Whatever it takes

Brett M. Decker

Posted on October 7, 2008

Does the West have one hand tied behind its back in terror war?

I recently had the fortune of meeting a real hero, Navy Cross recipient and bestselling author. Lone Survivor is Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell’s account of the June 2005 mission in Afghanistan during which his whole team and a helicopter full of SEAL reinforcements were killed fighting the Taliban in the mountains along the Pakistani border. The book gives useful insight into SEAL training and preparedness before providing a gripping narrative of the showdown against the al Qaeda-backed Afghan radicals. As Petty Officer First Class Luttrell explains it, the SEALs (as well as other U.S. combat troops, especially Special Forces) are capable and equipped to defeat any foe on the battlefield, but what limited their effectiveness in the Afghan mountains were counterproductive rules of engagement (ROE).

The view expressed by this combat veteran is relevant because it is his opinion that his comrades in arms were lost because they second-guessed and then reversed what their training and instincts recommended they do because they were afraid of legal ramifications for using force deemed unnecessary by political standards back home. Specifically, he recounts how his team came across what were certain to be Taliban scouts on a mountainside trail. The four SEALs did not have the capacity to take them prisoner in the middle of a mission in which they needed to move quickly through hostile territory, but they could not kill the scouts because they were unarmed and dressed as goat herders. The result was that U.S. forces had to let the enemy go free with the near certainty that their location would be reported by the scouts–which in this case it was, leading to the largest loss of life in one engagement in SEAL history.

The enemy understands the limitations (many established for humane reasons) on Western troops and takes advantage of them. As Luttrell explains it, “those ROE are very specific: We may not open fire until we are fired upon or have positively identified our enemy and have proof of his intentions… they (the ROE) represent a danger to us; they undermine our confidence on the battlefield in the fight against world terror. Worse yet, they make us concerned, disheartened and sometimes hesitant” (pp. 37-38). Luttrell discusses the prosecution of Marines over combat decisions in Iraq and how fear that mistakes will be treated as crimes makes warriors timid in battle. His conclusion is that, “There is no other way to beat a terrorist. You must fight like him, or surely he will kill you” (p. 28).

Lone Survivor leaves the reader with one poignant question with serious ramifications for the War on Terror: Can our warriors do what is necessary to win in the field?

For a gripping first-hand look at the war in Afghanistan, buy and read: Luttrell, Marcus, with Patrick Robinson. Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of Seal Team 10. New York: Little-Brown, 2007.

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