Navy SEALs have a strict code of behavior, Luttrell writes. One rule of this code is to keep goodbyes short—just a curt hug or backslap. SEALs are big and tough, but they’re also stealthy. They can operate anywhere—sea, air, or land—and believe “there are very few of the world’s problems we could not solve with high explosives.”
One of the first things Luttrell establishes about SEALs is that they don’t display strong emotions—for example, they don’t get sappy when they’re saying their goodbyes. The passage also emphasizes the SEALs’ talent, strength, and singular confidence in their ability to use deadly force.
Luttrell can still remember saying goodbye to the other SEALs in the island country of Bahrain. It’s March 2005, and hot, even for a Texan like Luttrell. Luttrell and his unit are based outside of the city of Manama. The streets are full of signs signaling that Americans aren’t welcome—making Luttrell think of signs forbidding Jews in Hitler’s Germany. He knows the Arab world is full of “Muslim extremist fanatics” working for al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Luttrell likens the inhabitants of Bahrain to Nazis. The point he seems to be making is that a significant chunk of the Arab world is murderous, extremist, and committed to the destruction of America—a viewpoint that many would consider Islamophobic. (Since, to name just one reason, the Jews hadn’t previously been bombing the Nazis for years, as America had the Arab world.)
Luttrell and his five fellow SEALs drive through Manama toward a U.S. air base. They fly out of the city carrying machine guns, knives, ammunition belts, and other instruments of war. Their flight isn’t particularly comfortable, but if they were in battle, they wouldn’t utter “one solitary word of complaint.” This is a big part of the SEAL code: SEALs stick together instead of “griping.” Today, the six SEALs fly off to do “God’s work” on behalf of their commander in chief, President George W. Bush.
The SEALs are trained to be competent in almost any military situation, whether it’s on land, sea, or the air. Partly because of their talent, and partly because of the overall code of machismo to which they subscribe, the SEALs never complain—they bite their lips and get the job done, whatever it might be. Note Luttrell’s early conflation of his job with “God’s work” and his idolization of Bush as a “godly” military commander.
The SEALs have fought a dangerous enemy in Baghdad. This enemy goes by many names, Luttrell says, including al Qaeda, Taliban, Shiite, and Sunni. But the enemy fights for “a different god from our own,” a god who approves of murder and who “booted the Ten Commandments over the touchline.”
Here, Luttrell paints America’s enemies with a very broad brush. The different groups Luttrell names aren’t always collaborating with one another (and in some cases, they’re actively opposed to one another). Like many right-wing figures during the War on Terror, Luttrell argues that Middle Easterners are fundamentally different than Americans, largely because of their Islamic faith (even though Islamic morality is similar to Christian morality in many ways, and both celebrate the Old Testament, including the Ten Commandments).
But the SEALs are headed for Afghanistan, where the combat will be very different. In the mountains of Afghanistan, the Taliban have sheltered al Qaeda operatives and helped Osama bin Laden plot the attack on the World Trade Center. Al Qaeda has also used Saudi oil money to plot against America. These may not be “the precise same guys who planned 9/11,” Luttrell admits, but he says they’re the “heirs.” Luttrell’s task is to stop them from hurting America again. Luttrell and his friends know they’re engaged in a secret mission that’s essentially “payback for the World Trade Center.”
The American invasion of Afghanistan following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, was generally supported by Republicans and Democrats. However, the invasion was also criticized for its tenuous link to the 9/11 attacks—it was argued that the al Qaeda operatives who planned 9/11 weren’t primarily based out of Afghanistan at all. Luttrell simply brushes these criticisms aside and insists the invasion was justified.
The SEALs are about to embark on a dangerous mission. Their philosophy is to try their hardest to defend the “proud tradition and feared reputation” of the SEALs. The SEALs on Luttrell’s team include Matthew Gene Axelson, who everyone calls “Axe.” Luttrell’s twin brother Morgan is Axe’s best friend. Axe is an intelligent man, with incredible self-control. While he’s a feared warrior, to his family he’s just a cheerful guy who likes “a laugh and a cold beer.” He has a lovely wife, Cindy.
The SEALs are tough, highly trained, and, under the right circumstances, brutal killers. But Luttrell distinguishes them from their opponents in the Middle East by describing their kindness and their love for their families—humanizing them, while continuing to see his opponents as evil and inhuman.
