ReThink Review: Lone Survivor -- What Makes a War Hero?

It has been accepted as fact that when soldiers returned from Vietnam, they were greeted with a dousing of spit from anti-war protestors. While there's actually very little evidence that this ever happened, we've been taught that this alleged mistreatment of soldiers is the greatest sin of Vietnam (apparently worse than Agent Orange and all those dead civilians) and one that can dare not ever be repeated. So, as a nation, we've attempted to make amends for this apocryphal insult by swinging to the opposite extreme. Now every soldier is a hero defending American freedom, even if that soldier did nothing particularly heroic and fought in a war where America's freedom was never at risk. And, perhaps by design, "support the troops" has become synonymous with supporting the war, no matter how unjust, destructive, or counter-productive that war may be.

Lone Survivor, which tells the true story of a Navy SEAL reconnaissance team with no support that found themselves outnumbered by a large Taliban force in the mountains of Afghanistan, has been hailed as a tale of patriotism and heroism by no less than ultra-jingoists Glenn Beck and Michelle Malkin. But what constitutes heroism in a misguided war with no clear goals involving the most powerful military in world history occupying one of the world's poorest, most war-torn countries? And if attempting to save the lives of your comrades makes you a war hero, should enemy soldiers who do the same be considered heroes as well? Watch my ReThink Review of Lone Survivor below (transcript following).


Lone Survivor is based on the best-selling book of the same name by Marcus Luttrell, a former Navy SEAL whose four-man team was attacked during an operation in Afghanistan. The film is exciting, well-acted, realistic, and extremely harrowing as the wounded, outnumbered SEALs attempt to evade their pursuers and contact their base to arrange an escape. If you love the military and action movies about loyal, tough-as-nails military men, Lone Survivor more than delivers and is definitely the movie for you. But that isn't who I am AT ALL. So while I don't fault anything about the film's execution, let me give you my take on why I find movies like Lone Survivor incredibly problematic and hard to enjoy.

The film details the events of Operation Red Wings, a failed 2005 attempt to kill a Taliban leader called Ahmad Shah (played by Yousuf Azami). For the operation, a reconnaissance team is sent to scope out a small mountain village where Shah is believed to be. The team consists of Michael Murphy (played by Taylor Kitsch), Marcus Luttrell (played by Mark Wahlberg), Matt Axelson (played by Ben Foster), and Danny Dietz (played by Emile Hirsch), with their commanding officer at the base played by Eric Bana. But when some goatherds stumble across the team, the SEALs decide to let them go instead of murdering them, even though it means aborting the mission. But unable to contact their base to arrange an extraction, the team soon finds themselves under attack by a large Taliban force with a strange fondness for eyeliner.

So why do I take issue with a seemingly straightforward story like Lone Survivor? While the main characters are likable and easy to admire for their devotion to each other, their coolness under fire, and for being some of the toughest men on the planet, let's not forget that the four SEALs represent the biggest, most powerful military in world history as it occupies one of the world's poorest and most war-torn countries. The equipment each SEAL carries probably costs more than what twenty Afghans make in a year, and the cost to train, house, transport, and equip a single SEAL could vaccinate entire villages for a generation.

Conversely, the Taliban fighters are mostly using decades-old Russian weaponry and are fighting in robes and sandals without the protection of body armor, advanced logistics, or billions in air support. There's also an implication that any Afghan who hates the US presence must be Taliban, which ignores the way anyone would feel if soldiers from a foreign military interrupted your everyday life, shouted at you in another language, tied you up, and pointed guns at your family's heads. While there's nothing I like about the Taliban, let's remember who the real underdogs are, and that who the good and bad guys are in a war has more to do with the big picture and politics than the traits and actions of individuals.

But I'm sure many would say that the big picture and politics shouldn't matter. All that matters is these men, their bravery and heroism, and what they sacrificed for each other and to defend our freedom. This argument smacks of what I see as America's unhealthy habit of soldier worship, a bipartisan affliction where American soldiers are seen as unimpeachable heroes defending American freedom regardless of a war's true motives, tactics, consequences, or whether American freedom is even under threat, where "support the troops" easily becomes "support the war" -- any war -- just because Americans are fighting in it.

But if you believe that, then you'd have to agree that soldiers in any conflict, regardless of what side they're on, have friends, families, and have committed acts of bravery and sacrifice for each other and their cause. Do acts of bravery by the Taliban deserve movies celebrating, honoring, and fetishizing them? Are they also heroes? Or, when it comes to non-Americans, do we hold those fighters to a different standard, now claiming that context really does matter? Watching a movie like Lone Survivor, I can't help thinking about issues like these, and with something as weighty and dire as war, painting every American conflict as "heroes defending our freedom" does a disservice to the victims of war as well as those fighting them.

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