At first, an admission: I’m starting my CBR run terribly late. I intend to catch up, and I just might. I’m a bulimic bibliophile, insomuch as I devour books in bingeing bursts, then go several months without reading much more than Buzzfeed listicles and back-of-the-can recipes. If I can sustain this binge for the next four months, I have a reasonable chance of hitting my target of 26.
Lone Survivor is the war memoir of Marcus Luttrell, covering his training as a US Navy SEAL and his deployment and service fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. When taken for simply this, it is a fine first-person war story. It’s written with an accessible and conversational blend of folksy East Texan familiarity mixed with the clipped, jargon-heavy language of an elite combat soldier. Luttrell provides unflinchingly detailed insight to the intensity of the training required to wear the SEAL Trident. He gives the reader an incredibly tense and palpable account of the reconnaissance mission undertaken by his four-man SEAL team in the Afghan Hindu Kush, trying to locate a Taliban warlord. His descriptions of the running firefight between his team and a force of 200 Taliban fighters is visceral and dizzying. His insight into the tactical and emotional mindset of a Special Forces operative as his mission goes sour, and as he and his comrades are slowly overwhelmed by a numerically superior force, is unquestioned. And his account of his flight from his enemy, and his subsequent rescue by friendly Pashtun tribesmen, provides a much-needed humanizing element to his story. And understandably so, Luttrell also takes time to linger in his praise of the men who died fighting with him that day. In this, the meat of the book, Luttrell shines.
Less so in the other portions of the book. Luttrell’s telling begins and ends with his post-deployment travels with the Navy, visiting the families of his fallen comrades, both those who were on Operation Redwing and the members of the rescue team hurriedly sent to retrieve them. These visits are dealt with haphazardly, and it is unclear if this is deliberate or bad editing.
Luttrell takes several opportunities to level criticism at the liberal press at various times during the telling of his story. He shows a lingering bitterness toward the press for highlighting incidents like the deaths of civilians during operations, and casting a negative light on the use of torture to fight terrorism. Specifically, he rails against the encumbering rules of engagement that combat soldiers have placed upon them. This is a criticism that I have read and heard before in accounts from other soldiers in other theaters of conflict, and it is a legitimate beef, especially for elite soldiers like SEALs who have the training and experience to fully assess and understand tactical situations. But he places his blame solely on the press, failing to hold politicians, diplomats and senior military officers equally accountable for setting these rules. It seems like a simplistic reduction of the situation, and not befitting the rest of the prose.
All told, Lone Survivor is an excellent, but uneven, memoir.