Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10
Luttrell, M., & Robinson, P. (2013). Lone survivor: The eyewitness account of Operation
Redwing and the lost heroes of SEAL team 10. New York, NY: Back Bay Books-Little
Brown and Company. (Original work published 2007)
List price: $17.00 U.S./$19.00 Canada
Softcover: 395 pages
ISBN No.: 978-0-316-06759-1
Publisher: Back Bay Books – Little Brown and Company
Publish date: November 2013
Book Review and Essay by Steven Christopher Ippolito
An American sailor in war once declared: "’There are no great men, there are only great challenges which ordinary men like you and me are forced by circumstances to meet’" (Book of Famous Quotes, n.d.; Crowther, 1960). Decades later, another sailor – who also came to know war in its most intimate and violent nuances – would proclaim a similar understanding of the martial strivings that define greatness “I will never quit…My Nation expects me to be physically harder and mentally stronger than my enemies. If knocked down, I will get back up, every time…I will…protect my teammates…I am never out of the fight (Luttrell & Robinson, 2013, p. 235). Many years separated these two sailors in time. But in spirit, they are kindred souls, mystically joined by the common legacy of ordinary men rising to meet the nearly impossible, and aided, above all, by spirit, honor, fidelity to God and Country, and love of one’s comrades. Once accomplished, the making of the great man in war – a veritable descent into an existential crucible -- does not soon depart from the realm of
Memoria, the great power of the soul as the Medieval Scholastics rendered it, gives rise to the intimate cauldron of memories that is the totality of one’s daily life. By its contents – all of it -- a man is known; by its contents, a man is judged.
Memoria understands paradox, memoria is the archetypal manifestation of the integrated neighborhood,
memoria is that place where all things come together -- the good bleeding into bad, the trivial and the significant, things acceptable; things shunned and scorned, and the bitter fruit of pain never-to-be forgotten, complex and perhaps ridiculous – ten thousand little-big things that separate one from the
ordinary and the mundane. Human significance can be found in memoria. When ordinary men rise to meet extraordinary challenges, memoria marks the event, perhaps with a sense of victory, perhaps with sorrow. But ultimate healing, too, is of its nature. In the aftermath of battle, the peace of healing for the warrior is accomplished with difficulty; by degree and by trial, one painful memory is superseded by another – and impregnated by meaning and virtue –
manliness – for this is the meaning of the word virtu.
Fleet Admiral William (Bull) Halsey, Jr. was the first sailor, referenced above. His view of the great man -- a frequently uttered martial mantra in World War II – was heard, at times, during the desperate naval-marine combat in the Pacific Theater (1941-1942), when some of Halsey’s junior officers having experienced setbacks in combat may have come to doubt their abilities as war fighters. Reminiscent of the ancient samurai code of
bushido, the Halseyan mantra expressed the Admiral’s credo about war, and the ultimate nature of the men who are compelled to wage it. Ironically, perhaps, given his theater of operations, Halsey’s insight was forged in the same fire that created the samurai warrior’s
katana. William Halsey received the Navy Cross in World War I. James Cagney, the great American actor who portrayed Halsey in the 1960 war film,
The Gallant Hours -- memorable for its paradoxical absence of any combat scenes at all, made these words known to a much wider American audience; and as a dramatic device, the Halseyan mantra lost none of the power it seemed to radiate in a purely military context (Book of Famous Quotes, n.d.; Crowther, 1960; Montgomery, 1960). As a matter of history, Halsey brought his forces to bear at such engagements as Guadalcanal and the Solomon Island (1941-1942). Here, the American spirit matched naval wits with the aggressive Japanese navy and such worthy opponents as Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto -- the man who planned the Pearl Harbor attack, on 7 December 1941. By and large, Halsey prevailed in these contests, but the price of victory was high in blood and treasure (Millett & Maslowski, 1994). “In seven major fleet engagements and many minor skirmishes, Halsey’s fleet lost twenty-four warships and an estimated 5,000 sailors” (Millet & Maslowski, 1994, p. 441). Only two American aircraft carriers were functional after the Solomon Islands; Yamamoto’s losses, however, were worse: “30,000 soldiers and sailors, twenty-four warships, more than 100 merchantmen, and 600 aircraft” (Millet & Maslowski, 1994, pp. 441-443).
In the Pacific, Halsey was not found wanting; neither was the second sailor referenced above, Petty Officer First Class, Marcus Luttrell, U.S. Navy, SEAL Team 10. Like Bull Halsey, Marcus Luttrell, known to his teammates as
Southern Boy, would also come to know honor and heroism. Like Admiral Halsey, he, too, he would have occasion to express an existential view of struggle and greatness born of the brave and virtuous heart, “the official philosophy of the U.S. Navy SEAL” (Luttrell & Robinson, 2013, p. 15). Doubtlessly, Admiral Halsey would have approved:
We train for war and fight to win. I stand ready to bring the full spectrum of combat power to bear in order to achieve my mission…In the worst of conditions, the legacy
of my teammates steadies my resolve and silently guides my every deed. I will not
fail (Luttrell & Robinson, 2013, p. 15).
