A Former Navy SEAL Questions Rules of War

Marcus Luttrell i i

An injured Marcus Luttrell crawled and walked miles to safety after his Navy SEAL unit was ambushed. Kelly Campbell hide caption

itoggle caption Kelly Campbell
Marcus Luttrell

An injured Marcus Luttrell crawled and walked miles to safety after his Navy SEAL unit was ambushed.

Kelly Campbell

Read an Excerpt

A Navy SEAL patrols an Afghan mountainside. i i

A Navy SEAL patrols an Afghan mountainside. Photographer's Mate 1st Class Tim Turner/U.S. Navy hide caption

itoggle caption Photographer's Mate 1st Class Tim Turner/U.S. Navy
A Navy SEAL patrols an Afghan mountainside.

A Navy SEAL patrols an Afghan mountainside.

Photographer's Mate 1st Class Tim Turner/U.S. Navy

In June 2005, Marcus Luttrell and three of his fellow Navy SEALs set off on a mission in the mountains of Afghanistan. They were ambushed by the Taliban, leaving him as the only survivor among the American special operations team.

Luttrell, who has since retired from the military, recounts the ordeal in a memoir, Lone Survivor, co-written by Patrick Robinson.

The book has received much attention this summer, in part because of the decisions the SEALs made. They're the kind of decisions that lie at the heart of the war on terrorism: Who do you target — and who you do kill — when the enemy doesn't wear a uniform?

"War's not black and white," Luttrell tells Steve Inskeep. "You can sit there and put it on paper, like, 'This is what has to be done in this certain situation.' But when you get up there on that mountain, or when you're in a battlefield, it doesn't work that way. And sometimes stuff has to be done so you can preserve the life of your men."

Luttrell faced at least two decisions with lives at stake, including his own. The first decision came after the SEALs moved into the Afghan mountains. That's when they were discovered by Afghans who might betray their presence.

The SEALs were looking down from a mountainside, waiting for an enemy leader who was suspected to be in the village below.

They soon encountered three males and about 100 goats. The SEALs interrogated the herders, but "couldn't get anything out of them," Luttrell says. "And then, we just had that uneasy feeling. A lot of times, you can talk to villagers and they're really forthcoming with information, and sometimes they're not."

The SEALs discussed their options — tie up the herders and take them along, tie them up and leave them, or to kill them. In the end, the Americans decided to turn the herders loose.

Luttrell says he's still not sure if they made the right call.

In the book, Luttrell raises questions about the rules of war — and whether Americans should be following them. He writes:

Faced with the murderous cutthroats of the Taliban, we are not fighting under the rules of Geneva IV Article 4. We are fighting under the rules of Article 223.556mm — that's the caliber and bullet gauge of our M4 rifle.

"Sometimes, it's hard to fight an enemy when ... they're following a different set of rules. They're not following any rules, actually, in some regards. And when we go out there to deal with it, it's tough."

"There's a lot of smart people in the military. We're not as dumb as everybody thinks, and we know how to do our job really well. If you're going to send us in there for war, then that's what you do. You just send us in there and let us do what we need to do. We'll get done and we'll get home, and it'll be over.

"But as soon as we get in there and then rules start coming down the pipe, you know, 'This needs to happen, this needs to happen.' When you're not out there actually on the battlefield, it's just tough for us to understand how you can implement something like that."

Luttrell emphasized that he's not talking about killing civilians.

He writes that when the unit commander polled his men on what to do, Luttrell chose to spare the Afghans, despite the security risk.

Luttrell knew in his soul that he should kill them. But, he adds, "I have another soul, my Christian soul."

He suspects that those goat herders went on to reveal the Americans' location. Soon after Afghans walked away, scores of Taliban fighters attacked.

Luttrell describes what he did to survive:

"I crawled into the side of that mountain and covered myself with rocks, took mud and anything I could find, packed it into the open holes in my legs ... I lay there all day. Then night came around. I finally got the feeling back in my legs. I stood up, best I could, walk-crawled for at least four miles off that mountain and then onto another one. Then I got shot again the next day, then I crawled three more miles and finally found some water."

Luttrell says he then encountered some villagers, and was unsure if they were friend or foe.

"I was apprehensive from the beginning. I almost killed three of them, but ... I just didn't pull the trigger. I don't know why."

Those people ultimately saved his life, protecting him from the Taliban who had surrounded their village.

Excerpt: 'Lone Survivor'

'Lone Survivor'

It always makes me laugh when I read about "the proud freedom fighters in Iraq." They're not proud. They'd sell their own mothers for fifty bucks. We'd go into some house, grab the guy we believed was the ringleader, and march him outside into the street. First thing he'd say was "Hey, hey, not me. You want those guys in that house down the street." Or "You give me dollars, I tell you what you want to know."

They would, and did. And what they told us was very often extremely valuable. Most of those big military coups, like the elimination of Saddam's sons and the capture of Saddam himself, were the result of military intel. Somebody, someone from their own side, shopped them, as they had shopped hundreds of others. Anything for a buck, right? Pride? Those guys couldn't even spell it.

