“Look at me. Helpless, tortured, shot, blown up, my best buddies all dead, and all because we were afraid of the liberals back home, afraid to do what was necessary to save our own lives. Afraid of American civilian lawyers.”, Marcus Luttrell
Marcus Luttrell is a former United States Navy Seal, who received the Navy Cross for his actions in June 2005 facing Taliban fighters during Operation Redwing. He is the co-author of New York Times bestseller “Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and The Lost Heroes of Seal Team 10”. A film version starring Mark Wahlberg is being released to nationwide audiences this week.
Excerpts from “Lone Survivor”, pages 28 to 30:
“Looking back, during our long journey in the C-130 to Afghanistan, I was more acutely aware of a growing problem which faces U.S. forces on active duty in theaters of war all over the world. For me, it began in Iraq, the first murmurings for the liberal part of the U.S.A. that we were somehow in the wrong, brutal killers, bullying other countries; that we who put our lives on the line for our nation at the behest of our government should somehow be charged with murder for shooting our enemy.
It’s been an insidious progression, the criticisms of the U.S. Armed Forces from politicians and from the liberal media, which knows nothing of combat, nothing of our training, and nothing of the mortal dangers we face out there on the front line. Each of the six of us in that aircraft en route to Afghanistan had constantly in the back of our minds the ever-intrusive rules of engagement.
These are drawn up for us to follow by some politicians sitting in some distant committee room in Washington D.C. And that’s a very long way from the battlefield, where a sniper’s bullet can blast your head, where the slightest mistake can cost your life, where you need to kill your enemy before he kills you.
And those ROE are very specific: we may not open fire until we are fired upon or have positively identified our enemy and have proof of his intentions. Now, that’s all very gallant. But how about a group of U.S. soldiers who have been on patrol for several days; have been fired upon; have dodged rocket-propelled grenades and homemade bombs; have sustained casualties; and who are very nearly exhausted and maybe slightly scared?
How about when a bunch of guys wearing colored towels around their heads and brandishing AK-47s come charging over the horizon straight toward you? Do you wait for them to start killing your team, or do you mow the bastards down before they get a chance to do so?
The situation might look simple in Washington, where human rights of terrorists are often given high priority. And I am certain liberal politicians would defend their position to the death. Because everyone know liberals have never been wrong about anything. You can ask them. Anytime.
However, from the standpoint of the U.S. combat soldier, Ranger, SEAL, Green Beret, or whatever, these ROE represent a very serious conundrum. We understand we must obey them because they happen to come under the laws of the country we are sworn to serve. But they represent a danger to us; they undermine our confidence on the battlefield in the fight against world terror. Worse yet, they make us concerned, disheartened, and sometimes hesitant.
I can say from firsthand experience that those rules of engagement cost the lives of three of the finest U.S. Navy SEALs who have ever served. I’m not saying that, given the serious situation, those elite American warriors might not have died a little later, but they would not have died right then, and in my view would almost certainly have been alive today.
I realize I am not being specific, and I have no intention of being so. But these broad brushstrokes are designed to show how the rules of engagement are a clear and present danger, frightening young soldiers, who have been placed in harm’s way by their government, into believing they may be charged with murder if they defend themselves too vigorously.
I simply do not want to see some of the best young men in the country hesitating to join the elite branches of the U.S. Armed Services because they’re afraid they might be accused of war crimes by their own side, just for attacking the enemy.”
Excerpts from “Lone Survivor”, pages 121 to 124:
“The truth is, in this kind of terrorist/insurgent warfare, no one can tell who’s a civilian and who’s not. So what’s the point of framing rules that cannot be comprehensively carried out by anyone? Rules that are unworkable, because half the time no one knows who the goddamned enemy is, and by the time you find out, it might be too late to save your own life. Making sense of the ROEs in real-time is almost impossible.
Also, no one seems clear on what we should be called in Afghanistan. Are we a peace-keeping force? Are we fighting a war against insurgents on behalf of the Afghan government, or are we fighting it on behalf of the U.S.A.? Are we trying to hunt down the master terrorist bin Laden, or are we just trying to prevent the Taliban from regaining control of the country, because they were the protectors of bin Laden and all who fought for him?