The purpose of this review essay is manifold. It is to first demonstrate the relationship of the SEAL credo to the Halseyan mantra of battle, not simply as a philosophy for war fighting, but one that is applicable to all departments of human life, civilian or military. Secondly, this review-essay will examine the life and activities of a unique American serviceman, Petty Officer First Class Marcus Luttrell (U.S. Navy, ret.), together with his teammates in SEAL Team 10, as these events are memorialized in Lutrell’s book,
Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of Seal Team 10. Thirdly, this review-essay will underscore the idea of vision and vocation in charting one’s life course, and the insight that leads a young man like 12 year old Marcus Luttrell to come to the firm understanding that he should seek to make his life in one of the most complex branches of service in American military history. Lastly, this review essay will attempt to demonstrate an important concept about the relationship of counter-insurgency to waging war in the context of a globalized war on terror:
the importance of working with local allies, and to understand the socio-cultural context that informs their existence.
In a careful reading of the details of Operation Redwing, an important subtext is revealed, one that explicates the events that characterize the Battle of Murphy’s Ridge in Afghanistan, March 2005. The subtext is that powerful cultural reality that has been described under the rubric of the Western Way of War, advocated by such writers as Victor Davis Hanson (2001). Marcus Luttrell survived the violence of Operation Redwing and the Battle of Murphy’s Ridge, in large measure due to his superior level of training and skill, amplified by his personal traits and life history. These helped secure a victory over fanatical warriors whose hatred and zealotry was not matched by an equivalent measure of training, martial skill, or demonstrable competence. Like the Greek warriors who served Cyrus the Younger in 401 B.C., described by Xenophon in the
Anabasis, Navy SEALs, fight:
much differently than their adversaries and that such unique…characteristics of
battle –a sense of personal freedom, superior discipline, matchless weapons,
egalitarian camaraderie, individual initiative, [and with] constant tactical adaptation
and flexibility (Hanson, 2002, p. 4).
The characteristics of a Western Way of War helped keep Marcus Luttrell alive
to the present hour. Equally important in his survival against overwhelming odds and circumstances, ironically enough, were the ancient traditions of Afghanistan dating back generations, traditions that caused a local tribe to protect him from the violence of the Taliban. Such realities must be borne ever in mind when America sends its best young people to wage war in far-away places. Admiral Halsey would agree, in all likelihood, that Marcus Luttrell has earned his greatness, as surely as he earned his SEAL Trident. In fact, there are similarities between Luttrell and Halsey: both earned the Navy Cross; both harbored ambitions to become a medical doctor, and made real attempts to learn the art and science of medicine; and both, to be sure, distinguished themselves in battle as extraordinary warriors. Thus, American greatness in war or any particular area of endeavor is an ordinary citizen rising to meet an extraordinary series of challenges, with energy, ambition, and a mobilization of one’s natural talents and abilities. Ignored is fear of failure, self-consciousness, public or family opinion, the censure of one’s fellows, and in the case of war, the existential fear of death. It was true in Admiral Halsey’s day and before in the founding of the nation; it is true today and always.
The Special Operations Warfare Community – Rising to Halsey’s Challenge
In March, 2005, in Afghanistan, a U.S. Navy SEAL team (SEAL Team 10) consisting of four highly trained Americans were searching for a rather dangerous Taliban operative. Admiral Halsey would not have found it necessary to speak his mantra to these men – they had learned it long before, and their behavior in Operation Redwing would demonstrate how well they had in fact mastered this philosophy. In Redwing, they would find themselves in a one-sided, highly ferocious battle with hundreds of fanatical Taliban warriors, the Battle for Murphy’s Ridge (Luttrell & Robinson, 2013). Like Admiral Halsey, these men, Lieutenant Michael Murphy, Petty Officer Matthew Axelson, Petty Officer Danny Dietz, and Petty Officer Marcus Luttrell, were dyed-in-the-wool Navy men, ordinary men who were called upon to meet the critical challenges of a new kind of war that was likely unknown to Admiral Halsey and most of the war fighters of the greatest generation. Tragically, only one member of the team, Marcus Luttrell, would survive the battle.
The battle of Murphy’s ridge. Militarily, the Battle of Murphy’s Ridge invokes a seeming amalgam of battles that occurred at the Alamo (Texas) and George Armstrong Custer’s last engagement against the Lakota nation and their allies, 25 June 1876, in the Montana territory (Connell, 1984; Hardin, 1994; Huffines, 2005). An important difference, to be sure, separates Murphy’s Ridge from these earlier events. But for the SEALs, the American cavalrymen at the Big Horn River in Montana, and the
Texians (as they were called at the Alamo, March 1836), the essential similarity is that the Americans found themselves grossly outnumbered by the enemy, and forced to fight essentially to the last man. At Murphy’s Ridge, there is a parallel to these events in numerical terms, but unlike the Alamo and the events that befell Custer’s main body of troops (additional companies of the 7th U.S. Cavalry survived on Reno’s Hill, away from the Big Horn action, primarily due to the leadership of Captain Frederick Benteen of H Company), the SEAL operation would have a survivor who would tell the tale, Marcus Luttrell (Connell, 1984; Hardin, 1994; Huffines, 2005; Luttrell & Robinson, 2013).
The account of the lone survivor of Operation Redwing.
Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of Seal Team 10, jointly-written by Marcus Luttrell and respected military novelist, Patrick Robinson, has provided an account of the relationship of Luttrell to the Navy, to the global war on terror in terrorism, but mostly to the SEALS, whose training and selection process is told in a way that will engage the reader quite thoroughly. The experience of SEAL Team 10, as it flows from the pages of
Lone Survivor, might ordinarily be called heroic; one might even describe it as
uncommonly heroic. For purposes of this review, however, those adjectives and nouns do not seem sufficient. In the history of the United States military, heroism is not unusual. Indeed, the account given by Marcus Luttrell in the, Lone Survivor has amply demonstrated what can be called
transcendent heroism. For the principal author, the book is a product of
memoria, not simply of battle, but of fidelity, friendship, and the enduring love amongst comrades who go into harm’s way for the good of an idea called America.
