This is a very long post, and it hasn’t even got any pictures. Accordingly, we’ve put most of it past the “more” button. The two controversies we address are first, did Jake Tapper of CNN insult Marcus and the dead SEALS in his interview (we say no, although we understand Marcus took it that way). And second, did the SEALs blunder to their own doom, as a number of critics, most of them with Marine connections, have charged? We spend a lot of time on the second controversy examining the criticisms of a retired Marine blogger, Herschel Smith’s, former Marine Infantryman son, Daniel. We think the criticism is credible in small part, but in larger part results from a difference in perspective and experience.
You’ve been warned… click over at your own risk.
Controversy 1: The Jake Tapper interview
CNN’s Jake Tapper, the nearest thing that struggling channel has to an actual newsman, got crossthreaded with Marcus Luttrell on the subject of Lone Survivor. Tapper said something about “senseless American death” and Luttrell bristled: “We spend our whole lives defending this country so you tell me because we were over there doing what we were told to do was senseless and they died for nothing?”
Jake Tapper is not a crumb; he’s written movingly and at book-length on Afghanistan. His respect, even admiration, for our warriors radiates from every page. Furthermore, he’s the only reporter who had the stones to actually ask the President questions when he was on the White House beat for ABC. Sure, that’s a low bar, but none of the other lickspittles in the White House press corps cleared it. But he used a word almost guaranteed to set a combat vet off, and because he was alongside, but not of, the warriors during his embed, he didn’t see it coming. And Marcus, well, he’s a Texan bull; once he saw red, he was going to charge.
We meant to write about this, but National Review’s David French has done it for us, in a longish post that includes the transcript of the ill-starred interview. His conclusion on Tapper tracks ours exactly:
I emphatically reject the idea that Tapper had malicious intent. He’s one of the best reporters in the business, he’s risked his own life in Afghanistan, and it’s impossible to read his book and think that he has anything but the highest respect for the American soldier. The exchange above wasn’t evidence of disrespect but of a cultural disconnect.
Exactly. Cultural Disconnect. We in the military culture, and people like Jake and David in the media culture, mostly associate with our own and talk past each other. David’s whole post is worth reading — whichever culture you’re from. Please do.
Controversy 2: Lone Survivor accuracy and tactics objections
The second controversy still percolates on the net, and has become extremely bitter. It basically boils down to a contempt for the SEALs’ performance and for their mission and its planning, and it comes mostly from Marines. We discussed, on our blog, some of the movie’s deviations from the book, and the fact that the book is, of necessity, one man’s recollections.
The original seat of this contempt seems to be the blog and book of Ed Darack, who spent many embeds with the Marines and now has Eagle, Globe and Anchor tattooed on his Johnson. Darack raises some real concerns about some aspects, such as Luttrell’s estimate of the size of the enemy force. He also makes a number of specious arguments that, basically, the operation failed because it wasn’t USMC enough.
A lot of Marines are bitching in a lot of places, suggesting someone’s stirring them up on some USMC forum. Many of the Marines bitching online have only seen the movie — which is surprising, as Marines are a reading service and Lone Survivor, the book, is known to all (It is not on the current CMC Professional Reading List. It may have been on an earlier list, unclear). So we’ll dismiss those complaints that stem from Hollywood departures, and accept those, like Darack’s sourced information on enemy numbers, that seem credible.
Bear in mind that unlike Darack, who is blind to his own USMC bias, Luttrell was not trying to tell the story of the campaign. He was trying to tell what happened to him. Darack’s basic premise is that because things Marine staff officers wrote in their documents are different from what Luttrell remembers, Luttrell is a liar. Pretty strong conclusion on mighty thin evidence.
