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A 300 Page Ethical Dilemma

(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.)

Dilemma, Greek for "double proposition." In English, being stuck between a rock and a hard place. Reading Lone Survivor felt like slogging through the world's longest ethical dilemma. 

As Luttrell tells it:

SEAL Team 10 inserted into the Sawtalo Spur in Konar Province on a reconnaissance mission to find a high value target. Due to lack of cover, three Afghan goat herders--two men and a fourteen year old boy--stumble upon their hide-sight. In other words, they were "soft compromised" (discovered by unarmed civilians).

Luttrell then lays out his SEAL team's three options, "1. Kill the goatherds quietly with knives, and throw them off the cliff. 2. Kill them right where they were, and cover up the bodies. 3. Turn them loose, and 'get the hell out of here.'" Really, there are only two options (hiding or not hiding bodies is really the same choice). SEAL Team 10 voted, and chose option three, "don't kill the Afghans." Almost the entirety of Luttrell's story sets up this ethical dilemma, a dilemma designed to show that Rules of Engagement in Afghanistan gets Soldiers killed.

I'm not surprised Luttrell only saw two options, human nature loves duality: prosecution or defense, Republicans or Democrats, pro-life or pro-choice, pro-guns or gun control, war hawk or dove, for or against with no middle ground. Marcus Luttrell describes his situation in dualist terms: kill or be killed. Military ethical dilemmas often fall into this trap: the ticking time bomb, children throwing rocks, or civilians acting as spotters are ethical dilemmas that are invariably presented with only two solutions.

If only this were the case, Luttrell presents us with a false dichotomy. Practically no military situation only has two solutions; most have multiple--if not dozens--of solutions. Critics of our ROE, like Luttrell in Lone Survivor, only present two options of which one option is always, "Follow ROE, and die" and the other is, "Disobey ROE, and live/win the war."

SEAL Team 10 didn't have only two options on that hill in Konar. Kill the goat herders, or let them live are only the first two. They could have tied the goat herders up. (In the book, Marcus Luttrell says that their team did not have anything to bind up the locals. But they had belts, shoe laces, the Afghan's own clothing, and rifle slings. It still stuns me that a SEAL team went out without even a tiny bit of 550 cord or zip ties.) They could have taken the goat herders prisoner, and released them at Asadabad. They could have made the goat herders walk with them, then released them when a helicopter was inbound. They could have released the kid, but kept the others until they were safely away.

In his eyes, Luttrell believed he only had two options. Since he voted for "be killed," he blames the rules of engagement for the deaths of his friends. In the memoir, he says: "Was I afraid of these guys? No. Was I afraid of their possible buddies in the Taliban? No. Was I afraid of the liberal media back in the U.S.A.? Yes," and then continues ranting about liberals and the rules of engagement.

There is no simple, cut-and-dried reason why three SEALs died in Konar Province that day. Leadership of his team, leadership of the SEALs, US policy in Afghanistan, technological failures, communication lapses, a failed Afghan government, lack of Apache gunship support, and countless other reasons--including enemy action--are why nineteen SEALs died heroically on that day. Rules of Engagement, or its misunderstanding may have contributed, but it wasn't the sole cause.

(Luttrell's story was used by Capt. Rick Rubel (Ret. USN) of the Military Officer's Association of America as a classic ethical dilemma. His write up basically summarizes Luttrell's story, but his thoughts show that morally releasing the Afghans was the ethical thing to do. I am huge fan of case studies, like the business ones from Harvard Business Review, but they are almost always left open ended, searching for creative solutions, not an either or proposition.)