Luttrell’s best friend in the SEALs is Lieutenant Michael Patrick Murphy, or “Mikey.” Mikey was accepted to law school before he decided to fight in the Middle East, and he’s served in many countries before his time in Iraq. He has a beautiful girlfriend, Heather. He can be a smartass, but he’s also the finest officer Luttrell has ever known.
Mikey gives up a promising career as a lawyer in order to defend his country, a clear sign of his commitment to the SEALs. He’s also portrayed as a loving boyfriend to Heather, and a good friend to Luttrell himself.
Also on Luttrell’s SEAL team is Senior Chief Daniel Richard Healy. Healy is a loving father of seven children, and he treats his fellow SEALs like an extension of his family. Healy and Luttrell argue sometimes, but he’s also a talented chief and a great role model. Luttrell’s number two on the SEALs is Petty Officer Shane Patton, a laid-back surfer. He’s a great guitarist and photographer, and a computer whiz. The sixth and final member of Luttrell’s SEAL team is James Suh, a likeable, Chicago-born soldier. He originally wanted to be a veterinarian, but later decided to fight in the navy. Luttrell never met a single SEAL “with a bad word to say about him.”
Luttrell’s other friends among the SEALs are distinguished by two things: 1) their extreme competence as soldiers for the American military, and 2) their kindness and friendliness as private citizens. In short, the SEALs are tough but not heartless—they’re still good friends and family men.
Three hours after their plane takes off, Luttrell and the other SEALs fly over the Gulf of Oman. This can be a dangerous point for American soldiers, since it’s close to an Iranian military base. On the plane, Luttrell thinks back on his years in the Middle East.
This section establishes the “frame” for the next few chapters, in which Luttrell describes his early life, much like a flashback in a Hollywood movie.
Luttrell joined SEAL Team 5 in Iraq on April 14, 2003, just one week after the American military began its attack on Baghdad. Luttrell’s mission was to destroy any remaining opposition in the city. Just one day after Luttrell arrived in the city, President George W. Bush announced that Saddam Hussein and his political party had fallen. But Luttrell’s work was just beginning. Working in small units, he fought terrorists and other “enemies.”
President Bush was widely criticizing for claiming that the War in Iraq was “over” (and for displaying a banner saying, “Mission Accomplished” when there was still a lot of work to do in Iraq). He was also criticized for alienating Hussein’s military and police instead of trying to cooperate with them, as many of his Pentagon advisers had suggested. The result was that soldiers like Luttrell spent years rooting out corruption and opposition in Iraq even after the fall of Saddam Hussein and America’s supposed “victory.”
Some people have called the Iraqi insurgents “freedom fighters.” Luttrell finds this ridiculous, arguing, “They’d sell their own mothers for fifty bucks.” Luttrell enjoys fighting the terrorists. Often, he and his fellow SEALs would surround them while they were in a house, and the SEALs would usually blast open the door in case there was someone waiting behind it with a gun. Then, Luttrell and the other SEALs would rush into the house, where the terrorists would usually be gathered on the verge of surrender. The SEALs would determine who the terrorists’ leader was, and then question him for more information.
Luttrell attacks the terrorists for their cowardice and greed. In this way, he contrasts the terrorists’ behavior with the bravery and self-sacrifice of the American SEALs who risk their lives to raid houses and track down Iraqi terrorists. Luttrell here also vaguely addresses the idea that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”—but he entirely scorns this view, rejecting any empathy for the other side and presenting all of the insurgents as cowards and savages.
As time went on, Luttrell and his SEALs learned to “fight like terrorists,” using their superior firepower to frighten their enemies. Luttrell’s unit never lost a SEAL during his time in Iraq, largely because the SEALs used these “shock and awe” tactics.
By “fight like terrorists,” Luttrell seems to mean that he and his fellow troops tried to shock and intimidate Iraqi civilians into cooperating. However, the passage disturbingly foreshadows some of Luttrell’s remarks about disliking the rules of engagement designed to keep American soldiers from killing innocent people.
Once, Luttrell and his SEALs made a mistake. They’d uncovered an insurgent ammunition dump, and instead of confiscating the ammunition, the SEALs decided to blow it all up. When they did so, the explosion was so massive that the surrounding buildings began to crumble, throwing chunks of concrete down on the SEALs. Amazingly, nobody was hurt. One night, however, Luttrell almost died. He was fighting alongside his fellow SEALs when he realized he was standing on a bomb. One of his teammates pushed him to the ground, away from the bomb, just seconds before it detonated. Luckily, neither Luttrell nor his teammate was harmed.