Early in the war, we (meaning the entire US country/regional team) discovered that something was badly lacking, and the then-regional CINC (soon renamed “Combatant Commander,” because the Bush Administration NCA was jealous of the term “CINC” and wanted there to be only one), General Tommy Franks, and his staff called it “ground truth.” And they discovered that there was really only one way to get “ground truth”: put American eyes on the ground. Now the Americans could have been SF teams, other government agency teams, infantrymen at the sharp end, even in a couple of cases agency singletons and two-man teams. But any intel received from a technical system, despite the MI complex’s and Three Letter Agencies’ Maginot faith in those systems, turned out to be suspect; any intel received from so-called allies turned out to be suspect; any intel received from human intelligence turned out to be suspect.
For ground truth, you needed eyes on the ground.
This was not a novel discovery; we found in Vietnam that our sophisticated intelligence systems of the time and our pervasive reliance on liaison with local national services for humint rendered us all but blind. We could only trust what American eyes on the ground had seen, despite the confidence of the SIGINT manipulators at the NSA and the IMINT handlers at then-classified NRO. Indeed, those guys’ confidence only grew with their distance from the enemy, and the enemy built simple but effective procedures for spoofing them.
Therefore, we have a lot less confidence in Darack’s numbers from ass-in-chairs analysts than he does. We’re also less than enamored of the way the intel cycle works in the military in general, having seen our own intelligence spot reports embellished at several levels of analysis almost as badly as if they were being handled by New York Times editors. (Remind us to tell the story of the Donkey IED and the President’s Daily Brief sometime).
A more typical Marine complaint about Lone Survivor, and one coming from a source we respect (indeed a former Wednesday Website of the Week, Herschel Smith’s The Captain’s Journal) is at hand. It comes from Smith’s son, Daniel, a thoughtful former enlisted Marine and Hersch entitles it, quite accurately, A Marine Corps View of Tactics in Operation Red Wings. You should read the whole thing, including Smith senior’s disclaimer that this is one enlisted guy’s view, and that the subject of the discussion here is strictly tactics, and not anything else (like what we call, but Smith might not, the more generalized butthurt that characterizes Darack’s writing on Lone Survivor, but fortunately not his entire book). We’ll address a couple of Daniel’s bitches, but may skip the ones where he’s bitching about stuff inserted by Hollywood.
“This operation should never have come off the way it did. The Marines don’t take chances. I saw a room full of Navy SEALs sitting on their assess back at the FOB doing nothing but monitoring comms. If you set four SEALs down by helicopter, you could have set an entire platoon down. There was no reason to limit the recon team to four.”
This is the line soldier’s profound ignorance of two things speaking. One, is what all those SEALs (or SF, CAG guys, 160th dudes, the TF duty senior CC and PJ, etc) are doing at those FOBs. One of their major duties is tracking ops and clearing fires. Think of that, for a minute. Clearing fires — telling air or artillery that, “Yeah, you can blow that grid square to Kingdom Come, our guys are definitely not there.” You have literally seconds to make that call. You might want to have somebody on that other than a lance corporal. Another is liaison with sister sources. Darack makes clear that the Marines did not care to operate under SOF control, they just wanted to take the TF 160 aircraft, something they needed because they’ve botched aircraft procurement and most of their rotary-wing aircraft are 1950s designs that are sucking wind at Afghan altitudes, and their ships and pilots can’t operate in restricted visibility.
The only aircraft they have that can approach the Chinook for lift, and that beats it for speed, is the highly capable Osprey, and the USMC is extremely timid about exposing those to enemy fire. (We don’t think powered-lift aircraft are any more vulnerable to fire than normal helicopters, but a combat Osprey loss would be a PR disaster for the USMC, quite unfairly but there it is). We’re not sure they even had Ospreys in country in 2005.
“I was on a recon mission in Fallujah, and we had an entire platoon. We were monitoring a mosque for anti-American messaging, and we were beside a building (abandoned school) that AQ was using to execute leaders of Fallujah. We were watching the mosque and someone came over comms and said, “Um guys, there are dudes with masks on that just got out of cars with some other dude who had a hood on.” We started watching them, and sure enough, they were AQ getting reading to execute another elder. We laid waste to them because we had a platoon, not a four man fire team. Even when doing recon, we have enough men.”