thirteen comments

Having been specifically involved in ROE/LOW etc. issues in the USMC and SOCOM community for nearly 20 years before retirement let me first say the scenario involved in this story was the archetype that was most often posited by students when we would teach these subjects to operators. The “school solution” was always that killing the noncombatants (assuming the hypothetical involved already having captured them such that they posed no immediate threat to the team) was ILLEGAL. The hard cold fact is that “military necessity” is already factored into the very clear and wholly unambiguous rule of law (and expressly embodied in our UCMJ and implied in all ROE) that US military personnel commit murder if they kill noncombatants (whether a captured enemy POW or a “civilian”) under such circumstances. While extenuating and mitigating circumstances may be relevant to the punishment one might receive, it does not matter to this determination how many additional facts of an in extremis nature one piles on, it can never convert the act into anything but a crime. We must always remember that combat is inherently dangerous and risky, especially that involving “special operations” and, as we used to say in typical Marine black humor fashion, “that is what we get paid the big bucks for.” When things go wrong, as they invariably do, we cannot shift the risk of such operations and the often fatal results to innocents under ANY circumstances. As a consequence, there really is no “moral” or legal dilemma to the military professional, although the armchair generals and chickenhawks will no doubt see it otherwise.


The case study by Capt. Rubel is interesting as are the comments.


@ Jumping jarhead – Thanks for contributing Your comment went up twice, so I deleted the second duplicate post for you.

On your comment, I think you bring up an interesting point: killing a innocent fourteen year old boy is illegal. The rest of the dilemma doesn’t matter.

I would say it should be illegal, and we dont want a military that allows killing children.


We agree in general. Of course, as to your last sentence, we have to remember, however, that we are talking here about a very specific set of circumstances (the recon patrol that has captured a noncombatant).

Regrettably there are other situations where we may have to kill people who are otherwise “noncombatants” quite consciously (I am not talking here of the unintended cases due to fog of war such as mistaken identity etc.). This would occur due to the violations of the LOW by our enemy where they use noncombatants (and usually those who cause the least suspicion and most hesitation among our troops such as elderly, women, children and even disabled persons)as delivery means for explosives or in other ways to attack our forces. while one would hope there are other means to prevent the attack (nonlethal weapons etc.) the sad fact is the only reasonable alternative may be to use lethal force.

In such an event, it is our enemy that has violated the “rules” not us.


So I´ve seen DCU colored 550 cord, and obviously they have ACU 550 cord now, do they have it in auscam yet?

Atleast they didn´t choose to kill the noncombatants, that seems like it would be a monstrous thing to do regardless of any legality or not. Legally it could be argued that they were potential forward observers (which would classify them as combatants), and in a manner that seems to have been true as it is suspected they passed on their position to insurgents. Regardless, killing people who are not displaying hostile intent even if you are suspicious of them has absolutely NO moral grounding.

I really have to read this book. I don´t know but it seems after reading all this that this guy was distrusting and paranoid of Afghan culture as a whole. I don´t know how this guy can be so distrustful and resentful of Afghan culture in as a whole in hindsight when there were Afghans who risked their lives to shelter him because of an aspect of Pashtun culture in which its custom to shelter those in need.


You overstate the case a bit I believe Chris. While in the specific case involved in the book and many others I can posit from conducting many many after action debriefings during my time in USMC reconnaissance billets, I have no problem with your statement “killing people who are not displaying hostile intent even if you are suspicious of them has absolutely NO moral grounding.” There are other situations, however, where enemy combatants can be legally (and I would strongly argue ethically and morally) attacked whether they are showing any hostile intent or not. Indeed, if the person is a combatant, he (or she) can be attacked by an opposing combatant (I will leave aside for the moment the issue of non-military agents of the hostile government doijnmg such killing) wherever and in whatever circumstance may exist at the time.

Obviously, if noncombatants are at risk then the usual rules of proportionality and discrimination apply such that the attacker must use a means and method reasonably calculated (on the basis of information available to the commander at the time—not perfect information) to minimize (not eliminate it) the risk of harm to the noncombatants. Thus in a given case, one could kill an enemy combatant (again assuming he is identified as such—same standard for information here too-not perfect but reasonable) as he was flipping hamburgers in his hawaiian shirt and flip flops while he was on leave from the front and miles from any weapon.

If this seem,s harsh to you then your recourse is to work to change the entire international law on the subject that has evolved over the last 300 odd years.

