(To read all of our “Lone Survivor” posts, please click here.)
As I wrote on Monday, I take Marcus Luttrell's Lone Survivor personally. I lived in the Korengal valley; I walked the trails on the other side of the Sawtalo Spur. Knowing the Korengal, Luttrell’s story just confused me. Take the number of people in Ben Sharmak’s army, Luttell puts it at up to 200.
When I first read that line, it didn’t sound right. But I couldn’t prove that Luttrell was wrong, I merely had my suspicions.
So I searched for the original "after-action report" for the ambush of SEAL Team 10, to find out more about “Ben Sharmak” and his army. I couldn't find it, but I did find this incredible site for the book Victory Point. The author Ed Darack, corrects several of Luttrell's glaring errors.
The mistakes in Lone Survivor aren't minor, they are gaping holes. Here are the seven worst:
1. The title.
The Marine Battalion--3rd Battalion of the 3rd Regiment--that initially planned the mission used sports teams to name their missions. Previous missions were called Spurs, Mavericks and Celtics, and after all the Texan and Boston team names were used up, the 3/3 Marines decided to switch to hockey names. Luttrell’s Operation Redwing doesn’t exist; the mission was called Operation Red Wings, like the Detroit hockey team.
I understand that little details and facts will be lost in such a crazy attack, but getting the mission name wrong is bizarre, especially getting it wrong in the first draft, second draft, manuscript, galley proof and paperback edition. For the rest of our posts we will refer to the mission as Operation Red Wings, to be factually accurate.
2. Satellite versus cellular phone.
Marcus Luttrell repeatedly refers to his team's satellite phone as a cell phone. Cell phone use in Afghanistan is exploding (literally and figuratively) all over the country, but not in the Korengal valley. They didn't have cell phone coverage when I was there in 2008, and they definitely didn't have it in 2005. What Luttrell is most likely referring to is a satellite phone that can be used anywhere in the world, most commonly called Thuraya.
What he doesn't clarify, and this is slightly off topic, is why SEAL Team 10's team leader waited so long call higher headquarters with the cellular/satellite phone. Even after their radios failed to contact higher headquarters they waited to use the satellite phone until the ambush had started. They had a very poor communication plan, without solid backups.
3. Taliban in Iraq?
In the chapter where Luttrell runs around Iraq with his SEAL buddies on snatch-and-grab missions, he describes Saddam Hussein as in league with the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Simply wrong. This continues another unintentional--I hope--theme of Lone Survivor: lumping insurgent and terrorist groups together with no regard for the truth. Throughout his text he confuses, Taliban, Al Qaeda, Shia, Sunni, and other groups, while ignoring the other militants in Afghanistan.
4. Saddam had WMD?
Luttrell claims Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, going so far as to say that this is a "fact." It's hard to take the rest of the book seriously after reading that.
5. Saddam harbored Al Qaeda too?
He also claims that getting rid of Saddam was necessary to remove Al Qaeda training camps in Iraq. Again, I can’t imagine an educated reader taking Luttrell seriously after three mistakes that horribly misrepresent the US invasion of Iraq.
The last three points also show the bizarre world view of Marcus Luttrell. Everywhere he goes in the Middle East he sees Muslims as terrorists, and a crazy worldwide conspiracy to kill Americans. With such a viewpoint, it is hard to imagine him winning hearts and minds anywhere, but we’ll get into that in a later post.
6. An Army of 200?
In Lone Survivor, "Ben Sharmak," is one of the baddest dudes in all of Afghanistan. A dude who buddies around with Osama bin Laden. A bad mamma-jamma that may have had a hand in 9/11. And as I said earlier, he also runs an army of 80 to 200 insurgent/terrorists.
Except that--again heads up to Victory Point-- “Ben Sharmak” (real name Ahmad Shah), wasn't a high value target, or even a medium level target. He was barely on the Special Operations radar. He was affiliated with Hezb Il Gulbuddin, not Al Qaeda. And he never had 80 to 200 men under his control. Later videos, produced by Sharmak, feature between 8-10 men.
200 fighters is a huge number of troops, especially for the Korengal. If Afghanistan is sparsely populated, than the Korengal valley is virtually empty. Villages, if you call them that, have maybe ten or twelve families. The families eke out meager livings. Twenty fighters makes sense; 200 is ridiculous.
In a final bit of irony, Ahmad Shah only became a big player after news of his successful SEAL ambush made headlines.
7. An Attack by 6 or 8
I understand why Luttrell described Ahmad Shah as a big time Taliban leader, it a better story. So how else do you spice up a battle scene? Simple, add more people.
In Lone Survivor, Luttrell speculates that the ambush had probably 140 people in it, if not more. He describes his team as mowing down dozens of enemy. He describes multiple patrols of Taliban scouring the countryside for him. It feels like Luttrell is taking on an army.
Except that he didn’t. The ambush probably only used 8-10 of Ahmad Shah’s men, with “accidental guerillas” making up the rest. The ambush succeeded because of the use of RPGs, machine guns and terrain, not overwhelming numbers. Of course, explaining plunging fire is complicated, its much easier to simply say he faced a Taliban horde. In Luttrell's initial after-action report, according to Ed Darack in the Marine Corps Gazette, he said only 20-35 Taliban fighters were involved in the ambush. When Lone Survivor came out, the number climbed with every media appearance or speech.
The huge mistakes are mindboggling. How do you explain this? Well, Ed Darack, albeit without specifically mentioning Luttrell by name, sums it up perfectly (We haven't been able to get a copy of Victory Point yet, as soon as we do we will let our readers know what we think.):
"I think that the narrative of a four-man Navy SEAL team being deployed to take on a group of hundreds under the leadership of the right-hand man of the world's most wanted individual has all the makings of an edge-of-your-seat military action thriller. But it doesn't happen in reality. And it certainly wasn't the case in Red Wings."