CTAP Interview Part Two: A Roundtable Discussion of Lone Survivor
This interview is taken from the collection of the Combating Terrorism Archive Project (CTAP).1 On 12 December 2013, writer and director Peter Berg came to Monterey, California, for a special pre-release screening of his new film, Lone Survivor.2 A few days after the screening, MAJ Patrick Collins, U.S. Army Special Forces; LTC Gabor Santa, Hungarian Army Special Forces; and CDR Brian O'Lavin, U.S. Navy SEALs, met to discuss the film with Rebecca Lorentz of CTAP and Elizabeth Skinner of CTX.3
Spoiler alert: This discussion covers most of Lone Survivor's major plot points, so if you intend to see the film, you might want to save this article to read afterward.
BRIAN O'LAVIN: Last week we watched a private screening of the movie Lone Survivor, so we've gotten together now to discuss some finer points of the movie. First off, going around the room, what are your initial thoughts about the movie: did you like it, did you not like it? Were there aspects that you thought were well done and aspects you thought maybe could have been improved on, or any kind of general comments?
PATRICK COLLINS: I thought it was a good movie. It was definitely very action-packed and entertaining. It doesn't follow the book exactly, but it definitely is very close. I know during the gunfight scene, the writers had a lot of advice from Marcus Luttrell [the author of the book Lone Survivor, from which the Lone Survivor film is adapted], so I am just going to assume that was all pretty accurate.
GABOR SANTA: Well, first, I liked the movie very much, even though I haven't read the book yet. I am pretty sure I will take time to read the book after seeing this movie. In military college, my military occupation specialty was long-range reconnaissance, and we always had this concern: what if we met a little kid while on an operation? In long-range reconnaissance, we do special recon all the time, like these guys in the movie. You know, it is a never-ending discussion about what would be the best option to choose. In my personal opinion, which is not an official Hungarian position, and with all due respect for the movie makers—they did a great job—and with all my respect for the soldiers in the field: I am not quite sure that those men really made this decision to let the goatherds go, the one they made in the scene. Just thinking militarily, this was probably the worst choice they could make: leaving those guys free, immediately, with no physical restriction like tying their hands or just delaying them a little bit from going back to the village. As far as I saw, those SEALs were much smarter than that. I can understand that from the director's perspective, he had to do something that would be more effective for the civilian population, because this movie was made for civilians, not for the small military community. If you know whether they made that decision, then okay, I'm not sure we should talk about a better solution here.
But that was my impression: that the movie cannot show 100 percent what really happens in the field. But it still was a good movie.
O'LAVIN: I looked at the book before coming here, and it seems like those men put themselves in a kind of rapid-decision-making mode. At least Luttrell's account was that way: "Hey, we need to make a decision—is it X or Y?" In the book, as soon as the goatherds ran off, everyone on the team was asking, "Gosh, couldn't we have done something else?" But yes, I thought the movie was good. I think it was a fitting memorial for those three guys who died. It seemed in his 60 Minutes interview that Marcus was still going through a lot of post-traumatic stress and survivor's guilt. And obviously the families of the soldiers and sailors who went down during the attempted rescue are still coping with their losses. From that perspective, I thought it was really well done. I also thought the sounds from the gunfight scene were well done: the snaps of the bullets and the different sounds that all the guns made were pretty accurate. Patrick, have you gone through the book at all?
COLLINS: Yes, I read the book a while ago.
O'LAVIN: How well do you think the movie stuck with some of the key points in the book?
COLLINS: The director also talked about that decision being one of his main focuses—that dilemma of "Hey, do we let them go, or do we kill them, or how do we do this now that we are compromised?" I think that decision actually took a lot longer than what was reflected in the movie. In the movie, it was only over a span of about five minutes. They were saying rapidly, "Hey, what do we do? What do we do? Okay, let's just do this." Then that was it. In actuality, it took a lot longer, and they did make a very strong effort to get comms [communications] during that time, to seek guidance. But unfortunately, they would have had to move from where they were, and I think they were afraid of moving along that ridgeline during the middle of the day because they would have been more visible to the [Taliban] fighters. So it really was a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" type of dilemma. But I thought that was something in the movie I would like to have seen a bit better explained—why they came to that decision during that time.
If I remember right, in the book, the men went over that: "If we keep them here until dark, some of their family members might come looking for them. We don't know when they are expecting them back. If we leave the goats and we just take the guys up to go and try to get better comms, somebody is going to see the goats running around and somebody is going to come up. If we kill them, they might hear the gunshots, they may come up if we …" I mean, it just goes on and on and on. It was just a horrible dilemma, and I don't know if we can say whether they made the right decision or not.
