(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.)
So....here we are again. For eagle-eyed observers following the news, you may have noticed that Marcus Luttrell is speaking at the Republican National Convention tonight. (Tonight’s theme is “Make America Safe Again”. Remember, these are the safest times in American history.) Honestly, we thought we were about done with Lone Survivor and its author, but Luttrell keeps himself in the news, especially as a Republican spokesperson.
We’ll be watching Marcus’ speech today (and hopefully live-tweeting @onviolence), looking to see if he either A. repeats misinformation (especially misinformation reporters could easily fact check) or B. rebuts his past statements or writing.
In case anyone is googling his name and landing at our website, here’s a quick summary:
- Marcus Luttrell continues to exaggerate or distort the facts about Operation Red Wings. (His website still calls it “Operation Red Wing” as of July 17th, 2016.) For a primer on all the mistakes and inaccuracies, check out our post here. For a mainstream feature article, check out the second half of R.M Schneiderman’s Newsweek cover story from last month, “Marcus Luttrell’s Savior, Mohammad Gulab, Claims ‘Lone Survivor’ Got It Wrong” and our reaction to it here. SOFREP has an in-depth discussion (alas, it’s behind a paywall) here. And finally, this all started with Ed Darack, so read his stuff here.
- Marcus Luttrell is a political figure, which both justifies this level of scrutiny and indicts the media for not providing it. This can’t be said enough.
- Operation Red Wings was an historically important mission for the U.S. military. Getting the facts right about it matters, as Michael C wrote about here. Also, as we’ll discuss later this week, the U.S. military never seriously investigated this failed operation.
- Despite the above two bullet points, the media (hate to say it, but “mainstream media”) has shown almost no interest in covering Luttrell’s persistent distortions. If we had to call one figure out in particular, it’d be Anderson Cooper, who regularly invites Luttrell on as a guest and did the really bizarre, softball 60 Minutes feature (our link here).
In honor of the convention, we’re posting a piece we tried--but failed--to get published last year, after the Brian Williams’ fiasco, comparing the Brian Williams and Bill O’Reilly controversies to Marcus Luttrell and Chris Kyles’ repeated inaccuracies, along with the media’s response to both.
The Media Shouldn’t Hold Veterans to a Different Standard than Brian Williams
In February of 2015, when Brian Williams admitted he fabricated a war story about his time in Iraq, the news media rightfully excoriated him. Anderson Cooper called it a “blow to the profession.” David Carr on CBS’s This Morning with Charlie Rose called Williams’ actions “dumb”. (Williams was demoted last month to MSNBC.) Also in February, Bill O’Reilly also came under fire for exaggerating his experiences in war zones (O’Reilly’s exaggerations literally filled a book).
Seeing the outrage over Williams and O’Reilly fabricating events in a war zone and the media’s continued obsession with debunking non-fiction memoirs, it made us ask: what about Republican political operatives who happen to be veterans--specifically former Navy SEALs Marcus Luttrell and Chris Kyle? Why aren’t they held to the same exacting standard, especially when they use their stories to push Republican candidates and endorse conservative policies like gun rights?
Take Lone Survivor, the story of Marcus Luttrell and Operation Red Wings. Both the film and memoir of Lone Survivor contained massive inaccuracies on par with the Williams and O’Reilly exaggerations. We’ve spent years debunking the claims of Luttrell in his memoir Lone Survivor on our blog, On Violence. For those not familiar, Marcus Luttrell was part of a four man sniper team whose position was discovered by three goat herders in Afghanistan. After freeing the Afghans, the team was attacked by insurgents, and only Luttrell survived.
Luttrell’s memoir has significant discrepancies from official military reports about the battle. In his memoir and later speeches, Marcus Luttrell claims 200 men attacked his team while the U.S. Navy’s official documents said it was closer to 50. Other reports have cited 20 to 30 attackers (and some even lower). In the memoir and interviews, Luttrell falsely claims that the target of the operation, Ahmad Shah, was a high level Taliban operative with ties to Osama bin laden. Neither claim is true. In both interviews and his memoir, Luttrell claims Shah had killed many, many Marines in the months before the mission, when only five Marines had died in Afghanistan at that point and none were killed by Shah. Luttrell also claims he saw evidence of WMDs and, more shockingly, an al Qaeda training camp in Iraq. (And there are many more mistakes, including getting the title of the operation wrong.)
