Thursday, January 30, 2014

Lone Survivor & Fort Sensible

Though free wifi still doesn't seem to be standard practice in every hotel, one thing that is a given is that every room will have a television, and at least a handful of the standard cable channels.I don't own a TV at home, and though I selectively stream a handful of shows, I don't have to subject myself to standard TV commercials, and so often I'm unaware of the latest buzz.While I was on the road, I noticed a lot of buzz on the TV about a new movie called Loan Survivor--a military movie supposedly inspired by the true story of some Navy SEALs.I have to say, it takes a lot of balls to give away the ending of your movie in the title, but I was intrigued, and so I decided to do a little research.Turned out the film was based on a book which was based on the true story, and so I could save myself the hassle of putting on pants, and just download the book from the Kindle store.

This blog review is based on the true story of one man's perilous struggle to survive some of the crappiest writing that was ever signed off on by the Department of Defense's PR department.

Now normally I would include some sort of "spoiler warning" when I was about to discuss the finer plot points of a book, but I feel as though all bets are off when the the ending of the book in contained in its title.Marcus Luttrell is a member of a four-man SEAL team sent on a reconnaissance mission in the mountains of Afghanistan.Things start to get interesting (from a literary perspective) when Marcus and his team are discovered by the Taliban, and must fight for their survival.Despite being outnumbered by over 100 Taliban, Marcus and his team fight with all they've got.After all, they're Navy SEALs and they're not going to go down without a fight.

The SEALs pride themselves on their toughness, their determination, and their refusal to surrender.This is also buoyed by a principle of never leaving a man behind on the battlefield.Though they'll go into some of the most dangerous situations, they know they've always got each other's backs.Lone Survivor details this commitment.At one point during the ambush, two of the team members have already been fatally wounded.The remaining two are badly hurt.Of those two, the one who isn't Marcus heroically calls for backup, which necessitates running out from cover and exposing himself to enemy fire in order to get a radio signal.He is, in effect, sacrificing himself in order to support his one remaining squadmate.

Back at the base, they receive the distress call, and waste no time.They load up a helicopter with 8 Navy SEALs and 8 Army Special Ops men, who got in a helicopter and flew to the heart of the conflict to take on at least 100 well-trained, heavily armed, Taliban fighters in order to rescue what was at that point, at most, one viable soldier, and even he would likely be dead by the time they arrived.Ultimately, none of that mattered because the helicopter was blown up in the air, and all 16 men were killed.At this point, I couldn't help but think of Fort Sensible.

Fort Sensible was introduced in the Whacking Day episode of The Simpsons.Marge and Bart visit Olde Springfield Towne where they learn the history of the fort.

GUIDE: The enemy surrounded the fort, and said that if the captain was sent out, the rest would be spared.BART: What did they do?GUIDE: They sent him out!BART: Was he killed?GUIDE: And how! That's why they call it 'Fort Sensible'.The joke is, of course, that despite the classic military machismo and never give-in attitude that is pervasive in the military, in many cases there is a a much more 'sensible' solution that leaves everyone better off.But if there's on thing that you should learn from reading this book, it's that being a SEAL is about being tough, it's about being determined, it's about being loyal, it's about being an expertly trained soldier, but it's never about being sensible.

But before Marcus and his SEAL team got into trouble, the reader should already be suitably troubled by some of the things in the book.Of course, one of the things that helped make Marcus into such the tough man was that his father beat him.

When we were young, working the horses, my dad was very, very tough on us.He considered that good grades were everything, bad ones were simply unacceptable.I once got a C in conduct, and he beat me with a saddle girth.I know he was doing it for our own good, trying to instill discipline in his sons, which would serve them well later in life. He seems to fancy this a good thing.I seem to fancy this as an explanation as to why later in life, he would want to kill any Afghan that looked at him the wrong way (also, "conduct", that's not even a real subject).When Marcus sets off for Afghanistan, it is clear he is motivated by a deeply-ingrained love of corporal punishment, and may not be going for the most sensible of reasons.

