They Didn’t Die For Much

Check out last night’s reaction from Lone Survivor author and former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell when CNN’s Jake Tapper says that watching Peter Berg‘s Lone Survivor imparts a sense of “hopelessness” about the deaths in the Afghanistan War. To which Luttrell responds, “You’re telling me my guys died for nothing?” Luttrell’s equation is more or less “these were good guys who were loyal, strong and true, so their deaths can’t be futile — their deaths have to ring with honor.” Really? Okay. Question for Luttrell: Did the 58,000 U.S. casualties during the Vietnam War die for something? If so, what was that?

If there’s anything lacking in Lone Survivor, a film I greatly admire for its versimilitude, it’s a recognition of the basic reality behind the American military effort in Afghanistan, which is that it’s been more or less futile from the get-go. However right or noble the goal might have been (i.e., defeat the Taliban and other elements contributing to anti-U.S. terrorism, support pro-Democratic, pro-U.S. factions), it’s always been a can’t-win situation. The invader cannot prevail. The invader will always go home sooner or later.

And so the three out of four Navy Seals who spearheaded Operation Red Wings died, in a sense, for nothing. Certainly in a geopolitical sense. They honored themselves by the vigorous way they fought and watched each other’s back, but in terms of having been part of a massive effort that accomplished its goals? Nope.

There’s no question that Lone Survivor lies through omission about what’s really going on in Afghanistan in the broader, bigger-picture sense. It honors the toughness and the bond of brotherhood between the four leads (played by Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster) and it’s certainly a frank depiction of the horrors of combat when things go wrong. But the frankness is selective, in a sense. For realism’s sake Lone Survivor chooses to isolate its audience inside the operational mentality of the SEALs. “Here’s the job…let’s do the job…oh, shit, the job isn’t going well.” Not a word or a thought is given to the feelings of confusion or frustration or futility that surely existed over there, at least part of the time, for all U.S. combatants.

Forget the whys and the wherefores, the film is saying, and just concentrate on the fact that these guys were men of incredible dedication and loyalty, and that their lives were defined by strength of body and character and spirit, and that it was just ghastly that they bought it over there. Don’t worry yourself about why they were there in the first place or what the chances of success were and what the whole damn war may have been about. That’s another movie. That’s not the movie we’re making here.

  • Muscle McGurk

    They died so we can ignore the world’s endless horrors and enjoy some mindless speculation about oscar nominations on the internet.

  • Zach

    This is why everyone in the military should be forced to read Johnny Got His Gun.

  • brenkilco

    It should be possible to condemn a war without being accused of disparaging the honor of the soldiers fighting it. But sadly the right has generally been able to conflate these two things to create a needle most public officials can’t thread. And admissions of meaningless and futile sacrifice are fundamentally un-American in the sense that they run so counter to our national sense of self. How many troops have died in Vietnam, Afghanistan and elsewhere for the sake of a face saving narrative?

    • Perfect Tommy

      Afghanistan is the war that Candidate and President Obama claimed was the just and good.

      • Pete Miesel

        That’s true. The most idiotic thing about all of this is the reason we went in there, namely Al Queda, turned out to be a waste of time because they were in Pakistan the whole time.

        We have stayed in Afghanistan because we somehow think that this will be the time we win an occupation.

      • brenkilco

        Which, if he didn’t believe it as Gates now seems to be claiming, sort of puts the Q.E.D. on the whole thing.

  • Sumo-Pop

    I get why he would feel that way. I generally hesitate to criticize someone who has gone through something I will never experience, but I’m with Jeff. I’d like to know what they did die for, because I sure can’t explain it myself.

  • Glenn Kenny

    If you ever wonder why you get mocked, or worse, by commenters, this sort of post is why. Not for the question it asked, but for the taunting, “I dare you to call me disrespectful” tone, the Internet-tough-guy posturing of pretending to pose the question directly to Luttrell, that sort of thing. A little grandiose…but not SO grandiose that you can’t be infuriatingly disingenuous about it when anyone takes you to task.

    • Did you sense Luttrell’s vocal undertone when he snapped back at Jake Tapper? He was holding himself back but did you watch his eyes? He’s an old Texas boy and believe me, there was a part of him right then and there that wanted to rassle. Being an adult father of two and a professional, Luttrell didn’t tackle Tapper and make him eat that microphone or better yet, shove it up his ass…but I’ve been in bars with big, beefy, surly guys like Luttrell and I know what always happens before somebody takes a poke or breaks a beer bottle over someone’s head. I’ve been there. Hell, I’ve been the recipient. The big, burly, beer-slurping yokel leans forward and narrows his eyes and says to the non-redneck stranger, some guy from New York or wherever but definitely not one of us, “Are you sayin’ yer better than me?” ** “Are yew makin’ fun of my brother just because he can’t talk too well?” or “I just seen you lookin’ at my girlfriend’s ass…I SEEN you, man….and lemme tell ya, yer gonna be REALLY sorry you did that.” Luttrell lives on the ragged edge a bit due to his Afghan war trauma. I watched him do a q & a in Burbank a few weeks ago and believe me, he has ghosts & demons inside, He had a golden lab or retriever with him on the stage, and I LOVED that — his last dog has been shot to death. Anyway, like I said, he’s an adult and a book author with two kinds, and so far he’s behaved moderately and professionally, I cast no aspersions. But Tapper pushed a button, and if Luttrell had been just a little high and feelin’ a bit sensitive at the time, and if he and Tapper had been a tavern somewhere, Luttrell might well have taken a poke at him. That’s why I spoke directly to Luttrell in my post. I know what he was thinking. I’ve been there so don’t tell me.