Daniel, in his personal experience, does not understand the difference between recon and long-range recon, which the Army and SF have called things like LRR, LRP, LRRP, SICTA, and SR over the years. The principal difference, in tactical terms, is that a Marine unit like Daniel’s, like any combat unit, normally pushes ground recon patrols only to within its area of influence. A commander may push them out to his whole area of interest, but he’s accepting that they’re beyond the reach of his fires if they get into the $#!+.
In the interests of force protection, the commander may enlarge that patrol, but there’s a tradeoff: a larger recon patrol brings back less ground truth than a smaller one. A platoon patrol is thirty-plus guys with heavy packs, machine guns, and maybe even an attached mortar or two. They can fight if they’re seen and engaged; what they can’t do is hide.
A platoon-sized patrol has the stealth of Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps, elephants and all. Accordingly, a large, powerful enemy can still surround it and defeat it in detail, if it is beyond the range of friendly fires; a small, elusive enemy (the use case in the mountainous, forested Kunar province region at hand) can simply melt away while the platoon is paused waiting for the platoon sergeant to send up the count at every danger area.
In SOF doctrine, a strategic reconnaissance patrol goes deep, alone, and fundamentally unsupported. SF, SEALs, and other sophisticated US SOF are accustomed to going 1000 kilometers or more into a denied area or, if you will, “behind enemy lines.” If they get into a fight, their tactic is to call for extraction, run, and engage the enemy to delay his pursuit.
In the Vietnam war, long range patrols and particularly the SOG patrols into areas that were truly denied, both de facto and de jure, had an option that not only frequently allowed them to break contact and extract, but even to break contact and continue mission. That was the toe-poppers (M14 antipersonnel mines) or booby-trap-rigged Claymores (M18/M18A1 command-detonated mines hooked up to a tripwire) on their back trail. Many of the guys who survive today from SOG were saved by that very tactic. These defensive mines were forbidden by the staff judge advocates and they were actually collected from US SOF years before Operation Red Wings.
Let’s return to the Vietnam learning experience for a bit. The Marines conducted long-range patrols with Marine Recon and Force Recon elements, but they were not as long-range as the SOG patrols. Marine units did not conduct cross-border operations, although a handful of Marines did serve in the joint command that was SOG — we don’t think any of them ran recon, but we could be wrong, there might be one or two exceptions. And even Force Recon, even then, tended to run much larger patrols than Army LRRP or SOG did, which suggests the difference between Marine and SF/SEAL patrolling SOPs is of very long standing.
“But,” we can almost hear Daniel Smith say, “What happens if a four-man team gets compromised deep in the enemy’s territory?” One of three things: they break contact temporarily and extract, they break contact and are confident the break is not temporary, so they Charlie Mike, or they fail to break contact and are killed.
This is, of course, why the Marines don’t do it like that. But if they were tasked for stealthy recons outside of friendly range fans, they would have to. The only thing 12, or 30, men buys you if you are truly in the enemy’s rear area is time, and there’s a terrible trade-off in stealth and speed of travel that almost ensures your patrol will fail mission.
We escorted snipers to their two- or three-day post, and then escorted them back. We didn’t want our Scout Snipers getting killed on the way to or from their post.
Young Smith may be unaware of why Marine Scout Snipers are escorted to their hides: because one four-man team was caught deploying by stealth and defeated in detail by an overwhelming Iraqi insurgent force. In fact, we seem to recall that was in Fallujah, where Daniel served, but we’re amenable to correction if we’re wrong.
“Alternatively, since you knew comms was going to be bad on the other side of that mountain, you could have set down another team of four SEALs on top of the mountain or near it, who could have then relayed comms to the FOB from the recon team. We did stuff like that all the time. There was no excuse to have sent a team of four. And there was no excuse to have poor comms when you knew you were going to have poor comms.”
