(Little, Brown and Co., 2007)
In 2005 a team of US Navy SEALs conducting a mission in north-eastern Afghanistan encountered heavy opposition from Taliban forces. After receiving catastrophic losses, an additional team of SEALs designated as a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) was flown in on a chopper operated by the US Army’s 160th SOAR to recover the imperiled team, however that chopper, it’s crew and passengers were destroyed when it was struck by a Taliban rocket-propelled grenade. In light of the overwhelming enemy forces and the extremely inhospitable mountain terrain, it was thought that there were no survivors from this mission gone awry. But there was one, Petty Officer Marcus Luttrell, and he tells his story in Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10.
As a veteran myself (army), I have to say that I hold the SEALs in awe. They can truly do it all, sea, air and land. Luttrell begins the narrative by describing the hard path to becoming a SEAL. While this takes up most of the first half of the book and is somewhat obligatory to SEAL memoirs, it’s a pretty good setup for letting us landlubbers get to know the kind of guy that can make it through the brutal selection and training of Navy SEALs. It also sets the foundation for the sacrifices to be made in the future.
Luttrell’s story in the latter half of the book is nothing short of extraordinary, as he survives a Taliban onslaught and, broken, battered and near death, manages to contact US search and rescue with the aid of a friendly Afghan village. Maybe more importantly, Lone Survivor is a fine testament to the fallen SEALs, one that is both touching and inspiring. Luttrell’s story also says much for the humanity of the Afghan people, whose hospitality and ancient code of honor made them willing to risk their own lives while protecting their inadvertent American guest from the Taliban.
Co-written with British author Patrick Robinson, Luttrell’s narrative voice is conversational, fitting for the plain-talking Texan he is (my dad was Texan, so I know that Texans are born storytellers). I sometimes wondered, though, how much of it was Robinson’s voice since I noticed that some Anglicisms sneaked through (like “aerial” for “antenna,” etc.). You can’t fault Luttrell for that, but Robinson could probably have shown a little more care for details like these. In spite of that, it’s not a big thing and the narrative is a brisk and absorbing read. On a more serious note, there is always the question of accuracy in war memoirs and, while I believe both Luttrell and Robinson are sincere, I’d expect some discrepancies to exist with other reports or even expedient alterations to accommodate an editor’s wishes. A significant event in the narrative (no spoilers here) seems particularly worthy of scrutiny, but it’s not for me to be an armchair general and second-guess tactical decisions. It’s just that the particular event doesn’t make a lot of sense to me as told.
One small criticism I have, though, is the running polemic against what Luttrell calls “liberals” and the “liberal media,” which I felt was kind of misguided, out of place and does little to quell the partisan rivalry in American politics. Furthermore, I’d rather not tarnish a tribute to fallen warriors with talk of politics. But I do understand and sympathize with Luttrell’s concerns and frustrations with constrictive ROE (Rules Of Engagement), but I’d argue that all politicians–liberal or conservative– are risk averse and few are in touch with the actual real-world concerns of our fighting forces. And as for “liberal media,” I think the media is more concerned with making a buck rather than pushing a political agenda. So I think it’s unfortunate that Luttrell feels that “liberals” are out to get him and other US service members. I personally don’t know a single person, regardless of personal politics, who do not hold US service members in the highest esteem.
The verdict: ★★★✩✩ (3/5) Writing inconsistencies and political harangues prevent it from being perfect, but nevertheless Lone Survivor is an engrossing story of survival and selflessness, and bring credit to some of the finest young men America has to offer.
Luttrell was medically retired from the Navy and has since established the Lone Survivor Foundation, a Houston based organization that helps wounded service members rehabilitate from their traumas, both physical and mental.