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Why Fact Checking Matters: On V in Other Places, Slate "How Accurate is Lone Survivor?”

(Normally, we start the year with our “Most Intriguing Event of the Year”. But since Lone Survivor hit 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.)

To avoid burying the lede, please check our recent article over at Slate on Lone Survivor. If you’re a regular reader, you’ve probably read the article it is based on here. Either way, we’re both pretty heavy Slate readers (and we regularly cite Dahlia Lithwick for her excellent legal reporting), so we’re excited to contribute to that great website.

So check it out.

Before we go, though, we want to tell a story which captures how Slate--and specifically staff writer Forrest Wickman--went above and beyond to do the due diligence this story requires.

After we published our magnum opus listing every important difference or mistake in Lone Survivor, we tried to get the word out to the journalists we respect. We sent a lot emails...and received one response.

Then, in the middle of last week, Forrest Wickman of Slate.com’s “Browbeat” blog reached out saying he loved the piece. He even went a step further asking if Slate could repurpose it. We immediately said yes. Based on the behavior of most journalists, we expected it to end there.

Thank God it didn’t. Forrest did what every editor should do: he asked us for our research for any facts that, by this point, we consider common knowledge. He asked us for links or citations. He also double checked our quotes to ensure accuracy. (The whole process took two days.)

In short, Forrest did what we expect editors everywhere--no matter how busy they are--to do: check the facts.

Unfortunately, virtually no major media outlets did this. As we wrote last Friday, Luttrell is on record repeating contradictory information to multiple news outlets...none of those news outlets double-checked what he told them.

So thanks again Slate.com for the opportunity to contribute and for doing due diligence.

26 comments

We’re getting a lot hate mail, a lot of hateful comments on the blog asking why we’re writing about this so much.

For everyone who wants to know: we’re not putting this stuff out there; luttrell is.

Just now I’m watching the interview Berg, Wahlberg and Luttrell did on the Charlie Rose show. Minute 12, Luttrell just described Ahmad Shah as, “high-ranking individual in bin Laden’s Army.” Oh, and the SEALs went after him after conventional forces failed.

That’s just not true. That’s not who Shah was.


Fact-checking matters. That’s correct, and especially for media outlets who are obligated to be truthful. But it should also be done tactfully. The article on Slate, as well as the original article posted on this website, contains a lot of analysis, a lot of corrections of false statements, and a lot of facts. However, neither article actually states an opinion of any sort – that is to say, neither article gives a reason for this enhanced scrutiny – leaving readers first confused, then, depending on their personal views, perhaps outraged, because they will inevitably conclude that the only motive behind your scrutiny is to launch a smear campaign against Luttrell, who, as a veteran, holds a high amount of credibility, even in the face of criticism from other veterans such as yourself.

His unique involvement in such a high-profile incident has put him in an especially esteemed position. Since your rationale for all of the fact-checking has not clearly been stated in the articles themselves, a lot of potential support has been lost, and people who might in other circumstances wholeheartedly agree with you are instead using personal insults to attack your character.

It’s a shame because you really do have important things to say. In fact, you clearly state your rationale in “The Worst War Memoir Since 9/11: An Introduction to Marcus Luttrell’s ‘Lone Survivor’ Week”: the book is terrible and therefore does not deserve to be considered as the definitive memoir on the current conflict in Afghanistan. That right there is still rather blunt, but at least it gives a reason for why you’re doing all this.

I suspect that you had hoped that your article on Slate would clearly communicate your intention – that there are many inaccuracies contained in ‘Lone Survivor’, both the film and the book, and their existence should be made known so as to avoid false conclusions by a misinformed public. As stated before, the first problem is that you did not state this intention clearly, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions.

A second problem is that the article on Slate addresses only ‘Lone Survivor’ the film. As a movie, the film ‘Lone Survivor’ has much more room to change facts for narrative purposes and still be rightfully allowed to represent the legacy of the conflict that it represents. For example, much of “Saving Private Ryan” is fictional, but it’s still one of the definitive movies on WWII. Other examples include “Argo” and “The King’s Speech”, both of which take many liberties with the historical record for dramatic reasons. Therefore, an article pointing out mistakes only in the movie serves no purpose other than to state the obvious.