SANTA: No, you can't. No one can say that. You have to make a decision alone, and no one has the right to blame you if you do something wrong, because you're alone. And those men were alone.
What actually surprised me a little bit is that they had so many comms problems and they had no contact with the higher [command]. We have multiple choices of how to make contact with highers, and all of them failed?
I am not saying that someone made mistakes before the operation, but that is surprising from a military perspective. From the movie's perspective, it was actually a good thing because the audience gets more excited, but from our perspective, it is kind of hard to believe that none of their comms worked.
O'LAVIN: And that is the risk you run, obviously. You have four guys going somewhere as a small unit, and they can carry only so much stuff. So perhaps they took a risk on backup comms. In the movie, the comms in that area just weren't very good for whatever sort of meteorological or terrain reasons. That's what I took away.
ELIZABETH SKINNER: I have a question concerning the communications at headquarters. How realistic was the scene where Commander Kristensen has gotten the satellite call in Bagram, and he tries to get the general's attention, but he seems to be told off? I was wondering if you had a reaction to that scene or anything to say about it.
O'LAVIN: The general was saying, "Hey, how come I'm just hearing about this now, when you should have been telling me about this two hours ago at least, that you had a small, isolated force that hadn't made communications with you for a while?"
In most cases, if something like that happened, you would start requesting that assets be pushed over the last position you knew they were in, and that is why you call higher. You would say, "I haven't heard from my team, and I want some dedicated ISR [intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance] platforms pushed over the site so we can try to figure out what is going on and why they haven't made comms." But if you know that folks are going into an area with bad communications, that should start making you a little bit concerned about the size of the element you are sending, if it is especially small and you know that they are going to have comms problems. That should lead you to think, "Maybe we need to rethink the size of the force we are sending, or the force structure itself. What is the mission risk that I am willing to accept compared with what I'll gain from this operation?"
SKINNER: It surprised me, as you were saying, how surprised they were by the fact that they didn't have communications.
O'LAVIN: Comms never work. That is, you test every one of your radios before you leave, and then 50 meters outside the front gate, you can't talk to other vehicles. You wonder what sort of voodoo magic is going on in those things, only 100 meters away from where you tested them!
COLLINS: It's like Murphy's Law: whatever communication can go wrong will go wrong. As you wrote in your message inviting us here, we can probably come up with some lessons learned concerning the two communication windows that they missed.
SANTA: One of the lessons is that you really have to have contingency plans for missing communication windows, especially for the recon element. You don't want them to be compromised, so you give them really wide communication windows. I am guessing that the windows for that team were at least four hours between, or even more, so they wouldn't have to go to the hilltop every 30 minutes to set up the radio, the communications set, and take the risk of being compromised. Then, if you miss two or three of those widespaced windows, you assume something really happened. So what I missed was the contingency plan. When Commander Kristensen was reporting to his highers that they had missed three communication windows, if I were the higher commander, I would probably ask what went wrong. Missing two or three communication windows means something happened, so I have to react. I should have a contingency plan, like, "Okay, now I need to rescue them, because either they got compromised or something happened to trigger the mission abort criteria, or something else happened."
That higher commander could have been acting like he did because there was no additional action report. Which goes to the same point I made earlier, that the decision they had to make as a recon element was very basic. They should have had contingency plans for a case such as meeting the goatherds. It seems fairly obvious near a village in Afghanistan that you will find goats and sheep walking around. They should have had a contingency plan: "We got compromised. Let's do plan C. Okay, we go to this point and get extracted, or just kill the target and get extracted," or something. These are the two main points I really missed from the action. They might have had some plan, but just didn't want to put it into the movie.
COLLINS: I think it just wasn't well portrayed in the movie. They were found, and it was a risk that they probably looked at: "Is it better for us to move during the day and get as far away as possible or to hide out?" It's another one of those dilemmas where you're damned if you do and damned if you don't. So I think all of those contingencies were in place, but maybe the movie didn't portray them well enough.
As for the higher's action, I think Commander Kristensen wanted to start spinning assets [sending rescue helicopters] right away after the first two missed comm windows. The problem was that the Apache escorts weren't available. There was another TIC [troops in contact] going on, and the Apaches were handling that issue, so Kristensen had to wait. By the time he finally decided to take off, he just said, "Hey, we are not going to wait any longer. Let's just go!" That's when the Chinook got shot down. So the assets, in theory, were in place, but they just weren't available for that QRF [quick reaction force]. You need those escorts, especially if it is an air infiltration, and those Apaches should have been dedicated versus just waiting there to be used for anything.
