Jewish World Review August 30, 2007 / 16 Elul, 5767
A Navy SEAL's gut-wrenching tale of survival
By Michael Smerconish
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | When four U.S. Navy SEALs surreptitiously tracking a high-level Taliban official in Afghanistan encountered three wandering goatherds, they faced a dilemma with perilous consequences: Were the herders harmless civilians or Taliban scouts? What should be done?
One hour after deciding to let the three go, the SEAL team was surrounded by 80 to 100 Taliban fighters, and in an ensuing gun battle, three of the four SEALs were killed.
"The Lone Survivor" was Lead Petty Officer Marcus Luttrell, hence the title of his best-selling book. President Bush awarded him the Navy Cross for combat heroism, and Luttrell's account of what happened in the Hindu Kush in June 2005 is now the buzz of book clubs across the country. It asks us: When war obscures your vision, what do you do? And as Luttrell offers his explanation, his story shows how the fog of war can spread beyond the battlefield.
Luttrell recounts that the SEALs voted on whether to let the goatherds live or to kill them. According to Luttrell, the tally was 2-1, with one abstention, in favor of letting them go. Petty Officer Second Class Matthew G. Axelson was in favor of killing the herders, Luttrell writes, while Petty Officer Second Class Danny P. Dietz was noncommittal. Lt. Michael Murphy wanted to release them, and Luttrell agreed with his superior officer, breaking the deadlock. About that decision, he writes:
"It was the stupidest, most southern-fried, lamebrained decision I ever made in my life. I must have been out of my mind. I had actually cast a vote which I knew could sign our death warrant. I'd turned into a f_ing liberal, a half-assed, no-logic nitwit, all heart, no brain, and the judgment of a jackrabbit."
After Luttrell repeated those sentiments recently on the "Today" show, a Newsday article said that Daniel Murphy, Lt. Michael Murphy's father, believed Luttrell's published account differed from what Luttrell told the Murphy family during a condolence call. Michael Murphy was gunned down by the Taliban in the midst of the firefight after voluntarily entering an unprotected area to call for reinforcements. For that bravery, he is reportedly under consideration for the Medal of Honor.
Lone Survivor is a searing narrative, one that elicits an emotional commitment to the SEALs, and any reader will be pained to think that friction might now exist between Luttrell and the family of a man with whom he served. This reader decided to call Mr. Murphy to find out more.
Daniel Murphy began by telling me "there's a controversy that is not really a controversy."
"When Marcus came to our house, he ... told us Michael was adamant that the civilians would be released, and they were released. ... Michael's decision ... is what carried the day."
I asked him if Luttrell mentioned there having been a vote. Daniel Murphy said no. He also told me he thinks it's a "disservice" to Axelson for Luttrell to suggest that he wanted to kill the goatherds, or that Dietz was "ambivalent" about the choice.
Still, Daniel Murphy assured me that he bears no hostility toward Luttrell; to the contrary, he "loves" him. As for why there is a discrepancy between the book's account and what Luttrell told him previously, Lt. Murphy's father said he believes he knows the answer: Luttrell, he thinks, is burdened by the guilt of surviving.
"(Marcus is) acting like his friends would be alive if it wasn't for him and his actions. And that's not what happened. And Michael would not want Marcus to believe that, and we don't want Marcus to believe that. We love Marcus. I just think he's taking too much guilt for what happened by saying, `You know, if we had killed these civilians, my friends would be alive.'
"And I've tried to tell him that's not what we believe," said Murphy, "and that's not what happened."
The father's appraisal of his son's character makes sense and rightfully honors the heroic men we lost as well as the patriot with his guilty burden. In addition to the deaths of Murphy, Axelson, and Dietz that day, eight other SEALs and eight Army specialists died when an MH-47 Chinook helicopter sent to help was shot down. That day brought the largest loss of life to Naval Special Warfare forces since D-Day.
"I don't think Michael could have lived with himself," Murphy said. "To kill innocent people ... it is such the antithesis of the character of my son Michael, who I've known for 29 years. It would not have even occurred to him."
I hung up, admiring the father, just as I admire his son and those he served with in the SEALs. And I kept thinking about that decision made two years ago on a mountaintop 8,000 miles from home. So last week, I asked Marcus Luttrell to revisit that fateful decision concerning the goatherds.
Luttrell, too, admired the son.
"I mean, obviously, Mikey was in charge," he said. "He had the final word no matter what, but he was a great officer, and he used every man and all the talents they had and he did it well. That was our decision, and we all got together and that's what we came up with.
"That takes nothing away from Mikey. He could have run that whole thing by himself, but like I said, he was a great officer and he used all the information he had."
Finally, I believe, my confusion has cleared: America lost 19 heroes that day in Afghanistan, and Marcus Luttrell had the good fortune to survive. But good fortune can exact a price - even though he knows he did not make the fateful decision alone, he cannot escape his sense of responsibility to the ones who died. The fog of war can obscure the truth even when the combatants come back home.
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07/30/07 First it was a faux pas, now it's a new word
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