Cart 0

Comments on the Lone Survivor movie

Posted by John Reed on

Copyright 2014 John T. Reed

On Saturday 1/18/14, I saw the Lone Survivor movie with one of my West Point and ranger school classmates. We are both also Vietnam vets. He was for a time the platoon leader of the tunnel rats in the Cu Chi area. We were both stationed in that III Corps area of Vietnam at the same time.

I make no pretensions about being a movie critic, but this movie contains a lot of stuff that buttresses what I have said about Afghanistan and special ops in other articles. See my web page for a complete list.

Operation Red Wings

Lone Survivor is the autobiographical account of the lone SEAL survivor of Operation Red Wings. There is a book by the same title which I have not read. My West Point classmate’s daughter read it and liked it.

Red Wings took place the Pech District of Afghanistan's Kunar Province, on the slopes of a mountain named Sawtalo Sar, approximately 20 miles west of Kunar's provincial capital of Asadabad, in late June through mid-July 2005. The mission was to kill local Taliban-wannabe leader Ahmad Shah and his small band. Shah was killed in 2008 by Pakistani police when he failed to stop at a checkpoint while transporting a kidnapped trader. 19 American SEALs and Army chopper flight crew were killed in the operation.

An unknown number of Shah’s band were also killed meaning the mission was partially accomplished, although far from the way it was planned.

Help future SEALs and rangers

While I feel the same sympathy as everyone else for the men who were killed, unlike most, my focus on on the future men who will be killed if the proper lessons are not learned from Operation Red Wings, not on the grieving families and the memories of the men who died. I can do nothing for them. If I can do anything, it is only to try to prevent a recurrence of this. The grieving families want that or should.

This was a cluster fuck from start to finish including our very presence in Afghanistan. Those men did not die because such deaths are inevitable in combat. They died because of a long series of one obviously stupid decision after another that included everyone from the president of the U.S. to SEALs on the ground on Sawtalo Sar.

Bravery medals or sympathy medals?

On September 14, 2006, Dietz and Axelson were posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for "undaunted courage" and heroism. Luttrell was also awarded the Navy Cross in a ceremony at the White House. In 2007, Murphy was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during the battle. Murphy was the lieutenant in charge of the other three men on the mountain. Dietz, Axelson, and Luttrell were his three subordinates there. Luttrell is the lone survivor. I am okay with Murphy getting the MH. He climbed up to an open rocky point to try to get communications to call for help. He was successful in calling for help, although about all the help accomplished was getting another16 guys killed.

He should probably also get a letter of reprimand for not nixing the whole idea of the operation, not taking emergency steps to restore communication after he lost it, not aborting the mission after he was discovered by locals and decided to let them go, deciding to let them go, not taking emergency steps to reestablish commo after the locals were let go, not fleeing at top speed to a safe LZ from which to be rescued, for starters.

The other guys were certainly brave to have volunteered for the SEALS and for this mission and for Afghanistan. And they did not surrender. Other than that I did not see that their actions were of the extraordinary character that warrants bravery medals. They got the crap kicked out of them. They fought to the death, but basically they got shot at by guys who were not much interested in taking prisoners, returned fire, and died because they were greatly outnumbered. In the military in combat, returning fire is your job. Bravery is defined in the criteria for medals as making choices that you were not forced to make. I saw no such choice made in the movie other than Murphy’s exposing himself to enemy fire to call for help. Of course if he had done that before the armed bad guys arrived, he would not have needed to expose himself to enemy fire.

Nowadays we often give out bravery medals out of sympathy rather than bravery, and as consolation prizes for dying. Pat Tillman got one of those—a silver star. Or we award bravery medals as a result of comparing the SEALs’ plight to the average American going to work or shopping at the mall.

Returning enemy fire is not bravery

The way it’s supposed to work is when there is a firefight, we all shoot at the enemy—leaders may be too busy directing the men and helping the wounded to actually shoot their own weapons. Returning fire is not medal winning behavior. You get a bravery medal for doing “above and beyond” what troops in combat normally do, for doing something that, had you NOT done it, you would not have been criticized.

The key phrase in the Navy Cross criteria is “extraordinary heroism in combat.” Civilians will look at this movie and say that anyone who does not want them all to get the MH is nuts. They were in a horrific situation, outnumbered. They did not curl up into the fetal position as most untrained civilians might have. But shooting back at enemies shooting at you is not extraordinary in the context of combat and getting slaughtered by overwhelming numbers of enemy troops is quite extraordinary, but it is not necessarily heroism per se.

Again, I am concerned for the future. Giving out bravery medals for standard responses to a firefight diminishes the value of the bravery medals when they are given out in strict accordance with the stated criteria. I think maybe we need some way of recognizing people in actions like Red Wings, but calling getting slaughtered extraordinary heroism when it is more accurately described as extraordinary combat devalues “above and beyond” type bravery medals and thereby devalues the recognition of those who have truly earned and been awarded those medals.

Also, giving out bravery medals for a cluster fuck seems to be a deliberate, conscious way fo the brass to distract ateniton from teh fat that it was a cluster fuck and the responsibility of the living for what happened. 19 guys died in Red Wings, that is Benghazi times five. Yet there will be no criticism or hearings or investigation. We will not criciticize the dead, or their living superiors, because that might hurt the feelings of the familes of the dead. Bullshit! I am not writing for the families of the dead. I am writing to get those still living who were involved fired or court maritaled or demoted or discharged or all of the above. I am writing to prevent active-duty SEALs still alive from being sent on future unjustifiable suicide missions. I’m writing to prevent teenage boys from trying to join the SEALs before the SEALs cean up their act. The bravery medal given to the Operation Red Wings guys are, among other things, part of a cover-up. And they are getting away with it because virtually everyone in America is intimidated out of criticizing anyone involved in such situations.

