Lone Survivor: Miracle or Myth?

Powered by RedCircle

On the night of June 27
th, 2005, four US Navy Seals; Michael Murphy, Danny Dietz, Matthew Axelson, and Marcus Luttrell were secretly deployed near the mountain of Sawtalo Sar in Afghanistan.





Their mission called Operation Red Wings was to locate capture or kill a man named Ahmad Shaw, an alleged associate of Osama Bin Laden, and known leader of a militia called the “Mountain Tigers” affiliated with the Taliban operating in the area. 


When they arrived at their first watch position, the SEAL Team was inadvertently stumbled upon by some local goat herders.


The SEAL team feared that releasing the herders, would end up with them alerting their intended target or the local Taliban. But of course, they could not morally kill or strand a couple of herders for having merely having accidentally stumbled upon them. 


The decision was made to let them go and move to a different location in the hopes that they could avoid or at least be better prepared for a potential engagement that may come.   







Only about an hour later, the SEALs were attacked by dozens or perhaps over 100 Taliban fighters, armed with machine guns and RPG’s. 


An intense firefight followed, in which the SEALs struggled to radio for help. They were all wounded by shrapnel or gunshots as they were driven down the mountain. 


Danny Dietz was the first casualty, suffering multiple gunshot wounds and left unable to walk. He was shot in the head as teammate Marcus Luttrell tried to carry him to safety.


Michael Murphy moved to a clearing and managed to successfully radio for help. In the process he was shot multiple times but managed to continue fighting until he succumbed to his wounds and died. 


Matthew Axelson and Marcus Luttrell continued fighting, until an RPG blast separated them. 


Marcus Luttrell was knocked unconscious, Matthew Axelson fought and moved away for some time until he was finally overrun and executed. 


To make matters worse the rescue helicopter called in by Lt Michael Murphy’s heroic self-sacrificing actions was also shot down resulting in the deaths of another 16 special forces soldiers which included 8 Navy SEALs.


Luttrell regained consciousness, and though severely wounded managed to evade the enemy. He was ultimately discovered by some local villagers and cared for. 


But that did not stop the Taliban from pursuing him. A tense standoff between the villagers and the Taliban followed until the villagers were able to contact a nearby Afghan Army unit being guided by US Army Rangers.


Marcus Luttrell was ultimately rescued, almost miraculously, and became the Lone Survivor.


Lt Michael Murphy was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his efforts in the firefight.

Danny Dietz, Matthew Axelson, and Marcus Luttrell were ultimately awarded the Navy Cross.


Marcus Luttrell went on to write “Lone Survivor” which quickly became a best-selling book in 2007, and subsequently a hit Movie starring Mark Wahlberg in 2013.


Lone Survivor is a classic war hero story. The best laid plans go awry, soldiers confronted with a moral dilemma in the height of a conflict make the impossible choice, even to their own detriment. Vastly outnumbered they fight for each other, literally to the last man. That Lone Survivor manages to escape with the help of some decent locals and goes on to carry the story of his fallen brothers. Everything about the story fits nicely with the modern warrior mythos surrounding the Elite Navy SEALs. Who are frequently viewed or depicted as something like a modern day Achilles, seemingly superhuman, highly trained, nearly unstoppable warriors straight out of a video game. 


It’s almost…. too perfect, isn’t it?


What if I suggested to you that the Lone Survivor story may well be a farce? Sounds heretical, doesn’t it? Well, I completely understand, I was one of those impressionable young men who viewed the elite military men as heroes when the book came out, I saw the movie the day it came out, and of course I remember very well the live coverage of the September 11th attack that spawned all of this into action. 


But here’s the other side of the story…




According to Mohammad Gulab, the Afghanistan Villager who rescued Luttrell the story is quite different.


In an interview with Newsweek linked to in the show-notes which you can get to by clicking the link in the episode description, Gulab claims the SEALs were not revealed to the Taliban by the goat herders. But rather by their noisy helicopters. The Taliban heard them arrive and tracked their footprints from the beginning. The Taliban also saw them interact with the goat herders, electing to postpone their attack until the herders were on their way and the right moment presented itself. 

