As the title would suggest, Lone Survivor explores the experience of living on after a horrible tragedy, and the kinds of emotions that survivors have to deal with in order to preserve their mental health. Marcus Luttrell is the lone survivor of a horrific shootout with Taliban soldiers near the Afghan village of Sabray. Living through a firefight with the Taliban would take a psychological toll on almost anyone, but Luttrell bears a particularly large burden because he’s a Navy SEAL, meaning that he’s been trained never to leave a man behind. Luttrell faces trauma and, it would seem, survivor’s guilt as a result of being the only American to survive the fight.
After he’s rescued from Afghanistan, Luttrell begins to display symptoms of trauma. He finds himself reliving the experience of being shot by Taliban soldiers. He also has vivid nightmares in which he hears the screams of his dying friends. These are classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a psychological affliction that harms many soldiers who’ve seen active combat. Traumatized soldiers often have dreams or even hallucinations in which they re-experience their original trauma. They often feel that they’re all alone in the world, and that nobody can understand their harrowing experiences. Luttrell’s traumatic symptoms appear to be exacerbated by the fact that he’s the lone survivor of the battle, and that he’s been unable to take care of his friends in a manner consistent with his SEAL training. Luttrell is the team medic, but he’s unable to treat his friends’ wounds since he drops his medical supplies during the course of the shootout. Furthermore, Luttrell repeatedly thinks about how he broke a rigid rule of the “SEAL code” by failing to bring his friends’ bodies back to safety.
Many survivors of horrific disasters experience survivor’s guilt—a psychological affliction similar to PTSD, in which the survivors hate themselves or think of themselves as cowardly because they’re still alive. Luttrell appears to be dealing with a particularly intense case of survivor’s guilt as a result of being a SEAL, who’s been trained to take care of his team at all costs. Luttrell himself doesn’t use technical psychological language when talking about his feelings, but he displays some clear symptoms of survivor’s guilt and PTSD.
As the book comes to an end, however, Luttrell seems to alleviate some of his trauma through healing rituals of mourning. Luttrell travels around the country, visiting the families and loved ones of his deceased fellow SEALs. He tells them that his friends died fighting bravely, and upheld the dignity of the SEALs. This practice is intended to bring some comfort to the families of the deceased, but it also clearly brings comfort to Luttrell himself. By visiting his friends’ families, Luttrell honors his duty to his fellow SEALs, even if he’s unable to recover their bodies from the battlefield. Furthermore, he experiences a cathartic outpouring of grief, crying along with his friends’ parents and siblings. In these ways, Luttrell escapes some of his own guilt and alienation.
Luttrell further alleviates his trauma by staying a part of the military, both literally and metaphorically. Luttrell redeploys to the Middle East shortly after returning from Afghanistan. In doing so, he writes, he reminds himself that he’s not alone in the world—on the contrary, there are thousands of soldiers just like him, who would have done exactly the same things he did during the shootout with the Taliban. By contemplating his place in the American military tradition, Luttrell overcomes some of his trauma and guilt. He realizes that he’s not a coward or an outcast—rather, he’s surrounded by people who can relate to him. So even though Luttrell’s trauma is in some ways exacerbated by military culture (which has taught him to suppress signs of “weakness,” and to never leave a man behind), military culture also helps him come to terms with his trauma.
Survival and Trauma ThemeTracker
Survival and Trauma Quotes in Lone Survivor
I heard that terrible, terrible scream, the same one that awakens me, bullying its way into my solitary dreams, night after night, the confirmation of guilt. The endless guilt of the survivor.
That night, for the first time, I heard Mikey scream.
Mostly I remember the laughter. "Jesus, you look awful," said Morgan. "Mom'll have a nervous breakdown when she sees you." It reminded me of what I'd said to Axe when he'd been fatally wounded on the mountain—"Hey, man, you're all fucked up."