This is actually his best critique, in our opinion. Indeed, experienced SF and SEALs have made the same critique. This was done a lot in Vietnam, both temporarily (for one mission, as he suggests) and permanently (by garrisoning a mountaintop with coms relays and a defense force). The temporary approach is not a no-risk tactic: it uses rare air assets; it exposes two teams that can’t sustain a fight instead of just one; you only have a finite number of deployable special ops elements. But in retrospect, we’re sure everybody concerned with Red Wings has mulled this over. As far as a permanent mountaintop relay (which Dan Smith did not suggest, we did): there was never the airlift in Afghanistan to emplace and sustain one. Afghanistan had much, much longer distances and a tiny percentage of the number of helicopters that were on hand in Vietnam.
“Another example showing that they didn’t think ahead and plan for the worst is …” (and at that point I interjected, “Why wasn’t anyone carrying …”) a SAW (Daniel said)? ‘Yes’, I responded. “The fact that they had suppressed, scoped weapons shows that they were not prepared to lay down suppressive fire. They hadn’t planned for the worst. Marines plan for the worst.”
A SAW weighs over 20 pounds and burns copious quantities of ammunition. Would it have saved this recon team? No. They’d have been less able to run and gun, and still outgunned by the enemy. There’s nothing you can carry on a four-man recon that will suppress a well-emplaced and skilfully-employed general purpose machine gun.
“Furthermore, they were laying around when the goat herders stumbled up. If it had been my fire team, I would have said “never stop moving, but if you do, then we’re going to dig in and act like we’re going to defend this terrain to the death.” We would have dug in in such a manner that we had interlocking fields of fire, all built around a SAW where we could have done fire and maneuver.”
This partly flows from Hollywood bullshit, but most of it is Marine bullshit, frankly. On a stealthy recon patrol you establish a hide site and hide. Why? Because your signature is much greater while moving around than while stationary. And in that terrain, long before they see you they will hear your shovels and come to see what’s up. But this is the reasoning one might get from a fire team leader (guy in charge of four or five other grunts) who has never not had friendlies on his left and right, and the whole United States behind. It’s not bad reasoning, it’s just informed by its perspective.
“Next, about that conversation they had concerning the goat herders. I would have ended it in a hurry. I would have popped both goat herders and then popped all of the goats. They could charge me later, but in the mean time the operation was compromised and it was time to leave.”
Ironically, this exact scenario was famously used for a very long time as part of selection to at least two extremely selective special operations units, exactly because it does not have a single pat answer. (A single pat answer was, depending on one’s attitude, going to get torn up by the board, or just get one downselected). A Special Forces strategic reconnaissance team from 5th SFG(A) ran into this exact scenario in Iraq in Desert Storm (they let the boys go, and wound up in a fight where only airpower saved them).
It’s unlikely that US or coalition SOF, who tend to be older men with kids of their own, compared to the youthful men of front-line infantry, would ever pop a civilian in this situation, even if they briefed that course of action before the mission. (And yes, part of the mission brief template is actions on compromise).
He said that they badly underestimated the capabilities of the Afghan fighters. Those folks were born there, and their lungs are acclimated to the thin air. Given the weight of the kit they were hauling, it was foolish to think that they could have beaten indigenous men up to the top of the mountain when those men were wearing thin man-dresses and carrying nothing but an AK-47 and a couple of magazines.
We didn’t see the underestimation. Everybody knows that the lightly loaded Afghans can often outrun their American allies, or enemies, and believe me, everyone understands the physiology at work here.
The notion that the QRF lost its CAS to other missions or emergent problems is simply ridiculous. Losing the Apache helicopters meant exactly one thing. They lost the QRF. Period. If they weren’t dedicated resources, then they never really had a QRF to begin with.
Bit of ironic. IIRC the Apache helicopters were pulled for a Marine Corps unit in contact. USMC’s frequently-rebuilt 1960s vintage Cobra helicopters are borderline in Afghan density altitudes.
And there was no reason that the C-130s shouldn’t have been refueled and circling above-head the entire time. They dropped the four man team out there without the right support, without the right weapons (no area suppression weapon), without good comms, and finally, without applying classical infantry tactics.