In the future, if you clearly state your reasoning behind your criticism and focus your criticism on the book itself (with any criticism of the movie remaining secondary), you might find more support. Yes, you may have stated your reasons in previous articles, but it’s something that needs to be repeated ad nauseam due to the nature of the medium. And finally, it’s important to always state that you are not criticising Luttrell’s service in any way. Nothing good can come of that. With an issue as delicate as this, tact is crucial, and it’s important that you choose your battles wisely.


The truth is its own justification. What this series of posts and Mr. Darack’s work is doing is getting at the truth. That is especially important in matters of life and death and life and death of a lot of people as in the case of warring. I don’t see how you can do that “tactfully”, especially in this case. Mr. Luttrell, the Navy and the various publishers and producers all have an interest in the untruths being perpetuated and will react very badly to the truth being pointed out, not matter how carefully it is done. Their various fans will react just as badly. There ain’t no gentle way to take down a large edifice of lies. Dust is gonna fly no matter what.

Mr. Luttrell is a big tough guy, a super soldier, one of the mighty SEALS. There is a whole industry devoted to pumping those guys up. Treating them gently is letting them have it both ways. Yeah they’re the toughest things on two legs but no we can’t say plain that that unit got outmanuevered and outfought because it wouldn’t be tactful. They got beat. That doesn’t mean they didn’t try hard and weren’t brave and weren’t better man that most of us (me anyway), but they got beat. Mr. Luttrell should live up to the image and say it plain, we got beat. Instead there is a dust cloud of half truths, whole untruths, changing stories and plain and vague suggestions thrown up to obscure what happened. Mr. Luttrell served honorably but he ain’t doing so hot now.


@ Windows – That is an absolutely wonderful comment, and a great analysis of how people read our work. I’ll let you in on the behind the scenes thinking in the posts.

The reason the Slate article and the much longer article that it is based on don’t contain commentary is that first, the Slate article was edited down by the people at Slate. There was nothing we could do about that.

As far as “A List of the Mistakes and Differences…” post, we intentionally choose to avoid commentary in that post for a very simple reason: it’s over 5,000 words long, with updates. Our initial post was 4,300 words long. We just didn’t have room to add commentary.

That’s why we spent the last week explaining why the mistakes matter. It’s also why we kept linking to our other posts on Lone Survivor. Unfortunately, most people don’t read multiple articles on a website. There’s really nothing we could do about that.

I really do appreciate your feedback though.


Bill:

A leaked Taliban propaganda video that is not to be trusted you are using as evidence to prove the opposite of what it purports to show. Well I’m for one convinced…no, maybe not.


Bill, we edited your comment to remove the hostile profanity and personal insults. We do this because we respect the people who comment on this site and expect them to offer the same respect to us. (As a veteran, I like to tell people that we abide by the Army Values.) Please follow this policy to keep the needed debate on these issues civil.


In the end, people – and, dare I think it aloud, Americans in particular? – likely prefer comforting lies to unpleasant truths.

The “comforting lie” of “Lone Survivor” is here to stay, most probably, and may end up as part of a certain folklore, just as, say, the exploits of Alvin York (forgetting the 16 soldiers who fought alonside him, some of them dying in battle, and the controversy over him being singled out, only to remember the WWII propaganda movie version, to finally have him “shoot up Huns with his .45, with a shit-eating grin” on gun forums).
“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”, indeed.

Carl is totally right; the, err, “redwing” operation was a failure, due in part at least to errors were made by people who should have known better (as per Ed Darrack).
What followed was a willing and effective PR campaign by the Navy/SEALs, to turn a slap on the face, into a moral victory… and feed the hero-worship and the SoF fanboyism that seems to be the new accepted strain of militarism – but what else to worship, after a decade of occupation, and two major regional wars lost in a row?

