Recognizing that they’re visible even in the dark, Luttrell and the other SEALs back up behind the shadows cast by tall trees in the distance. They proceed down the mountain, led by Matthew Axelson, the best mountaineer of the group. Axelson leads the SEALs down an especially steep part of the mountain, exhausting Luttrell. Finally, the SEALs reach the base of the mountain. They’re exhausted by their climb, which has lasted hours. It’s almost dawn.
The SEALs have a huge disadvantage: they’re not used to navigating up and down a steep mountain (whereas the Taliban soldiers who they’re likely to encounter have probably spent a long time in the mountains). Luttrell and some of the other SEALs are uncomfortable with climbing, and expend too much energy during this stage of the mission.
Fog rolls in, and the SEALs are forced to wait before proceeding toward the village. Soon, the sun has risen, drying the sweat on Luttrell’s clothes. Luttrell realizes that he and his teammates are in a lot of danger: if the Taliban realize where they are, Taliban soldiers could surround them. However, the SEALs are stationed in a location with a good view of the surrounding area, at least when there’s no fog.
Again, secrecy is a crucial element of Operation Redwing: if the SEALs’ position becomes known to the Taliban soldiers, they won’t have a chance of defending themselves, since they’re badly outnumbered.
Suddenly, Luttrell hears a noise. He turns and sees a man wearing a turban and carrying an ax. Luttrell points his gun at the man, who drops the ax. Then, two more men come down the mountain, herding hundreds of goats. The SEALs motion for the two men to fall to the ground. The three men—one of whom appears to be no older than fourteen—mutter “No Taliban … no Taliban.”
The three goatherds seem not to mean the SEALs any harm, but it’s possible that they could inform the Taliban of the SEALs’ presence, throwing the entire mission into jeopardy. (Though Gulab would later claim that locals were already aware of the SEALs at this point, and actually watched them interacting with the goatherds.)
The SEALs have a problem. The three goatherds are obviously unarmed civilians. Luttrell writes, “The strictly correct military decision would still be to kill them without further discussion, because we could not know their intentions.” The goatherds could be affiliated with the Taliban, or they might tell the Taliban about the SEALs’ whereabouts if they were allowed to move on.
Luttrell presents the ethical dilemma the SEALs face: kill the goatherds and protect themselves, or let the goatherds go and risk being massacred themselves. Notice that Luttrell claims that the correct “military” decision would be to kill the goatherds. However, this decision doesn’t factor in the moral issues involved with murdering three unarmed people, one of whom is just a teenager. And because there are only four SEALs, it isn’t even really a question of numbers—it’s basically a question of which lives matter more in Luttrell’s eyes.
Axe believes the right thing to do would be to kill the goatherds. Danny says, “I don’t really give a shit what we do.” Luttrell doesn’t give his opinion. Mikey points out that, if they kill the goatherds, the Taliban will find out about it, at which point the Taliban will “sing to the Afghan media.” Luttrell senses that it would be insane to let the goatherds go. He wonders what great generals would do in his position—would they kill civilians who pose a “clear and present danger?” Letting the goatherds go would be suicidal: inevitably, Ben Sharmak’s men would find out from the goatherds about the SEALs, and then the SEALs would lose the element of surprise.
The SEALs all sense that if they let the goatherds go, they’ll face the wrath of the Taliban. However, they’re reluctant to kill innocent, unarmed people—even though they know it might be most effective for their mission (although later accounts, even from Luttrell himself, stressed how difficult it would be to hide the goats, even if they did kill the goatherds). Two very important things to notice here: 1) Luttrell claims the goatherds pose a clear and present danger to the mission. This is debatable: the goatherds haven’t shown any intention of harming the SEALS, and any threat they pose in the event of informing the Taliban may be clear, but it’s not “present” by any stretch of the English language (and furthermore, the Taliban may have already been aware of the SEALs even before this encounter). 2) The SEALs are afraid of the media fallout in the event that they kill the goatherds. This partly explains why Luttrell is so against “liberal media elites”—he sees them as direct threats to his friends’ safety.
Mikey sums up the options: 1) Kill the goatherds quietly and throw the bodies down the side of the mountain. 2) Kill the goatherds quietly and bury the bodies. 3) Let the goatherds go free. In the event of 1) or 2), Mikey maintains, they’ll probably be charged with murder in Afghanistan. Then, Axe says, “We’re not murderers. No matter what we do”—suggesting that to kill the goatherds and save their own lives wouldn’t truly be “murder.”
This is a genuine moral dilemma, for which there’s no easy answer. Some would say that the SEALs are justified in preserving their own lives, since there’s a very strong possibility that the goatherds will go to the Taliban. Others would argue that taking the life of an unarmed civilian is never the right thing to do—the ends never justify the means.
The men take a vote. They’re all hardened SEALs, but they’re also Christians. Axe votes to kill the goatherds. Danny declines to vote. Luttrell hesitates, and then says, “We gotta let ‘em go.” Mikey says, “Luttrell, I’ll go with you.” The vote is two to one to let the goatherds go free—“the stupidest ... decision I ever made in my life,” Luttrell writes. As the SEALs release the goatherds, Luttrell wonders if he’s made the wrong decision.