When Charlie Rose interviewed Marcus Luttrell before the release of Lone Survivor (the film), he let Luttrell repeat many of these exaggerations, including Luttrell saying, “We were sent out to capture/kill a high ranking individual in bin Laden’s army.” Charlie Rose also played a clip from the film repeating the claim that 20 Marines died the week before in Afghanistan, when in reality no Marines had died, a fact easily discovered by using iCausualties.org.
Most egregiously, in his memoir, Luttrell claimed the SEAL team took a vote over whether or not they should kill three goatherders. During Marcus Luttrell’s appearance on 60 Minutes with Anderson Cooper--in addition to ignoring the other discrepancies and exaggerations in Luttrell’s memoir--Cooper only casually mentions that in, “the past [Luttrell has] been criticized for saying they took a vote… something that’s not supposed to happen in SEAL teams because it’s up to the team leader to make a decision.” But Cooper didn’t ask Luttrell why he wrote that in his book, why Luttrell told Matt Lauer on the Today Show that they took a vote, or ask Luttrell why he changed his story. In other words, ask the same questions the media asked of Brian Williams.
And on the same night Anderson Cooper described Brian Williams’ actions as a “blow to the profession”, who was his earlier guest? Marcus Luttrell.
Outside of an article we wrote for Slate and a piece by Ed Darack in The Marine Corp Gazette, no major media outlet has asked Luttrell about the discrepancies in his book versus reality, compared to the thousands of new stories about Brian Williams. [Update: As of today, Newsweek is the only exception.] Despite Marcus Luttrell endorsing Rick Perry for President (twice) and regularly appearing as a pundit on Fox News, he has not been held to the same standard as journalists. He also joined other Navy SEALs in founding a company they bill as a “movement” that runs paid speaking tours and sells ammunition.
Perhaps you could explain away Marcus Luttrell’s exaggerations as minor details, but Chris Kyle of American Sniper fame made up at least three stories since he left the military: he claimed he punched Jesse Ventura in the face (Ventura later sued Kyle for defamation and won), he claimed he shot looters in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and he claimed that he killed two men who attempted to carjack him in Texas. (Like Luttrell, Kyle also claimed he saw evidence for WMDs in Iraq, something not even the current crop of Republicans running for president think is the case.)
Yet the most important falsehood told by Chris Kyle is this: despite claims on American Sniper’s website that Kyle “donated the proceeds of American Sniper to the families of his fallen friends”, according to court transcripts, less than 2% of the over $3 million in book royalties went to charity.
Promoting American Sniper when it was released in January, outside of a few blog posts, the majority of media coverage ignored Kyle’s tall tales. On February 9th, after covering the Brian Williams scandal, Anderson Cooper closed his show by announcing the CNN special Blockbuster: The Story of American Sniper. This special didn’t debate any of the above fabrications, including Katrina, Jesse Ventura or shooting the carjackers.
Luttrell and Kyle used their bestselling memoirs to promote Republican politics and profit. Both American Sniper and Lone Survivor are filled with political rants against liberals, the media and the military’s rules of engagement. Marcus Luttrell tours the country giving speeches for conservative groups, like the NRA, Glenn Beck’s rally, and Rick Perry’s 2012 presidential campaign. He’s also started selling gun ammunition. Taya Kyle, Chris Kyle’s widow, recently gave a speech at an NRA convention. And she has her own memoir coming out in the next couple of months. Tara Kyle also joined Marcus Luttrell in founding their company-styled as a philanthropy Team Never Quit.
And a few weeks ago, both Taya Kyle and Marcus Luttrell endorsed Rick Perry for president and joined him on-stage for the announcement. [Update: And now, of course, Luttrell is supporting Donald Trump for president and speaking at the RNC.]
We criticize veterans from the position of one who served. One half of our writing team deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq as an officer in the US Army. We believe we (veterans) should be held to the same standard as the rest of society. The fact that Luttrell and Kyle have profited from exaggerating their stories upsets many veterans, just like Brian Williams’ exaggerations.
In the end, Brian Williams has been replaced with Lester Holt. Last year, Holt did NBC News’ segment on Lone Survivor and this year covered American Sniper. He didn’t cover any of the mistakes or exaggerations of either Luttrell or Kyle, and in fact, allowed deliberately false information to stand.
In other words, veterans continue to get a pass.