Thinking about it, that’s disgusting, on par with the way Jessica Lynch or Pat Tillman were reduced to being props in a theater of admnistrative CYA and ideological lies, even in death… “Warrior values”, yeah. Oh, well.

Anyway, the “Lone Survivor” narrative and its heroic subtext, its clarity, its “war-like” quality, sure is sweeter than whatever happened for good.
Who would want truth? Who would want one’s heroes to screw up, not be up to what they’re supposed to be, IE, to be simply be human, after all?
As for you, you’re on the side of the truth, or at least, not going along with the lie. You may not win much, but you’re doing what’s right, IMHO, not defaming the fallen SEALs, not slandering the armed forces… Just not going along the lie.


@Kevin Berger

I was thinking about this myself. For the past decade or two the US seems intent on glorifying its failures. First Black Hawk Down and now this.

This is what people don’t understand. No one(certainly not the owners of this site) is trying to suggest that Luttrell and his teammates sould be villified, god forbid. They volunteered to be part of an elite unit and do a job, and they tried their best to do it. But neither should we throw medals and books and movies and praise and hero worship at someone who got themselves, their teammates and other military personnel killed.

That is the adult/military equivalent of kids receiving “participation trophies” and feel good platitudes every time they lose a game. Frankly it’s weak. I don’t know what else to call it. It’s unbecoming of a warrior, and unbecoming of a man.

Once upon a time many people would have recognized this. Now it seems their are too busy swelling up their chests with pride and patriotism to still think critically and with courage.


A couple of thoughts as I read through this
———-
I suppose you doubt that Marcus had any injuries that caused pain, mental fatigue and a host of other illnesses. I have no real issue with you criticizing them because true accountability sounds great in practice. One point I would like to recommend, splitting hairs does not do any of you justice when your intel, that is second and third hand, cough* and someone else’s book becomes your one and only source of truth. I’ve read Abu Muqawama from way back and became a fan but now, it seems like someone is overreaching and promoting a personal agenda.
——-
I see an issue of a dislike for Marcus, his and their SEAL culture and finally his politics and overall behavior. (He’s no academic and knowing somewhat about you, I sense the disapproval)
—————
Falling off a mountain side and getting shot a few times gives Marcus the benefit of the doubt…period. I mean, for you bean counters of “whats real” at the very least….Personally I would have stayed away from any critique on this one because in the big picture it makes you all look trivial.
—————
I apologize in advance if I sound overly sarcastic and for my grammatical form…seriously.


@ Jmac – I have to ask, because it keeps coming up again and again, why do commenters think we’re academics? We keep getting people calling us “ivory tower” this, “professor” that. Where do people keep getting that idea? Why do people think that?

We have an about page, it doesn’t mention a university affiliation anywhere.

And again, the blog is co-written by a veteran.


I mean, Michael C goes to business school, but it’s odd if conservatives are now anti-business school…that’s a fascinating development.


It’s the argument from authority fallacy. Because it’s easier to dismiss opinions(or even salient facts) if they come “intellectuals” or “armchair warriors”. You know, people who haven’t walked the walk, “been downrange”, who just “don’t get it”.

It’s trying to force the issue into a “doer” vs “talker” false dichotomy.

As if soldiering or skill-at-arms or being tough precludes one from being an “intellectual” or an “academic”. I’ve met some very, very dangerous people(judging by their facility to deal violence), both in the military/ex-military and people who have never served. And I’ve read about countless more. One of the things they all had in common was intelligence, and if you didn’t know who they were and saw them in the proper trappings you might have confused them for university proffesors.


I really need a spell check.


Jmac:

Falling of a hillside and getting shot doesn’t give anybody the right to disregard true. No passes given for not serving the true. You look at the evidence and then you decide. How much you like or feel sorry for somebody has nothing to do with it. To do anything else is to engage in a popularity contest.


