Posted on | July 20, 2014 | 18 Comments
Last night, my 12-year-old son Emerson got the DVD of Lone Survivor from Red Box. My wife can’t watch this movie — the true story of Marcus Luttrell and a squad of Navy SEALs that gets wiped out in Afghanistan — because Army son Bob is training to do this kind of special ops stuff, and his mother does not want to think about it.
The old military adage is that no battle plan survives the first contact with the enemy. The Bad Guys — whether they’re the NVA or Somali militia or the Taliban — have their own battle plan, and if our intelligence has underestimated the enemy’s numbers and capabilities (a common theme of the Mission Gone Wrong), a lot of Good Guys are going to die in the process of discovering the error.
We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young, the 1992 book on which the 2002 movie was based, is the story of the November 1965 attack of the First Battalion, 7th Cavalry (Airmobile) against a regiment of the regular North Vietnamese army (NVA) in the Ia Drang valley. It was the largest such battle up to that point in the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. You can read Hal Moore’s after-action report.
What happened was this U.S. battalion at Landing Zone X-Ray — about 450 troops — had landed right next to the headquarters of a full regiment (about 1,600 troops) of NVA, which held the high ground on Chu Pong Mountain. The battle at Landing Zone X-Ray went on for two days, and the total U.S. losses (79 killed, 121 wounded) were more than 40% of the total battalion strength; NVA losses were 634 killed, by body count, which means that the U.S. inflicted casualties at about an 8-to-1 ratio — clearly an American victory. But the day after the two-day battle at LZ X-Ray, the Second Battalion, 7th Cavalry was overrun at Landing Zone Albany, suffering 155 killed and 124 wounded after they were ambushed by fresh NVA units. Both of these 7th Cav units were basically put out of action until they could replace their losses, and the unexpectedly high U.S. casualty rates in the Ia Drang were an omen of things to come.
Black Hawk Down — also a book before it became a movie — began as a mission (code-named “Gothic Serpent”) in October 1993 targeting Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. The heavy losses to U.S. special forces in the resulting two-day Battle of Mogadishu were primarily caused by the discovery (oops!) that Somali militia could shoot down U.S. helicopters with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), and the lack of U.S. armored vehicles (which the Clinton administration had denied to the U.S. commander).
Lone Survivor continues this tradition of Mission Gone Wrong tales, beginning with a bestselling book. It is very similar to Black Hawk Down in that the mission (code-named “Red Wings”) began with a plan to target a local Islamic militia leader (Ahmad Shah) and involved the shoot-down of a helicopter (in this case, a CH-47 Chinook with 16 troops). There has been some dispute about the number of Afghan fighters faced by Luttrell and his three comrades. If Shah had only 20 militia, then the four SEALs were outnumbered 4-to-1 — worse odds than Hal Moore’s men faced at LZ X-Ray — and there have been some who say that Shah’s militia numbered 40, 50 or even as many as 200. The number of Bad Guys is tactically irrelevant to what went wrong in Operation Red Wings. The four SEALs were inserted on a remote mountain where communication proved difficult, without much consideration of what might happen if the Bad Guys found them. Evacuation or reinforcement would be equally difficult and, because of the comms problem, headquarters didn’t even know the mission had been compromised until the SEALs were already under attack.
U.S. troops are the best in the world, and Special Forces are the best of the best, but they are not bulletproof superheroes, and when the excrement hits the rotary ventilation device — the Mission Gone Wrong — bad thing happen to the Good Guys.
After watching Lone Survivor, I e-mailed my Army son: “Your career goal should be to have only missions so successful that nobody wants to make movies about them.” Can I get an amen?