We think he means MH-47s, and not C-130s. Again, if you understand the distances and the fuel burn of helicopters, what you have here is a corporal demanding that supporting arms do something that his background hasn’t ever explained they can’t do. If he’s referring to the AC-130 gunship, that is a nighttime-only asset. When they made an exception in combat they lost the airplane (in Iraq in DS).
“I’ve seen it before. The CO didn’t want to hear about problems because they’re all playing the ‘my dick is bigger than your dick’ game. They sent a SEAL team to do what they should have sent classical infantry to do. They should have sent in a Marine Corps infantry platoon, or if you want to go all spec ops, send in Marine Force Recon.
Exercise for the reader: explain how you task-organize “classical infantry” to conduct a strategic reconnaissance mission beyond the range of friendly fires. Remember you need more helicopters to insert and extract a platoon at 12,000′ MSL in the summertime, and the Marines’ own JFK-vintage CH46s can’t do it.
“Or if you don’t want it to be a Marine Corps operation, send in the Rangers. I understand that SEALs are pretty bad ass. If you have complex HALO jumps and frogman operations, or hostage rescue, they are the guys to call. But they don’t do classic infantry fire and maneuver, and that’s what was needed that day. The Rangers are pretty bad ass too. Send them in. They know how to do fire and maneuver, set up interlocking fields of fire, develop enfilade fire, and so on.”
None of those tasks is part of the planning for a long-range reconnaissance operation. (In fact, if you’d given it to the Rangers to do, they’d have fast-roped in a small element themselves).
In helicopter operations, there are speeds and altitudes you’re safe at. If you lose power, you can safely autorotate to a landing, converting some of your forward speed to lift by autorotating. A diagram in the dash-one or the pilot’s operating manual shows you the safe areas of the height-velocity curve, but there is a shaded area of the diagram, which is the diagram’s way of saying: here, you’re screwed. You’re going to hit the ground with limited or no lift and control; best of luck to you. As part of normal operations, the wise pilot minimizes his time in that shaded area of the diagram (this is why helicopters don’t climb straight up, even though they physically could; instead, the pilot lowers the nose and accelerates forward, quickly grabbing some of that speed he can trade for lift if need be). Some operations require the helicopter to stay for some time in the shaded area, and the pilots and whoever is in charge of the operation assumes this risk knowing, if not enthusiastically. (A military example of an operation in this area, in many helicopters, is fast-roping. A civilian example is long-line logging).
Likewise, if you set out to sail the Pacific solo, there are risks you can ameliorate and risks where you’re in that shaded area. For example, you can get the best forecasts you have and have weather receivers on board, to minimize your chance of blundering into a typhoon. But your own health is a shaded area on the chart: if you have a heart attack somewhere between the West Coast and your next landfall, you’re screwed.
It does not take a lot of thinking, or a lot of expertise, to see military equivalents of that height-velocity curve. If you’re caught in the middle of an open field by a closed-sheaf artillery barrage, you’re screwed. If your infantry company is dug in like coal miners, but your position is where the enemy tank division wants to make its breakthrough, ditto. And if you’re a small reconnaissance team compromised in enemy territory, well, you’re about to have a very bad day. Marcus Luttrell survived one such bad day. There were so many such bad days in SOG, that we don’t think anyone ever listed the team-loss incidents in one place. (It will be possible if Jason Hardy completes his life’s work).
Humans, even humans that have been trained to assess risks, are fairly bad at it. But we submit that every man on that recon patrol knew the risk he was taking, and took it willingly. And we disagree with our estimable Marine colleagues: just because there is catastrophic risk associated with small reconnaissance teams, and some of the teams inevitably have a some-days-the-bear-eats-you day, does not mean that we should discontinue small recon teams, and send entire platoons galomphing around the enemy’s environs.
Remember: these small teams are what brings the commander the ground truth, a substance rarer than diamonds and worth more than gold. There are lessons to be learned from this operation, but “don’t send out patrols lest they be eaten” is not one of them.