Mohammad Gulab with a picture of a rescued Luttrell

Officially the Navy claims 35 Taliban were killed in the fighting. Gulab says this is inaccurate, and that in fact not a single Afghan was killed. This also happens to match the account of Marine Colonel Andrew McMannis who helped plan the original operation and was also involved in the recovery of the American bodies after the fact.


Claims about the number of Afghan fighters present are also disputed. Rather than around 100, it was perhaps no more than 10. Which also seems to be backed up by some alleged video footage of the incident which I will also link to in the show-notes page, warning though, it is graphic. 




Perhaps most shocking of all, when he was discovered by Gulab, Luttrell had not fired a single shot. 


And the reason Luttrell was protected in the village had less to do with some afghan honor code, and more to do with the size of the village relative the size of the Taliban in the area.


So why didn’t some of this come out sooner? There were various reports and opinions of other military men suggesting the claims in the lone survivor account, particularly questioning the number of Taliban fighters present or killed.


But what about Mohammad Gulab’s Story? Gulab could not read or write in any Afghanistan Language or English. So, when the book came out, he had no idea what was in it other than the story he thought he knew.


It wasn’t until he became involved in promoting the 2013 movie that he realized the story had been greatly embellished. This caused a lot of tension between Luttrell and Gulab, and at one-point Gulab was told before a TV interview on CNN that he should just agree with everything Luttrell says.


There are more inconsistencies too, and a whole saga of drama between Luttrell and Gulab years after the fact, I won’t go into detail here, you can find more by clicking the link in the episode description. 


So, if the story of “Lone Survivor” isn’t exactly true then why the tall tale?


Consider a mission that goes badly and all the people that get tied up in that one way or another. Then consider it gets worse when the backup is also killed. 


Consider that the image of the SEALs as modern demigod soldiers is intentional, and the war in Afghanistan even back in 2007 was starting to become unpopular.


Consider that one man perhaps dealing with guilt or survivors guilt needs an avenue to share a story. 


All these stars could have easily aligned to allow for the creation of the Lone Survivor Myth.


Now this next bit, is merely an idea I sometimes ponder, to what lengths might our own government go to create heroes and villains to push narratives, or keep narratives alive? After all, someone had to approve Luttrell’s book. It reminds of the controversy surrounding JFK’s infamous wreck of a PT boat in the Solomon Islands during WW2, in which Kennedy is ultimately hailed as hero for personally swimming an injured sailor and leading the remaining crew several hours to small island, then making numerous long swims out to sea to get help.   But the entire crash of the PT boat and death a couple crewmen may have been Kennedy’s fault to begin with. More on that at LoreandLegends.net…




When nationality is invoked, it is extremely hard to not view ourselves as the heroes or members of the just and moral team fighting for good. So, I think we are especially primed in instances like this to believe the over-the-top hero stories.

But the reality, is that war is terrible, and in many ways everyone loses. Even in a war that we might consider just, the war represents a breakdown of society and our ability to persuade. Maybe the lesson of Lone Survivor should be that sometimes the best laid plans go to waste, and even the most highly skilled warriors are still humans. Kennedy can still be a hero for doing the right things after the fact, just as Michael Murphy is no less heroic just because there may have been fewer Taliban, and Marcus Luttrell is not a coward for being traumatized by the dying screams of a friend.


And those stories matter I think, because in each of these cases, there are actual lessons we can learn about the bitter realities of war that would serve us all better I think than just believing in myths meant to grab status and motivate weary population even when they might be getting tired of it for good reasons. 


The tumultuous American exit from Afghanistan that has absolutely dominated the news cycle as of the recording of this episode should be a reminder of just how quickly things can fall apart and how fragile our perceptions of power and dominance really are, especially when those perceptions are partly built on myths that seek to obfuscate the damning reality of war…


So, whose story do you think is closer to the truth? And if you think the Navy hasn’t been honest then what might that say about the war machine?


That’s all I had for this episode Cya next time!