Monday, June 30, 2008

Lone Survivor, by Marcus Luttrell with Patrick Robinson 

I bought a copy of this book back when I was stock piling books that seemed tangentially related to my thesis, then later culling through them to read the appropriate bits, reading the whole thing if the entire text seemed relevant or just looking for appropriate anecdotes to support previously made points if the entire text seemed more narrative than explication. This was one of the ones that didn't seem relevant enough to my topic paper to warrant the time to read the entire book (my MA Psychology topic paper, for those who don't remember but for some reason care, was about killology, specifically the mental trauma of killing in the context being a combatant in a legal, government supported war).

My interest was renewed after sitting in on a few ethics classes at the US Naval Academy which used this books as a text to illustrate Rules of Engagement and the moral quandaries that arise from insisting that US troops take a moral high ground and kill as few civilians as possible, and to not ever kill civilians proactively.

This part of the US Rules of Engagement tries to balance the necessity of killing in war with minimizing collateral damage in the form of foreign civilians who present no immediate threat to American troops.

There is, of course, gray area, and SEAL Team 10 found themselves debating this gray area one night in the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan.

Luttrell tells us the full story of striving and finally becoming a full member of the elite Navy SEALS, in his mind the pinnacle of the American warriors (and I certainly wouldn't try to argue to his face whether Special Forces or SEALs are better fighters!). His narration is compelling and clear. Every sentence sounds like he is telling you this story over beers or a barbecue dinner, his tone is conversational and authentic. John Keegan he is not; he's closer to Hemingway telling hunting stories around a campfire without the drunken exaggeration. Because the story doesn't need exaggerating. Sure, he's cocky when describing the prowess of the SEALs, but that is out of pride, not a desire to sound better than he and his teammates are. The dialogue is laced with enough profanity to sound real but not so much that most readers (knowing they are reading a military memoir) would be scandalized.

He and his team, while looking for al-Qaida terrorists on a mission in Afghanistan, are discovered by a group of civilian goat-herders. The SEALs are pretty sure than these goat-herders will, at first chance, report the presence of Americans to al-Qaida or the Taliban. They are equally certain that these men pose no immediate threat and are not terrorists themselves. So - what should they do?

What should they do? Should they release the innocent civilians, or should they kill the people they suspect will report their presence to their enemies and risk their enemies coming at them with superior firepower and tactics, risk facing an overwhelming force, risk being slaughtered? What do the Rules of Engagement say? What does common sense say? What does each man's conscience say?

On the off chance that anyone interested in reading this book hasn't already read news stories about this, I'll not reveal the debate nor the decision. The title reveals something, but not everything.

I was incredibly lucky to hear aspiring Navy and Marine officers discussing this book and this question. They discussed it not with the detachment that accompanied any of the students in my bioethics class at Georgetown, but knowing full well that in a year or two or three, it could be them out there in the field facing such a grim decision that will direct not only their fate but the fates of their comrades. The answer could lead to survival, death, and/or court-martial.

The book is powerful. It's single moral question is so simple but so complex.

Could you bring it on your next visit?
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