Saturday, January 11, 2014

"Lone Survivor" - a Thought-Provoking Film

I saw two films today at the cinema. Both had a lone survivor fighting through unimaginable adversity. The first, "Gravity", was fictional and gorgeous. The second, "Lone Survivor", was all too true, intense, moving, and thought provoking.

I had two thoughts coming out of Lone Survivor: one geopolitical, one about Rules of Engagement. Lone Survivor contains zero politics within the film. It is the true story, one you've heard by now, of a mission that goes badly and the firefights that followed. It is a fine testament to the brave men who survive Navy Seal training, and of the fact that we ask too much of them as the put their lives on the line in a war that we sent them to.

So, the geopolitical question is this: The events described in Lone Survivor happened in 2005, roughly 3 years after our CIA / military first arrived in Afghanistan to fight the "good war" against the Taliban who enabled al-Qaeda to strike us on 9/11? Other than ultimately getting Osama bin Laden, what have we gained in the war going now into its 13th year that is worth the sacrifice of so many killed and wounded? You can't watch this movie and see the hell that rained down on 4 brave men and not multiply it out to the two thousand that died and the many thousand injured - one intense battle or helicopter crash at a time. What makes it worth it? If we are truly at "war" with the Taliban, why don't we have the will to win it by now? We certainly have the capability to crush the Taliban, if they are a global threat. Why do we constrict the Rules of Engagement to the point of a stalemate 12 years into the fight? We owe it to those 4 men that we sent to that mountain to fight and die to win this thing - or stop sending people.

On that question, the timing of the release of the memoir of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates coinciding with the release of this movie is a twofer. The excerpts released so far show the SecDef as an eyewitness to an administration and Commander-in-Chief who do not believe in the war and do not believe that it was winnable, even as they ordered a surge of troops into the theater many years ago. Really? We're just playing a wind-down game with these men's lives? Unacceptable.

To rephrase that question: if Lone Survivor had been released shortly after these events happened - back when the Bush administration was fighting the war - would the American public had stayed behind the effort in Afghanistan? Would we allow the war to drag on for 13 years? Crush the Taliban, or get out. One of the two.

The second question goes to the Rules of Engagement that Luttrell's 4-man team found themselves in when their operation was compromised by goat herders on that mountain and they were cut off from communication with their leaders. Let them go, to warn the Taliban? Tie them up, to freeze and die? Or "terminate the compromise"? Lone Survivor is about their humane choice, and the hell that they paid for it - on our behalf.

Contrast that with the decision made 8 years later - as the war has dragged on unresolved - by Army First Lieutenant Clint Lorance as he lead a platoon in an Taliban area. An area where the previous platoon leader had been shot in the neck. His platoon was approached rapidly by men on motorcycles. Faced with a quick decision about the safety of his platoon in uncertainty of whether they were Taliban scouts, he ordered his men to fire on the 3 men on motorcycles - killing two of them. His men did not have a firefight in that Afghanistan province that day, and were not injured and killed. He, however, was court martialed for violating the Rules of Engagement and is headed for 20 years in Ft. Leavenworth.

Who made the right decision on behalf of his men? The humane commander who let the goatherders go and brought an army down on their head, or the platoon leader who gave the shoot order and had his foot patrol make it back to base that day? Can you say what you would do in the field, especially after watching Lone Survivor? Can we stomach sending brave men out to have to make these decisions in a never-ending war with Rules of Engagement that get our guys killed and maimed?
Why are we still there? Do we have the will to win a "war" that we send soldiers to? Should Lt. Clint Lorance be in jail?

Go see Lone Survivor. We owe it to those guys to squirm in our comfortable seat a bit and face those questions.