Monday, December 22, 2008

Book Review: Lone Survivor


First, let's get two things out in the open:

1. I do not generally go for books that have two authors, one of whose names is preceded by "with." However, I've made a couple of exceptions this year and I haven't been sorry, so I decided to overlook that, just this once, again.

2. Another thing I do not generally go for are heavy military-type books. An intellectual discussion that treats military-related topics broadly? Fine. But a first-hand account of an intense Navy SEAL mission carried out in the heart of Taliban country? Again, I wouldn't normally have given this book a second glance.

So why did I end up reading - nay, devouring - Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10? For the simple reason that it came highly recommended, by both my husband and my husband's brother (the one who escaped from a Russian hospital).

In case the subtitle of the book isn't detailed enough for you, Lone Survivor is the story of a Navy SEAL mission gone horribly wrong, retold by the disaster's, well, lone survivor. He is Marcus Luttrell, a God-fearing Texan who had been a SEAL for several years before the events of the book, which took place in the summer of 2005 and whose casualties remain the greatest loss of life in Navy SEAL history. In short, Luttrell's team of four SEALs was sent into the remote mountains of northeast Afghanistan and ended up greatly outnumbered in a battle against Taliban fighters. An additional team of SEALs was sent in by helicopter to help when things started to go bad.

The book jacket tells you more than that, but I think the fewer details you know going into reading it, the better. Suffice it to say that Luttrell is the only one who survives, and the story of how that happened and how he did it is both spellbinding and amazing. Stories like this are always compelling for me, because as I read, I find myself reaching points in the narrative where I decide that there is no possible way the author could have lived through this. But obviously he did, because he wrote the book.

Amazing as it is, the book is not without its weaknesses. I can't quite figure out why no one in the publishing process ever suggested to Mr. Luttrell that it might not be a good idea to alienate two major audiences in the retelling of his story, namely the media and those of a liberal political persuasion. (Valerie Plame Wilson could have used the same advice when writing her book, but for being kinder to Republicans.) It's as if he thinks no one from those population groups will pick up his book, and perhaps they won't, if they know they're about to be referred to by some choice expletives.

Another swath of the population that is maligned in the book (but not one that was likely to read the book in the first place) is Arabs. I was expecting this one. I would never presume to tell Mr. Luttrell what to think - he has had his experiences in the Middle East, and I have had mine. And they have surely been very, very different. I have never had to kick down people's doors in the middle of the night and fear that someone upstairs is about to throw a hand grenade at me. He has never chatted with Arab female neighbors over yansoon while the kids play. Perhaps we can just agree to disagree.

But the strengths of the book, oh, the strengths. Lone Survivor should be held up as an example of all the virtues of finding the right voice for a story. At first, I was put off by the in-your-face, "butch" (for lack of a better word) tone of the book. When talking about the Pashtun, he writes:

"Their warriors form the backbone of the Taliban forces, and their families grant those forces shelter in high mountain villages, protecting them and providing refuge in places that would appear almost inaccessible to the Western eye. That, by the way, does not include U.S. Navy SEALs, who do have Western eyes but who don't do inaccessible. We can get in anywhere."


There are much better examples but this is the first one I found when I flipped open the book (p. 70). Eventually, the voice in my mind while I was reading the book started to sound a lot like Christian Bale's Batman: gravelly, tough, and over-the-top dramatic. And it did wonders for the immediacy of the story. Without that unique tone, the writing of the book could seem overly casual, abrupt, and self-absorbed. With it, you feel like you're a SEAL, too.

Not that I'd want to be, because yikes. Mr. Luttrell takes the story all the way back to his training as a SEAL, which I was already familiar with on account of having watched the Discovery Channel's Navy SEALs training DVD series a few months ago. I would recommend watching that if you want to see the incredibly difficult mental and physical challenges Mr. Luttrell went through, instead of just reading about them in his own words.

If Lone Survivor is a brutish, violent story, it is also a thoughtful one. What I consider to be the pivotal scene of the book takes place on an Afghani mountainside in summer when the days are unbearably hot and the nights are bitterly cold. Mr. Luttrell and his team have ensconced themselves in a secure observation spot and are slowly but surely moving toward the successful completion of their mission without having encountered any major problems. Then, suddenly, they are literally walked in on - and walked upon, they are so well camoflauged - by four goatherders and their dozens of goats. Everything in the book leads up to that moment; everything that follows is a consequence of it.