This was not the first time SEALs got slaughtered beause a near total absence of common sense in the SEAL “community.” And given that they keep making the same mistake and successfuly covering it up with bravery medals, it won’t be the last.

If lemon, make lemonaid…

They say if you are given a lemon, you should make lemonaid. Apparently the U.S. military’s rule is, “When you get caught causing a cluster fuck, turn it into an oak leaf cluster fuck.”

An oak leaf cluster is an actual U.S. military medal-type award. Here is an article about the oak leaf cluster. When I say turn it into an oak leaf cluster fuck, I mean cover up the ineptitude, lousy judgment, and/or negligence if any by awarding as many bravery medals as possible, especially to the KIA. In other words, the bravery medals are part of an effort to save the careers of the responsible surviving brass.

It is an unhappy fact of combat that sometimes soldiers in a firefight use the dead bodies of their colleagues as “sand bags” to stop enemy bullets. It is possible that the SEAL and higher brass in the Red Wings chain of command are figuratively hiding, to protect their careers, behind the bodies of the dead SEALs, any courage they exhibited enroute to dying, and the massive outpouring of sympathy toward them and their families in Red Wings?

There ought to be indepedent inquiries like NTSB

There ought to be a law that requires an independent official inquiry into all KIA, like the law that requires the NTSB to ivestigate all serious accidents. At present, it appears the brass have complete discretion to bury their mistakes under a pile of bravery medals, eulogies, and all that. The Pat Tillman case was a classic example of that. Type the name “Pat Tillman” into the search box on most of my web pages to see my various articles on that. With such an independent investigation and report, the brass can throw as many bravery medals as they want around, the fault will still be investigated and hopefully, publicly assigned and appropriate steps taken to deter recidivism and to learn the lessons that ought to be learned.

I predict that the brass would praise the vague, abstract idea of a combat NTSB, then fight tooth-and-nail against any actual, concrete, specific such independent investigative unit because it would threaten their careers. And make no mistake, their careers are paramount. That is the definition of a careerist and I think most career U.S. military career officers are either careerists or people who have given up being “competitive” and are just holding on until their retirement and other benefits vest at 20 years. Generally, SEAL and ranger units are plumb assignments that are only for the “competitive” career officers and if you are not a careerist, you will get beat out by people who are. Here is the definition of a careerist.

careerist - a professional who is intent on furthering his or her career by any possible means and often at the expense of their own integrity

See my broader article about military medals.

Should not be there at all

U.S. military should not be in Afghanistan. True, the 9/11 attack was masterminded out of Afghanistan because the rubes there have no concept of America and did no evaluation of whom they let into their country beyond whether he was a practicing Muslim. But Ahmad Shah had nothing to do with 9/11 and was really an example of how our overreaction to 9/11 creates enemies who did not previously exist.

Afghanistan is a landlocked rock pile

It costs $1 million a day per person to have U.S. troops in Afghanistan. They have to come in from some goofy former Soviet Republic north of Afghanistan. As far as I’m concerned, if we have to have terrorists somewhere, Afghanistan is a great place for them. Afghanistan is its own punishment. It is Guantanamo East only its costs us nothing—if we leave.

We are spread too thin in Afghanistan

Furthermore, if we are going to be there, we need to be there to win. I wrote a web article about how thinly spread we are in Afghanistan. Please read it. The truth of what I said in that article jumps out at us Vietnam vets when we watched the movie. In Vietnam, if you needed artillery fire and called for it, you got it. Ditto air support which meant Phantom jet fighters dropping napalm or other bombs and strafing, B-52s dropping 2,000-pound arc light strikes, helicopter gun ships, fixed-wing propeller close air support planes, medevac choppers, resupply choppers. In Afghanistan, there generally is no artillery support and when you call for aircraft, you may be told none are currently available. This strikes us Vietnam vets as an outrage.

It is the direct result of Obama being president, although Bush was not that much better. Basically, the American people are sort of okay with us being there—although not really. Withdrawal will be criticized by the opposition party, so we are not there in force to win, but just have an almost token force that is really only there to give Obama some political cover so he cannot be criticized for weakness on terror. In other words, it is a vague bullshit mission with vague, bullshit staffing and equipment allocation and predictable unnecessary KIA and wounded.

In Vietnam, I do not believe the disaster of Operation Red Wings would have happened nor did any such disaster happen to American forces during that war. Hell, if anything the damned battalion and higher commanders were hovering high above our firefights, emphasis on high as in out of RPG range, micromanaging the combat decisions on the ground. It sure as hell was nothing like Red Wings where no one in the U.S. military was even aware the fight was happening let alone doing anything about it.

No current U.S. military personnel were ever in a real war that the U.S. intended to fight on a proper scale

I commented to my West Point classmate that there are now no Vietnam vets in the U.S. military, nor any World War II or Korean War vets. It Vietnam, our top commanders were World War II and Koran War vets. They knew how many troops were supposed to be there and how much artillery and air support. Today’s top generals have never fought in a real war with proper number of troops and support equipment. They think what is going on U.S.-military-wise in Afghanistan is “normal. You may think Desert Storm was such a war. Okay, except that it only lasted 100 hours and the enemy more or less “fought” by waving white flags. And even the Desert Storm guys are mostly dead or retired. That war ended in February 1991—23 years ago.

