“Lone Survivor” and the War Story


This past week I was invited to watch an advance screening of the movie Lone Survivor based off the book with the same title. The screening was put on by The Daily Beast and featured a Q&A afterwards with director Peter Berg, one of the actors, and Marcus Luttrell.

For those who don’t know, Luttrell is the lone survivor of the first phase of Operation Red Wings, in which his four-man SEAL team was ambushed in the Korengal Valley in June 2005. His three fellow team members were killed in the ensuing gun battle and he was eventually rescued. He went on to pen the book that is now the movie starring Mark Wahlberg.

The movie was sad and violent and I probably won’t watch it again because I try and avoid the kinds of emotions that come with that territory these days.

Luttrell was in the audience though, and he was watching his friends die in all of Hollywood’s glory. I still can’t wrap my head around that.

However, it made me think about the decisions that led him to a movie theater where he could watch Michael Murphy die on a mountaintop in surround sound.

It boils down to the War Story.

It is engrained in you the second the air clears and your ears stop ringing. You smile, thank whomever you’re going to thank for still being alive and immediately start talking about it. The rough draft inevitably starts with “Holy Shit” and from there it takes on a life of it’s own. As American novelist Tim O’Brien wrote:

In a true war story, if there’s a moral at all, it’s like the thread that makes the cloth. You can’t tease it out. You can’t extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning.

My war stories, the ones I don’t tell, don’t have a deeper meaning. They just flap in the breeze and if I think hard enough about them I end up getting a knot in my stomach because they have no end, no moral, they just are.

Luttrell went the other way. Instead of unraveling he added more layers; he wrote a book and it became a movie and so blanks were filled that he left empty and now there are so many iterations of his war story floating around that the blood soaked first edition only makes itself known at two in the morning when the rain beats on the air conditioner and you’ve run out of things to think about.

During the question and answer session, Luttrell addressed the realism of the movie and if everything happened the way we had just watched it. He said what I knew to be the case but I’m glad he said it all the same. He admitted that he didn’t remember everything and with a lump in his throat he wished his teammates were around to tell their side of the story.

And that’s really what Lone Survivor is all about—the story. If the mission had gone as planned no one on this planet besides a select few would have ever known about it; but it didn’t, and now it’s a story that Luttrell thinks everyone should know about.

The movie is “based on true acts of courage” and Tim O’Brien’s elusive moral is a tagline on the poster: “Live to tell the story.”

If someone asked me to tell a story about firefight I was in, I would confidently say I could only remember about ten percent of it.  I remember the weirdest stuff too, the way the sun came through the trees, a facial expression, a smell. Connecting those snippets to one another fills in the rest, and of course asking other people what happened.

Marcus only had himself, which makes his war story an enormous cross to bear and a burden that is worth trying to understand.

As O’Brien says, in a true war story there is no point. A war story does not generalize or abstract. It just is.

Lone Survivor has a point, it has a tagline and maybe Marcus Luttrell could sit in that theater and watch that movie because the real story is locked in a vault so far away that Peter Berg or the publishing companies wouldn’t even recognize it if they saw it.

Or maybe he just made himself forget.


Thomas Gibbons-Neff is a columnist at War on the Rocks. He served as an infantryman with 1st Battalion 6th Marines from 2007-2011 and participated in two deployments to Afghanistan. He is a student at Georgetown University and a deputy editor at The Hoya.


Photo credit: kPluto