REBECCA LORENTZ: As operators, when you are watching a depiction of an actual military operation, is it difficult to separate watching this as entertainment, or do you pay attention to the TTPs [tactics, techniques, and procedures] throughout?
COLLINS: I think whenever I watch a film like that, I look more at the TTPs. At the same time, it is entertaining, but I admit I do look at the TTPs quite a bit.
O'LAVIN: I think any professional is paying attention. Obviously, the better the manipulation of the weapons and all of those details, the better you are able to say, "Yes, they have some good folks helping with the tactical/technical aspects of the movie."
COLLINS: Whenever I watch a movie that is about something I'm familiar with, I watch it with critiques ready. In the first second after Lone Survivor started, I was thinking, "Okay, what would I do if I were there? Would I do the same, or am I going to do something else? How could it be wrong or worse or better?" When I realized that something went wrong, it couldn't really entertain me anymore because the same could happen to me. In the field, you don't have time to be as smart as when you're sitting comfortably, watching a movie with popcorn and a Coke in your hands. I don't know how the temperature was in those mountains, but in a really rough environment like that, you can't make the perfect decision. Making the decision in the field is really, really hard. At least for me, watching these guys make a decision that cost their lives—that wasn't really entertaining at all. None of the scenes. From a certain perspective, yes, it was entertaining—nice TTPs, actions—but I wasn't happy at the end.
O'LAVIN: You know how the movie is going to end. It's a downer as soon as things start going bad.
SANTA: Yes, and for the whole time I was thinking, "Okay, if they didn't take that step, or didn't turn right but went left, hopefully they could survive." This is all I had in my mind while watching the movie: what they should do differently to survive. For me, it is not an entertaining movie. It is more like you want to do something for them. You know it is too late, but you really want to do something even if it is only a movie. At least I wanted to do something. I don't know how you guys felt about that.
COLLINS: I think you're right. I think at the end of it, everybody was ready to grab their kit and go to Afghanistan.
O'LAVIN: Well, nobody wanted to ask Peter Berg a question, either. The mood in the theater was identifiably morose.
COLLINS: Yes, even having read the book, I was sitting there watching and hoping that something would change.
LORENTZ: How do you think the general public will view this movie? How do you think it will be received?
O'LAVIN: It's one of the questions I have. I think one of Peter Berg's goals was to try to show the general public the sacrifice and the realism of the battles that some of these units are having to fight somewhat frequently. So I think this movie will bring the realism home, and maybe some folks will say, "Hey, what exactly are we still doing in some of these places years and years later? What objectives are we really trying to accomplish—or do we really think we can accomplish—in some of these places? Is it worth the sacrifice of these folks to do that?"
LORENTZ: Did any of you have your spouse there? I ask because in the [U.S. Naval Postgraduate School Defense Analysis] department, we have this question. The movie was very, very difficult to watch as a civilian, as a layperson. We wondered what spouse would watch this and be able to sleep again.
O'LAVIN: I came home and told my wife, "If we go, you'll probably need two boxes of tissues," because it is pretty hard to watch these guys basically dying over a 30-minute period. You know everything that is going to happen, and then, obviously, there's the memorial scene at the end for all of the folks who were killed, with the pictures of families and the men when they were alive.
SANTA: Wives always ask, "What are you guys doing out there? What is that noise I hear behind you on the phone?" "Well, that is the generator. Don't worry." So they know all of this stuff, but they just don't really know how tough it is. We don't talk very often about how tough the life is. I guess they deserve to know what we are doing, but at least personally, I don't want to have my wife in a situation where, whenever we are out [on deployment], she thinks, "Okay, my husband might be rolling down a hill hitting his head like 100 times on rocks." You don't want your wife to have to think about this. But they are human beings, and they are our life partners. They actually should know, but it is just not comfortable for me to talk about this. But I guess it's okay for them to watch these movies.
COLLINS: Yes, my wife didn't go, and I think it is for the same reasons these guys talked about. She just—doesn't want to see it.
SKINNER: In previous interviews and in the interview he did with us, Berg talked in a very compassionate way about these men and their families, and what he went through to try and bring this movie to life. The actors actually went and met the families and got to know them. I'm curious: was his compassion for those men apparent to you, or did the movie feel at all exploitative of these deaths?
