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A Literary Review of "Lone Survivor"

(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.)

Just because Luttrell got his facts wrong, criticized the rules of engagement needlessly, and misunderstands counter-insurgency, that doesn’t mean his memoir is bad art. Misguided definitely, but not necessarily a poor piece of writing.

Except Lone Survivor is a bad piece of writing, and I hope it will be forgotten in twenty years.

Though I want to be glib about how bad this book is, it also makes me sad. As you comb deeper through Lone Survivor's layers, you see that it is a tragedy, both in narration and presentation. There are five layers to Lone Survivor, and the first four layers obscure the fifth, deepest layer: the guilt that Luttrell feels for surviving. Luttrell created this story to hide that guilt from himself.

Lone Survivor’s first layer is the surface plot: a Navy SEAL, after completing his torturous training, heads to Afghanistan with three men on a mission to capture an anti-American enemy. Taliban fighters ambush the SEALs, and only Marcus Luttrell survives, taking refuge from a generous Pashtun village until Army Rangers rescue him. A good plot, if Luttrell were a good writer. Instead, he lingers too long in all the wrong places, Lone Survivor’s primary literary flaw.

The second layer is Luttrell’s personal moral, that, because of inner strength, determination, American/Navy SEAL superiority and Jesus, he survived his SEAL training and subsequent ambush in Afghanistan. This is both vain and ridiculous.

The third layer is the political thesis: Luttrell’s fellow SEALs died because liberal politicians and the liberal media hamstring the military and Soldiers--with Rules of Engagement, negative coverage, and a diffuse hatred of all things military. If we just freed our military from legal restrictions, (read: allow the killing of civilians, in this case a fourteen year old boy) this war would be over. As Luttrell puts bluntly, “I can say from first hand experience that those rules of engagement cost the lives of three of the finest US Navy SEALS who have ever lived.” (Read Michael's counter-argument here.)

This political message runs counter to the fourth layer running throughout Lone Survivor: the unintended irony. A neutral village saves Lutrell's life, even though Luttrell would have shot the villagers if he had had any strength left. Not shooting civilians saved his life.

There could have been a really poignant layer here, a SEAL filled with hate for his enemy discovers they are a compassionate and loyal people. Hell, Luttrell even writes about how he discovered the Pashtun-Wali code after his mission. In a novel, this would be character growth. Luttrell, though, regresses. He's written an entire book dedicated to perpetuating the negative stereotyping that almost killed him. Luttrell sprinkles Lone Survivor with unintended counter-insurgency lessons like this.

Finally, there is the dark core, the fifth level of sadness that permeates Lone Survivor. Ultimately, I read it is as a psychological story told from the clues you pick up along the way: nightmares haunt a slightly unbalanced warfighter after he witnesses the horrific battlefield death of three comrades. "Again in my mind I heard that terrible, terrible scream, the same one that awakens me, bullying its way into my solitary dreams night after night, the confirmation of guilt. The endless guilt of the survivor. "Help me Marcus! Please help me!" Unable to process his survivor's guilt, he creates a fiction about what happened: 20-30 attackers turns into 200. The team's tactical mistakes--losing communication with higher, not choosing to evacuate faster, deciding to let the goat herders go--become the fault of ROE. The death of his fellow SEALs becomes the fault of liberals, politicians and the media.

The fifth level explains all the other levels: the political rants, his personal moral, the irony, the mindless, angry rants. This isn't a story about ROE. It's a story about Marcus Luttrell, broken by the loss of his best friend and fellow soldiers, unable to salve his pain. He blames the liberal media, liberal politicians, Al Qaeda and Islam. This event broke him, but he can’t admit that. Instead, he rages impotently at other scapegoats and the world.

However, this last completely unintentional layer does not make Lone Survivor worth reading at all.

six comments

Eric C gets to the heart of the issue that Luttrell probably has plenty of emotions that he hasn’t dealt with completely.

I would point out that the most irritating part is how much Luttrell hops around in time. He is in Afghanistan one moment, Iraq the next, training after that, then he rails on ROE for six pages. It kills the flow, especially when his story could be told really well.

