Lone Survivor: Did Americans die in vain?

  • 22 January 2014
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Actor Jerry Ferrara attends the premier of the film Lone Survivor. Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Jerry Ferrara portrays a US Seal in Lone Survivor, which some have claimed glorifies the war in Afghanistan

The film Lone Survivor, about an ill-fated mission by a US Navy Seal team in Afghanistan, has become a surprise hit at the box office. Perhaps not so surprising, however, is that with its popularity, the film has set off a heated debate over US involvement in Afghanistan and the movie's portrayal of the conflict.

Scattered among the straightforward reviews of the film, which premiered in US theatres at the end of 2013, were some articles objecting to the perceived glorification of warfare and dehumanisation of the Taliban forces that fought against the US servicemen.

LA weekly's Amy Nicholson described Lone Survivor as "a jingoistic snuff film".

She writes that although the four Americans in the film were heroes, their motivations were greatly simplified:

As the film portrays them, their attitudes to the incredibly complex War on Terror, fought hillside by bloody hillside in the Afghan frontier with both US and Taliban forces contributing to an unconscionably high civilian body count, were simple: Brown people bad, American people good.

She asks: "What are we meant to learn from this waste of life? Who is even to blame?" The film provides no acceptable answer, she concludes.

In Salon, Andrew O'Hehir writes that the glaring transgression of the film is that it "conveys the unmistakable impression that American suffering and death is qualitatively different and more profound than the death of some dudes from an Afghan village about whom we know nothing."

With those guys, there is no possibility of grieving wives or children, or a complex back story with many motivating factors. They just keep coming like ants for the Coca-Cola ham at the Fourth of July picnic, and keep getting squashed just as easily.

He concludes that the film is "trying to tell us that whatever we may think we think about what our country did over the past dozen years - this SEAL team was based at Bagram Air Force base, where some of the worst acts of CIA or military torture were committed - dying for the red, white and blue is still a holy enterprise."

The Atlantic's Calum Marsh writes that films like Lone Survivor help "legitimize feelings of xenophobia and American exceptionalism".

"It's no accident that Lone Survivor ignores the question of whether the SEAL team's mission was justified or worthwhile, just as it ignores, even more broadly, the merit of the war in Afghanistan to begin with," he writes. "Not asking is its own kind of answer. It tells us to focus elsewhere: on the heroism of these men, on the bravery of their actions. The moral issues are for another day."

Articles like these are evidence that "anti-military and anti-American sentiment may be rediscovering its Vietnam-era voice", writes the National Review's David French.

The Taliban forces are portrayed as evil because they are evil, he argues. If the average viewer doesn't know this going into the theatre, then they've "lost their moral compass".

"The suffering and death of honorable men is qualitatively different from the suffering and death of men who murder, rape and terrorize as a matter of course and as a matter of jihadist religious principle - especially when the honorable men die in an effort to protect others from terror," he writes. "There is no moral equivalence in this fight, and there is no moral equivalence in their deaths."

The New York Post's Rich Lowry writes that "Lone Survivor has run up against part of the culture that can't stand the most straightforward depictions of American heroism and the warrior ethic".

"These are extraordinary men, and the tale of their valor, deserves to be told over and over again, whatever you think of the Afghan War or the broader war on terror," he writes.

Priscilla on the blog NewsHounds bristled at the conservative criticism. "It was fine for Phil Robertson [of the television programme Duck Dynasty] to make vile comments about gay people, but when writers claim that war movies glorify war, that's tantamount to treason," she writes.

The debate also spilled onto television, when an interview by CNN's Jack Tapper of Marcus Luttrell, the Seal team member who wrote the memoir on which Lone Survivor is based, turned tendentious.

Mr Tapper: "I was torn about the message of the film in the same way that I think I am about the war in Afghanistan itself. I don't want any more senseless American death. And at the same time I know that there were bad people there and good people that need help."

Mr Luttrell: "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?"

Cue up a round of sparring over whether Mr Tapper was questioning the sacrifices of soldiers or expressing a reasonable critique of US war objectives.

In Foreign Policy, author and former intelligence officer Jim Gourley writes that the Seals did indeed die in vain. Saying so, he contends, doesn't mean he doesn't support the soldiers who carry out their orders:

Throughout history, our nation's greatest leaders have understood on a deeply personal level that however honorably a soldier acquits himself, he can die in vain, and that it is the responsibility of the leaders and citizenry to see to it that they don't. Our country has lost its sense of that responsibility to a horrifying extent.

Business Insider's Paul Szoldra writes that it's not too late for Lone Survivor, and the controversy it has stirred, to prompt a serious debate about US wars:

It's time we have an adult non-screaming-at-each-other conversation about what we want to accomplish in Afghanistan, as well as an objective assessment of whether we are succeeding. If you look at Iraq right now - Fallujah specifically - there are plenty of veterans wondering if their losses there were all for nothing.

When Lone Survivor premiered, few likely suspected that it would provoke such a spirited (and, at times, mean-spirited) debate over US foreign policy, the portrayal of combat in film and the sacrifices of war.

The issues are of grave importance, though, and however we arrived at this discussion, Mr Szoldra is right - it's one worth having.