If you could put living Vietnam vets into Afghanistan now as commanders, we would instantly raise hell about lack of troops and artillery and aircraft. Some may say we lost Vietnam. Yep, but not World War II, and the reason we lost Vietnam was that we did not invade North Vietnam. Instead, we started all this punch-pulling crap that our commanders-in-chief have been doing starting in the Korean War. And it was punch pulling that contributed greatly and probably decisively to these 19 guys dying in Operation Red Wings.

The conditions necessary to use SEALs or rangers

I wrote another web article about rangers. My movie buddy and I were in Ranger Class 1969-3 in August and September 1968. SEALs are rangers with extra training so they can claim to be better. In that article I talked about what I called “ranger kryptonite,” that is, stuff that rangers cannot handle. The same would apply to SEALs.

Rangers and SEALs cannot operate unless they have the following conditions:

• mild weather

• thick vegetation

• no local population

• no dogs or ducks, either belonging to local civilians or enemy troops

• a way to be extracted almost instantly

• constant communications with rapid reaction forces, medevac, artillery, and air power

• undetected insertion

• an LZ (helicopter landing zone) from which to be extracted

Did Operation Red Wings have these conditions? Remember, you have to have every single one of them or the operation should be canceled as not matching the capabilities and limitations of the SEALs (or rangers, Delta Force, etc.).

The weather was okay. I saw no dogs or ducks in the movie. They had sheep, but they seemed oblivious to SEALs close enough to touch. But they did NOT have the necessary thick vegetation, absence of local population, way to be extracted, communication with help, or any LZs.


They may have be inserted undetected although I have no idea how. They were inserted in broad daylight by chopper in a country devoid of choppers. In Vietnam, choppers were ever present in the air so one that briefly touched down to dump rangers would probably not have been noticed by the enemy. Plus III Corps area was flat jungle so the enemy could not see very far. In Afghanistan, however, I would have thought that every shepherd and other citizen in the province would have seen those choppers go drop those SEALs. And the terrain is open with many steep mountains so you can see for dozens of miles. In Vietnam, choppers inserting rangers would stop and hover close to the ground several times in addition to the place where the rangers actually got off. They did no such decoy landings in Lone Survivor.

So these four guys were almost doomed to not only mission failure but also being slaughtered because the required conditions for success or even survival were not present. The bosses should not have tried to accomplish this mission with a four-man SEAL team. They should have bombed the location of Shah and his men from above RPG range.

Shame on the bosses for not abiding by the best practices I listed above and in my ranger article and shame on the SEALs in question for the same reason. They should have said no way is this mission suitable for SEALs. We refuse to go on it.

You say that’s cowardice and desertion and all that? And how, pray tell, is going out there and being slaughtered—19 dead SEALs and chopper crew—a better, smarter, more defend-freedom-and-the-American-way choice than refusing to obey a suicidally stupid order? See my article on the morality of obeying stupid orders.

Is there a single ranger or SEAL anywhere who has the MORAL courage to not let himself and his men get sent out on suicide missions where accomplishment of the mission is not worth the risk of losing so many good men.

SEAL training almost irrelevant to Operation Red Wings

At the beginning of the movie, they show a lot of clips of how difficult SEAL training is, including the “for no purpose other than humiliation” ritual of making those who drop out ring a bell and put their helmet on the floor next to the bell. SEAL training, and to an extent ranger training, airborne training, and West Point, are too much fraternity hazing ritual where it’s hard just for the sake of being hard, not to prepare men for combat missions. It’s hard just so those who graduate can brag about how hard it was and how many who started didn’t graduate. Ranger did prepare us for behind-enemy-lines patrols somewhat, but that worthwhile training is almost completely nullified by brass treating rangers and SEALs as superhumans rather than just soldiers with a few months extra training in stealth patrolling.

The SEAL training includes guys risking hypothermia lying in the ocean waves in the middle of the night, swimming underwater with their wrists and ankles tied together, getting yelled at, carrying heavy objects above their heads in groups, etc. If you saw Lone Survivor, where in Operation Red Wings did they use any of that training or testing? Nowhere. It’s all masochistic bullshit. You bang your head against a a wall for six months in SEAL training not because there is any military benefit to it but just so you can set yourself apart from and above those who did not.

Too bad for the Red Wings guys that SEAL training did not include more information on establishing radio communications in mountainous areas or in how to deal with being spotted by civilian inhabitants of the aprea of operation.

People will say they got mental toughness and physical fitness which was pertinent to Operation Red Wings. Okay. I got some added mental toughness from West Point, ranger, jump school, and Vietnam. But why not achieve that with realistic training related to stuff like what actually happened in Operation Red Wings? Because the frat boys who design SEAL training are having too much fun tormenting the candidates and beating their chests over having completed it to change to actually preparing them for combat and testing their ability to succeed in combat.

SEAL training and that in Ranger School is largely aimed at creating a high flunk-out rate for no reason other than to brag about the high flunk-out rate and to impress teenage boys. The SEALs and rangers also imagine that they will be impressing adult men and females, but I think that exists more in their dreams than reality. SEALs are guys who wanted to be rock stars or NFL players, but lacked the talent. SEAL groupies are women who wanted to be rock star or NFL groupies, but lacked the looks. Rock star can sing or play musical instruments and write songs. NFL player are guys who are extremely athletic. SEALs are guys who can lie in cold water at night. All three categories have big PR operations behind them, but in the case of the SEALs, the PR operation, including wrapping themselves in the flag which the rock stars and NFL guys cannot do, is their main strength.