At that moment of the book, it becomes apparent why Mr. Lattrell has spent large portions of previous chapters talking about the Rules of Enagement, and how they mean vastly different things to the lawmaker in a suit in DC, the suburban family watching CNN in their living room, and a bearded Navy SEAL lying in wait on a hillside. The SEALs on the hillside did not seek out this immensely important decision; it came to them, unbidden. And in that scene, once the goatherders come upon them, everything changes. The dillemma is, should the SEALs kill them, or should they let them go?

Mr. Luttrell wisely spends a great deal of time explaining both his individual thought processes and the expressed opinions of his team members. He walks us through the ramifications of each possible decision. He shows us the very real fear many SEALs have about returning to their beloved home country after a mission only to be branded murderers or war criminals for decisions they made based on everything they had been taught in years of intense training and a thorough grasp of the facts on the ground.

I don't want to reveal too much about this particular situation, or the decision he made. Heartbreaking though it is, I think Mr. Luttrell made the right choice. I'm sure there are many who disagree with me, and him. I wonder if the widows of the dead SEALs are among that number. If they are, I don't blame them for it.

In the end, I was left with more than just a sense of awe for the individual SEAL, Marcus Luttrell. Instead, I felt a new awareness of and gratitude toward all those members of our society (both military and civilian) (but mostly military) who go to great lengths to protect the things they believe in. The measure of such devotion, such sacrifice, and such effort expended on behalf of the rest of us is really the takeaway message at the heart of Lone Survivor.

Before you pick up this book, I feel it is my duty to tell you that it contains a fair amount of swearing. I found it distracting, but in the end, it obviously wasn't enough to keep me from reading the book. Maybe it's a double standard, but profanity in a casual book meant solely for entertainment is not OK with me. Profanity uttered in the process of defending the country in which I live - I guess I can deal with that. You'll have to decide for yourself if you can, too.

9 comments:

Liz Johnson said...

You had me at "Christian Bale's Batman."

Kristen said...

This sounds like an excellent book. Thanks for the great review.

Jeremy Palmer said...

Your review is very well written. The book is breathtaking. I am grateful to the tribal members who saved his life. Working with such tribes is probably one of the best ways to rid the place of terrorists. I learned from an online interview that the village in which he hid received generators and other amenities for their service.

I think your commentary on the events with the goat herders put the book into a better perspective for me. It really was the crucible in which humanity and pragmatics collide. Thanks for enlightening me.

Laura said...

You have me convinced that I need to read this book. I think that I will get a library card just to rent it. I am also going to recommend it to my dad, he loves war type books. Thanks Bridget.

Britney said...

You might be surprised to learn that reading your book reviews takes me back to the 6th grade. Way back then, I recall being shocked when you gave a negative review for a book you'd read. Up to that point, I'd thought all book reviews were supposed to be positive...

Thanks for enlightening me, then and now. :)

Laura said...

I just wanted to let you know that my dad bought this book to read over the break. Also Matt and I just had a Russian dinner with some people in our ward. Their brother and his wife was their and they knew you guys. Their names are Mike and Cameron Chapple. They worked at the embassy in Russia. They said that they were there for 2 months while you were there too. Small world.

Bridget said...

Britney, I wonder what book I didn't like at age 11? Hmm. You know, negative reviews are easier to write than positive ones, in many ways.

Laura, I hope your dad likes it. I think he will. I totally remember Mike and Cameron. They took us out for some awesome sushi right before we left Moscow. Say hi to them for us if you see them again.

Scotty P said...

Great review. This book is AWESOME. I had to put it down at parts to let my heart rate slow down.

B-Rad said...

I thought it was a good book as well, but like you, I also thought Mr. Luttrell was very close-minded when it came to talking about politics and people who weren't born in America. Also, there's a part when he's talking about BUD/S training in Coronado, CA and watching the sun rise over the Pacific during an early morning exercise session that is highly inaccurate. Anyone that's ever been to CA will clearly understand that the sun rises in the east and sets in the WEST, thus there's no way he could see the sun rising over the Pacific during an early morning workout.

I read that they're going to make a movie based on this book. Should be a good one.

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