As to your last point about Luttrell’s view of the Pashtuns, having seen some interviews of him in recent months, I think you will find his attitude pre-incident and post-incident is different. This of course is not a lot different from the way views of many (if not the vast majority) of troops deploying to radically differing cultures “mature” over time depending of course on the specific experiences that such troops have—some stay behind the wire due to their jobs, preference etc. and may never have sufficient experiences with the indigenous people to affect their pre-conceived (or briefed) notions.

Finally, as I tried to say yesterday in another post, the tone of a number of posts here and on the other threads following the serial reviews of the book and at points in some of the installments themselves about Christianity is also IMHO unnecessary and apparently (I cannot know this for sure due to the limited communications inherent in this means of discourse) biased. For example, in addition to the language i pointed out in another post, the reference to Luttrell having believed he was spared by his God (Who “unfairly” allowed 19 other SEALS to die) in a list of criticisms of the book is illustrative of this point.

While may of my post-modern highly intelligent (just ask them) academic colleagues find it amusing (at best), I am unabashed in stating my belief that the God of my faith did exactly that in numerous instances in that long ago war in Vietnam that sadly also involved the death and injury to a number of my Marines. Call me a fanatic, stupid, superstitious or what you will, but in the economy of my faith as I understand it in the Bible and have experienced it for 40 years, I have no difficulty in admitting I do not understand all of God’s ways but I will not be so arrogant as to try to judge His decisions in such matters.

This is not my blog and I do not mean to either hijack the discussion or proselytize anyone on here. Being an avid reader of many military blogs, websites and other sources, however, I thought I would at least give my opinion about the possibility that some of the power of your effort may be dissipated by such, IMHO, biases that really are not that valuable to the critique of the book, which for the record I also hope does not become a movie since there is already enough misunderstanding about ROE and LOW as it is.


I really don´t think (I hope) people not showing hostile intent get killed away from the battlefield without a positive ID that they´re an enemy combatant. They definitely should not be killed in questionable circumstances as was presented here. In any case there is no reason to kill them if a capture is possible.

I´m confused, this book was written post-incident I´m assuming? The way the Afghans are presented in some of these passages don´t seem to be to mature, although I would like to read about the time he was provided refuge by the Afghans and what he has to say about that.

I´m sorry if I´ve offended you, that wasn´t my intention, but there is something seriously wrong when the author himself presents the conflict as a war between Islam and Christianity. Thats just embarrassing, he might as well be a Teutonic Knight not a Navy Seal acting on behalf of a government that recognizes the separation between church and state. In my opinion part of the problem I´ve seen. This kind of thinking has spread further than it should have throughout the military and is far more prevalent than many outside observers would believe. In my book its perfectly okay for anyone to hold any beliefs they like as long as they don´t let it affect their rational decision making processes and professional bearing when that is called upon. This isn´t necessarily about attacking Christianity per se, but rather making sure that the military is both inclusive to all of its soldiers, makes its decisions based on rationality not religion, and not unnecessarily abrasive to the local population.


Chris:
First let me say I am pretty much past being “offended” in discussing such matters, especially now in the rarified atmosphere of the academic ivory tower. To better respond to your concerns about what the state of the Law of War or perhaps if I understand you, what it should be, if you fleshed out what you mean by “positive” identification? Pending that, as to your final points about Luttrel’s misguided (from some statements in the review and comments I suppose stronger and more pejorative adjectives should be used) views of the nature of the war etc., I think we all need to keep in mind that this is a personal memoir of a very emotive incident and not a peer-reviewed academic article much less any official statement of policy of the government. With that said, to deny that at some level and in certain aspects this is indeed a religious war, is to ignore the rather large elephant in the PC room. While we (our government that is—not necessarily every individual who writes a memoir) should of course be mindful of the sensibilities of all groups, faiths etc. in terms of avoiding unnecessary and unreasonable inflammatory terms, that does not mean we should “whistle past the graveyard” when considering the sectarian elements (historically and contemporaneously) of the conflict(s) and violence occurring around the world. Of course we can and must debate and study the nature and extent of this (e.g., is a given incident or campaign the work of “extremists” etc. who have “hijacked” some religion or are merely using it as for baser motives etc.?), but to ignore such dynamics as we are encouraged to do by some in our government through transparent and IMHO silly artifices such as changing nomenclature from “war” to “overseas contingency operation” or “islamic insurgent/terrorist attack” to “man caused disaster” is not only disingenuous but also incredibly naive and more to the point dangerous in terms of the perspective of our avowed enemies who see this merely as weakness. Thus, while I agree that the nature of the conflict and violence typified in Afghanistan and NYC, Ft. Hood, London, Madrid and other places in recent years is complex in terms of root causes, identification of those involved (operational and support networks and individuals) and developing appropriate strategies and tactics for responding, that does not mean we should regard the religious aspects with the disdain apparent in some of the characterizations of Luttrel’s positions reflected in his memoir. Circling back to my original thesis and reason for posting here, the very extremity of some of the rhetoric in these threads on this aspect of his book (such as “Thats just embarrassing, he might as well be a Teutonic Knight not a Navy Seal”) suggests that we all may be trying a bit too hard to walk the “PC tightrope” as we have been conditioned to do of late by our own government no less at the expense of the kind of honest discussion needed if we (and especially those in our government) are to successfully deal with these very real and dangerous threats.