Eric – This is a really excellent review. I’m not sure I have much to add that hasn’t been noted in the reviews after. The most important thing is that ML did not write this book. His best Selling (with) author did, probably based on tape recorded interviews. In some ways I therefore fault the writer for not “protecting” Marcus L. from himself in terms of the endless repetition of his comments on liberals for example and also how childish he sounds when a part of him recognize that the very people he loathes help him out. The part of the book that makes you see there is something below the surface of his brash, frightened bashing of anyone and everyone who doesn’t think like him is his desire to protect the children in the village from the men who beats them. I don’t know whether this is true and it’s extremely difficult to separate fact from defensive fiction but it’s possible. However, I find my feelings of sympathy towards him negated when I noted that he didn’t try to locate the man who saved him to make sure he was o.k. …. I suspect he was killed if he returned to his village and killed on ML’s behalf but hopefully I am wrong. I do believe his use of externalization (blaming ROE/liberals) is defensive. Some insight would hurt but it might also help him survive. It’s curious that he seems to take responsibility for the decision not to kill the goat herders and thus shoulder the blame for what had to have been the Lieutenant’s decision not his. Is this his way of facing blame and avoiding discussions of tactics at the same time that it allows him to externalize and blame some one else. Who knows? Recently I was helping a person who’d been in Iraq write up his first few chapters to show an agent and one of the things I helped him do was protect himself i.e. I told him when he was things that made him look like an A-hole and how he might say the same thing in a different way. I don’t know why ML’s author couldnt have done that unless he either identified with Lutrell or was willing to exploit him to make money. That’s sad too.

@ Jaylo – I appreciate your perspective. I guess where I have difficulty is that Luttrell must have signed off on the galley proofs, has made a lot of money of this best seller, actively works as a punlic speaker, and even sold the film rights to Hollywood. I think he is responsible for the words in the book.

As to your central issue, I don’t know how much the co-writer wrote, and how much Luttrell dictated, but I would love to find out.

God luck with the book. If you ever need another set of eyes, pass it along, or if you ever need a review.

Eric, you are correct. Luttrell is responsible. However if, indeed, he is as damaged psychologically as your review suggests and he alludes to at the end, then I think his writer could have protected him a little more, unless as I said he overidentified with Luttrell. You are also right in suggesting that a lot of the text is lifted directly from tapes, at least that’s how it reads (I don’t think this writer writes in the childish way that appears in much of the narrative and, unfortunately, reveals Luttrell to be a bit of an ignoramus). You are also correct when you say that Luttrell is making a fortune out of the book. It’s too bad he couldn’t link up with a better writer because the book was a guaranteed bestseller before it was written and any agent Luttrell would have approached alone without writing anything would have hooked him up with a top notch ghostwriter.

I will relay your message to my friend re: the book. I am just helping him through stage one of preparing sample chapters. It’s his book. Not mine. I have a book coming out in october on a subject only peripherally related to the war(s) in that the last chapter goes into a detailed discussion of 9/11 from the perspective of a number of people who were there (the Bush administration’s inane excuse for going into Iraq). However, my next book may well concern war. If that book works out, then I will take up your offer when it gets to that stage (first readable draft) as it absolutely pertains to “on violence.” Thanks.

I guess the question is whether the co-writer is more of an accomplice or used Luttrell to push his own agenda. But based on Luttrell’s track record of speaking before groups like the NRA, I’d have to say he is as conservative as he seems.

That said, I put as much responsibility, if not more, on the co-writer. I personally could never have attached my name to a book with some of the writing in Lone Survivor, and a professional writer should be held to a higher standard.

You nailed it. Even using a pseudonym or no name at all, I wouldn’t have agreed to write this book in the way it was written if I were a ghostwriter. I doubt that Luttrell’s contract stipulated it be written in this way either. That was the author’s choice.So, if not accomplice then collusion. There is a book that also appears conservative politically that was authored by an infantry soldier who kicked down doors in Fallujah after the Blackwater contractor debacle… I believe the book is ghostwritten but it is well done, a valid perspective of one angry soldier’s perspective (can’t recall the name of the book but you may recognize it. The soldier disses the Marines a lot.)