Speaking of reality, the SEALs pop up in various reality TV shows. One was a rookie on an Alaska crab fishing boat in Deadliest Catch. He was awful—couldn’t handle the work—and was thrown off the boat when they got back. They used to have some co-ed iron-man type competition reality show. There was always a SEAL team in each episode. They never won—got beat by non-military civilians who were better physically suited to the mission in the show and better trained and conditioned.

After insertion

It seems to me, that immediately after insertion, the SEAL leader should have identified what we called a rallying point. In the Red Wings case, it would need to be the top of a mountain peak. Why? In a fight, the guys on the high ground have an advantage. Also, communications are crucial and in mountains, you generally need a high location to have radio communications.


I was in the Signal Corps, the communications branch. I was a battalion communications officer in a parachute infantry battalion in the 82nd Airborne Divisions and also in a mixed-heavy artillery battalion in Vietnam.

It appeared to me that the Red Wings SEALs had two radios. One appeared to be a regular commercial satellite phone!? That was a backup. The other radio was apparently a PRC-148. I could not figure out the way that radio works. In Vietnam, we had mainly FM radios in the hands of patrols—PRC-25s. I am guessing the PRC-148 is that and more.

FM is line of sight. That mean your antenna and that of the guy you want to talk to must be able to “see” each other electronically via a line-drive path. In III Corps in Vietnam, the terrain was flat, except for two extinct volcano mountains: Nui Ba Den and Nui Ba Ra. When I was in the corps signal battalion, one of our captains was the commander of the top of Nui Ba Ra. Another unit was in charge of Nui Ba Den. I had two guys from my artillery battalion platoon up there. I spent two nights up there.

My artillery battalion HQ was in Phu Loi. We had three batteries. A battery is like a company in other types of Army units, that is, about 120 men. I think our batteries each had two 175mm self-propelled howitzers and two 8-inch self propelled howitzers. Two were reachable by FM radio. The land was flat. Our antennas could “see” theirs. The third, however, was Firebase Wade which was 60 miles away in An Loc, the territory was flat, but at that distance, the curvature of the earth prevents FM communications. That is why we had two guys from my platoon on top of Nui Ba Den. We would talk to Wade through Nui Ba Den. Our Phu Loi antennas could not “see” Wade, but Both Wade and Phu Loi could “see” the top of Nui Ba Den.

It appeared in Lone Survivor that they had an FM radio and in those steep mountains, their antenna, which was a little hand-held wire “T,” could not “see” the Bagram base camp antennas after the first couple of commo checks. At one point, the lieutenant in charge of the team complains that he is going to have to use an insecure satellite phone to call Bagram. The guy trying to get the other radio to work tells him to complain to the mountain. That makes me think it must be FM.

There was a schedule of commo checks between the SEALs and their Bagram HQ. They made the first several, then lost commo. Seems to me Bagram should have declared that an emergency or at least a situation to be investigated by recon by an aircraft that would be able to communicate with the SEALs radio. According to the movie, the guys at Bagram HQ did nothing about their four SEALs failing to make scheduled commo checks. That seems pretty outrageous and probably was a key bit of negligence that caused the deaths of those 19 guys.

The Lt. in charge of the SEAL patrol did use the commercial sat phone to call Bagram. It rang a desk phone and the guy who answered was astonished to learn that it was a patrol in deep stealth mode on an operation.

I was in the first graduating class of the Army’s satellite communications course in 1969. Sat com works by sending a signal up into outer space. You may be familiar with satellite TV. You have to point the antenna accurately at the satellite in question. Nowadays, you also have sat com in your car for radio or GPS. You no longer need to point an antenna that looks like an upside down umbrella at the satellite. But the sat phone must be able to “see” the satellite. It stop working when you go through a tunnel. When I did a five-day backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon, we were concerned that we had no method of radio communicatino that could overcome the handicap of steep rock walls—very similar to the Red Wings terrain. In the steep mountains of Afghanistan that apparently meant the SEALs had to get to a mountain peak to get a sat phone connection. The lieutenant died and won the MH climbing up to one of those peaks under enemy fire. He was successful in calling for help. But all he managed to accomplish in the end was getting himself shot dead and 16 more guys killed in the rescue helicopter.

In retrospect at least, the SEALs needed to identify mountain peaks to which they would retreat if attacked all along their route. They could have done that with maps in advance. Once on the ground, they needed to visually (from a distance) check each preliminary rallying peak to make sure it was suitable. Maybe they did that, but I saw no evidence of it in the film.

Their lack of communications with Bagram alone was enough to get them killed. It may be their battery was dead in the FM radio, although that would be rather unforgivable on such a short mission. Plus they should have had spare batteries and probably did. It may be that the radio malfunctioned. That would be unlikely. They are designed for durability. They should be taking the best one they have. So my conclusion is they could not get commo because their antenna could not see the Bagram antennas or the satellite until they got to the mountain peak.

In Vietnam, there would have been aircraft up above. The SEALs’ antennas would be able to “see” the aircraft antennas and the aircraft can “see” far-away antennas as if they were on the top of Nui Ba Den. After the first six hours, during which they were orbited by an AC-130 gunship (Puff the Magic Dragon to us Vietnam vets), they were all alone and lost commo with everyone.

If they had an AC-130 gunship above when they were attacked, they SEALs probably would have won the fight, maybe with no casualties. But it was there when they did not need it and far away when they did.

‘Soft compromise’

They got to their objective at least as far as finishing their travel and waited. I am not sure for what. They were each under an evergreen tree sort of hidden, but the vegetation was not thick. Then a group of goats or sheep, some wearing bells, wandered right to their location, accompanied by three shepherds. Neither the sheep nor the shepherds saw the SEALs, but one shepherd tripped over a SEAL’s foot, so they hde to jump up and capture them.