My name is Marcus. And I’m writing this book because of my three buddies,
Mikey, Danny and Axe. If I don’t write it, no one will understand the indomitable courage under fire of those three Americans. And that would be the biggest tragedy
of them all (Luttrell & Robinson, 2013, p. 7).
Lone Survivor – Structure and contents of the book.
As most military buffs are aware, the acronym, SEAL, stands for Sea, Air, and Land; sailors who graduate from SEAL training are highly effective in all three of these war-fighting dimensions. Luttrell’s book is a window in the universe of SEAL training and combat effectiveness, and as a literary product,
is a 12-chapter book of 395 pages, originally published in 2007. Released in May 2008, in soft cover, it underwent a second printing in November 2013, in anticipation of a motion picture based on the book in mid-January 2014. The authors have provided a map of Afghanistan, a Prologue, photographs of Marcus Luttrell, his SEAL team members with family members, and photographs of future SEALS in BUDs training (basic underwater demolition training; frogman training). There are also photographs of friendly Afghan tribesmen, a number of whom helped save the life of Marcus Luttrell in the aftermath of the Battle for Murphy Ridge. Finally, there are likenesses of the Luttrell family, together with President George W. Bush at the White House in 2006, on the day Petty Officer Luttrell received the Navy Cross. The book does not contain an Index, something that would have been helpful, but the work does contain an Epilogue, an Afterword, by co-author, Patrick Robinson, something of a post-Afterword, a note to the readers, entitled
Never Forget, written by Marcus Luttrell, somewhat poignantly described his stress-related issues he would experience in the aftermath of his return to the United States.
Tonight…I lie here with the TV on, watching the same movie I have seen at least fifty times if not more. The TV now serves as my safety blanket that glows all through the night…My days are relentless. I think about Afghanistan hourly, playing the scenario over and over in my head until I am on the verge of insanity. I would give anything
to have my friends back and life the way it used to be…I know that may sound trivial to a lot of people, but its the little things I miss the most about all of them (Luttrell & Robinson, 2007, p. 387) (emphasis added).
The Training of a U.S. Navy SEAL – Rising to Meet the Halseyan Challenge
Anyone wishing to understand the psychology of the incipient special operations warrior, in any branch of service, will gain much from this work. Marcus Luttrell speaks in a voice that is uniquely natural and straightforward. It is the voice of the common man, and the ordinary American citizen one passes regularly in daily life. Upon listening to it, one gets the impression that guile and deception are incapable of coming from the man who projects this interesting voice, especially as it hurtles straight from a large American shoulder, capable of sustaining rather heavy loads. It does not fail to attain its own unique manner of expression, though not without humility, sincerity, and a sense of humor. One can become rather fascinated by that voice in reading
Luttrell is a big man, to be sure, literally and metaphorically, gruff at times, plain spoken, showing the inevitable stress of being singed by gunfire, though he seems possessed of a veritable armor-plating for skin. At the same time, Marcus Luttrell presents himself seemingly as gentle as a sensitive child, and, simultaneously, as invulnerable as Level 3 body armor against small arms fire. In his writings, and in his interviews in the media, he has demonstrated himself to be a man who capable of unusually powerful attachments to friends, family, and fellow human beings, and to all members of the natural and animal kingdoms. It is the voice of one who was born in humble circumstances, but was not afraid to dream big in terms of military ambition; and who, in the fullness of time, would realize these dreams.
Equally, Petty Officer Luttrell has definite views on things – part of that unique voice, again. The Navy expression “hard-to-starboard” applies to him
politically. Like the starboard (right) side of a ship, Luttrell inclines toward the hard,
political right. He does not by any means subscribe to the progressive, left-leaning media; and he has no hesitation in saying so. His reason is that journalists of this type, inadvertently, can help the enemy at the wrong time, and usually at the expense of American war fighters. In this sense, Marcus Luttrell subscribes to a Manichean, black and white view of the world, in such matters.
We (SEAL team members) 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 our enemy (Luttrell & Robinson, 2013, p. 171).
The early years in Texas. In examining Marcus Luttrell’s early years, one learns of the vision that leads a young person to consider a career in the challenging environment of Special Operations. Luttrell’s book also demonstrates a nexus between individual strivings and the family and environmental influences that in all likelihood furnish the early glimmerings of martial consciousness leading many a young man to seek a career in the special warfare community.
Lone Survivor helps clarify “how a farm boy from the backwoods of East Texas came to be made a petty officer first class and a team leader in the U.S. Navy Seals” (p. 45). Luttrell was a teenager when the dream of the SEAL vocation seemed to come upon him. Unlike most of those who attempt to qualify for the SEAL community, Luttrell attempts to define the personal characteristics that help individuals succeed in this endeavor when so many do not do so.
The short explanation is probably talent, but I don’t have any more than the next guy.
In fact, my natural-born assets are very average. I’m pretty big…I’m pretty strong, because a lot of other people took a lot of trouble training me, and
I’m unbelievably determined, because when you’re as naturally ungifted as I am, you have to keep
driving forward, right? (Luttrell & Robinson, 2014, p. 46) (emphasis added).