COLLINS: I don't think it seemed exploitive. I guess anybody can say that this guy is making a multimillion-dollar movie about this story. It is obviously tragic, but I don't think it was exploitive at all. I think the memorial scene at the end was very good, and from the way he talked about it in the theater, I think he took the families' feelings into consideration a great deal before he put together the movie. That was good.
LORENTZ: One of the questions we asked Berg was "What surprised you most about your experience of embedding with the team?" and he answered that it was the camaraderie between the men that surprised him, how tight they were. Was that what you would think he would say?
COLLINS: Yes, I think so.
LORENTZ: Were you surprised to hear that?
O'LAVIN: I don't think so. I think the film reflected that—the brotherhood. That was my experience, and I think that is why most guys hang around, if they enjoy the folks that they work with. You sign up for the challenge—to be one of the cool guys. But then, what keeps you in is that you like all of the guys that you work with. They are a lot like you, and you can hang out with them on the weekends or at night or whatever. So that doesn't surprise me at all.
COLLINS: I agree. I have yet to meet a team that isn't tight like that. Even if they all hate each other, they all love each other, too. It is like a brotherhood.
SANTA: It actually surprised me that he was surprised to see that this brotherhood is so tight within a team. I don't see why it is so surprising for a civilian.
O'LAVIN: Maybe "surprising" was just the word he used to mean what stood out the most about his experience.
LORENTZ: I agree, that is probably what stood out the most. But I do think that on the civilian side of things, there are not many other places where you see that.
SKINNER: If, God forbid, any of you should die in some situation like this, would this movie feel like a fitting memorial to you? Would you want to be portrayed in something like this?
O'LAVIN: I don't think it dishonored anyone, or the memory of the folks who were portrayed in the movie. I think that was a good thing. They could have made it a documentary of mistakes folks made, and then it wouldn't have been as fitting a memorial. Personally, I don't know if I would want a film made about me, just from the perspective of reliving the loss. They talked to the families beforehand and everything, but for family members or children to have to relive this event, I don't know if that is necessarily something that I would want. But it would be up to my family, because I wouldn't be there anymore.
COLLINS: Yes, I agree. I think one of the reasons this story was made into a movie—similar to Black Hawk Down or some of the other great military movies that were made—was because it was an extraordinary kind of situation. We have people who are fighting and dying over there, doing heroic acts all of the time, but what separates this one story is that it shows really extraordinary circumstances: a lot of things going wrong on our part and a lot of things going right on the enemy's part, which isn't always the case. So yes, I agree with Brian.
SANTA: I am not sure I can answer this question. If I were in an operation, I wouldn't really be thinking, "Is there a director who is going to make a movie about this?" and then control my actions so that it will be a good movie. [laughter] From a military perspective, I don't really see any point to answering this question. But for a civilian population, you definitely need these types of movies. I don't know how the real action was on the ground, but even if this movie changed things a little bit to make these guys more heroic, they definitely deserve it because they started the operation, they fought through until they died. They tried to save each other, they tried to accomplish their mission, and they fought for their country, for their mission, and for that other country. So they definitely deserve to be seen as heroes by 350 million people, plus the rest of the world and me. That is good stuff.
LORENTZ: Do you have a favorite part of the movie, either for good or for bad reasons?
SANTA: Well, there are a couple of scenes. One is when the little Afghan kid at the end hugged Luttrell, and Luttrell hugged him back—that was really touching. And this pashtunwali [Pashtun code of honor], when Afghan villagers take care of the foreigner or someone who comes to their house—well, we learned about this tradition, but I didn't really understand it, that this is what it really means. You give your whole heart to the one who comes to your house, and that scene made me understand that. Even that little kid understood that pashtunwali required him to watch over this guy [Luttrell]. So that scene was probably my favorite.
COLLINS: I liked the early portion of the movie leading up to the operation. I thought all of that was pretty accurate, everything from the two guys competing against each other in the run to hazing the new guy, and all the planning stuff. I thought all of that really portrayed what team life is like in the different war zones, at least from my experience.
O'LAVIN: Yes, everything that showed the brotherhood-in-arms and the caring for each other. It isn't one specific scene, but everything in the movie that emphasized that aspect stood out for me, was reinforcing why I've stayed in the service. The only other question I really have—and we may have answered this—is, How do you think films like this influence the public? Is it positive? Is it negative? Are we over-glamorizing war with these types of movies? This question isn't necessarily limited to just this movie. But this one is much harder to watch, if you will, than films like No Easy Day or Act of Valor—or other more fictionalized movies. Net positive? Net neutral?
