTHER War with Iraq

- Spying is Killing Us: My Argument to Win Intelligence Squared, “Spying Keeps You Safe”)


It’s a sometime tactic among conservatives, when debating economics, to suggest to their liberal opponent to “take an econ class”. It happened two years ago on Facebook and Twitter when I published “The Chicago School of Counter-Insurgency”. When he was in college, our conservative uncles told Eric C, an avowed liberal, to “take an econ class” so many times that he borrowed an econ textbook from a friend and read the whole thing. 

Well, after a year of business school, I can say that I did take an economics course. [Eric C editorial: And since Michael C won’t write it, I will: he also made Dean’s list each quarter. #twinbrag.]

The criticism that I should take an economics course seemed particularly off when it came to “Getting Rid of the Chicago School of Counter-Insurgency”, because I didn’t mean to attack an entire subject matter, merely one particular ideological branch of economics that wildly underestimates the role of behavior in economics.

These attacks stung because I love economics. I love using economics--among many topics in B-school--to help explain the way the world works. B-schools make future MBA students take economics precisely because it has so many useful concepts.

Take opportunity costs. Opportunity costs are the benefits a firm foregoes by selecting a strategic option. In layman's terms, by choosing to do one thing, it means you can’t do another. In literary terms, for Eric C, Frost couldn’t walk down two paths. In business, choosing to build a factory means choosing not to use those funds to increase employee salaries, for example.

All decisions have opportunity costs, the advantages and costs of all other alternatives. Smart firms treat opportunity costs holistically, factoring in non-monetary costs like human capital, time, logistics and intangible benefits. (Though they usually convert them to the same unit, most frequently dollars.)

After 9/11, America as a nation responded to the threat of terrorism by passing the Authorization for Utilization of Military Force, the Patriot Act, the Intelligence Reform Act and hundreds of other authorizations and budget decisions. Each of these decisions by Congress, President Bush, and President Obama had opportunity costs. In liberal terms, spending a dollar on terrorism means not spending that dollar on economic stimulus, food stamps, or veterans. In conservative terms, every dollar spent means another dollar taken from taxpayers. In neo-conservative terms, every dollar spent raises the deficit.

With this in mind, we have to ask, knowing the concept of opportunity costs, was all that terrorism spending a good use of money?

We've described before and linked to the few lone voices making the intellectual argument that terrorism is rare, how unlikely it is to ever affect you or your loved ones lives. (Several times actually.) We've tried to explain how safe as a society we really are. But I’ve never written about the wasted money in terms of what we stand to lose as a society.

Why? Because opportunity costs are often abstract and especially hard to value. Fortunately, I think I have found a few prime examples of opportunity costs that I can measure. Even better, I will get to apply a little bit of back-of-the-envelope, consulting-interview-style, economic analysis to measure their impact. Obviously, I will have to make some assumptions and I will struggle to find a lot of the data.

In total, though, this is an exercise America needs to perform. Unfortunately for America, the security state doesn’t have itinerant economists trawling it for insights unlike, say, sports. Still, America shouldn’t forget the opportunity costs of the war on terror.

I mean, conservatives wanted us to take an economics course, right?

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 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 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 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: 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 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”,

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

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

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

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

Misinformation page”,

Sawtalo Sar page”,

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”,, 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.