And that grade of intelligence is often hard-won. We'd go in fast, driving into the most dangerous districts in the city, screaming through the streets in Humvees, or even fast-roping in from helicopters if necessary. We'd advance, city block by city block, moving carefully through the dark, ready for someone to open fire on us from a window, a building, somewhere on the opposite side of the street, even a tower. It happened all the time. Sometimes we returned fire, always to much more deadly effect than our enemy could manage.

And when we reached our objective, we'd either go in with sledgehammers and a hooley — that's a kind of a crowbar that will rip a door right off its hinges — or we'd wrap the demo around the lock and blast that sucker straight in. We always made certain the blast was aimed inward, just in case someone was waiting behind the door with an AK-47. It's hard to survive when a door comes straight at you at one hundred miles an hour from point-blank range.

Occasionally, if we had an element of doubt about the strength of the opposition behind that door, we would throw in a few flash-crashes, which do not explode and knock down walls or anything but do unleash a series of very loud, almost deafening bangs accompanied by searing white flashes. Very disorienting for our enemy.

Right then our lead man would head the charge inside the building, which was always a shock for the residents. Even if we had not used the flash-crashes, they'd wake up real quick to face a group of big masked men, their machine guns leveled, shouting, daring anyone to make a move. Although these city houses were mostly two-story, Iraqis tend to sleep downstairs, all of them crowded together in the living room.

There might be someone upstairs trying to fire down on us, which could be a massive pain in the ass. We usually solved that with a well-aimed hand grenade. That may sound callous, but your teammates are absolutely relying on the colleague with the grenade, because the guy upstairs might also have one, and that danger must be taken out. For your teammates. In the SEALs, it's always your teammates. No exceptions.

However, in the room downstairs, where the Iraqis were by now in surrender mode, we'd look for the ringleader, the guy who knew where the explosives were stored, the guy who had access to the bomb-making kit or the weapons that would be aimed straight at American soldiers. He was usually not that difficult to find. We'd get some light in there and march him directly to the window so the guys outside with the intel could compare his face with photographs.

Often the photographs had been taken by the team I worked in, and identification was swift. And while this process happened, the SEAL team secured the property, which means, broadly, making darned sure the Iraqis under this sudden house arrest had no access to any form of weaponry whatsoever.

Right then what the SEALs call A-guys usually showed up, very professional, very steely, steadfast in their requirements and the necessary outcome of the interrogation. They cared, above all, about the quality of the informant's information, the priceless data which might save dozens of American lives. Outside we usually had three or four SEALs patrolling wide, to keep the inevitable gathering crowd at bay. When this was under control, with the A-guidance, we would question the ringleader, demanding he inform us where his terrorist cell was operating.

Sometimes we would get an address. Sometimes names of other ringleaders. Other times a man might inform us about arms dumps, but this usually required money. If the guy we'd arrested was especially stubborn, we'd cuff him and send him back to base for a more professional interrogation.

But usually he came up with something. That's the way we gathered the intelligence we needed in order to locate and take out those who would still fight for Saddam Hussein, even if his government had fallen, even if his troops had surrendered and the country was temporarily under American and British control. These were dangerous days at the conclusion of the formal conflict.

Fired on from the rooftops, watching for car bombs, we learned to fight like terrorists, night after night, moving like wild animals through the streets and villages. There is no other way to beat a terrorist. You must fight like him, or he will surely kill you. That's why we went in so hard, taking houses and buildings by storm, blowing the doors in, charging forward, operating strictly by the SEAL teams' tried-and-trusted methods, ingrained in us by years of training.

Because in the end, your enemy must ultimately fear you, understand your supremacy. That's what we were taught, out there in the absolute front line of U.S. military might. And that's probably why we never lost one Navy SEAL in all my long months in Iraq. Because we played it by the book. No mistakes.

At least nothing major. Although I admit in my first week in Iraq we were subject to...well...a minor lapse in judgment after we found an Iraqi insurgent ammunition dump during a patrol along a river as sporadic shots were fired at us from the other side. There are those military officers who might have considered merely capturing the dump and confiscating the explosive.

SEALs react somewhat differently and generally look for a faster solution. It's not quite, Hey, hey, hey...this lot's gotta go. But that will do for broad guidelines. We planted our own explosives in the building and then deferred to our EOD guy (explosive ordnance disposal). He positioned us a ways back, but a couple of us did wonder if it was quite far enough.

"No problem. Stay right where you are." He was confident.

Well, that pile of bombs, grenades, and other explosives went up like a nuclear bomb. At first there was just dust and small bits of concrete flying around. But the blasts grew bigger and the lumps of concrete from the building started to rain down on us.

Guys were diving everywhere, into trucks, under trucks, anywhere to get out of the way. One of our guys jumped into the Tigris! We could hear these rocks and lumps of hard mud walls raining down on us, hitting the trucks. It was amazing no one was killed or hurt out there.

Eventually it all went quiet, and I crawled out, unscathed. The EOD maestro was standing right next to me. "Beautiful," I said. "That went really well, didn't it?" I wished Mike Murphy had been there. He'd have come up with something better.

Copyright © 2007 by Marcus Luttrell

Books Featured In This Story

Lone Survivor

The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10

by Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson

Hardcover, 390 pages | purchase

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