      ** Wells reply: “I ain’t sayin’ I’m better than you are / but maybe I am.”

      • Glenn Kenny


        Just curious—all those nights in bars when you faced down furious rednecks who thought you were giving them the stink eye, how DID you avoid getting stomped to the point of renal failure? Did you sing Skynyrd’s “Gimme Three Steps?” My guess is that you’re full of shit, Pear Cake Boy.

  • Correcting Jeff

    “Did the 58,000 U.S. casualties during the Vietnam War die for something?”

    That these 800,000 people might survive to escape to freedom:

    “The invader cannot prevail. The invader will always go home sooner or later.”

    Can you please do us all a favor and translate that into Aztec? Or maybe Sioux?

    If you have trouble, I know some smart linguists posted in Germany and Japan that could help you out.

    • Pete Miesel

      Unless we plan on wiping out the Afghans to the scale of the Sioux or the Aztecs, then what Jeff said about invaders eventually leaving is applicable here.

    • brenkilco

      There’s a small difference between a world war and an indigenous conflict. And I wasn’t aware we were planning to colonize Afghanistan. When do the first homesteaders ship out?

    • The Perils of Thinking

      “That these 800,000 people might survive to escape to freedom”

      Please tell me you’re being sarcastic. That may be the most ahistorical and illogical argument I’ve ever seen here, and that’s saying something.

      • Correcting Jeff

        An assertion isn’t an argument, so do you care to make one?

        • The Perils of Thinking

          I’m assuming you’re not conceding that your statement was ahistorical and illogical and are asking me to find evidence to argue that it is the most ahistorical and illogical posted on this site, but correct me if I’m wrong about that.

          Your argument appears to be that the only way Vietnamese people could possibly have survived in order to flee the country several years after South Vietnam fell is for the United States to have spent a decade and a half bombing and making war in Vietnam, killing 2 million+ Vietnamese in the process, only to see the outcome of all that bloodshed be the exact result we were nominally attempting to prevent. If that’s the case, then we could have just not fought the war, allowed South Vietnam to fall in the mid-1960s, and then even more Vietnamese would have survived in order to later flee the country!

          This doesn’t even get at the bizarre ex post facto nature of that rationalization, as if the whole time the soldiers in Vietnam and the public paying for their presence were being told: “We must sacrifice billions upon billions of dollars, the integrity of the military itself, and tens of thousands of your sons’ lives in order to keep a fraction of South Vietnam’s population alive (while killing an even bigger portion), NOT so that we can actually help them escape Communism in some kind of orderly fashion or anything, but just so they can suffer under the new regime for a few years, then further risk their lives to float across a dangerous shark-ridden sea to possible resettlement elsewhere.” Pretty sure that was not why anyone thought we were fighting there at the time.

          In a larger sense, the idea that we were fighting in Vietnam to save Vietnamese people’s lives at all (and failing miserably at it) is a horrific joke. None of the contemporary rationale behind the war had anything to do with protecting the physical well-being of the Vietnamese (not to mention Laotians or Cambodians), but had to do with our greater geo-political self-interest. Much as with the war in Iraq, caring about the people who were doing the vast majority of the dying and suffering only came about as a justification after every other self-interested reason for fighting the war fell apart.

    • wordfury

      So we should occupy Afghanistan like America, huh? Forever! Get real.

  • Vinci_Smetana

    You’re right. And SLP should have made a sweeping statement about mental illness, rather than assert that J.Law’s T & A is the silver lining in everyone’s future who deals with bipolar disorder.

  • Marty Guerre

    “If there’s anything lacking in Lone Survivor…it’s a recognition of the basic reality…”

    I agree, this war didn’t nearly get the comeuppance it deserved in this film. Maybe it was a metaphor.

    The dead know only one thing: it is better to be alive.

  • MikeSchaeferSF

    You really need to read Kyle Smith’s pan of Lone Survivor; he gave it 2 stars and has some rather harsh things to say about the people involved. But what’s amazing is the comment section. Although Smith is the most conservative film critic this side of Michael Medved, and a Gulf War veteran to boot, the commenters pile on, calling him “a commie” who “clearly never served in the military”. Classic stuff.

    • Brad

      Whoa, Smith is a military veteran. Didn’t know that. He still sucks ass as a film critic, though.

    • Reverent and free

      Yeah, on the contrary: maybe it takes an actual veteran to call bullshit on trying to “honor” veterans by glorifying a clusterfuck of a mission.

      • chien_clean

        meh personaly i’m not pro-war but i’m gonna praise these guys as long as i live. Cause it takes enormous balls to go there and do what they do. I know I don’t have them. And if we should build statues to these guys then so be it.