As a child, Marcus Luttrell and his family lived in East Texas. He has an older brother Morgan, a twin, seven minutes older than he, who is also a Navy SEAL; both siblings are big men, about six feet five inches tall, though their relationship seems unusually close; that would apply to his family members in the early years in Texas. “I cannot remember my dreams, but I expect they were of home. Home for us is a small ranch out in the piney woods of East Texas…We live down a long, red dirt road in a lonely part of the country, near Sam Houston National Forest” (Luttrell & Robinson, 2013, p. 43). In those early years, Luttrell was not raised especially religious, though he has described himself as most partial to the Roman Catholic Church, though he was not baptized into that communion.
“I thought the late Pope John Paul was the holiest man in the world, an uncompromising Vicar of Christ. Tough old guy, John Paul. A lot too tough for the Russians. I’ve always thought if he hadn’t been a vicar, he’d have made a good Navy SEAL (Luttrell & Robinson, 2013, p. 44).
The Luttrell childhood was rural, an example of “an untroubled life” (p. 44). There is no sense of any particular family disharmony, though growing up, there was one particular problem and plenty of it – snakes!
“Dad taught us how to deal with them long ago, especially the coral snakes and those copperhead vipers…rattlesnakes, eastern diamondbacks, and king snakes which eat
the others. In the local lake you can find the occasional water moccasin…mean little sonofabitch…and I don’t much like ‘em”(Luttrell & Robinson, 2013, p. 44).
The Luttrell experience encapsulates life lived in proximity to nature. Happily, there were more than just snakes; there were cattle and horses, the wholesome atmosphere of the natural, animal world, such as Texas longhorns, horses. The matriarch of the family, Mrs. Holly Luttrell is even known “for her near-mystical power to bring sick or weak animals back to full-fighting form. No one knows how she does it. She’s plainly a horse whisperer” (p. 44).
Morgan and I were brought up with horses, feeding, watering, cleaning out the barns
riding…We worked the ranch, mended fences, swinging sledgehammers when we
were about nine years old…Dad insisted on that. And for a lot of years, the operation
did very well (Luttrell & Robinson, 2013, p. 47).
The patriarch of the family, David Luttrell, owned and worked a horse farm with thoroughbreds and quarter horses. The family underwent some financial reversals, at times, and even lost their home on one occasion. Additionally, Mr. Luttrell, a stern taskmaster who was himself a U.S. Navy veteran in Vietnam, did not spare the discipline when it came to his sons. Today, one calls his approach to child rearing by the euphemistic term
He (Luttrell’s father) ruled our lives with an iron fist…He tolerated nothing. Disobedience was out of the question. Rudeness was damn near a hanging
offense…He insisted on politeness and hard work. And he didn’t let up even
when we were all broke (Luttrell & Robinson, 2013, pp. 50-51).
In the formative years, there were guns, too -- the Luttrells are Texans, after all! The Luttrell boys grew up with firearms, like many youngsters in the South and West of the United States, and they appear to have become rather proficient with various long-arms at a tender age. They also learned to live off the land, how to plant corn and potatoes, vegetables and carrots; they especially learned to swim; David Luttrell insisted his boys become adept in the water near their home, and all these skills would be of assistance in later years in the Special Force community.
There was a huge lake near where we lived and that’s where Dad trained us.
All through the long Texas summers we were out there, swimming, racing, diving, practicing. We were just like fish, the way Dad wanted it (Luttrell & Robinson,
2013, p. 52).
An important formative influence, too, is found in the adulation the elder Luttrell showed the U.S. Navy SEALs regularly to his sons, a fact that cannot be ignored in understanding Marcus Luttrell’s decision to seek a career in the Navy and this particular war fighting community.
I think Dad always wanted us to be Navy SEALs. He was forever telling us about those elite warriors, the stuff they did and what they stood for. In his opinion they were all that is best in the American male – courage, patriotism, strength, determination, refusal to accept defeat…All through our young lives he told us about those guys. And over the years, it sunk in, I suppose. Morgan and I both made it….I was about twelve when I realized beyond doubt that I was going to become a Navy SEAL. And I knew a lot
more about it than most kids of my age. I understood the brutality of the training,
the level of fitness required, and the need for super skills in the water. I thought I
would be able to handle that (Luttrell & Robinson, 2013, p. 53).
Second phase of the unofficial training – Billy Shelton. The realization that the military was calling the adolescent Luttrell brothers to a life different from other boys their age, caused Morgan and Marcus Luttrell to seek out the additional help of a rather special man in their community. Billy Shelton was a local Texas resident, a Vietnam veteran whose mission in life appears to be to help other young men interested in the Special Force community prepare for the rigors of the entrance examinations. For Luttrell:
He was one of the toughest men I ever met, and one afternoon just before my fifteenth birthday, I plucked up my courage and went to his house to ask if he could train me to become a Navy SEAL. He was eating his lunch at the time, came to the door still chewing. He was a bull of a man, rippling muscles, fair skin, not carrying one ounce
of fat. To my eyes he looked like he could have choke slammed a rhino….I made my hesitant request. And he just looked me up and down and said, ‘Right here. Four tomorrow afternoon.’ Then he shut the door in my face (Luttrell & Robinson, 2013,
Training began in the earnest the next day, “and he [Billy] showed us no mercy. Our program included running with heavy concrete blocks…running with rubber tires….Billy operated a full pre-SEAL training program for teenagers….Morgan and I were terrified of him” (p. 56). At his recommendation, the Luttrell brothers also enrolled in a martial arts class. When all these factors are viewed in emergent combination: the physical regimen they lived as young men on the horse farm at home, Papa Luttrell’s heavy discipline and martial expectations, the powerful influence of Billy Shelton upon the two young men, and their own native inclinations to excel, to succeed, and to push oneself to the absolute limit, seems to have produced a synergetic effect that was nothing less than extraordinary.
