Much has been made of the accuracy of “Lone Survivor,” which has been widely praised for its realism and even named “one of the most realistic war movies of all time.” To provide much of its authenticity, writer/director Peter Berg worked closely with Marcus Luttrell, the Navy SEAL played by Mark Wahlberg in the film, and the author of the memoir of the same name. However, while the movie re-creates many of the realities of war in painstaking detail, it also diverges significantly from the real-life Operation Red Wings.
In an article on OnViolence.com, Michael and Eric Cummings detail many of the creative liberties the movie takes with its portrayal of the mission. The article has been adapted and excerpted with their permission.
Luttrell didn’t nearly die.
“Lone Survivor” opens with a voiceover as a dying Marcus Luttrell is airlifted back to a military base. As the plane lands, he literally dies.
According to Luttrell’s memoir, however, he was not in mortal danger. After the Army Rangers rescued him, they “radioed into base that I had been found, that I was stable and unlikely to die.” They also stopped to have tea with the locals, which you wouldn’t do with a dying man.
Which local Afghan found Luttrell?
After the battle, according to the book, Luttrell is found by a local man named Sarawa, who also tends to his wounds. In the film, a local man named Gulab rescues him. Luttrell might have changed this detail to protect Gulab from retribution, but Gulab is mentioned by name later in the memoir.
Luttrell wasn’t almost beheaded.
In the film, Ahmad Shah’s lieutenant, Taraq, grabs Luttrell, and drags him out to a log to behead him, raising a machete in the air. Luttrell is saved at the last minute by the villagers, who fire off their AK-47s to threaten the attackers.
None of this happened. In the book, members of the Taliban enter Luttrell’s room and begin beating him. (“I didn’t give that much of a [expletive],” he wrote. “I can suck this kind of crap up, like I’ve been trained. Anyway, they didn’t have a decent punch among them.”) The village elder then enters the room, and commands the Taliban to leave. The whole ordeal took about six hours, Luttrell explained, and his life was never in danger.
Luttrell’s rescue was less dramatic.
In the film, the military comes to the rescue of Luttrell in a roar of gunships and men descending from helicopters.
In the book, the Rangers find Luttrell in the forest as he and Gulab walk back to the village after Gulab spoke with Ahmad Shah.
Was Ahmad Shah really Al-Qaida?
Ahmad Shah was an insurgent leader in Afghanistan, which is why the Marines in the Pech launched Operation Red Wings. But he was not a member of Al-Qaida and had never met Osama bin Laden prior to Operation Red Wings.
Shah didn’t kill 20 Marines in the week before Operation Red Wings
In the film, Matthew Axelson (played by Ben Foster) claims that Shah killed 20 Marines in the week before Operation Red Wings. (This claim is in both trailers.) As iCasualties.org shows, the U.S. did not lose 20 Marines in the week before Operation Red Wings. Only two U.S. soldiers or Marines died in Kunar province in 2005 before Operation Red Wings. In the week before Operation Red Wings, only two soldiers died in the entire country. Up to that point, only five Marines had died in combat since the war started.
Who planned and led Operation Red Wings?
Both the film and the book more or less ignore the role of Marines in conceiving, planning and leading Operation Red Wings. The Marines brought in SEALs to gain access to aviation support.