One of the shepherds had a walkie talkie. It was not clear to me if he had sounded the alarm. I don’t think so.

No local population

What did I say above about conditions necessary for ranger or SEAL operations? There must be no local population. But there was a local population. There was a village there.

Apparently, the SEALs assumed the villagers were all in the village and almost never up in the mountains. Equally apparently, they assumed wrong. I surmise that the villagers, or some of them, took their sheep up in the mountains to graze regularly.

Inadequate recon of the area. Inadequate talking to locals or at least regional natives about the path of the SEALs and the chances of being seen.

Once they captured the shepherds, they figured they had three choices:

Kill them, tie them up which the leader said would result in their death from wolves or cold, or let them go.

One or more of the subordinates said they could not let them go. The lieutenant said they could not kill them. There was discussion of whether they might end up in Leavenworth penitentiary as a colleague previously had. Or whether they would be depicted as monsters on CNN for murdering unarmed civilians.

The lieutenant said their rules of engagement prohibited killing them, and he apparently figured tying them up was killing them. I doubt it. Their relatives and friends would have come looking for them.

He let them go.

You gotta be kidding me. Some rangers did the same when discovered in enemy territory in Iraq in Desert Storm. They were damned near slaughtered as a result, but unlike the SEALs those rangers had commo—barely—with a radio that only could talk to aircraft overhead, but that was enough to get massive air support. Why did they not have other commo? In their haste to destroy heavy stuff before they ran away from their hiding place, they destroyed their regular antenna by mistake. Morons. Excuse me. “Elite” morons.

Seems to me Operation Red Wings was doomed the moment they let the shepherds go. They should have boogied out of there to an LZ and a high peak from which to call for extraction. They seemed to choose a fairly near peak and headed for it, but they found a gorge between them and the peak. Why did they not see that on their topo map and not choose that peak!!? SEALs and rangers, I thought, had tons of map reading and land navigation experience. We did. So a quick look at a map would have revealed that gorge.

Then they seemed to stop there to wait for the bad guys!? They still did not have commo. WTF?

MUST get commo

In that situation, they MUST get commo. It was their only hope. And apparently their only way to commo was to get to a mountain peak and call by sat phone.

They seemed to think they could prevail on their own either by hiding or by winning a firefight.

Even without the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, I do not know how they could draw such a conclusion. Or maybe they just figured there was no alternative, although the lieutenant finally did go to a peak and successfully call for help, predictably getting killed himself in the process.

When they came under withering attack, they seemed to choose going downhill several successive times, perhaps by instinct. It was certainly less exposed and easier to get to. But worse commo and it left the enemy shooting down on them from the high ground.

It looked like they needed to get to a mountain peak natural fortress, if there was one, where their sat phone would work—or nothing. They never did.

How did Luttrell survive?

So how did Marcus Luttrell survive? A combination of three things:

1. the SEAL leader succeeding in calling for help

2. running downhill and hiding under a rock ledge at about the time when the U.S. “calvary” arrived and distracted the enemy

3. being assisted by local, anti-Taliban tribesmen

It appeared in the movie that the SEALs had never considered what to do if “compromised,” that is, seen by the enemy. I would say the correct response was to kill the civilians, which is not kosher normally, but required when the alternative is suicide for the SEALs. If they do not or cannot kill the enemy who spot them, they need to call 911 right now and get to a natural fortress or an LZ right now. In Afghanistan with all their commo problems, they need to get to the location where whatever radio they have gets through to the help.

The SEAL lieutenant was worried about Leavenworth or CNN. Better those than dead.

Letting them go was not suicidal. It was suicide. His subordinates could see that.

Chopper too vulnerable

Years ago, I wrote another pertinent web article, this one about the inability of choppers to be within range of enemy weapons.

The rescue SEALs were on a Chinook, a chopper I rode many times in Vietnam. It typically has no weapons. It is just a troop or cargo carrier. In Red Wings, as it hovered to let the SEALs fast rope to the ground, it was hit by an enemy RPG. All 16 on board were killed in the resulting crash.

Uh, what did they expect? The enemy had RPGs as well as some heavy machine guns. Unlike World War II bombers and fighters, choppers cannot take hardly any damage, and certainly not an RPG explosion inside the chopper.

This same exact thing happened in Iraq to a rescue party of SEALs. Landing or hovering a chopper at a hot LZ is almost suicidal. The four SEALs needed heavy air support in the nature of weapons firing at the enemy on the ground. Any landing of troops needed to happen at a cold LZ. That would mean the rescuers having to cover 1,000 yards or more to get to the fight, but better late than dead.

Move at night; hide in day

At ranger school, the basic movement rules include moving only at night and hiding during the day. We were supposedly behind enemy lines, remember? How else could you operate? SEALs are the same unless they take invisibility pills.

But in Lone Survivor these guys are strolling around in broad daylight in terrain and vegetation I would describe as ski resort near the timberline. At night, movement would be dangerous with no moon. Not dangerous as in being spotted. Dangerous as in falling off a cliff. We wandered around in the mountains in Dahlonega, GA at night and fell off no large cliffs. On a clear moonlit night, there would be little danger of falling off a cliff, but much danger of being spotted by locals.

This “stealth soldier” shit is very sketchy, risky, often disastrous-failure business—as in Operation Red Wings—no matter the great desire of the public to believe these guys are supermen who can do no wrong.