We’re loyal servants of the U.S. government. But Afghanistan involves fighting behind enemy lines. Never mind there’s no shooting across the border in Pakistan, the illegality of the Taliban army…..
When we’re patrolling those mountains, trying everything we know to stop the Taliban regrouping, striving to find and arrest the top commanders and explosive experts, we are always surrounded by a well-armed, hostile enemy whose avowed intention is to kill us all. That is behind enemy lines. Trust me.
And we’ll go there. All day. Every day. We’ll do what were supposed to do, to the letter, or die in the attempt. On behalf of the U.S.A. But don’t tell us who we can attack. That ought to be up to us, the military. And if the liberal media and political community cannot accept that sometimes the wrong people get killed in war, then I can only suggest they first grow up and then serve a short stint up in the Hindu Kush. They probably would not survive.
The truth is, any government that thinks war is somehow fair and subject to rules like a baseball game probably should not get into one. Because nothing’s fair in war, and occasionally the wrong people do get killed. It’s been happening for about a million years. Faced with the murderous cutthroats of the Taliban, we are not fighting under the rules of Geneva IV Article 4. We are fighting under the rules of Article 223.556mm….that’s the caliber and bullet gauge of our M4 rifle. And if those numbers don’t look good, try Article .762mm, that’s what the stolen Russian Kalashnikovs fire at us, usually in deadly, heavy volleys.
In the global war on terror, we have rules, and our opponents use them against us. We try to be reasonable; they will stop at nothing. They will stoop to any form of base warfare: torture, beheading, mutilation. Attacks on innocent civilians, women and children, car bombs, suicide bombers, anything the hell they can think of. They’re right up there with the monsters of history.
And I ask myself, Who’s prepared to go furthest to win this war? Answer: they are. They’ll willingly die to get their enemy. They will take it to the limit, any time, any place, whatever it takes. And they don’t have any rules of engagement.
Thus we have an extra element of fear and danger when we go into combat against the Taliban or al Qaeda….the fear of our own, the fear of what our own navy judge advocate general might rule against us, the fear of the American media and their unfortunate effect on American politicians. We all harbor fears about untrained, half-educated journalists who only want a good story to justify their salaries and expense accounts. Don’t think it’s just me. We all detest them, partly for their lack of judgment, mostly because of their ignorance and toe-curling opportunism. The first minute an armed conflict turns into a media war, the news becomes someone’s opinion, not hard truths. When the media gets involved, in the United States, that’s a war you’ve got a damned good chance of losing, because the restrictions on us are immediately amplified, and that’s sensationally good news for the enemy.
The Navy SEALs can deal…with any enemy. But not if someone wants to put us in jail for it back home in the U.S.A. And we sure as hell don’t want to hang around the mountains waiting for someone to cut our throats, unable to fight back just in case he might be classified as an unarmed Afghan farmer.
But these are the problems of the modern U.S. combat soldier, the constant worry about overstepping the mark and an American media that delights in trying to knock us down. Which we have done nothing to deserve. Except, perhaps, love our country and everything it stands for.”
Excerpts from “Lone Survivor”, pages 144 to 152:
“The question was, What did we do now? They were very obviously goatherds, farmers of the high country. Or, as it states in the pages of the Geneva Convention, unarmed civilians. The strictly correct military decision would still be to kill them without further discussion, because we could not know their intentions.
How could we know if they were affiliated with a Taliban militia group or sworn by some tribal blood pact to inform the Taliban leaders of anything suspicious-looking they found in the mountains? And, oh boy, were we suspicious-looking.
The hard fact was, if these three Afghan scarecrows ran off to find Sharmak 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 their 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.
Axelson was our resident academic as well as our Trivial Pursuit king. And Mikey asked him what he considered we should do. “I think we should kill them, because we can’t let them go,” he replied, with pure, simple logic of the born intellect.
“And you, Danny?”
