The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Tales of the Mission Gone Wrong

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.

After watching it, I realized Lone Survivor is like Black Hawk Down and We Were Soldiers — the Mission Gone Wrong.

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?



18 Responses to “Tales of the Mission Gone Wrong”

  1. crosspatch
    July 20th, 2014 @ 5:41 pm

    If you should ever find yourself in Silicon Valley, take a moment to visit the veterans memorial at Cupertino’s Memorial Park. Two of the SEALs in Red Wings were local boys. The mother of one of them was instrumental in putting together a group for the construction and maintenance of this memorial without city funds. The statue represents the two local SEALs killed that day on that mountain in Afghanistan. If you are ever in the area, maybe stop by on a Sunday. If you see an old man sitting on a bench reading his Bible, it is likely the father of one of the SEALs spending the afternoon as close to his son as he can. If you feel moved to donate a little of your hard earned to the upkeep, that would be fine, too.

  2. Not neo just conservative.
    July 20th, 2014 @ 5:45 pm

    Read the book “bravo two zero”. The parallels are spooky. Also, you need to understand that Claymores and toe poppers were no longer available at the time of Red Wings and would have made all the difference in the world. Research as to why that is. Kinder and gentler gets SpecOps killed.

  3. BillClintonsShorts17
    July 20th, 2014 @ 6:10 pm


  4. WarEagle82
    July 20th, 2014 @ 6:20 pm

    The M18A1 Claymore is your friend. But you gotta make sure you read the label where it says “FRONT TOWARD ENEMY” or you will just ruin your day…

  5. Tales of the Mission Gone Wrong | That Mr. G Guy's Blog
    July 20th, 2014 @ 6:43 pm

    […] Tales of the Mission Gone Wrong. […]

  6. Mike G.
    July 20th, 2014 @ 6:45 pm


  7. The man who may have shot Pat Tillman | Batshit Crazy News
    July 20th, 2014 @ 6:52 pm

    […] TOM: Lone Survivor and when missions go bad… […]

  8. Paul H. Lemmen
    July 20th, 2014 @ 7:23 pm

    Amen Stacy. Your boy is in my daily prayer list and has been since the beginning.

  9. Wombat_socho
    July 20th, 2014 @ 7:55 pm

    One of the amusing moments in “Edge of Tomorrow” is seeing one of ex-Major Case’s squadmates (the heavy weapons guy, IIRC) putting on an armor chest plate with those words on it. Either that or it’s an actual claymore.

  10. richard mcenroe
    July 20th, 2014 @ 8:36 pm

    There is an ascending scale of special operators:

    Lowest: Allah save us! It is Brss Balls Boyle, the Delta SEAL Recon Paracommando!
    Third class: Who was that guy?!
    Second class: Who was what guy?
    First class: Hey, has anyone seen the Imam lately?

  11. crosspatch
    July 20th, 2014 @ 9:01 pm

    I have a son who will be coming of military age soon and is looking at that as an opportunity. I look at the policies of the Democrats and worry my son will be put needlessly in harms way. I am in favor of nipping things in the bud before they become a full fledged national emergency.

  12. Julie Pascal
    July 20th, 2014 @ 9:02 pm


    I won’t watch this movie. I’m glad they made it. I also won’t watch Blackhawk Down. I know the stories are true, I know (more or less) what happened, I know that in real life the good guys don’t always win.

  13. Freddie Sykes
    July 20th, 2014 @ 9:11 pm

    Bush sent over 20k Marines and others, along with their armor units, to Somalia to protect food shipments and distribution. They did.

    Clinton withdrew these forces and replaced them with much smaller, lightly armed specials forces, took them off protecting the food and gave them the mission of interfering in local politics. Surprisingly enough, this proved unpopular with the Somalis.

  14. Quartermaster
    July 20th, 2014 @ 10:19 pm

    AMEN! Alas, the enemy gets a vote too, and they usually have a small disagreement with our desired outcome. “Leaders” that don’t make that consideration end up with the mission gone wrong.

    X-Ray and Albany was the result of poor recon and intel. Ia Drang, and what it signified, is still renown among men of the generation.

  15. Adjoran
    July 21st, 2014 @ 2:07 am

    Ia Drang was not “an omen of things to come,” at least militarily. It was first of all a failure of intelligence. That led to poor planning, as the brass relied upon it. There were inadequate reinforcements and air support at the ready, and we would not again insert battalions into unknown terrain.

    Also, after Ia Drang the NVA avoided direct confrontations with the US military, preferring to take on South Vietnam regulars instead.

    And our troops’ record in subsequent battlefield actions was spectacular. We could beat the enemy whenever and wherever we could force him to engage. But the political interference from the Johnson Administration hamstrung our pursuit of fleeing enemies, which is the very place wars are generally won.

    Even once Nixon resolved to bomb Hanoi and pursue the NVA and VC into Cambodia and Laos if needed, the media had turned the tide against US involvement. The Democratic Congress banked on wavering public support, and forced us out. They even reneged on the help they promised the South Vietnamese. Still, Saigon didn’t fall until two years after our last military forces left.

    Ia Drang stands as an example of the valor and determination of the American soldier – most of whom were under live fire for the first time in their lives – against overwhelming numerical superiority, unfavorable terrain, and on the enemy’s home ground.

    It was an “omen” of exactly nothing.

  16. Matt_SE
    July 21st, 2014 @ 2:47 am

    On a more flippant note, “Gothic Serpent.”
    Damn, but that’s a heavy-metal name for an operation!
    We need more of that, and less “Operation: Eagle’s Tears of Freedom.”

  17. Dianna Deeley
    July 21st, 2014 @ 11:04 am

    You can.

  18. Joseph Dooley
    July 21st, 2014 @ 1:16 pm

    Hollywood’s intended moral lesson of the Mission Gone Wrong movie is not to enter losing efforts and battle-plan better, but to not fight at all.