There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Lone Survivor on the bus

Finished reading "Lone Survivor, The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10." The book is written by Marcus Luttrell, a U.S. Navy SEAL who was the only survivor of a four-man team sent into a remote Afghan province to locate a Taliban leader.

I purchased this book because I wanted to learn more about Lt. Michael P. Murphy, the leader of the SEAL team. On Oct. 22, 2007, Murphy was posthumously awarded the nation's highest military honor, the Medal of Honor. This is the first Medal of Honor given in the Afghan War.

The Navy considers Luttrell's account, which he wrote with Patrick Robinson, to be an accurate record of what happened in Afghanistan. Murphy's father disagrees. At issue is what I feel is the key to why Murphy truly deserved to be honored.

On June 28, 2005, the four-man SEAL team had established itself on a mountainside overlooking a village where the Taliban leader and his soldiers were believed to be. But soon after they settled in, Afghan shepherds, two men and a teenager, drove a herd of goats right into their position.

"The hard fact was, if these three Afghan scarecrows ran off to find Sharmak (the Navy identifies the Taliban as Ahmad Shah, a terrorist in his mid-30s who grew up in the adjacent mountains just to the south) and his men, we were going to be in serious trouble, trapped out here on this mountain ridge. The military decision was clear: these guys could not leave there alive. I just stood there, looking at their filthy beards, rough skin, gnarled hands, and hard, angry faces. These guys did not like us. They showed no aggression, but neither did they offer or want the hand of friendship."
Luttrell says a vote was taken. One of the four SEALS said they should shoot the three Afghans. One SEAL said he would do whatever the others agreed to. Luttrell initially sided with killing the Afghans.
Mikey [Lt. Murphy] was thoughtful. "Listen, Marcus. If we kill them, someone will find their bodies real quick. For a start, these fucking goats are just going to hang around. And when these guys don't get home for their dinner, their friends and relatives are going to head straight out to look for them, especially for this fourteen-year-old. The main problem is the goats. Because they can't be hidden, and that's where people will look.

"When they find the bodies, the Taliban leaders will sing to the Afghan media. The media in the U.S.A. will latch on to it and write stuff about the brutish U.S. Armed Forces. Very shortly after that, we'll be charged with murder. The murder of innocent unarmed Afghan farmers."

I had to admit, I had not really thought about it quite like that. But there was a terrible reality about Mikey's words. 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 I suddenly flashed on the prospect of many, many years in a U.S. civilian jail alongside murderers and rapists.
According to Luttrell's account, Lt. Murphy attempted to contact his team's headquarters, but they could not be reached. The decision was going to be theirs to make.

Luttrell said they eventually voted again with the same result. Lt. Murphy then addressed the team:
"Well, let me tell you one more time. If we kill these guys we have to be straight about it. Report what we did. We can't sneak around this. Just so you all understand, their bodies will be found, the Taliban will use it to the max. They'll get it in the papers, the U.S. liberal media will attack us without mercy. We almost certainly be charged with murder. I don't know how you guys feel about that... Marcus, I'll go with you. Call it."
Luttrell decided to let them go.
It was the stupidest, most southern-fried, lamebrained decision I ever made in my life. I must have been out of my mind, I had actually cast a vote which I knew could sign our death warrant. I'd turned into a fucking liberal, a half-assed, no-logic nitwit, all heart, no brain, and the judgment of a jackrabbit.
In a June 12, 2007, article in Newsday, Lt. Murphy's father, Daniel Murphy, called Luttrell's account a disservice to his son's memory.
"That directly contradicts what he told [Murphy's mother] Maureen, myself and Michael's brother John in my kitchen," said Murphy, who watched Luttrell on television but said he hasn't read the book. "He said that Michael was adamant that the civilians were going to be released, that he wasn't going to kill innocent people. ... Michael wouldn't put that up for committee. People who knew Michael know that he was decisive and that he makes decisions."
The SEAL team was attacked shortly after letting the Afghans go. At one point in the battle, Lt. Murphy decided he had to call for help. The U.S. Navy official Summary of Action states:
Moving away from the protective mountain rocks, he knowingly exposed himself to increased enemy gunfire. This deliberate and heroic act deprived him of cover and made him a target for the enemy. While continuing to be fired upon, Murphy made contact with the SOF Quick Reaction Force at Bagram Air Base and requested assistance. He calmly provided his unit’s location and the size of the enemy force while requesting immediate support for his team. At one point he was shot in the back causing him to drop the transmitter. Murphy picked it back up, completed the call and continued firing at the enemy who was closing in. Severely wounded, Lt. Murphy returned to his cover position with his men and continued the battle.
Fighting a war is never black and white. We ask warriors to follow rules of engagement. Choices must be made: What is the right thing to do? Life and death hang in the balance. Lt. Murphy was a real hero.

There is much to admire about Luttrell's dedication, especially after what he endured to become a SEAL. There is no question of Luttrell's heroism in combat. That he survived is a vivid demonstration of why the SEALS consider themselves the best trained warriors in the world. Luttrell's story of the Afghan villagers who risked their lives to shield him from the Taliban is amazing.

But Luttrell's book is filled with inane rants about liberals and the media, about how the war in Iraq was a necessary response to al-Qaida's attack on the United States and on and on. And I don't think I'm disappointed with the book just because I'm a liberal who works in the media.

I was hoping for something more like Dartmouth-educated Nathaniel Fick's "One Bullet Away: the Making of a Marine Officer." Instead I got an East Texas good old boy who clearly puts too much faith in talk radio and Fox News.

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