A Former Navy SEAL Questions Rules of War In June 2005, Marcus Luttrell and three of his fellow Navy SEALs set off on a mission in the mountains of Afghanistan. Luttrell's team was ambushed by the Taliban, leaving him the sole survivor. He says the rules of war often get in the way of success on the battlefield.
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A Former Navy SEAL Questions Rules of War

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A Former Navy SEAL Questions Rules of War

A Former Navy SEAL Questions Rules of War

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When Marcus Luttrell retired from the U.S. Special Forces, he did it quietly.

Mr. MARCUS LUTTRELL (U.S. Navy, Retired): My last day as a SEAL?


Mr. LUTTRELL: You know what? I woke up that morning, I went to work, I said good-bye to three people and I just kind of gracefully bowed out. I didn't have a party. I didn't have a hail and farewell or anything like that. I just, you know, I just got out of there.

INSKEEP: Did you feel like the guys that you would have wanted to be there weren't going be there?

Mr. LUTTRELL: Are you talking about all my buddies who died?

INSKEEP: Yes, sir.

Mr. LUTTRELL: No, they're with me every day. You know, I don't have to worry about them. I see them every day.

INSKEEP: His colleagues were killed during a mission in Afghanistan. Marcus Luttrell was a U.S. Navy SEAL, trained to go anywhere. The title of his memoir describes what happened when Luttrell's team was ambushed. It's called "Lone Survivor."

Luttrell's 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 terror. The decisions are who you target and who you kill when the enemy doesn't wear a uniform.

Mr. LUTTRELL: I mean, war is not black and white, and sometimes stuff has to be done so you can preserve the life of your men.

INSKEEP: And Marcus Luttrell faced at least two decisions with lives at stake, including his own. The first decision came after four Navy 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.

Mr. LUTTRELL: We didn't have a very good vantage on our target. We could only see a few houses down in there, and a fog bank had set in, so we relocated. And when we did about an hour later, we were walked on by - first it was one man by himself, just an ax in his hand. He walked over the top of me.

INSKEEP: You're sitting there about as heavily armed as somebody could be in that situation, and all of a sudden there's a guy standing over you with an ax?

Mr. LUTTRELL: Yes, sir. And then about 10 minutes later, I guess, another adult male and a 12- to 14-year-old boy showed up. And then about five minutes after that about a hundred goats showed up.


Mr. LUTTRELL: Yes, sir. They were out walking their herd. So we interrogated them. We couldn't - I couldn't get anything out of them. And then I just had that uneasy feeling, you know, some - a lot of times you can talk to villagers and stuff and they're really forthcoming with information, and sometimes they're not. And we sat down and talked over our options, you know, the option we had was to turn them loose. That's the one we all came up with.

INSKEEP: What other option did you have besides turning them loose?

Mr. LUTTRELL: Well, we could have tied them up and taken them with us, but there was three of them, four of us, and plus a hundred goats. Honestly, people would have come looking for them and stuff like that. If we had tied them up and left them behind a tree or something like that, we weighed the options, like, okay, if we tie these guys up and leave them laying there, one, somebody's going to show up looking for them or, two, they're going to die. You know, and then three was to just outright take them out. And...

INSKEEP: To kill them?

Mr. LUTTRELL: Yes, sir.

INSKEEP: Was it the wrong call to let them go?

Mr. LUTTRELL: You know, sir - why, because all my friends are dead? I mean, well, like I said, sir, I can't say that, if it was or if it wasn't.

INSKEEP: Well, I guess in this book you raise a lot of questions about the rules of war. You questioned whether Americans should be following the rules. Here on page 170: faced with the murderous cutthroats of the Taliban, we're not fighting under the rules of Geneva IV Article 4. We're fighting under the rules of Article 223.556mm. That's the caliber and bullet gauge of our M4 rifle.

Mr. LUTTRELL: Yes, sir. You've been over there before, right?

INSKEEP: Yeah, I have.

Mr. LUTTRELL: I mean, you know what we're dealing with, right? It's just sometimes it's hard to fight an enemy when we're - when, just like you said, 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.

INSKEEP: And now that you're out of the SEALs and you can speak your mind, are those rules that you would want to change?

Mr. LUTTRELL: Of course. I mean, I think that - I mean, 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. And 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, well, 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.

INSKEEP: You mean if people start saying be especially careful about civilian casualties, that's a rule that would be difficult for someone in your situation to follow. Is that what you're saying?

Mr. LUTTRELL: I don't kill civilians, sir. No, that's not what I'm - I mean, that's not what I'm saying - open up free reign on civilians. That's not what I'm saying at all.

INSKEEP: And it's worth noting that's not what Marcus Luttrell did in Afghanistan. The Navy SEAL writes that when the unit commander polled his men on what to do, Luttrell chose to spare the Afghans. He chose that even though his book, with co-author Patrick Robinson, says the Afghans were a security risk. Luttrell knew in his soul that he should kill them. But, he adds, I have another soul, my Christian soul.

Luttrell suspects those goat herders went on to reveal the Americans' location. He suspects that because soon after the goat herders walked away, scores of Taliban fighters attacked. He alone survived.

How did you get down off that mountain? How did you get out of there?

Mr. LUTTRELL: I crawled into the side of that mountain there and covered myself with rocks, and took mud and anything I could find and packed it into the open holes in my legs and stuff like that. I laid there all day. Then night came around, I finally got the feeling back in my legs. I stood up, and the best I could walked kind of walk-crawl for at least four miles off that mountain and then onto another one. And then I got shot again the next day, then I crawled three more miles and finally found some water. And then while I was there, I got walked on by some villagers. Ultimately, the villagers saved my life.

INSKEEP: Tough moment because you stumble across some Afghans, and again you can't be sure if they're going be on your side or on the other side, or no side at all.

Mr. LUTTRELL: Yes, sir, it was tough. I mean, I didn't know. I was apprehensive from the beginning, you know. I almost killed three of them. But I don't know why I didn't. I just didn't pull the trigger. I don't know why. And that paid off, though. I mean, they pulled me in there and doctored me up, kept me from the Taliban. The Taliban had surrounded the village and were trying to get me every day. They wouldn't let them. It's amazing, actually. It was a hard lesson learned, to tell you the truth, sir, because, you know, I had - my main job was to go in there and hunt the enemy down. And I didn't really pay much attention to the villagers or anything like that, and then here they are saving my life. It's kind of - it's quite the conundrum.

INSKEEP: Marcus Luttrell's book is called "Lone Survivor." Thank you very much.

Mr. LUTTRELL: Well, thanks for having me, sir. It was a pleasure.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: You can read an excerpt from "Lone Survivor" at npr.org.

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