In March 2005, Luttrell and his SEAL team are sent to join SEAL Team 10, led by Lieutenant Eric Kristensen. Team 10 is “top of the line,” and so the assignment Luttrell faces is very challenging. He and the other SEALs will fly into the mountains and fight Taliban soldiers, curbing the influx of new terrorists. On the mission, the Taliban fire upon the SEALs. Luttrell returns fire and avoids being hit.
Luttrell and his fellow SEALs immediately embark on a difficult set of missions, reflecting the dangerous conditions in Afghanistan, a country that’s full of hostile Taliban soldiers—as the “War on Terror” is still relatively new.
On a second mission, the SEALs proceed through the mountains to continue hunting Taliban. Everyone is in peak physical condition, but the mountains are so hot and unpredictable that it takes hours to move a few miles. In the early hours of the morning, SEAL Team 10 enters a village, interrogates some of the people who live there, and eventually arrests a Taliban fighter. The man stares at Luttrell, and Luttrell senses, “if he could have killed me, he would have.”
The SEALs have a huge disadvantage during their time in the Hindu Kush mountains: they’re unfamiliar with the terrain, and no amount of SEAL training can prepare them for the experience of marching through the mountains in the scorching heat. This foreshadows the challenges Luttrell faces later.
The ROE (rules of engagement) dictate that SEALs can’t shoot unarmed Afghan civilians. Luttrell is angry that SEALs can’t shoot other dangerous people, such as spies, and Taliban operatives smuggling chemicals used to make explosives. He quickly becomes frustrated when he realizes that the Taliban know the ROE and know how to manipulate them to their advantage. The Taliban think nothing of murdering innocents, but the SEALs are forced to abide by constraining ROE, or else be “crucified” by the American media. Luttrell concludes, “Any government that thinks war is somehow fair and subject to rules like a baseball game probably should not get into one.”
Once again, it seems very disturbing that Luttrell dismisses all ROE as the whining of figures in the American media. While the ROE aren’t perfect, and may sometimes endanger SEAL lives, they’ve been put in place to preserve the moral values that Luttrell professes to believe in (protecting the innocent, sparing women and children from harm, etc.). War may not be a baseball game, but American soldiers do have a moral obligation to uphold at least some rules—otherwise, to put things in Luttrell’s own terms, what makes them any better than the “extremist fanatics?”
On one mission, Luttrell remembers, the SEALs are attacked by a group of “Afghan wild men” armed with rockets. The SEALs fire back, and later learn that the Taliban had sent soldiers armed with knives to kill SEALs in their sleep. A liberal, Luttrell thinks, would say that the Taliban soldiers’ intentions can’t be proven, meaning that they shouldn’t be shot. But of course, the Taliban are trying to kill Americans.
Luttrell seems to despise American liberals almost as much as he despises Taliban soldiers: he finds these Americans to be “soft” and unrealistic about warfare. Luttrell’s frustration may be understandable, since he’s trying to protect himself and his friends, and doesn’t want to worry about being condemned in the media—but again, he’s a little too eager to dismiss all ethical guidelines in combat, and we might argue what exactly he’s fighting for, if not basic human rights and decency.
When trying to hunt down Taliban soldiers, the SEALs know to look for the odd man out—the Pashtun herdsman who doesn’t belong. Many Taliban soldiers aren’t as “rough” as the other Afghans in the area, and in fact, some of them have been educated in America. Sometimes, Luttrell feels unreal knowing that he’s in the place where the plan to destroy the World Trade Center was born.
Luttrell portrays the Taliban soldiers as effete hypocrites who studied in the country they profess to hate—but he also brings up an interesting fact, which is that many Taliban soldiers and officials were indeed radicalized intellectuals who suddenly found power and were corrupted by it (and Luttrell simultaneously shows a grudging respect for the “roughness” of the “true” Afghans, who aren’t necessarily enemies to America, and who have also faced lives of great hardship). Luttrell again declares that 9/11 was planned primarily in Afghanistan—a point that, to say the least, not all intelligence reports would support.
The Pashtun dwellings are “primitive with a capital P,” Luttrell says. They reek of urine, and some are hundreds of years old. Luttrell and the SEALs go from village to village, searching for Taliban soldiers and photographing various people in the hopes that the images will prove useful later on. In his spare time, Luttrell volunteers in a Bagram hospital, helping wounded soldiers. During his time in the hospital, he cares for many Afghans, all at “the American taxpayer’s expense.” Luttrell values his time in the hospital, since one day he hopes to be a doctor.
Luttrell’s early descriptions of the Pashtuns are dismissive (and a bit ironic, since in America, there’s a common stereotype that people from Texas are rough and dirty too). Luttrell clearly doesn’t want to take care of Afghans during his time in the hospital, emphasizing that he’s wasting valuable taxpayer money (again ironic, since Bush’s military intervention was widely seen as a colossal waste of taxpayer dollars, and the cost of healing Middle Easterners was a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of bombing them).