“Billy just made us grind it out, taking it to the limit. Every time….That’s what built my strength, gave me my basis. That’s how I learned the fitness creed of the SEALs. Billy was extremely proud of that; proud to pass on his knowledge” (p. 57). Hence, through the combined influence of David Luttrell and Billy Shelton, “I had a head start in becoming a Navy SEAL….Everything I learned beyond the schoolroom, down from my early years seems to have directed me to Coronado. At least, looking back now it seems that way” (p. 58).
Great men, ordinary men, extraordinary challenges. The unofficial phase of Marcus Luttrell’s training for the SEAL community came to end on 7 March 1999. On that date, Marcus Luttrell, age 23, met Petty Officer First Class Beau Walsh, who sent him on to a military enlistment processing station (e.g., navy recruiter). Thus began the official phase of Luttrell’s training for the future. Never known as one to lack for confidence, Luttrell advised his recruiter, forthwith and “immediately that there was no need for me to attend boot camp. I was already too advanced for that…I’ll go straight to Coronado…I’m a half-trained SEAL already” (p. 76).
If the Navy was inclined to take him at his word, they do not appear to have verbalized their assent. Ready or not for the rigors of SEAL training, Marcus Luttrell did go to boot camp; he went to the Navy Recruit Training Command (RTC) in Great Lakes, Illinois, where he was, in a word, miserable. “It was like sending a Zulu to the North Pole” (p. 77).
However, almost immediately after graduation from boot camp, Luttrell went to Coronado Island, San Diego, and the home of the navy amphibious base. He was officially going to SEAL
Indoc, the first week of Indoctrination, “the two week course…where the SEALs prepare you for the fabled BUD/S course that lasts seven months (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEALs). But if you can’t get through the initial pre-training endurance test, then you ought not to be in Coronado, and they don’t want you anyway” (Luttrell & Robinson, 2013, p. 80).
Class 226. SEAL training begins. The training described in Lone Survivor is
excruciating to experience, even as a reading exercise. For military historians, however, the rather distinctive training regimen, as it is described in Luttrell’s work, is one of the finest contributions to understanding the unique nature of Special Forces, generally, and SEAL training, specifically. Ironically, today, when so many in the political class -- that Luttrell appears to so little respect -- seem determined to seek an equality of outcome --equality of life, fortune, opportunity, and the like – the SEALs have an entirely different view of what constitutes success. Beyond all question, the SEALs are an unabashedly elitist organization.
Elitism, however, is not predicated on anything other than the reality of a raw, native ability the individual candidate brings to the organization, that is, the ability of a sailor to earn the coveted Trident, while being ever cognizant that only a small percentage of American men are capable of undertaking and completing SEAL training. Luttrell, a member of Class 226, began his training with 164 Navy colleagues; they swam, ran, pumped-out push-ups -- seemingly without end -- and abdominal exercises, somewhat incessantly. That was the easy part, too. In one training session, Luttrell “managed close to eighty push-ups and a hundred sit-ups. I guess the apparition of Billy Shelton was standing hard by my shoulder, trying to frighten the life out of me…if I blew it” (p. 88). At its most fundamental, “The SEALs do place a premium on brute strength, but there ‘s an even bigger premium on speed” (p. 88). The exercises and challenging tests never seemed to stop coming. There were rope climbs, for example.
Modern Spartans -- Unseen departures. Rope climbs are difficult in any event; but for a man 6’5” tall, and 230 pounds, the realities of physiology and body size can have a confounding effect. But to earn the SEAL Trident, it is a task that must be accomplished. Luttrell found them difficult, but like everything else, he mastered them. The rope bridge was also a challenge, but that, too, was accomplished in the course of training. Boat drills, trying to land a boat in rough surf on the safe areas of rock formations, were positively dangerous, but they, too, were a required part of the course. As noted above, Class 226 began with 164 men; but by the time the second phase of the training began, 50 men had either been dismissed or voluntarily left the program, under circumstances that to Luttrell and others, no doubt, were as mysterious as a Sherlock Holmes case.
I knew a few never showed up at all, mostly through sheer intimidation. But the rest
had somehow vanished into the void. I never saw any of them leave, not even my roommate. And I still cannot work out quite how it happened. I guess they just reached some type of breaking point…But gone is gone in this man’s navy…me and my 110 cohort were witnessing the ruthless elimination process of a U.S. fighting force that cannot tolerate a suspect component (Luttrell & Robinson, 2013, p. 109).
The first phase of the BUD/S component had now begun. Luttrell appears to have developed perfect recall of his entire training at BUD/S. In Lone Survivor, he related how Class 226 was working under battlefield conditions, including “explosions, smoke, barbed wire – while we were crawling, falling into the slime” (p. 145). Some of the SEAL candidates were actually hallucinating in the midst of the training, from lack of sleep and exhaustion; Luttrell, himself, wasn’t actually sure what day it was. At this point, the instructor, Joe Burns, announced “’Okay, guys, let’s get right on to the next evolution…But I think you’re up for it” (Luttrell & Robinson, 2013, p. 146). At this point, Class 226 was advised that there were no more evolutions (training phases); the phase known as Hell Week was over; the surviving members of Class 226 had completed the SEAL entry phase. They had done something most Americans will not or cannot accomplish. “I know this sounds crazy if you haven’t gone through what we went through. But this was an unforgettable moment. Two guys fell to their knees and wept. Then we all began to hug one another. Someone was saying, ‘It’s over’” (p. 146).
