In arguably the most harrowing scene in Lone Survivor, Marcus Luttrell and his three fellow SEALs have to make a difficult ethical decision. They’ve journeyed to a remote village in Afghanistan, where they’re attempting to capture or kill a dangerous Taliban officer named Ben Sharmak. The element of surprise is paramount, since they’re badly outnumbered. However, the SEALs cross paths with a group of defenseless goatherds. The SEALs have two choices, neither of which is ideal: 1) let the goatherds go, in which case they’ll almost certainly inform the Taliban of the SEALs’ arrival, or 2) kill the goatherds to preserve their cover. The SEALs’ dilemma comes down to a clash between two very different ways of thinking about war: on one hand, war as a savage, all-out conflict in which almost any actions are justified, including the murder of unarmed goatherds; on the other, war as a moral, systematic endeavor, governed by “rules of engagement.”
Throughout Lone Survivor, Luttrell shows his support for the first way of thinking about war and criticizes the rules of engagement for endangering the lives of American soldiers. For Luttrell, war is a high-stakes conflict in which almost any of the American troops’ actions are justified. Al Qaeda and the Taliban, he argues, are deadly enemies who’ve caused the deaths of many thousands of American citizens. Therefore, American soldiers should be allowed to use their military training to do anything they can to defeat these terrorist groups. As Luttrell puts it, war is a game with no rules—anyone who thinks there should be rules “like baseball” shouldn’t be involved in war to begin with.
However, Luttrell believes that Navy SEALs’ right to protect themselves and protect American citizens is being compromised, thanks to “soft” but influential liberal Americans. These liberals, he writes, raise a fuss whenever American soldiers accidentally hurt Middle Eastern civilians, and seem to hate American soldiers more than they hate al Qaeda. It is largely because of liberals in the media, Luttrell believes, that the American soldiers have to obey the rules of engagement—American soldiers can’t shoot unarmed civilians unless they have sufficient proof of the civilians’ intention to do harm. To this day, Luttrell blames the rules of engagement for his friends’ deaths in Afghanistan. After much debate, Luttrell and the other SEALs vote to let the goatherds go, partly because killing them doesn’t seem like the moral thing to do, but partly because they’re afraid of being vilified as murderers in the American media. After the goatherds run away, Luttrell strongly implies, they inform Ben Sharmak of the SEALs’ position, and Sharmak sends an army of hundreds (or maybe just dozens) of Taliban soldiers to murder the SEALs.
Luttrell and his fellow SEALs faced a moral challenge that most people, thankfully, never have to think about. Looking back, he says, he’d have killed the goatherds without a second thought, thereby saving the lives of three of his closest friends. But perhaps Luttrell is wrong to criticize the rules of engagement themselves. Even if these rules can endanger SEALs’ lives, they’ve been put in place to prevent soldiers from hurting innocent people—not simply because of the influence of the “hateful” liberal media. More than once, Luttrell complains that the American military has to deal with rules of engagement while the Taliban can do “whatever they want” to win. But this is what makes the rules of engagement so important: they prevent American soldiers from becoming as murderous and cruel as the terrorists they fight. During the War on Terror, American soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison tortured, raped, and abused Middle Easterners, some of whom hadn’t been convicted of any crime. The Abu Ghraib incident suggests that soldiers, if left to their own devices, will sometimes sacrifice their moral codes and become bullies and sadists. Luttrell treats the rules of engagement as an irritation, but in fact they’re necessary for protecting the values of honor, respect, and decency that, by Luttrell’s own argument, Americans are fighting to defend.
Ethics and the “Rules of Engagement” ThemeTracker
Ethics and the “Rules of Engagement” Quotes in Lone Survivor
That situation might look simple in Washington, where the human rights of terrorists are often given high priority. And I am certain liberal politicians would defend their position to the death. Because everyone knows liberals have never been wrong about anything. You can ask them. Anytime.
The truth is, any government that thinks war is somehow fair and subject to rules like a baseball game probably should not get into one. Because nothing's fair in war, and occasionally the wrong people do get killed.
If these Afghans blew the whistle on us, we might all be killed, right out here on this rocky, burning hot promontory, thousands and thousands of miles from home, light-years from help. The potential force against us was too great. To let these guys go on their way was military suicide.
Axe said firmly, "We're not murderers. No matter what we do. We're on active duty behind enemy lines, sent here by our senior commanders. We have a right to do everything we can to save our own lives. The military decision is obvious. To turn them loose would be wrong."
To an American, especially one in such terrible shape as I was, the concept of helping out a wounded, possibly dying man is pretty routine. You do what you can. For these guys, the concept carried many onerous responsibilities. Lokhay means not only providing care and shelter, it means an unbreakable commitment to defend that wounded man to the death. And not just the death of the principal tribesman or family who made the original commitment for the giving of a pot. It means the whole damned village.