“Lone Survivor” – Don’t Misuse Fine Tools or Fine Men

By | January 9, 2014 | 0 Comments

Some time ago, I was driving my old car. As I pulled out of a parking lot, I suddenly heard a terrible screeching noise. Looking under the car, I found that the exhaust pipe and muffler had rusted out and were dragging on the street. To free them I had to remove the rubber rings holding up the tail pipe. Unable to do so, I took out my pocket knife and tried to cut the rings.

It was a fine knife with a sharp edge. The problem was that the rubber rings had steel centers, which I discovered only after destroying the blade. Eventually I pried the thing loose with a screwdriver. I learned four lessons that day:

1. Things are often a lot harder than they appear on the surface.

2. It is easier to destroy a good tool than to obtain a new one of equal quality.

3. It is better to use the right tool than to ruin the wrong tool and still not get the job done.

4. If you are unsure what to do, ask someone who has experience in the field.

I didn’t think about this incident for years, until the current release of the film “Lone Survivor,” based on the book of the same title. It is the true story of Marcus Luttrell, a Navy SEAL who was the only member of his unit to survive a fight with a much larger force of Taliban in Afghanistan. Severely wounded, Luttrell was saved by friendly Afghans and eventually rescued.

Luttrell (third from right) was the lone survivor

The unit might have succeeded in their mission of capturing or killing a Taliban leader, and all returned alive, had they not made a fateful decision. As they lay concealed, an Afghan goatherd and his two sons blundered onto them. Had they killed or tied up the three, things might have gone well. But they decided to let the Afghans go − and probably report their position to the Taliban.

They made this decision for humanitarian reasons, but also because they were afraid of being prosecuted. SEALS rarely admit to fearing anything. That they feared their own government shows how political correctness has impaired our ability to fight wars.

The story left me filled with profound admiration for these men’s courage. The team leader, Lt. Michael Murphy, was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously, one of 19 awarded in Afghanistan and Iraq, while Luttrell received the Navy Cross. Murphy was killed when he deliberately exposed himself to heavy enemy fire in order to radio for backup.

To add to the tragedy, the rescue helicopter was shot down by an RPG, killing an additional 16 Special Operations men, including eight SEALs. This episode reminded me of a quotation attributed to General George S. Patton:

I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.

As I reflected on the story, I felt irritation as well as admiration. The SEALs training and weapons were far superior to those of their enemies. They were among the most highly skilled warriors in history. But low-tech weapons and superior numbers overcame them, and only one lived to see home again.

And I recalled how I ruined my knife trying to cut material too coarse for its fine edge. Sometimes what is needed is not a fine knife, but a hacksaw or even an axe. Sometimes what is needed is not a small team of elite troops, but larger numbers of ordinary troops, together with planeloads of daisy-cutter bombs. When senators talk about the “nuclear option,” instead of referring to parliamentary maneuvers, they should be referring to something that causes our enemies to break out in a cold sweat.

Sometimes what is needed is not a “light footprint” but a size 14 boot-stomp. We can’t afford to trade our few highly trained elite for their numerous cannon fodder. As Bin Laden said, “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse.” If we hope to prevail, we must be the strong horse. Or we can just forget the whole thing and go out to stud − assuming that, unlike Europeans, we still can propagate. Geldings don’t do well at stud.

Technology is an enormous help to humanity. Medicine has advanced by huge strides. Military technology also saves lives − consider bullet-resistant vests. But if we rely on technology too heavily, it will let us down. The M16, and its current iteration the M4, are precise, finely made weapons. The AK47 and its progeny are crudely made. They are designed to be used by poorly trained troops in dirty or sandy conditions. Most weapons designed in Russia or China are like that.

Years ago, our ROTC instructor taught us how to disassemble the .45 pistol. One of my classmates shook the pistol and complained that it rattled. Our old sergeant smiled and explained that it was not a finely fitted target pistol, which would be more accurate but less reliable. He added that loosely fitted parts allowed the weapon to function when dirty − and that the rattle reassured him it would save his life under combat conditions.

But some people were not lucky enough to have been taught by combat veterans. Some people have excessive faith in technology. Some people are willing to squander elite troops in a primitive environment. Some people never ruined a fine knife trying to cut material too coarse for it.

Still, we must not fall into the trap of believing that our troops are too well trained, and our weapons are too expensive, ever to use. We must not be like General McClellan, who trained the Union Army so well that he was reluctant to use it. Eventually he was replaced by General Grant, who was not a stickler for drill and whose uniforms were rumpled, but who was willing to fight.

We need to find a balance:

● A balance between common sense and high technology.
● A balance between actual experience and clever theory.
● A balance between superior numbers and superb training.
● A balance between choosing our fights so carelessly that we fight when we shouldn’t, and choosing them so carefully that we don’t fight when we should.
● A balance between being so violent that we win the war but lose the world’s respect, and being so politically correct that we lose the war − and lose the world’s respect as well.

It will take people with much more knowledge and military experience than I possess to find this balance. But first we must recognize that we need to find it. I doubt that this has happened yet.

Fine knives and fine men deserve to be used carefully, by people who understand their capabilities and their limitations − and most important, who value them as highly as they deserve. And I also doubt that this has happened yet.

Contact: dstol@prodigy.net. You are welcome to publish or post these articles, provided that you cite the author and website.

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