‘Bunny rabbit’ running for his life

What do you get when you put a stealth soldier near the enemy and far from his friends and some local people, dogs, or duck sounds the alert? A regular soldier. Hell, no! You get a human bunny rabbit running for his life. I use the word bunny rabbit because that’s how a downed U.S. pilot described himself in the Bosnia military campaign. His name was Scott O’Grady. How did he survive whereas the SEALs in Red Wings did not?

Farily straight-forward explanation. O’Grady had escape and evasion training. So did I. It is fairly common in the U.S. military. But it was in officers basic, not ranger school. We also had some POW training at West Point. I would expect the rangers and SEALs think escape and evasion is too wimpy for he-men like them. O’Grady survived and eluded capture for six days. After four days, he established commo with fellow combat pilots flying missions overhead. If you want to see how competent military personnel who spend less time looking at themselves in a mirror handle the situation, read the Scott O’Grady Wikipedia article.

Also, O’Grady had thick vegetation. In the vegetation of Red Wings, their only hope was extreme speed and heavy air support (airclaft that can obliterate many enemy troops on the ground below them), not hiding.

As far as I can tell, O’Grady got no medal for his six days of extremely competent, dangerous, and successful evasion and arranging his own rescue. The military has lots of medals for competence. There were no casualties in the rescue of O’Grady—so no need to give out bravery medals as consolation prizes for getting killed or severely wounded.

A tale of two Vietnam patrols

I took out a patrol that was done monthly at one of my bases in Vietnam. I had been trained in patrolling in ranger school and in general Army tactics at West Point. I was extremely careful to make sure my men all drank a ton of water before we left, took their salt tablets, that they all had two full canteens of water when we left the wire, and that our commo was working before we started and throughout. Nothing noteworthy happened on the patrol. I got no medal for the patrol.

Another lieutenant took out the same patrol, paid no attention to water, did no commo check until after he left the wire and found the base station forgot to monitor that frequency. It also apparently did not occur to him to try different other frequencies until he found one that was being monitored to call for help. He had decided to impress the battalion commander by doing the patrol in record time in 90º heat and high humidity—necessitating driving the men to go very fast during the multi-hour patrol. One of his patrol members went down with heat stroke. He called for help. No answer. They had little water to pour on him—the correct treatment. They should have urinated on his clothes, which would not have immediately cooled him much but would have as it evaporated. This was done with a hot mortar tube in the movie We Were Soldiers Once—standard Army trick. It did not occur to this short-timer draftee. The patrol leader gave the man mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, which has no benefit for heat stroke and likely made his high body temperature worse. Mouth-to-mouth is for an unconscious person who has stopped breathing. Heat stroke victims breathe. So they carried him to the end of the patrol where a truck was waiting not because of the injury but to normally take the patrol back to base camp. Luckily, he neither died nor had brain damage. That lieutenant, a two-year draftee who went to OCS but not ranger or West Point, got the bronze star for his ‘heroism” or whatever you call it on that patrol.

Which would you like your son to have as his patrol leader? Me or the bronze-star winning lieutenant? SERE graduate Scott O’Grady or SEAL graduate Michael Murphy?

Quiet competence is common in the military, but little noted nor long remembered. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of bravery in an actual combat zone, but not in Hollywood. Cluster fucks like Red Wings are occasions for many medals and movies, e.g., The Alamo, Custer’s Last Stand, Lone Survivor, They Were Expendable, Pearl Harbor, Bataan. Although I must admit they did make a movie loosely based on O’Grady’s experience titled Behind Enemy Lines.

SEALs and rangers and paratroopers are the WEAKEST units militarily, not the strongest

Special ops guys lift weights and beat their chests and have to survive great masochism exercises to get their secret decoder ring and learn the secret cool guy handshake. And all of that has given them an image of great strength. Are you kidding me? Special ops guys are—MILITARILY—the weakest units on earth.

They carry only small arms and small explosives. They have only enough ammo for a single extended fire fight. They have only enough water and food for a couple of days. If they are doing recon only and all goes according to plan, they have to be rescued. If their mission is combat, which means they reveal their presence, they have to be rescued immediately by the conventional troops whom they spend most of their lives putting down. And if they are spotted prematurely, they must be rescued instantly on an emergency basis by those same conventional troops.

Every single operation they do ends with a 911 call to the non-special ops people on whom the special ops are totally dependent for survival. They can handle damned little without conventional help and with each passing day of their several days or a week operation, they are less able to handle military situations resulting in their being almost totally unable to handle anything—out of ammo, water, food, medical needs—after just a few days.


Paratroopers, who exist for training, but not for actual use of their ability and equipment, are the guys who ended up as pathetic out-of-ammo prisoners of war after a number of days in Operation Market Garden which was depicted in the movie A Bridge Too Far. Indeed, actual combat parachute operations have all but ceased since Market Garden in 1944 because that operation revealed that parachute insertion is a great way to create huge numbers of POWs.

Chest beating on Monday; ‘Help! Come save us!’ on Friday

A special ops unit is one that beats its chest about how great they are and puts down their follow U.S. military personnel who are not special ops on Monday, goes out on a special ops operation on Tuesday, then screams to the conventional troops, “Help! Come save us” on Friday.

A conventional bomb on the enemy on Wednesday would probably have accomplished the mission with zero or fewer U.S. casualties and a lot less money spent on a bunch of peacocks, although it would result in far fewer “former Navy SEALs” running for office or starring in their own TV shows or acting in movies or getting MBAs and going to work on Wall Street, which seem to be the main product of special ops training and units. I don’t think many want to be Navy SEALs. I think most of them really just want to be “former Navy SEALs.”