Senior Chief Dan Healy is responsible for assigning the SEALs to their missions. He’s also responsible for assembling lists of suspected Taliban terrorists. One prime suspect is named Ben Sharmak (for security reasons, Luttrell will use this invented name). Sharmak is believed to command over a hundred Taliban fighters. He’s highly educated, and rumored to be one of Osama bin Laden’s closest associates.
Ben Sharmak is the closest thing the memoir has to a main antagonist. Sharmak’s real name, which has been declassified since Luttrell’s book was published, is Ahmad Shah; he was shot by Pakistani police officers in 2008. (He was also seemingly not as important a figure as Luttrell makes him out to be—he wasn’t closely associated with bin Laden, and commanded relatively few soldiers.)
Healy begins to prepare a mission for the SEALs, known as Operation Redwing, which revolves around the capture or killing of Ben Sharmak. Luttrell relishes the thought of putting a bullet through the head of this dangerous enemy of America.
Luttrell is still motivated by revenge, and seems to be relish the thought of violence and bloodshed. Oddly enough, Luttrell gets the name of the operation that killed his three friends slightly wrong—it was actually called Operation Red Wings. Luttrell has since used the operation’s correct name in interviews.
Luttrell, Mikey, Shane Patton, Matthew Axelson listen to their assignment. The biggest change is that Patton will be replaced by Petty Officer Danny Dietz, a close friend of Patton. Luttrell is glad to have Danny on the team, though he finds Danny “a little reserved.” The team’s assignment is to stake out the place where Sharmak is believed to live and wait for a clear shot. But later—literally while the SEALs are climbing into the helicopter—Operation Redwing is called off: Sharmak has moved locations.
The SEALs are eager for battle, but they’re also extremely cautious—they don’t proceed with Operation Redwing until they’re sure they can isolate Ben Sharmak and kill him.
On June 27, 2005, military intelligence locates Sharmak again, meaning Operation Redwing is a go. The community in which Sharmak is believed to be residing is small, and Luttrell senses that the SEALs will be unable to land their helicopters without being seen and fired upon. Without a doubt, there will be hundreds of Taliban soldiers scanning the horizon for SEAL helicopters. Nevertheless, Luttrell and the other SEALs prepare for their mission. As they board the helicopter, Luttrell, Mikey, Axe, and Danny all sense that something’s wrong.
Luttrell and his friends have a bad feeling about Operation Redwing, foreshadowing the disastrous events of the next couple chapters. In hindsight, it’s obvious that Operation Redwing was a horrible idea (at least as Luttrell presents it): if it’s known that Sharmak is so important and commands so many men, why aren’t more than four American soldiers dispatched?
The helicopter carrying Luttrell and the other SEALs flies over the mountains. It’s accompanied by a second helicopter, carrying five other SEALs to the city of Asadabad. Luttrell’s helicopter lands at the designated site late at night, and the SEALs jump out of it and rush into the darkness.
Even though the SEALs have some doubts about the efficacy of the mission, they seemingly follow their orders to the letter and proceed. (Mohammad Gulab, Luttrell’s savior later in the book, would go on to assert that locals were aware of the SEALs as soon as they left the helicopter—their drop-off wasn’t as stealthy as they thought.)
For the next fifteen minutes, Luttrell and the three other SEALs don’t make a sound. In the distance they can see two fires. Eventually, they make their way up a hill toward the flame. As they move, they notice that the helicopter has dropped a big rope, presumably for the SEALs to use. This was a big mistake—had the SEALs not recovered the rope, it would have signaled to Pashtun herdsmen that the Americans were here. The SEALs hide the rope. Using his radio, Luttrell checks in with the AC-130 Spectre gunship (the helicopter), which is hovering miles above him, providing support in case of an emergency. This is the last time Luttrell will speak to the gunship.
The fact that the helicopter drops the rope is (as Luttrell presents it) the first chink in the American military’s armor. On a mission where secrecy is key, it’s a bad sign that the helicopter team almost gives away (and perhaps does give away) the soldiers’ position within a few minutes of landing.
The SEALS proceed toward the village, climbing down a steep mountain. Conditions are awful, but it’s too cold to rest. In the end, the SEALs find a trail, which the Taliban have been using. After half a mile or so, the SEALs smell goat manure: there’s a farmhouse nearby. Luttrell realizes that he and his teammates are clearly visible: the moon is shining so brightly that they cast long shadows on the ground. “Holy shit,” whispers Mikey.
Even within an hour of the beginning of their mission, the SEALs sense that they won’t be able to conceal their position from the enemy. This is a major problem, since they’re badly outnumbered by the Taliban forces, and need the element of surprise.