“I don’t really give a shit what we do,” he said. “You want me to kill ‘em, I’ll kill ‘em. Just give me the word. I only work here.”
“Well, until right now I’d assumed killing ‘em was our only option. I’d like to hear what you think, Murph.”
Mikey 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.
And yet…as a highly trained member of the U.S. Special Forces, deep in my warrior’s soul I knew it was nuts to let these goatherds go. I tried to imagine what the great military figures of the past would have done. Napoleon? Patton? Omar Bradley? MacArthur? Would they have made the ice-cold military decision to execute these cats because they posed a clear and present danger to their men?
If these Afghans blew the whistle on us, we might all be killed, right out here on this rocky, burning-hot promontory, thousands and thousands of miles from home, light-years from help. The potential force against us was too great. To let these guys go on their way was military suicide.
All we knew was Sharmak had between 80 and 200 armed men. I remember taking the middle number, 140, and asking myself how I liked those odds of 140 to 4. That’s 35 to 1. Not much.
Mike Murphy said quietly, “We’ve got three options. We plainly don’t want to shoot these guys because of the noise. So, number one, we could just kill them quietly and hurl their bodies over the edge. That’s probably a thousand-foot drop. Number two is we kill them right here, cover ‘em up as best we can with rocks and dirt…..Number three, we turn ‘em loose, and still get the hell out, in case the Taliban come looking.”
He stared at us. I can remember it like it was yesterday. Axe said firmly, “We’re not murderers. No matter what we do. We’re on active duty behind enemy lines, sent here by our senior commanders. We have a right to do everything we can to save our own lives. The military decision is obvious. To turn them loose would be wrong.”
If this came to a vote, as it might, Axe was going to recommend the execution of three Afghans. And in my soul, I knew he was right. We could not possibly turn them loose. But my trouble is, I have another soul. My Christian soul. And it was crowding in on me. Something kept whispering in the back of my mind, it would be wrong to execute these unarmed men in cold blood.
I guess all four of us were Christians, and if we were thinking like ordinary law-abiding U.S. citizens, we would find it very hard to carry out the imperative military decision, the overriding one, the decision any great commander would have made: these guys can never leave this place alive. The possible consequences of that were unacceptable. Militarily.
Lieutenant Murphy said, “Axe?”
“No choice.” We all knew what he meant.
“As before. I don’t give a shit what you decide. Just tell me what to do.”
“I don’t know, Mikey.”
“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 on 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, and the U.S. liberal media will attack us without mercy. We will almost certainly be charged with murder. I don’t know how you guys feel about that….Marcus, I’ll go with you. Call it.”
I just stood there. I looked again at these sullen Afghan farmers. Not one of them tried to say a word to us. They didn’t need to. Their glowering stares said plenty. We didn’t have rope to bind them. Tying them up to give us more time to establish a new position wasn’t an option.
I looked Mikey right in the eye, and I said, “We gotta let ‘em 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.
At least, that’s how I look back on those moments now. Probably not then, but for nearly every waking hour of my life since. No night passes when I don’t wake in a cold sweat thinking of those moments on that mountain. I’ll never get over it. I cannot get over it. The deciding vote was mine, and it will haunt me till they rest me in an East Texas grave.
Mikey nodded. “Okay,” he said, “I guess that’s two votes to one, Danny abstains. We gotta let ‘em go.”
I motioned for the three goatherds to get up, and signaled to them with my rifle to go on their way. They never gave one nod or smile of gratitude. And they surely knew we might very well have killed them. They turned toward the higher ground behind us.
I can see them now. They put their hands behind their backs in that peculiar Afghan way and broke into a very fast jog, up the steep gradient, the goats around us now trotting to join them.
I guess that’s when I woke up and stopped worrying about the goddamned American liberals. “This is bad,” I said. “This is real bad. What the fuck are we doing?”
Axe shook his head. Danny shrugged. Mikey, to be fair, looked as if he had seen a ghost. Like me, he was a man who knew a massive mistake had just been made. More chilling than anything we had ever done together. Where were those guys headed? Were we crazy or what?