        • Reverent and free

          You never know how you would do: a couple generations ago, if your name got drawn you had to be shipped out whether you had balls or not, and whether you came back with balls or not.

          I’m all for honoring and supporting veterans, but not by vicariously living macho fantasies through them.

          • chien_clean

            It’s not about macho fantasies but honoring them cause they are blown to bits. Not that difficult to understand.

            • Reverent and free

              Right, because it’s never been a macho fantasy to die on the battlefield. The point that Smith raised is the dubiousness of making an “inspiring” movie about SEALs who died under tragic circumstances.

    • Kyle Smith
      • Sir Farty Fartsalot

        LOL. As if your reviews are credible. You’re a joke.

  • K. Bowen

    Not everything is about Vietnam, Walter.

  • donkaye

    It’s disturbing to see some of the attacks in the comments sections of Hitfix and the Hollywood Reporter against the critics there for having issues with the film — the commenters seem to think that the film itself is above any kind of criticism just because of its subject matter, and take any judgment against the film as some sort of disrespect to these men specifically or the military in general. That is a very dangerous mindset to have.

    • Pete Miesel

      Now that the Duck Dynasty brouhaha is over, the cultural purists on the far right need something to rally around. This movie fits the bill because these people have been conditioned for decades to regard all American wars as legitimate and above criticism.

      • chien_clean

        Well that’s because when someone put his butt on the line for you, it deserves respect. I’m not gonna go and overquestion these guys.

        • Reverent and free

          Bullshit, we’re talking about a movie. Wahlberg and Berg didn’t serve a day in uniform, and neither did 99% of the commenters who are saying that criticizing the movie equals disrespecting Luttrell and his dead teammates.

          • chien_clean

            I’m OK with questioning the quality of any movie. Depends what critics intend to do. ARe they saying the acting sucks? If it’s the case then I don’t have an issue with it. If they are saying it’s propaganda then it’s stupid.

    • chien_clean

      That depends what these critics’ opinions are. I’ve heard some of them say the movie “was war porn and propanganda” and I take issue with that a lot. You have depict what happened the most honest way possible.

  • Steven Gaydos

    The biggest increase in modern history of heroin production in Afghanistan was just reported n NY Times. Where’s the right-wing outrage Benghazi gang on this one? Maybe helping finance the production?

  • CBJ

    The comments section for every “Lone Survivor” pan, of which there are plenty, is the same: puffed up macho accusations equating the questioning of your government with treason.

  • GigglesForGigli

    Maybe it’s a metaphor for…

  • criterionstalker

    The conundrum of these wars: soldiers dying for loose reasons have to be trumpeted as perpetual heroes in the cause of…But most right wing talk show hosts are defending Tapper, he’s an obvious righty at heart.

  • Reverent and free

    Regarding the “choice”, I’ve read comments from a number of military veterans who say that rather than choosing between killing or releasing the goatherds, they should have taken the goatherds as detainees and headed for the extraction zone. The movie doesn’t really address that third option.

    Luttrell himself acknowledges that wasting the goatherds wouldn’t have maintained their cover: they would have been missed by the village, and there would have been a trail of goats wandering down the mountain.

  • D.Z.

    The vets in Afghanistan *did* die for something! An exclusive oil pipeline and a U.S.-owned opium cartel. As for those in Vietnam, they made for great Agent Orange exposure lab experiments.

  • DukeSavoy

    These guys sign up to serve, but they have no say in how they’ll be used. You sign up at the right time you stop Hitler from conquering Europe. You sign up at the wrong time, you get Bush and Cheney sending you to die or lose your legs in Iraq to fight terrorism, capture Saddam’s WMD, make Haliburton rich and be a “War President.” The guys who signed with poor timing sacrifice just as much as the guys with the good timing. But sometimes the reason they bleed and die is ’cause a President wants to look like a tough guy. Hard to swallow that — gotta’ be bitter as hell.

  • Bob Loblaw Lobs Law Bomb

    Luttrell’s equation is more or less “these were good guys who were loyal, strong and true, so their deaths can’t be futile — their deaths have to ring with honor.”

    I understand why soldiers have to feel this way, because it would probably be impossible for them to get up in the morning otherwise.

    But that just shows you how important it is to have clear-headed civilian leadership over the military.

  • actionman

    Lone Survivor is a masterpiece of filmmaking for many reasons, one of the biggest being is the filmic feeling of “hopelessness” that Tapper was talking about. I, too, had that feeling all throughout watching the movie — you can’t help but NOT feel that way as an audience member knowing that the mission got fucked and 19 people died. Luttrell lives a life that NOBODY on these boards will EVER comprehend, but that doesn’t change the fact that he misinterpreted what Tapper was referring too. One of Berg’s greatest strengths as a filmmaker with Lone Survivor was the way he captured the terrible sense of loss all throughout the movie. While not cutting anywhere as deep as Oliver Stone did, I feel that Lone Survivor is this generation’s Platoon. I can’t remember a film that’s been as overtly anti-war as Lone Survivor was/is.