COLLINS: I think in some ways, it does glamorize war and it serves as a recruitment tool, especially for young men who are thinking about joining the Army or the Navy. But I think everybody wants to be in a firefight until they are in one, and then, as you know, things change. So I don't know. I think if I had seen this movie before I joined the Army, it would just have made me want to join even more, so I guess it does glamorize the fighting a little bit. But overall, I think it definitely does show the sacrifices and the things that a lot of our soldiers and SEALs are doing over there.
SANTA: Well, I think that it can have a positive effect on young teenagers who were thinking about joining the Army or the Special Forces—especially those kids who like Xbox and PlayStation 4. It's funny, but I have personal experience with my son, who is a teenager. The military is not his life, but he knows much more about Black Hawks than I do. For these kids, it's really exciting to think, "Wow, that happens in real life as well!" So they are probably really happy to see these movies. But human beings don't really like sacrificing their partner or another human being for a country's cause. For those people, I think the movies have a kind of negative effect. When you read in a newspaper that 3,000 are dead, you don't really take seriously that those are human beings. But when you actually can see it, that has more of an effect on you than a number in a newspaper. I think most of the population who watch this movie will have a negative reaction, instead of thinking, "That is a great movie, and I want to watch it three times more."
O'LAVIN: It's impossible to generalize, but what do people in your country [Hungary] think of movies like Lone Survivor and Black Hawk Down? Is it similar to how they are received here [in the United States]?
SANTA: No, definitely not. My country hasn't been in a war for some 60 years, and in our defense strategy, we don't really expect any war within the next 50 years. So we are in the middle of peacetime. Since 1956, we haven't really heard any gunshots except for crime. So the current Hungarian generation doesn't really know what war means. For them, these types of movies are only entertainment, nothing else. Even if they know that this movie is based on a true story, for them it is just an Xbox game or a PlayStation game. They will come out of the movie thinking, "Okay, it was good. What's next?" I would guess that applies to all of those countries that are not involved in any war as deeply as you are.
LORENTZ: Very interesting. That was a great discussion. Thank you all very much for talking with us.
About the Author(s):
Commander Brian O'Lavin graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1996 with a BS in systems engineering. In 2009, he graduated from the U.S. Naval War College with an MA in national security and strategic studies. He is currently working toward his PhD in security studies at NPS. In 1996, CDR O'Lavin graduated from Basic Underwater Demolition and SEAL training. As a SEAL, he has deployed to European Command (EUCOM), PACOM, and CENTCOM.
Lieutenant Colonel Gabor Santa is a member of the 34th Special Forces Battalion, Hungarian Army. In Iraq in 2007, he was the assistant team leader of the Hungarian Military Assistant and Liaison team, NTM-I. Two of his three deployments to Afghanistan were as a member of the Hungarian SOF: in 2008, LTC Santa was a partnering officer in the International Security Assistance Force SOF Headquarters, and in 2012, he served as Hungarian SOF Special Operations Task Unit liaison officer. He is currently studying at NPS.
Major Patrick Collins is a U.S. Army Special Forces officer with 12 years of experience and multiple deployments in the Central Command (CENTCOM) and Pacific Command (PACOM) areas of responsibility. He previously served as Special Forces Detachment commander, Special Forces Company executive officer, and Mobility Commodity chief at Headquarters, U.S. Army Special Operations Command. MAJ Collins is currently earning his master's degree in Defense Analysis at NPS.
Rebecca Lorentz is the manager of CTAP.
Elizabeth Skinner is the managing editor of CTX.
1. The Combating Terrorism Archive Project aims to collect and archive knowledge on strategy, operations, and tactics used by military and other security personnel from around the world in the twenty-first-century fight against global terrorism. Collectively, the individual interviews that CTAP conducts will create an oral history archive of knowledge and experience in counterterrorism for the benefit of the CT community now and in the future.
2. Based on the book of the same title by Marcus Luttrell, the film depicts Operation Red Wings (June 2005), in which Luttrell and three other members of SEAL Team Ten were dropped into the mountains near a village on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Their mission was to capture or kill a Taliban leader who was responsible for the deaths of a number of Marines. Shortly after they landed, the team was discovered by three goatherds: an older man and two boys. The SEALs' decision about what to do with these villagers and the aftermath of that decision are at the heart of Luttrell's book and Berg's film.
3. This interview was edited for length and clarity. Every effort was made to ensure that the meaning and intention of the participants were not altered in any way. The ideas and opinions of all participants are theirs alone and do not represent the official positions of the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. government, or any other official entity.