Eric are you affiliated with Abu Muqawama? Those are academics as you would know if you followed them as I thought you did, hence I excepted you as part of their culture…Good as well as flawed from my view. So why you come off as academia, I dont know it just appeared that way to me.
BTW, I am a conservative maybe in contrast to you but in general I am not.

Here’s a question ..

Why is operation Red wing only known through “Lone Survivor”..
As Marcus status, he was pursued to write a book by the DOD/NSW…and now the only “accountability” of OPS Red Wing is from a vague book written by traumatically injured concussed Marcus…right?

I guess I’m the only academic here.

Note: Op Red Wing was real and far more brutal than the book or movie conveys. NSW wrote the book with Marcus’s narrative


@ Jmac – I’m no more affiliated with Abu Muquwama than I am with The New Yorker or the Eocnomist. It’s a blog I used to read and follow that blog (it’s now been discontinued)


Carl,
If you’re going to delete my post at least explain why


@ Jmac – Carl doesn’t run the blog, so he didn’t delete your post. I did.

And real simple, it was rude. Find a more respectful way to post your comment. I don’t mind if you disagree with us, but between mocking the writers of the blog as academics, and capitalizing comments (the internet version of shouting), and asking someone what would happen if an RPG blasted them in the wazoo, you’re going over board.

Reel it in.


Eric,

Thats fine, I made my point very well and clear as you know.

I have nothing left to share


You may be familiar with the various “Bravo Two Zero” books written by different participants of an ill-fated SAS op during the Gulf War. I wonder if Michael Asher got the same volume of hate mail for writing “The Real Bravo Two Zero,” where he walked the ground, did detailed research, and determined that the truth (while wild and hairy) fell far short of the exploits published up to that time. He has a quote that I think is applicable to this discussion:

“Their true heroism is only marred … by the dubious nature of much of what they have subsequently written. So why was the basic story not enough? The blame must lie not with McNab and Ryan, but with us, the reading public, who demand of our heroes not only endurance, but the solution of all problems by force.”

Why indeed was the basic story not enough?


@ F – He probably got hate mail, but the movie was released in 1999, pre-internet, so I doubt he got as much.

Anyway, for me and Michael C, most of the hate mail/comments—and it’s balanced between support and criticism, and not as large as you’d think—is fascinating rhetorically, between criticizing us as academics, or non-soldiers, or Marxists, or Hillary Clinton supporters.

Really interesting stuff.

I need to look into bravo Two Zero…


Yep, F, we will look into Bravo Two Zero. I had forgotten about it, but I had heard of it before, and that some sections were exaggerated.


Make sure you read The Real Bravo Two Zero after you read Bravo Two Zero. In addition to all its other qualities, it depicts Iraqis as intelligent, normal and brave people. Come to think of it, we would have done well as a country to have read it before going off on our adventure.


I think you guys missed something else during your exhaustive research , in the movie Mark Wahlberg shoots left handed, and in real life Marcus is right handed.


By way of comparison perhaps a look at the controversy involving “Bravo Two Zero” would be helpful. Can you guys dig into that as a topic for your blog?

There have been so many inconsistencies, allegations, accusations, investigations and even civil court actions regarding the B20 books, movies and other media depictions that I think everything about “Red Wings” will also continue to come under scrutiny. Mr. Luttrell is to be commended for not hiding behind a pseudonym as did the SAS guys but I think he should realize that questions will continue to be asked.

If one thinks about it and considers the deaths of SEALs and other operators in Urgent Fury, Just BeCause, etc. one might find equally distressing inconsistencies in the AARs and memoirs. Guys drowned in Grenada and got shot up in Panama, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan because someone effed up, not because they weren’t tough, professional and smart.

Someone who writes a book and calls it the definitive version of true events should strive for the utmost accuracy. Otherwise call it a novel.


Michael V – Oh yes, you put Bravo Two Zero very high up on our reading list. We plan to look into it and make the comparisons. Thanks for the heads up.

Be warned, though, we either work full-time or are students full-time, and write other works as well in our spare time so we can’t get to it super quickly.