(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.)