Officially, of course, it was not over; out of a class of 164 that began the training,
only 32 remained, and these men would have to work through another three weeks in the first
phase of training: swimming, demolition and tactics, land navigation, weapons training, parachute training. Then, in a turn of events action reminiscent of the career of William Halsey – who studied medicine while waiting for his appointment to Annapolis -- Marcus Luttrell went to Fort Bragg, North Carolina for medical training, skills he would use as a U.S. Navy SEAL. Then, tragedy happened. It was during the latter phases of his training, the al-Qaeda attack upon the American homeland occurred on 11 September 2001.
I remember the pure indignation we all felt. Someone had just attacked the United
States of America, the beloved country we were sworn to defend…We wished we
could get at Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda mob in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, or where t
he hell these lunatics lived. But be careful what you wish for. You might get it
(Luttrell & Robinson, 2013, p. 155).
As America prepared for war with al-Qaeda, Marcus Luttrell and his classmates officially graduated from the SEAL training program.
A lot of guys passed SEAL qualifications training and received their Tridents on…November 7, 2001. They pinned in right on in a short ceremony…You could
see it meant all the world to he graduates. There were in fact only around thirty left
from the original 180 who signed up on that long-ago first day of Indoc. For
myself… I had to wait until January 31, 2002, for my Trident (Luttrell & Robinson, 2013, p. 155) (emphasis added).
In making the cut for the SEAL organization, Luttrell had clearly accomplished the Halseyan definition of greatness: he met an extraordinary challenge, and he unceasingly rose to meet it with the determination of all great human beings. The life of Marcus Luttrell, to pursue a musical analogy, appears to be on the order of a great Bach-like Prelude and Fugue. The Prelude began on a horse farm in Texas, the paternal influence seems to have been a powerful dynamic for both Luttrell brothers; it was then amplified by trainer, Billy Shelton’s training. It eventually became officially formalized at U.S. Navy boot camp, and finally BUD/s training culminating in the earning of the SEAL Trident. The fugue portion of the composition, the really complex dimension of the music at which Bach excelled would come next; war and battle – Operation Redwing, and the Battle of Murphy’s Ridge.
Afghanistan – Operation Redwing – The Battle of Murphy’s Ridge
Operation Redwing, the SEAL operation that led to the clash at Murphy’s Ridge, began when the Navy tasked SEAL Team 10 with finding a specific Taliban terror leader, identified by means of an alias in the book, Ben Sharmak. This individual was “known also to have been directly responsible for several lethal attacks on U.S. Marines, always with bombs” (p. 179). Like a number of high-ranking jihadist-terrorists, of the post-9/11 experience, Sharmak was an educated man, his propensity for violence, notwithstanding. Sharmak could, for example, speak five languages; he was also a close associate of Osama bin-Laden. At the time Operation Redwing was set in motion, Sharmak “commanded maybe 140 to 150 armed fighters….He kept his troops mobile, moving into or camping on the outskirts of friendly Pashtun villages…traveling to the next rendezvous, recruiting all the way” (Luttrell & Robinson, 2013, p. 179). The Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation were more than a little interested in capturing Ben Sharmak (or killing him outright), whereupon SEAL Team 10 was pressed into service.
We were not expected to take on this large bunch of wild-eyed killers. Indeed,
we were expected to stay quieter than we had ever been in our lives. ‘Just find
this bastard, nail him down, his location and troop strength, then radio in for a
direct action force to come in by air and take him down’ (Luttrell & Robinson,
2013, p. 180).
As Lone Survivor made plain, a manifestation of Clausewitzian friction transformed Operation Redwing from a surveillance and/or capture operation into a full on, pitched, three-hour military engagement -- the Battle at Murphy’s Ridge. In describing his experience of this clash, Marcus Luttrell has provided military historians with one of the more powerful views of battle from a participant’s perspective. The description of the rather furious combat between Taliban warriors and SEAL Team 10 is riveting; and given the high price paid by the bulk of the four man SEAL Team, this is hardly an easy piece of military history for anyone to digest. Violence, tragedy, courage, pathos, the pain of loss, and persistent memory of the events in question all flow inexorably into each other in the account of this remarkable battle.
Luttrell alone survived. He was able to do so, though he was severely injured, after falling down multiple mountain-sides, more than once, nearly dying of thirst, sustaining wounds and injuries that were life-threatening, and other related battlefield traumas, including having to engage enemy forces who never gave up searching for the lone survivor of Murphy’s Ridge. It was at this very desperate point, Luttrell saw himself approached by local Afghan tribesmen; though he was uncertain if they were the enemy Taliban or not. Serendipitously, they were not.