Luttrell allows the goatherds to go, but in retrospect he considers this stupid. Luttrell’s experiences in Afghanistan have taught him to consider unarmed civilians almost as dangerous as armed terrorists—which perhaps explains why he’s so opposed to the ROE that protect unarmed civilians. (Though some, on the other hand, might consider this decision even more heroic than the firefight that follows, since it shows true moral principle, rather than just violence in the face of other violence.) It’s also later been disputed that this “vote” occurred at all—other military officials have said that it would have been extremely unlikely for a commanding officer to allow a “vote” on whether or not to execute unarmed civilians. Instead, the officer (Mikey, in this case), would have just made the decision and the others would have gone along with it.
The SEALs are worried, but they resume their mission. Taking their position on the mountain, they sit and wait for any signs of Taliban. After a while, Mikey notices movement on a nearby hill. To the SEALs’ horror, there are at least eighty armed Taliban soldiers running toward the mountain. Luttrell curses himself for letting the goatherds go.
It’s implied that the goatherds go to the Taliban and inform them of the SEALs’ position. The SEALs have chosen to respect the lives of unarmed civilians—and, tragically, they’re now paying the penalty for their decision. Once again, though, it’s important to keep in mind Gulab’s later assertion that the Taliban already knew the SEALs were there before they encountered the goatherds, and so the goatherds might have been altogether blameless. Luttrell has also been accused of exaggerating the number of Taliban soldiers—his official report, as well as later intelligence reports from Taliban operatives, suggest that as few as a ten or twenty insurgents showed up, armed with RPGs and other lethal weapons.
As the Taliban approach, Luttrell realizes some of the soldiers are pointing their guns at him. Not sure whether they see him or not, and not wanting to wait and find out, he opens fire. The other SEALs follow suit. Suddenly, Mikey yells, “Fall back!” and the SEALs retreat. Luttrell falls down the side of the mountain, but hits a tree on his fall. He hits the ground, hard, and rolls further down the side of the mountain. Somehow, he’s survived his fall—“at that moment,” he writes, “I knew there was a God.” Even more miraculously, his rifle has fallen just two feet away from his right hand.
Luttrell endures tremendous physical pain after retreating from the Taliban soldiers, but he also experiences some almost miraculous good luck (at least as he describes it, from his memories of an extremely traumatic—and therefore possibly distorted—experience), since he doesn’t lose his gun. The terrain seems just as antagonistic to the SEALs as the Taliban are.
Luttrell can see Mikey nearby—he’s fallen, too. He seems to have been shot during the fall, but he’s alive. Suddenly, there’s a loud explosion—the Taliban are lobbing grenades at Luttrell and Mikey. The two SEALs grab their guns (Mikey still has his rifle as well) and open fire on the Taliban. Luttrell can tell by the way the Taliban move that they’ve been trained in tactical maneuvers, probably by Ben Sharmak.
Luttrell emphasizes the Taliban soldiers’ numbers and superior firepower, as well as their tactical advantage and their expert military training—in short, the Taliban outmatch the SEALs in virtually every way, even taking into account the SEALs’ expert training.
Axe appears beside Luttrell and Mikey, having rolled down the mountain the same way as Luttrell. Luttrell can see someone else falling down the mountain—almost certainly Danny. Danny’s body rolls down the mountain, and when it finally stops, he doesn’t move. Luttrell remembers the SEAL code: “No SEAL was ever left alone to die on the battlefield.”
Even in the heat of battle, Luttrell remembers his SEAL training, and feels a strong sense of responsibility to his fallen friends. Luttrell’s close bond to his fellow SEALs makes these battlefield losses all the more poignant.
The three SEALs open fire on the Taliban and rush toward Danny’s body. Luttrell, the resident medic, is unable to help Danny, since he’s lost his supplies in the fall. Danny’s right hand has been shot. Nevertheless, he climbs to his feet and joins his fellow SEALs. They fire back on the Taliban, killing dozens. Nevertheless, they’re so badly outnumbered that they have to retreat. For the second time, the SEALs have no choice but to jump down the mountain. They land in “a thicket of shrubs” forty feet down.
Luttrell is the least injured of the SEALs, and he’s also the team medic, but he has no way of helping his friends. Furthermore, the constant gunfire from the Taliban means that Luttrell may not have had the time to care for his friends even if he did have his supplies.
The SEALs resume firing at the Taliban. The Taliban have two of the most basic military advantages: they outnumber the SEALs, and they have the high ground. Taliban reinforcements seem to be coming in to replace any soldiers the SEALs kill. Suddenly, Danny falls to the ground—he’s been shot in the neck. Amazingly, he climbs back to his feet. Mikey shouts, “The only way’s down,” meaning that the SEALs need to make their way down the mountain, toward the nearest village. If they can find a safe house, they should be able to fight any army Ben Sharmak sends.
Again, Luttrell emphasizes the large number of Taliban soldiers fighting the SEALs (a detail that’s been challenged since the book was published). It’s not just that the SEALs are outnumbered, however; rather, it’s that they’re outnumbered, outgunned, have an inferior tactical position, and lack the element of surprise. In short, they have just about every disadvantage a group of soldiers could possibly have.