They may not have been the precise same guys who planned 9/11.But they were most certainly their descendants, their heirs, their followers.They were part of the same crowd who knocked down the North and South towers in the Big Apple on the infamous Tuesday morning in 2001.The idea of "communal punishment" is a very troubling one, and Marcus seems to have no qualms whatsoever.Certainly the terrorist attacks on 9/11 were worthy of punishment, but the direct perpetrators all died in the attack--they couldn't be punished.Those who conspired with the perpetrators were hard to find, but Marcus, George W Bush, and all too many Americans clearly wanted vengeance, and so anyone who fit the profile of a terrorist was going to have to pay, regardless of whether he had committed any specific offenses.Marcus really took the the idea of revenge.As he even noted, one of the few possessions he brought with him when he went overseas to fight was a DVD player and a copy of his favorite movie, The Count of Monte Cristo.Marcus describes it by saying "It's always an inspiration to me, always raises my spirits to watch one brave, innocent man's lonely fight against overpowering forces of evil in an unforgiving world."Now, perhaps if Marcus were more the literary type, he might have read the novel instead of just watching the Hollywood version, and if he had, he might have picked up on the part where Edmand Dant s's lust for revenge ends up hurting innocent people, and causes him to lose his humanity.

The parts of the book detailing the combat in Afghanistan are actually, by far, the best parts.The unfortunate part of this book is that in order to even get to the fighting, the reader has to make it through 100 pages of SEAL training, and Marcus telling everyone why SEALs are the greatest people to ever walk the face of the Earth

We could fight in a much more ruthless manner, stop worrying if everyone still loved us.If we did that, we'd probably win in both Afghanistan and Iraq in about a week.

But we're not allowed to do that.And I guess we'd better start getting used to the conseqeuences and permit the American liberals to squeak and squeal us to ultimate defeat.I believe that's what it's called when you pack up and go home, when a war fought under your own "civilized" terms is unwinnable.

I have only one piece of advice for what it's worth: IF YOU DON'T WANT TO GET INTO A WAR WHERE THINGS GO WRONG, WHERE THE WRONG PEOPLE SOMETIMES GET KILLED, WHERE INNOCENT PEOPLE SOMETIMES HAVE TO DIE, THEN STAY THE HELL OUT OF IT IN THE FIRST PLACE.That last part is probably the first sensible thing he's written in the whole book.And he's right.We should have stayed the hell out of Afghanistan in the first place.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about this book is the complete lack of perspective that Marcus has about our place in the world.For starters, he doesn't seem to quite comprehend why there would be such hostility towards U.S. armed forces (unless, of course, the people were all evil terrorists).

In fact, there were districts in Manama known as black flag areas, where tradesmen, shopkeepers, and private citizens hung black flags outside their properties to signify Americans are not welcome.I guess it wasn't quite as vicious as Juden Verboten was in Hitler's Germany.But there are undercurrents of hatred all over the Arab world, and we knew there were many sympathizers with the Muslim extremist fanatics of the Taliban and al Qaeda.Because really, being Jewish is just like being part of a massive, foreign, occupying military presence.His lack of perspective continues to show with his frequent diatribes against the "liberals" (both politicians and the media) who are always criticizing the U.S. Armed Forces.His specific point of contention are the "rules of engagement" that state the they cannot open fire on the Afghans unless they (the Afghans) attack first, or have been positively identified and have proof of their intentions.To Marcus, this is crazy, especially because of how hard it can be to identify those foreigners who wish to attack Americans, and those foreigners who just resent the American occupation.He would much rather be able to kill them at his discretion, and it's clear he would err on the side of caution.

Fundamentally, Marcus doesn't seem to Middle Easterners as being inherently equal to Americans.I suppose this might a necessary coping mechanism to deal with war, but to him,they are not people with names, feelings, and identities, they are "Abdul the Bombmaker or whatever the hell his name was."Ultimately, this becomes a crucial plot point, as Marcus believes that these "rules of engagement" cost him and his team their lives.

While the four-man SEAL team was dropped into the mountains doing their reconnaissance, they happened to be discovered by several Afghan goatherds who were just taking their goats for a casual stroll through the mountains.They weren't doing anything nefarious, and they were unarmed, but they had the misfortune of stumbling across some American SEALs.Marcus and his team are unsure what to do.They want to kill the goatherds, but some of them are afraid of what the liberal politicians and media will do to them.Their only other (apparent) option is to set them free and continue on in their mission.Again, Fort Sensible seems to strike again--once they have been discovered, the mission is over.At that point, extraction should be their first and only priority.But that's not how SEALs think.SEALs are tough sons of bitches, and they never give up on a mission... even if it turns out 19 soldiers are killed, and the mission objectives are never completed anyway.... but they'll be damned if they admit defeat.