The tribesmen took the injured SEAL into their community, and, in an action that seems incongruous from what most Americans know of Afghanistan, they
protected him from the Taliban, refusing to surrender him to them, refusing to succumb to pressure, and for courageously not yielding to outright threats of violence, from the Taliban, if they failed to do so. It is at this point that
Lone Survivor takes on greater significance as a piece of military history. It necessitates a discussion of the notion of counterinsurgency and the manner in which American strategic thinking engages with the reality of indigenous peoples that American forces must interact and work with, in order to accomplish strategic and tactical goals. Ironically, the Pashtun tribesmen who rescued Luttrell did not think in terms of Muslim or Christian, East and West; nor did they did identify with Bin Laden, or al-Qaeda, or the Taliban. They thought in terms that were much older than jihad, or hatred of the West, religious issues of superiority and inferiority; their giving Marcus Luttrell safe harbor was a non-negotiable question of honor, dignity, and tradition that transcended the blood curdling goals of organized terrorism. It is this reality that counterinsurgency utilizes in its doctrinal planning (Ippolito, 2010).
Counterinsurgency and operation redwing. Counterinsurgency is a doctrine that was new to American war fighting when David Petraeus took command of the Multi-National Force in Iraq.
General Petraeus’ doctoral dissertation at Princeton University’s, Woodrow Wilson Center, considered the techniques of counterinsurgency in the Vietnam War…In Vietnam, every district maintained an intelligence center, staffed, jointly, by American, Vietnamese, and Central Intelligence Agency personnel. Petraeus revived this concept when he commanded the multi-national force in Iraq. Throughout Iraq, General Petraeus created a joint security station in as many districts as possible. As in Vietnam, the purpose of these stations was to collect actionable intelligence for the Coalition Forces (Ippolito, 2010, p. 16).
The cultural dimension of counter-insurgency. Essentially, counterinsurgency required that a liberating army
engage the population and protect them while standing in place (Ippolito, 2010). This includes understanding the culture, and the socio-cultural traditions of those individuals that American war fighters may encounter. In a low intensity conflict involving indigenous peoples, it is essential that the liberating force understand these traditions the sociology of the host people. Luttrell explained it as follows:
There was something I did not know. We’re talking lokhay warkawal —
an unbending section of historic Pashtun-walai tribal law…The literal translation
of lokhay warkawal is ‘giving of a pot….For these guys, the concept carried many
onerous responsibilities. Lokhay means not only providing care and shelter, it
means an unbreakable commitment to defend that wounded man to the death.
And not just the death of the principal tribesman or family who made the original commitment for the giving of a pot. It means the whole damned village….Lokhay
means the population of that village will fight to the last man, honor-bound to protect
the individual they have invited in to share their hospitality…This is strictly nonnegotiable (Luttrell & Robinson, 2013, pp. 286-287).
It was lokhay warkawal that insured village elders would not hand over Luttrell to the Taliban or al-Qaeda. Additionally, Ben Sharmak, the man Luttrell was hunting, having learned of Luttrell’s whereabouts, eventually came hunting him. Sharmak engaged Luttrell’s hosts in unsophisticated Mafioso fashion, threatening the families of the men guarding Luttrell, and promising all manner of violence and mayhem to the tribe. But despite the threats of violence and retribution that Ben Sharmak made against the village, his thuggish, gangster approach did not prevail; the traditions of the Afghan world were too strong, even for a violent psychopath like Sharmak. For the Afghani tribesmen who extended their unique brand of hospitality to Marcus Luttrell: “You will defend your guest to the death” (p. 337).
Counterinsurgency, to be effective, must take such realities into consideration; it requires a special sensitivity that one does not associate with hard-bitten war fighters, but there are many Americans in uniform who possess this quality to the extent necessary. Through the energy demonstrated by such people, the ultimate victory can be achieved. For Marcus Luttrell, victory came in the form of survival, with all the attendant ambivalence that accompanied this most extraordinary operation.
Deliverance and Rescue
Marcus Luttrell was eventually rescued from his untenable position. The readers of Lone Survivor will appreciate the role of American troops in saving Luttrell, but also in the heroism of the Afghani, Muslim tribesmen, who conducted themselves with honor, dignity, and a profound tradition of amity with which most Americans are unfamiliar. For Luttrell, the man who was most instrumental in his deliverance, a police official Gulab, has come to loom large in his memory:
Gulab had now become the principal figure in my life. He called the security
shots, made sure I had food and water….The Afghani policeman betrayed no
sign of stress, but he did reveal to me that a letter had been received earlier
from the commander of the Taliban forces. It was a written demand that the villagers…hand over the American immediately (Luttrell & Robinson, 2013, p. 318).
The rescue of Luttrell and aftermath will engage the reader, as much as the tales of training and battle. Lone Survivor is an excellent work, and like Marcus Luttrell and his teammates from SEAL Team 10, one that will not be too easily forgotten in American military history.
The story of Marcus Luttrell, SEAL Team 10, and Operation Redwing leading to the Battle of Murphy’s Ridge represents the powerful intersection of meaning over time, the relationships that bind humans together, one to another. Through the great power and dynamism of these multiple dimensions of life and military experience, men undertake risks of extraordinary difficulty; they do so informed by honor, country, and patriotism, but also for the for the good of each other in times of
sturm und drang. Fleet Admiral William (Bull) Halsey developed a credo about the nature of accomplished men, and the manner in which they overcome adversity. He did not believe in the traditional great man theory, where greatness is simply a gift of birth; Halsey believed that when ordinary men rose to meet and master great challenges, they had fairly attained greatness. The present review essay has attempted to examine the personal military mantra of Bull Halsey in relationship to the contemporary U.S. Navy SEAL mission statement, in light of the nature of the life and activities of Petty Officer First Class Marcus Luttrell. There are some surface similarities between Halsey and Luttrell; both were sailors, obviously; both earned the Navy Cross, and both had an interest in medicine.