You want to know what real strength is in a military context? Patton’s Third Army charging across Europe in 1944, a B-52 arc light strike in Vietnam, Puff the Magic Dragon attacking at night, one B-29 dropping the bomb on Hiroshima, a drone taking out some al Qaeda big shot in a car going down the highway in Yemen. In actual combat zones, special ops are almost entirely Hollywood bullshit.

When discussing special ops, I often find myself recalling a painting I saw once. It showed a buffalo charging head down on a train track at an oncoming old west train. The caption was,

I admire your courage, but I question your judgment.

You could put that caption on Operation Red wings. It is time for the special ops people to start exercising more judgment and to stop being so blindly biased in favor of demonstrating their courage. In this case, that would apply to everything but mostly to the rescue chopper. They needed to figure out how they could best effect the rescue taking into account the capabilities and limitations of the Chinook helicopter and the capabilities and limitations of the Ahmad Shah insurgents.

‘Capabilities and limitations’

That phrase, “capabilities and limitations,” was one I heard a lot in my first months at West Point. I was especially impressed by the acknowledgment of limitations. Clint Eastwood made that same concept famous with his line,

A man’s got to know his limitations.

in the 1973 movie Magnum Force.

At West Point we learned the capabilities and limitations of the M-14 rife, the M1A1 tank, the M-119 Armored Personnel Carrier, and so on. What it can do, and what it can’t do. They told us it was extremely important to understand both. Amen. My list of unacceptable conditions above is a list of the limitations of the M1A1 U.S. Navy SEAL or U.S. Army Ranger. Ignore them at your peril.

My Succeeding book, which is about how to succeed in life, makes much of the importance of knowing your weaknesses and avoiding situations where they are important and possibly decisive.

A limitation of the Chinook and most choppers is they cannot take an RPG hit. Furthermore, a hovering or landing chopper is an easy target. A capability of the Taliban and other Afghan insurgents is they possess RPGs and are skilled at firing them accurately at distances in the 1,000-meter range.

Conclusion, do not hover or land a Chinook within 1,000 meters of an insurgent with an RPG. That is what civilians call a “best practice.” Violating it is what lawyers call malpractice and what managers call incompetence.

Does it take more courage to take a Chinook full of SEALs right into the hot LZ in a battle than to land 1,000 meters away and hike to the battle? Yes, but demonstrating courage is not the goal. Rescuing the SEALs in contact is. Courage was demonstrated. Rescuing the SEALs was not. Shame on the commander who made that decision. He neither accomplished his mission nor protected the welfare of his men, the second priroity of a combat leader.

SEALs and paratroopers, and, belatedly after the SEALs came to extreme prominence, rangers, have lately been more about hype than results. More about courage than judgment. More about impressive training than combat victories. Enough! Get your eyes back on the ball:

1. accomplish the combat mission

2. take care of the welfare of your men

The SEALs, rangers, and, in 1945, the paratroopers, have too many failed missions and too many casualties.

Last stand

As I write this, PBS is showing a documentary about the life of George Armstrong Custer on the TV beside me. He and I are both West Point grads. When I was a cadet, I used to take solitary walks to reflect on my situation and future. One of my stops was Custer’s grave which is in the West Point cemetery. His notorious greatest moment was called “Custer’s Last Stand.” I remember thinking that such an event—a highly-trained, experenced military commander being slaughtered by a bunch of primitives—was unlikely in the 20th century. I was wrong. I underestimated the stupidity of the White House and the Pentagon and the willingness of commanders in the field to comply with such stupidity—even in the 21st century!

Operation Red Wings was Lieutenant Murphy’s Last Stand. In each case, they commander and his men died because of fateful decisions made by them, decisions which were questionable at best at the time given what they knew, and suicidal to some at the time, and ultimately suicidal in result.

Murphy was not a service academy grad. He went to Penn State. O’Grady graduated from ROTC at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

In the book Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer tells of a doomed Mount Everest tourist expedition. There was a rule, a best practice, that said you did not proceed beyond a certain point after 3 PM. For various reasons, they did not get to the point before 3PM. They should have aborted the final assault as a result. But the tourists had paid a lot of money, did not understand the basis for the rule, and the very experienced guide Rob Hall, got talked into violating the rule.

Eight died including Hall and others suffered greatly. Basically, they knew what to do but failed to do it. Hall did something the military condemns. He exhibited a lack of discipline when he violated the 3PM rule. I cannot know if the SEALs in Operation Red Wings violated any standing rule or procedure, but they certainly violated common sense. Certainly, there should be rules like those I listed above about when you deploy and when you do not deploy SEALs rangers and so on. Violating those rules ought to be a court martial offense. The military word for what civilians call “best practices” is “doctrine.” SEAL and ranger doctrine needs to prohibit putting them into situations like lack of vegetation, local inhabitants, and so on.

Are they useful for ANY mission?

You may wonder if there is anywhere on earth where one could use SEALs or rangers given those rules. Ah, good question, grasshopper.

I wrote an article about Navy surface ships in which I noted that they were not allowed to be within range of land-based bombers during World War II. I further stated that there was nowhere on earth’s oceans that was not within range of land-based bombers or missiles by about 1957. That means, it seems to me, that the U.S. Navy’s surface ships have been obsolete since 1957—except for beating up on third-world nations that do not have the bombers or missiles. Even Argentina sank 6 British ships during the Falkland Islands war in 1982. Army Air Corps General Billy Mitchell proved that a bomber could sink a battleship back in the 1920s. Admirals who observed that test broke down sobbing.