After the fact, Marcus laments that he didn't kill them.Clearly he should have, because by virtue of the fact that they told people what they had seen, which clearly meant they were evil terrorists.At no point did he stop to put himself in their shoes--imaging going for a stroll in your home town when you stumble across four heavily armed, foreign soldier.Would you keep quiet to make sure they can continue their mission.Who even knows what their mission was?Also, just because the Taliban soldiers found out doesn't mean the goatherds were with the Taliban--they could have just been goatherds by day, journalists by night.The discovery of four Navy SEALs was probably a front page story on the Hindu Kush Times.

After Marcus and his team are ambushed, he talks about the pain of losing his squadmates; how he still hears their dying screams in his sleep.What he doesn't seem to comprehend is that is the pain he is inflicting on others every time he kills.Even Tom Clancy novels, which are as pro-military as they come, typically reflects that understanding.Marcus resents the rules of engagement because they jeopardize the safety of the people he cares about.He doesn't understand that they are in place to provide for the safety of people he doesn't care about, but whose feelings are just as important.The protections for the Aghans are in place not because the terrorists deserve to be protected, but because we want to make damn sure that the people we're killing are terrorists before we kill them.That is our one claim to moral superiority over them.

My criticisms of this book are not just limited to criticisms of Marcus's philosophies of war.It's also because of the remarkable time devoted to self-aggrandizement.At every step of the way, the reader is assured that despite the non-stop boasts of the incredible abilities of the SEALs, they are actually quite humble people (humble people deliver such quotes as: "It has occurred to me that you might be wondering why we thought we were so goddamned superior to everyone else, why we felt entitled to our own private brand of arrogance").While I suppose it is possible that Marcus Luttrell is the lone turd in the punch bowl, it seems that while they may not outwardly boast, humble, they are absolutely not.Mirriam-Webster defines humble as "not proud : not thinking of yourself as better than other people", and this book definitely gives the impression that these SEALs fancy themselves better than other people.I suspect that the reason they may avoid outward boasts is that to articulate their claims would be to subject them to attack.It's a lot easier to think yourself the greatest than it actually is to defend that claim (though to Muhammad Ali's credit, he gave it a damn good try).Perhaps the most egregious offense came after Marcus finished sniper school, about which he said, "SEALs don't look for personal credit, and thus I cannot say who the class voted their honor man."Now, at this point in the book, the reader hasn't actually been introduced to any other characters at sniper school, and so there are only two possibilities: either Marcus himself was voted the "honor man", in which case he is boasting and looking for personal credit, or else someone else was voted the "honor man" in which case the key character here has not yet been introduced to the reader, which is one of the greatest literary sins there is.Neither option reflects well on the author.

In response to his boasts about his, and the SEALs superiority, I must state my objections.While I certainly won't argue that the SEALs are exceptionally good at what they do, just what is it that they do?They suffer a lot.They're kind of strong, but not exceptionally talented at any particular physical feat.They can suffer a lot.They can shoot people, and work well in groups.They can brag.The thing about the SEALs is they are exceptionally gifted men, but if they had been just a little more gifted, they wouldn't have wasted their time being SEALs.At one point, he mentions that it's harder to become a Navy SEAL than it is to graduate from Harvard Law School.It's also harder to memorize 50,000 decimal places of pi than it is to graduate from Harvard Law School, but if anyone were to ask which pursuit was more worthwhile, I would have to say the latter.

My final thoughts on this book are simple: if you're thinking about reading it, do yourself a favor and read Starship Troopers instead.It's got a very similar pro-military message, but written by an author who actually knows how to write.Though Marcus Luttrell spends much of the book telling the reader every possible positive quality a Navy SEAL could have, not once does he mention writing ability.It shows.Starship Troopers, on the other hand, features such literary mainstays as "plot" and "character development", Lone Survivor just feels like a collage of anecdotes, and despite the remarkable series of events that results in Marcus being the only survivor of a massive Taliban ambush, it doesn't actually appear that he has grown or learned anything from the ordeal.Because SEALs don't learn--they've already been bred to perfection.I suppose it's good for his ego, but it sure doesn't make for a compelling narrative.
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