First off, I don’t think it’s a bad film. I don’t regard it as a great film tho. This is about the film rather than the operation or the book. It looks good. Peter Berg has quite a track record for such work. Nothing I saw jarred my sensibilities so far as the look or staging or casting. I’m not sure why some have felt inclined to compare it to other martial films, like Saving Private Ryan. Its comparative intimacy reminds me most of Charlie Mopic 84, one of my very favorite depictions of combat because it engaged small unit operations. Platoon and squad size missions were largely my experience of combat.
I was concerned about the potential for this films glorification of war in general. I don’t think it did that, not even remotely. Most of us have great regard for our elite forces, such as SEALS, Delta, S.F. etc. We have a respect for their uncommon skills, their extensive training, their maintenance of operational readiness. We learn almost on a daily basis of deaths and injuries sustained in the training and preparedness of our elite forces and of their supporting elements. So, anyone inspired by the challenge offered to join their ranks should continue to regard such service as the ultimate challenge of soldiering. Tho I can’t imagine anyone, seeing how capriciously death, injury and mission failure can come about, leaving the theater with this thought: “Yeah, that’s what I want to do when I grow up. That’s how I want to die.”
I left the theater rather subdued. There was a brief effort to applaud at the films end…but my screening was sparsely attended, seemingly with men of my generation and background. I was already composing these thoughts in my head, reminded (as if I needed reminders) that good men die on a daily basis in the service of our country. Often bravely, often needlessly and yeah, often in vain. What do I mean by that – “often in vain?” I mean that their deaths contributed little or nothing towards the resolution of larger issues. These men may well have died requited, in a manner befitting their warrior culture…that doesn’t suggest that anything meaningful to the human condition was accomplished by their sacrifice. I understand our desire to validate our service by attributing greater importance and relevance to our sacrifices and to those of our brothers, who came home broken or dead. But that is cold comfort in the deep of night. We know The Truth. Much of what we did and what was done didn’t have to happen…and in a better world with wiser leaders, it might not have happened. Yet it did.
I haven’t yet read the book…nor the after-action reports. But I am always wary of “based upon a true story” especially as it relates to combat.
1. The book I wrote recounting my own experiences, RETURN TO EDEN generated option inquiries. When I met with the interested parties, each suggested “enhancements” – in my opinion, unnecessary embellishments. I told them, that’s not what happened. They’d respond, “Yeah…but it could’ve…and it would be more compelling.” I walked away.
2. I was hired to co-write several episodes of VIETNAM HD for the History Channel. I conducted extensive interviews with 6 men and women who had distinguished themselves during their service in Vietnam. Because they trusted me, they confided in me, probably far more extensively than they might have with some other writer. My higher HQ at network demanded that I “pump up the action”. Aside from the fact that none of their adventures needed pumping up, I was unwilling to betray the intimacy they had shared with me in recounting their experiences. I tendered my resignation and left a considerable amount of money on the table. I sleep very well at night.
We know anecdotally that there were “artistic embellishments” made to this retelling. If Marcus is cool with it all, I’m cool; it’s his story.
We generally make films about successes rather than about failures. I’m gonna try to address this as respectfully as I can…but I’m gonna address it. Wars contain countless instances of the dreaded clusterfuck. I watched four birds, 2 Apaches and 2 Chinooks tasked to insert a four-man team into hostile territory for a specific mission: to capture and kill an enemy operative. I was somewhat amused when the mission was stated in the film. Did they say, “Capture OR kill?” Or “capture THEN kill?” It amused me because my final mission with PRU mercenaries was to “capture OR kill” a Vietcong tax collector. I had no doubts about the intended outcome…just never appreciated that they might well kill us first
So four highly trained and motivated SEALS were dispatched to “neutralize” a Taliban target…who must have been pretty important, right – said to have been responsible for 20 Marine deaths? Yet when their presence was compromised, a “moral dilemma” was created. Three goat herders came upon them. I understand that it happened –tho knowing that goats eat pretty much anything, why the fuck were they so far from home?
OK, we now have three locals, what to do? It is decided to release them, exfiltrate and call for an extraction. That was a command decision from the ranking team member. That’s what commanders are tasked to do, they make decisions. I don’t like this decision. I am clearly second-guessing. I wasn’t there. But I have commanded. And my training placed mission first, the wellbeing of my people second and the wellbeing of unfortunate civilians gets hind tit. My pay grade says I get to face the consequences of Leavenworth. But I do know I could more readily face after-action judgment than I could face the loss of life to my charges due to my own moral conflicts. I know this with certainty. Hindsight is 20-20 vision…but I would have bound them securely, moved to a defensible position and called for extraction. If they froze or wolves ate them, sorry ‘bout that. Truly. I gave them a shot, best I could offer.
Now we haven’t yet engaged the relative value assigned to this target. Four SEAL members were tasked to neutralize him. If he were that important, seems to me the mission demanded that we kill him. Or capture him…yeah sure, right I could stomach decisions made to complete the mission that resulted in friendly casualties. That’s what we get paid to do, complete the mission. But it seemed the team abandoned the mission so readily. I mean, had it been Osama or Hitler or some high value target, your dedication should be to finishing the job. So I’m gonna assume that he was not THAT high value a target…but why we dispatched our elite to dispatch so relatively trivial a target, that I find puzzling.
I’ll tell you what I did respect in the depiction of this encounter; the fate of that Chinook and task force dispatched to bring back any survivors. The Chinook that took an RPG round and flamed out; it was loaded with similarly skilled, courageous and dedicated operatives. They became a footnote, collateral damage. They were doing their jobs and they died in the process.
THAT is what war is about. Indifference. Know that your training, your esprit, your bonds are very real and enduring…and that war could give a shit. You may die gloriously or foolishly, remembered or forgotten…and should you survive, forever changed.
I think that is why my generation coined this expression for combat deaths: Wasted.