I think the SEALs are the most recent effort of the Navy to keep its anachronistic self relevant and to get it bravery medals in spite of technology advances and disappearance of conventional naval warfare. The last significant naval battle with ships shooting at each other was Leyte Gulf 10/23-26/1944. I could not confirm when the last time was that U.S. Navy ships were attacked by enemy aircraft. I expect it was the Battle of Okinawa. So there are essentially no opporunities for Navy personnel other than pilots to earn bravery medals. The main role of conventional U.S. military forces these days is to be so strong that people do not even try to test them—like a super cornerback in the NFL who is so good that quarterbacks never dare throw in his area.

SEAL is an acronym for sea, air land, but obviously, while the sea is the province of the Navy, the air is the province of the Air Force, and the land, of the Army.

So why the hell do SEALs exist? Because the land and the air are the only places where bravery medals have been won since the Korean War. And what the hell are navy sailors doing at 10,000 feet altitude in a landlocked country fighting a land battle with Afghan “soldiers?” The only bodies of water in the country are some small reservoirs behind dams and some rivers, only one of which, Amu Darya, is navigable.

I wrote another similar article about America’s tanks. I noted they are very heavy, meaning they cannot go on many of the world’s bridges. They generally are disfavored within urban areas, that is, the U.S. Army does not like to take them there. They cannot operate safely on narrow mountain roads or in swamps or mud.

If you think about the great tank battles of the 20th century, they were all on desert or on relatively dry farm fields in western Europe. Furthermore, the main reason for a tank is to kill other tanks. But aircraft can do that far better than tanks—always could—and without U.S. casualties. So when you draw a map of the world and color in red the areas where tanks cannot go, then list the weapons best able to destroy enemy tanks, and the potential enemies who have tanks in any number, you fairly quickly start wondering why the U.S. Army and Marines have 14,000 tanks. Answer: it’s a jobs program and politician boondoggle.

The Navy doesn’t want to go away. The paratroopers don’t want to go away. The tankers don’t want to go away. And the American people are dumb enough to humor them at enormous expense—and sometimes loss of life.

What about SEALs killing the three pirates?

What about SEALs killing bin Laden?

Basically, we probably spent a billion per pirate to snipe those three guys. And we should have bombed bin Laden, not risked SEALs, 169th Special Aviation Detachment, and CIA lives going into that house in Abbottabad.

Are there ANY legitimate SEAL missions? Yes. They captured oil port facilities in Desert Storm. They freed a couple of hostages in Somalia. They rescued a pilot in Vietnam (thick vegetation). They should be doing small ops in or near water where the contraindication conditions I listed above are not present.

They are like a Brookstone tool. Useful for rare situations, but generally ill-suited to most military operations. Are Brookstone tools better than normal tools? For the rare jobs that they fit like a glove yes; otherwise, hell no!

Believing their own bullshit

As I said in my ranger article years ago, assuming that SEALs, paratroopers, and rangers are supermen or super soldiers is wrong and will result in failed missions and dead Americans, not to mention wasted resources. The SEALs, paratroopers and rangers are believing their own bullshit. And considering what volcanoes of bullshit they are, that is an extremely dangerous thing. It’s high time they started learning their limitations, and acknowledging them, and not taking missions where their limitations mean they should not be used.

Is it a good movie?

It has four parts:

A. clips of SEAL training—worthless SEAL recruiting crap that has been on TV many times—intresting only to show how irrelevant all that fraternity pledge nonsense was on Sawtalo Sar

B. preparation for Operation Red Wings—ho hum, towel-snapping, too-cool-for-school SEALs relaxing I guess to get you to like and care about them

C. Operation Red Wings—fantastic, riveting, bloody as hell, true story—great dramatic story well told through film

D. photos and video of the actual SEALs and Army aviation guys who got killed in Operation Red Wings—necessary

Share this post

← Older Post Newer Post →


  • Regarding making SEALS the only special ops, I said almost the exact same thing about the Marines. If their selection process and training makes them better than the army, eliminate the Army and give the Marine Corps the entire land warfare role. I expect the Army would shrug at this and say “whatever”. The Marines however, would be horrified.
    Why wouldn’t they be thrilled?
    Because the marines are not about substance or even national defense—both of which demand that the Marines take over all land defense if they are, indeed, better. What they are about is showing off and claiming they’re better. Therefore they need the Army around to have someone to claim to be better than. If you are having trouble following this, it’s probably because your emotional maturity exceeds age 10, which I figure is about the level at which the Marines who would oppose folding the Army into the Marines are.

    John T. Reed on
  • If the SEALs are the “be-all, end-all” of US Special Forces, why not simply eliminate all of the other, myriad SF units and roll them all into one? You can still call them “SEALs” if you want, possibly surmising that to do so will infuse the enemies of the world with fear when you mention their name. And you can assign them directly to the Pentagon as a “special unit” under the DOD. That would not only make their deployment more organized and better-controlled, it would also eliminate the inter-service rivalry which appears to have negatively affected pretty much ever US Special Ops mission in the history of this country.

    If you do NOT wish to follow my suggestion, please explain to me why we would send over-trained SCUBA divers who report to the Navy on a land-based operation in the Army’s theater of operations? The Army already has its own Special Forces branch. It even has a group called “Delta,” most of whose operators are—imagine this—SCUBA QUALIFIED!!!

    I wouldn’t send a waste disposal manager to oversee a circuit board manufacturing facility. Why would I send a sea-based team to conduct a land-based team’s operation? And why would the land-based team need to be qualified on sea-based operations when the sea-based folks are the ones best qualified for those types of jobs?

    And we the taxpayers are donating trillions of dollars of our hard-earned money each year to support this idiocy?

    Jeff on

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published.