This is not a review of Lone Survivor, a competent war movie—minus one major detail that needs to be stated: the film is shot in New Mexico, on the assumption that none of us have ever visited the state and it will, therefore, be a perfect stand-in for Afghanistan. Having been to New Mexico twice, and recognizing the place within minutes, I had trouble in suspending disbelief. But never mind that: Hollywood’s permanent assumption is that moviegoers are far from discerning so, enough said. The problem stems from the story itself, if it is faithful to the events as they occurred in actuality.
During the War in Afghanistan, a highly trained four-man Navy SEAL reconnaissance and surveillance team is dropped from a helicopter via fastrope in a saddle between two mountains. Their mission is to observe an Area of Interest, looking in particular for the commander of a group of fighters, Ahmad Shah.
After reaching a predetermined overwatch position, the SEALs are accidentally discovered by three local goat herders, an old man and two young boys. They are unarmed civilians, not combatants, so the mission is compromised. What to do with them?
The SEALs immediately start racking their brains. Tying the herders to trees would mean feeding them to the wolves, or letting them die of cold. Shooting them is not only morally repugnant (though one of the soldiers is willing to ignore that, as ubi maior, minor cessat), but may cause a media backlash in the US, should they find out that fully armed SEALs killed three unarmed and harmless goat herders. So Marcus Luttrell (he will be the lone survivor) “makes the call”—and releases them.
A decision they will soon regret.
Within two hours, still unable to reestablish communication with Bagram Airfield, a US military base in Afghanistan, the team is ambushed by Ahmad Shah’s men. A lot of gunfire ensues; three of the four SEALs are eventually killed, and many more in a helicopter that had flown there to rescue them but was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. Luttrell barely escapes and is rescued first by local, Taliban-resisting villagers and finally, after further tribulations and casualties caused by the unrelentingly bellicose Taliban, by the US army.
In the film’s opening, we are shown the would-be Navy SEALs undergo some grueling training. Much of it, it would seem, has to do with oxygen deprivation (and we do wonder—why?). And then there is the proverbial emphasis on physical exercise and superior fitness. These two elements would seem to be at the root of the problem: not only are we not shown any intellectual/mental training to compensate for the physical, but the brains of such SEALs-to-be are routinely deprived of oxygen. The result is that (at least from what we are told, and I for one, having not read the book the film is based on, hope for this version to be inaccurate), when faced with the problem of what to do with the goat herders, none of the four SEALs involved can think up the obvious solution: Tie their hands behind their back, gag them, tie them up in a line, and make them walk back with you until you manage to reestablish communication and are extracted by helicopter; only at that time will you release them. The solution is so simple, you would think any person of no more than average intellectual faculties would arrive at it within minutes. But leave it to very brawny pros whose brains have been regularly deprived of oxygen and who flirt since adolescence with cupio dissolvi mistaking it for valor with overtones of Nietzschean Übermensch, and see what a brilliant plan they can come up with: roger that, lieutenant!
Guido Mina di Sospiro is co-author of the disinformation® book The Forbidden Book, co-authored with Joscelyn Godwin, and the recently published The Metaphysics Of Ping-Pong, published by Yellow Jersey Press, Random House, and long-listed for the William Hill Sports Book Award 2013.