The trajectory of Marcus Luttrell’s life begins with a young man of 12 experiencing intimations of what the future might hold for him. The notion of being a SEAL occurred at this time, and it never went away. The father of Marcus and Morgan Luttrell appears to have provided an early intimation of what the Navy meant to the family, and what the SEALs meant to the elder Luttrell, and the nation. His two sons would capture this vision and make it their own. At 15, the Luttrell brothers began informal training with a local trainer, a fearsome coach, Billy Shelton, who was the Special Force guru for young people who also experienced their own martial vision; Bull Halsey’s credo of ordinary men rising to meet great challenges was already being lived by Billy Shelton’s charges, their youth, notwithstanding. Luttrell’s formal entry into the Navy was followed fairly quickly by the Luttrell brothers undergoing formal SEAL training; and both brothers prevailed in this Herculean series of labors that most men in the United States would never accomplish. This brutal training would stand Marcus Luttrell in good stead when the day came to experience Operation Redwing.
The present review essay has also sought to demonstrate that the experiences of Marcus Luttrell during the latter phase of Operation Redwing, subsequent to the Battle at Murphy’s Ridge, should be examined in light of contemporary counterinsurgency doctrine of the type crafted by General David Petraeus during the Iraq War. Operation Redwing is also an example of the truth of Clausewitzian friction, the heavy drag of a gravity-like factor that in military activities retards the forward motion of whatever plan has been advanced. Friction or not, Luttrell would essentially demonstrate how the soldier’s will, fortified by training, and the need to survive, can help a besieged warrior endure the Dark Night of war – a graphic illustration of the Halseyan credo wherein ordinary men become great men, and an illustration of Victor Davis Hanson’s cultural notion of a uniquely Western Way of War.
Marcus Luttrell and his SEAL teammates were born as all ordinary men are, and most ordinary people lead unremarkable, by-the-numbers lives. All that is true, in some degree, in the Luttrell family, but an element of transcendent heroism was at work in the Luttrell experience from an early age. In
Lone Survivor, Luttrell demonstrated that he would not settle for the
unremarkable; he was determined to seek a different way, to wit: martial excellence; it was the pole star by which Luttrell, a sailor, would steer his own particular ship on a rather unique navigational course. His subsequent life and service experience have testified to the truth that Bull Halsey spoke in 1941-1942 about greatness being a product of rising to meet extraordinary challenges. In the case of the lone survivor of Operation Redwing, his greatness manifested as transcendent heroism. This is the meaning of Murphy’s Ridge, and it is certainly the meaning of
Lone Survivor, a most excellent work of military history and human endeavor leading to victory on a variety of levels. The present reviewer enthusiastically recommends this work to all.
Book of Famous Quotes. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.famous-
Connell, E. S. (1984). Son of the morning star. San Francisco, CA: North Point Press.
Crowther, B. C. (1960, June 23). The gallant hours. [Review of the film The Gallant Hours].
The New York Times. Retrieved from
Hanson, V.D. (2002). Carnage and culture: Landmark battles in the rise of western power.
New York, NY: First Anchor Books Edition.
Hardin, S. L. (1994). Texian illiad: A military history of the Texas revolution. Austin, TX:
University of Texas Press.
Huffines, A. C. (2005). The Texas war of independence – 1835-1836: From outbreak to the
Alamo at San Jacinto. New York, NY: Osprey Publishing.
Ippolito, S. C. (2010). An examination of Avolio and Gardner’s concept of authentic leadership
in General David Petraeus’ command of the U.S. Army during the Iraq war, 2005-2007.
Unpublished manuscript, School of Business Administration and Management
Technology, Northcentral University, Prescott, AZ.
Millet, A. R., & Maslowski, P. (1994). For the common defense: A military history of the United
States of America (Rev. & Exp. ed.). New York, NY: The Free Press – Simon & Schuster
Montgomery, R. (Producer & Director). (1960). The gallant hours [Motion picture]. [With J.
Cagney, D. Weaver, & W. Costello]. United States: United Artists.
Written by Steven Christopher Ippolito, Ph.D. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact Steven Ippolito at:
About the author:
Dr. Steven Christopher Ippolito, Ph.D., who spent most of his life in Manhattan and the Bronx, New York (Go Yankees!) is a retired law enforcement officer for the State of New York with nearly twenty years
experience. A full-time professor of Criminal Justice and Homeland Security at Monroe College, New York City, Steve has two Masters Degrees, one from New York University; the other, from Norwich University,
VT., in the very first Military History class of 2007. In August 2017, he earned his Ph.D. from Northcentral University, from the School of Business Administration and Technology, with a specialization
in Homeland Security, under Committee Chair, Kimberly Anthony, Ph.D, and Committee member, Meena Clowes, Ph.D. His dissertation was based on mixed-methodological research into the phenomenon of
convergence, the intersection of crime, terrorism, war, and other forms of conflict (the crime-terror nexus; crime-terror pipeline), as both a homeland security and educational problem. All his
professional research is dedicated to God, Country, and Family, including the wider family of students and academic colleagues. To all of these, and to all first responders, police, fire-fighters,
military personnel, emergency medical personnel, homeland security and emergency management operatives, Steve sends best wishes. May God bless America, now and forever!
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.