I just recently wrote a rave review of the new film Lone Survivor, based on the Marcus Luttrell book of the same name. The film is thrilling, exciting, and ultra-intense.
For those who haven't read the book yet, the book and the film follow the story of four Navy SEALs behind enemy lines in Afghansitan spying on a top al Qaeda figure in a village below their overwatch position in the mountains. Immediately, upon arriving into their overwatch recon position in the mountains three things happen: First, the tall mountains cause them to lose communication with their chain of command. Second, they realize that in the village below, the size of the enemy force is massive. Third, their position is discovered by three goat herders whose fate they have to decide. The SEALs decide to let the goat herders go, the goat herders race to the village below and alert the enemy forces, and the enemy forces swarm the mountain where the SEALs are hiding. What follows is some of the most intense and harrowing combat scenes ever brought to cinema.
What makes both the film and the book so compelling is the sheer audacity of the situation. Four men against 200. Or, considered differently, 50 vs. 1. That's like the Spartan battle of Thermopylae. In both the film and the book, the SEALs manage to kill massive amounts of enemy fighters, but the SEALs are ultimately overcome by the sheer size of the enemy forces, resulting in all of their deaths, save one, the book's author, Marcus Luttrell. It's intense, compelling stuff, and when I finished seeing the film (which is excellent), I was so riveted with the material that I began searching more information about the battle online.
Which is when I discovered that, of course, there are a number of questions about the accuracy of the book. I'm perhaps more sympathetic than others about a storyteller's manipulations to fit real life neatly into a 300 page book. When I finished my tour of Afghanistan in 2005 (the same point in time where Marcus Luttrell's story takes place), I wrote my own book about my experiences, entitled Blood Makes the Grass Grow Green, which was published by Random House in 2006. Whereas my book was a "fish out of water story" in the form of a left-wing liberal that joins the infantry, it was light on combat, which was simply a reflection of the combat tour I experienced. I too though had to make certain manipulations to fit a year into a book. You have to combine characters and timelines, because space and page count is always at a premium. But to be honest to my readers, I was up front about this in the first pages of my book, explaining what I did and why I did it.
Luttrell's possible manipulations are more devious: Some are arguing that he didn't have to face off against 200 fighters. In my rules of war films, this violates one important rule: That historical films should be historically accurate. (Which is a shame, because otherwise, Lone Survivor met all the rules: It displayed combat as appropriately violent, the action wasn't absurd, and deaths weren't glamorized.)
Journalist Ed Darack reports in his book, Victory Point: Operations Red Wings and Whalers – the Marine Corps' Battle for Freedom in Afghanistan, that he believes the size of the enemy was just 8–10, compared to the more than 200 claimed in Lone Survivor. Darack bases this figure on intelligence reports, including aerial and military intelligence estimates, eye-witness studies of the battlefield after the fact, and HUMINT (human intel) from Afghan intelligence services. Perhaps, most problematic, is that Luttrell himself seems to repeatedly reference a changing size of the enemy force, one that goes from 30-40, eventually up to 200. One blogger I read, documents the changing size of the enemy force, providing links to each time the force size changes within public references. Most interesting are reports that in Luttrell's immediate after action report, he reported the size of the enemy forces as 30-40. (Though, for the record, despite looking, I couldn't find a copy of this report on the internet.)
A recent article in Slate does a good job of summarizing how the number of enemy fighters has grown over time:
Ed Darack’s Victory Point: 8-10 fighters with a machine gun.
Luttrell’s after-action report: 20-30 fighters.
Lt. Murphy’s Medal of Honor citation: 30-40 fighters.
Lt. Murphy’s Medal of Honor Summary of Action: over 50 fighters.
Marcus Luttrell on the Today Show: 80-100 members of the Taliban.
Lone Survivor (memoir): 140-200 fighters.
Marcus Luttrell speeches after Lone Survivor: 200 fighters.
One possible conclusion is simply that Luttrell, being the sole surviving witness, exaggerated the number of enemy fighters so that his story would be more compelling. After all, it's not like there was anyone else alive to challenge what he said.
Challenging the authenticity of a war hero who survived against incredible odds is a sort of heretical thing to do. Marcus Luttrell, whatever one thinks of his personal politics (he seemingly can't help but invest everything with politics, including his book), he is nonetheless, a tough, amazing figure who survived in an incredible situation. For that reason alone, he has my immense respect. I certainly wouldn't have survived if placed in the same situation.
But the issue of the size of the enemy forces constantly changing is a troubling one. Luttrell has sold this story, in part, because the odds were so incredible. If the odds were not what he suggested, then the story we've all become so emotionally invested in isn't quite real, at least, not in the sense that Luttrell has described it to be.
This is unfortunate because a riveting tale isn't simply because of the numbers of enemy involved. A story doesn't become 100% more exciting if the size of the enemy forces jump from 100 to 200. Luttrell and his SEALs facing off against 30-40 armed enemy fighters would have been incredibly exciting on its own. Intensity is raised by showing the enemy as real world fighters with intelligence, not cartoon enemies that can be easily disposed of.
Of course, this is a war movies site, not a literary review site. And the film Lone Survivor, based off the book, is excellent. But somehow, it diminishes my strongly positive feelings of the film a bit to know that, just maybe, it's more a work of fiction than of fact. Unfortunately, though, what we know of history is often communicated by films, works which traditionally tend to not be very historically accurate. For myself, I think the SEALs that died on that mountain deserve better.