The denial of this being a religious war isn’t an attempt to ignore the homicidal self detonating IED in the room. Stating that this is not a holy war (based upon Luttrel’s assertion that America’s God is Jesus and Afghanistan’s God is Allah) is an overarching fact. First, and this point is critical, Christ is not the professed God of our federal government, nor of every soldier, and definitely not of every citizen. There exist soldiers in America’s armed forces of various faiths besides Christianity and we cannot marginalize those soldier’s patriotism or contribution. Second, there is a lack of unity within the Christian faith to promote this war as a war for Christendom. As far as I know Pope Benedict has yet to encourage the wiping of Islamic extremists from the face of the globe nor has Rick Warren. It cannot be denied that the war on the side of insurgency and terrorism is largely fueled by Islamic extremism. Nor can it be denied that our own soldier take great comfort in their own faiths. The assertion that Christianity is fighting Islam is simply inflammatory.

The incredulous approach to the act of God intervening on the battlefield to save Luttrel’s life, is not an attempt to diminish the power of God or belittle the man’s faith (We can debate long an hard on how/if the Living God interacts with mankind and come to very different conclusions). It is an extension of Luttrel’s self inflation and skewed perspective. For example, he is wounded and crawling through a foreign terrain. He is eventually given shelter by an Afghan national. He thanks God for his survival, but does his perspective on local population change? Does his earlier assertion that they are all filled with hate change?

As to the biases; I completely agree. We are each and everyone of us filled with preconceptions based upon what we have been told and what we have experienced. My bias is that I would like to see fewer portrayals of our soldiers as kill ready adrenaline junkies. I’d like to a greater portrayal as our fathers fulfilling their patriotic duty, our brother’s and sisters trying to help pay for college, the low income kids who want to escape gang violence or see the world, and our friends who are all missed when they are away from home.


I hardly think DoD’s current approach to faith issues in the military is marginalizing to anyone, except perhaps Christians. (note the recent “un-inviting” of Rev. Graham from the DoD Prayer Breakfast). I agree totally that the First Amendment (not what various pressure groups have said it means however) should be the rule in that the the practice of any religion should not be a function of the federal government nor should it “entangle” itself in sectarian matters, recent bizarre and breathtakingly hypocritical statements of Ms. Pelosi, Sen. Kerry, Pres. Obama and others notwithstanding. This does not, however, mean that the Christian faith must be marginalized or circumscribed as it has been in various contexts in order to make the “playing field” level in some way under the banner of “inclusion,” “tolerance” or “diversity.” When I last checked the US is overwhelmingly “Christian” in terms of its history and culture if not actual practicing faith (I will agree that many of these professed adherents are more cultural and traditional than actual believers) and that is simply the reality (at least for now).

Again, Luttrel is entitled to his opinion just ans each of us and anyone writing a book should expect critics. What is interesting to me, however, is the theme apparent at least to me here and elsewhere that such an opinion somehow represents those of all or most of those who also claim Christianity as their faith or cultural tradition. Indeed some of the terms used (“Teutonic Knight “) are even evocative of the angry imagery of many of our enemies.

