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A Veteran’s Review: “Lone Survivor Not Just Another Film”

My brother, a retired firefighter, and I went to see the movie Lone Survivor yesterday. I had written about the story earlier, based on an interview I saw of the author, the actual “lone survivor,” and I ended that article by saying that I wanted to see the movie. Well, I have, and I came away from it very moved.

All Too Familiar

First, though the landscape was different, the experience of a small unit reconnaissance mission was all too familiar to me. I served with Bravo Co., 3rd Recon, 3rd Marines in Vietnam in 1968. We worked in six-man teams on our various missions, so what the Navy Seals of Operation Red Wings were engaged in in this film came all too close to home for me.

Because I have been able to come to grips with whatever PTSD issues I came home with and because I taught literature for a career, I know how to suspend my disbelief when watching a film or reading a book. I am not distracted by the accuracy of the scenery or by the hollywood-ized action that makes for a successful war movie today. I am taken by the story, completely.

Because this is a film based on a real set of events, I found as I watched it, that I was much more taken by the difficult human dilemmas of the story, and what they reveal about our universally shared humanity. Most, I am sure, will come away from this film, experience it as just another war film, and judge it on whatever values they bring to bear in determining whether it was successful or not. To me, this film is not just another film in a particular genre. It is different from most war films in that its main focus is not so much on the military skills, and the warrior heroism of the characters, but on the paradoxical, moral dilemmas of war in its most intimate moments.

“To me, this film is not just another film in a particular genre.”

The film does well with its action and special effects, but they take a back seat, in my estimation, to two parenthetical, very human, morally difficult events. The first is the decision that the Seal Team members have to make concerning the goat herders that stumble upon their position. They have, as they see it, three choices. They can let them go, as they are non-combatants: one of them a child, one a teenager, and the other an old man. Second, they can tie them up and carry on the mission, but they might be vulnerable to animal predators that way. The third is to kill them, to maintain the mission’s secrecy and its potential success. Long story short, they choose to take the highest moral ground — they let the goat herders go.

To me this was a moral decision of the highest caliber. It was not made out of ignorance. They knew that the potential was great that the goat herders would give away their position to the Taliban. Though they knew the risks, they chose not to take the utilitarian route of the “ends justifying the means.” They chose, rather, in essence, to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” They were not sophisticated philosophers contemplating their way through the thickets of human thought here. Their understandings of the dilemma were basic, but very clear. One has to remind themselves, too, that this is a real story. This is what really happened.

Scouts pull overwatch during while a platoon searches a village below in Kunar Province, Afghanistan

Deadly Dilemmas and the Moral Landscape

Now, most people might think that their decision was foolish given the circumstances. But these real people, not imaginary characters, were confronted with one of the most profound moral dilemmas of life and death importance that any human being could imagine. Should they kill these unarmed, and therefore, non-combatant goat herders, and maybe even finish their mission successfully? They knew that such an action would be legitimately considered a war crime if it ever became known. They knew that such a decision would be one that they each would have to live with for the rest of their lives. And they knew the opposite, too. They knew that their important mission might be compromised and that their own lives might be endangered. In the end, they decided to honor a higher code of human behavior.

“In the end, they decided to honor a higher code of human behavior.”

The second is, some might say, ironic, in that the same kind of behavior is mirrored by the Pashtun Afghan villagers who find the “lone survivor” and take him into their village, honoring their ancient code of “pashtunwali.” This code promotes the ideas of self-respect, justice, hospitality, love, forgiveness and tolerance toward all, especially strangers or guests, but also revenge. It offers hospitality, a profound respect to all visitors, regardless of race, religion, national affiliation or economic status. and asylum, but also vengeance. Knowing this you see the higher moral ground that the villagers and one father and son, in particular, take in reference to the lone survivor of the Seal Team. They stop the Taliban from killing him when a small group of them storm into the village. They force the Taliban to leave. And they defend him again with their lives, even though there had been some serious debate within the village about the American in their midst, when the Taliban come back in revenge to kill them and their American “guest.”

This is the power of this film about a real life experience for me. Both the Americans in the Navy Seal Team and the Pashtun villagers that save, protect, and defend the solitary survivor of the mission modeled the highest moral character. This fact is made even more stunning by the fact that it all takes place within the context of a war.

Losing Their Moral Compass

We have seen examples of behavior quite opposite of these actions as well. The My Lai massacre on March 16, 1968 in Vietnam was an example of an entire unit of Americans losing their moral compass. The Taliban are an example of a whole ideology that proclaims a religious and moral superiority that in fact is as immoral as anything human can be. What they have done, and continue to do, even to their fellow Pashtuns in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, comes out very clearly in the recent book, I Am Malala written by the teenage girl that was shot in the head by the Taliban because she was advocating educations for girls in the Swat Valley of Pakistan.

I came away from this movie stunned by the paradox of human behavior. I was drained by the reality of the combat scenes — by remembered terrors and memories it brought back to me — yet I was buoyed too by the recognition that human beings are capable of the highest moral behavior even in the midst of war. I am aware of the irony, too, that though these moral decisions were actually made, the evil that drives war still has the appearance of being more powerful. But, it is my contention, that appearances are often deceiving.

I think that this is a very different kind of war movie. It is not, as some are criticizing, a military propaganda film. If it propagandizes at all, it is for the value and the dignity of moral character. War and morality are not words that go together easily. I am not concerned with the abstract concepts of morality here. These acts of moral character, one by the Navy Seal Team and the other by the Pashtun villagers, are actual acts done in the most difficult of circumstances. They are examples of our better nature, as far as I’m concerned. This is all the more so because they had to make these decisions within the instantaneous, life-and-death environment of war.

I recommend this movie highly. But, trust me, it is not just your average, run-of-the-mill war movie.

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Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site blog.