By my watch, it was precisely nineteen minutes after their departure, and the mood of sheer gloom enveloped us all.
Right now we sensed we must remain in strictly defensive mode, lie low for a while and hope the Taliban had not been alerted or if they had that we would be too well hidden for them to locate us. We were excellent practitioners of lying low and hiding.
Nothing stirred in the village. It had now been more than an hour and a half since we turned the goatherds loose. And it was still quiet and peaceful, hardly a breath of wind. And by Christ it was hot.
Around ten minutes more passed. Suddenly I heard Mikey make a familiar alert sound….Sssst! Sssst! I lifted up my hat and instinctively looked left, over my portside quarter, to the spot where I knew Axe would be covering our flank. And he was right there, rigid, in firing position, his rifle aimed straight up the mountain.
I twisted around to look directly behind me. Mikey was staring wide-eyed up the hill, calling orders, instructing Danny to call in immediate backup from HQ if he could make the radio work. He saw I was on the case, looked hard at me, and pointed straight up the hill. Lined along the top were between eighty and a hundred heavily armed Taliban warriors, each one of them with an AK-47 pointing downward. Some were carrying rocket-propelled grenades.
My heart dropped directly into my stomach. And I cursed those fucking goatherds to hell, and myself for not executing them when every military codebook every written had taught me otherwise. Not to mention my own raging instincts, which had to me to go with Axe and execute them. And let the liberals all go to hell in a mule cart, and take them all of their fucking know-nothing rules of etiquette in war and human rights and whatever other bullshit makes ‘em happy. You want to charge us with murder? Well, fucking do it. But at least we’ll all be alive to answer it. This way really sucks.
And at that moment all hell broke loose. The Taliban unleashed an avalanche of gunfire at us, straight down the mountain at every angle.
I could hear Mikey shouting, “Danny, Danny for Christ’s sake, get that fucking thing working….Marcus, no options now, buddy, kill ‘em all!””
Excerpts from “Lone Survivor”, pages 223 and 224:
“Al Qaeda are running around in broad daylight, mostly doing what the heck they want, until we show up and chase the little pricks back over the border to Pakistan. Where they stay. For about ten minutes, before launching their next foray into these tribal mountains, which their ancestors have ruled for centuries.
The Taliban is a ruthless outfit, with instincts about killing their enemies which have barely changed in two thousand years.
But from where I was sitting, in the smoky main room of one of Sabray’s high houses, talking to the village cop, that’s not the way the tide was running. And until the United States decides to wield a very large stick up here in support of the elected government of the people, in Kabul, I’m not looking for any serious real change real soon. The enemy is prepared to go to any lengths to achieve victory, terrorizing its own people, if necessary, and resorting to barbaric practices against its enemy, including decapitating people or butchering them.
We are not allowed to fight them on those terms. And neither would we wish to. However, we could fight in a much more ruthless manner, stop worrying if everyone still loved us. If we did that, we’d probably win in both Afghanistan and Iraq in about a week.
But we are not allowed to do that. And I guess we’d better start getting used to the consequences and permit the American liberals to squeak and squeal us to ultimate defeat. I believe that’s what it’s called when you pack up and go home, when a war fought under your own “civilized” terms is unwinnable.
We’re tougher, better trained, better organized, better armed, with access to weapons which cannot be resisted. The U.S. Armed Forces represent the greatest fighting force this world has ever seen, and we keep getting our butts kicked by a bunch of illegal thugs who ought to be eliminated.
Look at me, right now in my story. Helpless, tortured, shot, blown up, my best buddies all dead, and all because we were afraid of the liberals back home, afraid to do what was necessary to save our own lives. Afraid of American civilian lawyers. I have only one piece of advice for what it’s worth: if you don’t want to get into a war where things go wrong, where the wrong people sometimes get killed, where innocent people sometimes have to die, then stay the hell out of it in the first place.
Because that’s what happens. In all wars, down all the years of history. Terrible injustices, the killing of people who did not deserve to die. That’s what war is. And if you can’t cope with it, don’t do it.”