The American soldiers in Iraq weren’t perfect, but, according to Luttrell, their mistakes were mostly harmless and didn’t violate the ethics of warfare. If anything, Luttrell’s anecdote implies, the only people who were really endangered because of the American troops were other American troops. But in fact, many Iraqi civilians were killed, sometimes accidentally and sometimes on purpose, because of American troops’ actions.
Fighting in Iraq changed Luttrell, he says. His senses sharpened, and he learned how to move stealthily. He also learned how to deal with terrorists: make them drop their guns and fall to the ground, never giving them an inch of latitude. He also learned that “no one can hate quite like a terrorist.”
Fighting terrorists made Luttrell a tougher soldier (in his own description), and he learned not to show any mercy to his opponents in Iraq. Of course, once again he is portraying all of his enemies and perceived enemies as fundamentally the same.
On May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush announced that phase one of the war in Iraq was complete: the military’s new job was to root out weapons of mass destruction. Meanwhile, terrorists continued to kill American soldiers. The SEALs hunted down insurgents, using bribery and force. In July, two of Saddam Hussein’s sons died in an explosion because terrorists had sold them out.
Luttrell again emphasizes the deviousness and corruption of the Iraqi side in the war, contrasting it with (what he sees as) the idealism and lofty Christian morality of the American troops.
Suicide bombers continued to wreak havoc. By August, more Americans had died after the “end” of the war in Iraq than before it. By this time, the American military still hadn’t found weapons of mass destruction. Luttrell claims that Saddam Hussein obviously had these weapons—biological and chemical weapons. However, Luttrell understands that the public interpreted “weapons of mass destruction” to mean nuclear missiles. The military was looking for evidence that the Iraqi government had been using uranium-235, which would prove they were trying to build a bomb. SEALs found trucks in the desert, from which large machines seemed to have been removed in a hurry—suggesting, Luttrell argues, that the trucks had held centrifuges used to house uranium-235.
This is one of the many times in the book when Luttrell editorializes about the politics of the war in Iraq. Many Americans on both the left and the right believed that the Bush administration manipulated the facts to hasten an invasion of Iraq, strongly implying that Saddam Hussein had nuclear missiles (or any kind of “WMDs” at all). Luttrell takes the Bush administration’s position, arguing that, WMDs or not, Hussein was an evil man who had to be stopped. (And Hussein was indeed a brutal, sometimes genocidal dictator—the question is whether America has any kind of power or moral high ground as the “world’s policeman” to simply depose of any leader they disagree with.) Luttrell also doesn’t mention the possibility, widely discussed during and after the War on Terror, that America invaded the country to ensure access to Iraq’s lucrative oil reserves.
As he flies from Bahrain into Afghanistan, Luttrell thinks about the growing problem in America today: too many liberals, who know nothing of combat, believe that America shouldn’t invade other countries. Luttrell and his teammates have been trained in the rules of engagement, or ROE, which prevent them from firing on insurgents until they have proof of their intentions. Luttrell finds it ridiculous that “the human rights of terrorists are often given high priority.” From his perspective, ROE creates a serious problem for soldiers, forcing them to wait before firing and therefore risking their lives.
The ROE that Luttrell discusses are in large part the result of the Geneva Conventions following World War Two. During these talks, many Western countries agreed to abide by certain rules of war and refrain from killing or torturing civilians in times of conflict. Luttrell has nothing but contempt for these rules, which were put in place to protect innocent lives. He seems to wish that the American troops could act like terrorists themselves, killing on even the suspicion of wrongdoing, for the greater good of protecting America—a disturbing proposition to say the least.
Luttrell isn’t a political person, he claims—he’s a patriot, sworn to defend his country and obey the president of the United States. But he knows one thing for sure: if he ever met Osama bin Laden in person, he’d shoot him “in cold blood.” And at that point, he’d probably be incarcerated and found guilty of murder.
Luttrell’s claims that he isn’t a political person should be taken with a grain of salt. Luttrell clear has strong political views: he supports Bush’s policies during the War on Terror and resents what he sees as a left-wing attempt to protect Middle Easterners’ human rights. (And, of course, bin Laden later was killed by other Navy SEAls “in cold blood”—at the command of the Democratic president Barack Obama.)