As to “kinder and gentler” books about military people I think you will find there are quite a few such books out there. This being said, I think we also need to remember what the role of military forces is in our society and system of government. Contrary to the role some in America (including a number of well organized and funded special interest groups and not a few of our politicians) would prefer, they are first and foremost to do the nation’s bidding by the application of (controlled) violence.

This necessarily means there will be a significant percentage of such military members who are “forward leaning”—this has been true from time immemorial as it is inherent in the profession of arms. This does not mean that they are bloodthirsty killers but it may mean that many do in fact perceive themselves modern day “knights,” something that in my view is not necessarily a bad thing.


To clarify, I mean if the US military is in the practice of killing unarmed people away from the battlefield, I would sure as hell hope they make sure it someone who has been absolutely positively identified as some who has participated in armed anti-coalition militant activities to painstakingly avoid what could be the assassination of an innocent person.

While this is a personal memoir and not an official policy paper of the DoD it is a very widely read and distributed piece of what is supposedly nonfiction that is supposed to give a reader an inside view of the conflict in Afghanistan as well as provide the point of view of the author who is involved in the storyline. I´ll agree with you that it isn´t peer reviewed, it doesn´t even sound like it was fact checked or editor reviewed. Nevertheless its as open a target to literary reviews and criticism as any other piece of literature on the market, and as I said in a comment in an earlier blog post: if he was afraid of somebody picking it apart and tearing it to pieces he shouldn´t have published it in the first place.

What I see with regard to Luttrell´s motivation to fight goes against every officially given reason for both wars. It sounds almost as if he is using the war as a pretext to defend his religion and destroy the enemies of Christianity rather than to defend the most diverse multi-cultural nation on the face of the planet. The connotations of this are of course deeply disturbing and remarkably similar to the motivations of insurgents and multi-national terrorists who kill in the name of Islam.

I have never said that religion does not play a role in the motivating factors of either insurgents or multi-national terrorists (sometimes it is true zealotry, other times it is a cover for social/political/tribal reasons as you mentioned), however religion plays a role in nearly every facet of culture and society in the middle east so its not surprising it would play a role in militant actions as well. It is not ignoring an elephant in the room, it is accepting the fact that religion simply plays a huge role in many aspects of their society just as religion was a part of nearly every facet of society in Europe in the Dark Ages and was often used as a reason to stifle progress and commit atrocities such as burning witches.

The ignored elephant in the room here is the role religion plays inside the US military. I´ve seen things inside the Army that remind me to much of the movie Jesus Camp, and I can guess how that has affected people´s perception of muslims and tolerance of differing views period. Thats my bias, honestly it sends chills up my spine. It has probably had a greater influence on policy and doctrine than anyone would be willing to admit, even if it isn´t on paper in a nice DoD document. As I said I have no problem with people´s personal beliefs, and I´m glad the Chaplain corps exists for people to be able to practice their beliefs and turn to in times when they´re having difficulty, however when people´s beliefs negatively affect the performance of their duties or turn the war into a mission from God than thats a problem. This isn´t and shouldn´t be a religious war, but unfortunately there are quite a large number of soldiers of every rank out out there who wouldn´t be afraid to tell you privately that they have views similar to Luttrell´s. The US military should be a secular organization, not a Christian only club.


This is like the most intelligent comment thread I’ve ever read.

On this discussion, Luttrell explicitly endorses this as a war between God and Allah, the operative word being endorses. Luttrell wants our God to win. He doesn’t just view the war that way, he wants you to view the war that way.


I’ve said it before elsewhere on this subject Marcus is not the sharpest knife in the box and he uses his book as a platform for all sorts of nonsense, his religion being the best religion has to go alongside Texas state being the best state, his SEAL training the hardest, his team the nicest guys, his country the best country, his brother the best brother, his parents home town community the best community, his enemies the worst enemies and so on. Did I miss anything.

He’s a very “its not white, therefore it must be black” kinda guy.