Directed by Peter Berg
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster
Lone Survivor tells the tragic story of Seal Team 10’s ill-fated Operation Red Wings which resulted in the death of 19 U.S. service personnel including 11 Navy Seals. This is the best war film I’ve seen in a while. The film is incredibly well done and a feather in the cap of both director Peter Berg and star Mark Wahlberg, both of whom have had ups and downs in their careers.
As a war film, Lone Survivor is quite good at capturing the micro level of human risk and tragedy in the midst of armed conflict. The film looks at the war from a micro level where every individual decision is internally justified and an overall verdict on the point or pointlessness of the war as such is lacking. The Seals do what they do for their fellow soldiers, no mention is made of 9/11 or hope for broader success in the so-called “War on Terror.” Some attempt is made to put a human face on the generally mysterious Seals, but what comes through mostly is their connection to each other.
Of course, there is a bit too much of the hero worship that permeates American attitudes toward the military these days, and the ending montage of actual photos of the Seals killed in the operation set to the song “Heroes” performed by Peter Gabriel and the New Blood Orchestra is a bit out of synch with the film’s story arc. We are reminded from the beginning that these men volunteered to be members of an elite fighting unit, which makes their trauma a bit different from the draftees caught in the middle of the Vietnam, Korean, or Second World War. The Navy Seals are career killers, almost mythical in their abilities and Berg portrays them as such.
Therefore, there’s nothing particularly heroic about the story at first glance because these professional soldiers are ultimately bested by untrained, poorly equipped Afghanis. Their mission compounds failure with failure. The film seems aware of this when it references the well-known line from Patton, “Now I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.” There is then serious reflection that needs to happen about how and why we use this term hero. Thus the montage at the end, while moving, comes off as a ham-fisted attempt to placate demands by the national psyche out of step with the film as a whole.
That said, I don’t think it would be fair to simply castigate Lone Survivor into a nationalist, militaristic piece of propaganda either. It is a war film, certainly, but the story is complex and the characters, while sympathetic, are not univocally so. Where the film excels is by leading its viewers through the debacle in order to allow for a deeper understanding of the ethics of warfare.
At the very end of the film we learn about the Afghan ethical code known as Pashtunwali, an ethics of hospitality dating back at least 2000 years which demands that a host must protect his guests from all enemies even if it means risking his own life and the lives of his family. Such risk and self-sacrifice is at the heart of every ethics worthy of being named so. Practicing ethics in a dangerous world is dangerous, and while sometimes fear and self-interest lead us away from the right, what is right knows no fear and is unrelenting in its demands.
We learn this by the end of the film, but for some time I thought Lone Survivor was going to be a story about just the opposite. The film goes to great pains to juxtapose the Taliban’s beheading of a suspected informant with the Seal Team’s decision to free goatherds suspected of being informants rather than murdering them. Since the three captured Afghanis were two preteen boys and an old man, I worried that I would leave thinking, “If only they’d have killed those children…” Or maybe the terribly jingoistic, “We can’t win because we’re so much more ethical than Afghanis.”
This message started to resound in my mind as I watched Taliban bullets, RPGs, and even the Afghan terrain tear apart the 4 man recon contingent of Seal Team 10. By the time that the Chinook helicopter exploded killing all 16 members of the extraction team, the earlier words of Axe Axelson (Daniel Dietz) explaining that he would rather kill the kids than see more U.S. soldiers dead flashed through my mind. All of this could have been avoided had they only killed the children and the old man. Thus his disturbing argument on behalf of murdering children was becoming prophetic, and I thought, “What a horrible message.”
Then, however, the story changed. As Marcus Lutrell (Mark Wahlberg) awakes the next morning after collapsing in a crevasse from his injuries, he finds himself the titular lone survivor in an unfriendly country. On badly injured leg, he makes his way to a stream where he encounters an Afghani farmer and his young son who offer help. Thinking it’s a ruse, Lutrell threatens them with a grenade, but as the Taliban can be heard in the distance, Lutrell decides he has no choice but to trust the hospitality of the man.
Throughout this ordeal Lutrell keeps asking, “Why are you helping me?” It seems a reasonable question, but rather highlights the basic ethical bankruptcy of western military thinking. Earlier, Lutrell had been the one to argue on behalf of letting the goatherds go, but he did so from the same pragmatic perspective that Axelson used to advocate murder. Lutrell kept referring to the threat of Leavenworth and the Rules of Engagement. And while on face Lutrell seems more ethical than his counterpart, being motivated by fear of punishment is not the same thing as being ethical. For Lutrell, he thought Leavenworth proved a greater risk than the Taliban, so just like Axelson, he was making a pragmatic risk assessment, not a claim about what is right. Lutrell assumes that everyone must make decisions the same way, so he believes that the Afghani who helps him must have something to gain to incur such a risk. It is, after all, the only reason anyone risks anything.
But then, that’s not even true of the Seals, it’s just that Lutrell doesn’t recognize the countless ways that the Seals sacrifice for each other with no great selfish motivation. This is highlighted by Mike Murphy (Taylor Kitsch) sacrificing his life in order to climb to a clear spot from which he can make a distress call for his besieged comrades. It is reinforced by the Chinook’s attempt to land the extraction team despite lack of air cover and recalls the opening scenes of the grueling nature of Seal training which forges bonds between the members of Seal squadrons.
The fact is, the Afghani who helps Lutrell has no good reason to do so except that Lutrell is in his country and needs help. Sheltering Lutrell involves great risk to both himself, his young son, and their entire village, which Berg makes extremely clear. Over and over Lutrell asks, “Why are you helping me?” but in the end there is no reason, a fact Lutrell eventually seems to recognize when he turns to the man and simply says, “Thank you.”
And that is ethics. Aiding those who need help not because you get something out of it, not because of some future gain on your part, but rather simply because they need help, and you are able to help them. This is ethics even when offering such help comes at great personal risk. Why would doing the right and good be worthy of adulation if it always corresponded with your best interest? The final shot of the film reminds us that it is ultimately the Afghanis who aid Lutrell who are the moral exemplars to follow. Giving aid to those who need it and forging human connections even at great personal risk. Pashtunwali, an ethics of hospitality. It is a lesson we all could learn.