Notes on Losing
Waste and loss in Afghanistan
The best document of American self-delusion about the long war in Afghanistan is the 2013 action movie Lone Survivor, based on a memoir of the same title written by the former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell. The film follows a June 2005 operation undertaken by the SEALs in Afghanistan’s Kunar Province. The target of the operation was Ahmad Shah, the leader of a small group of Taliban-affiliated soldiers, who was believed to be operating out of a few buildings huddled near a village on the slope of a mountain. As one of four SEALs helicoptered onto the mountainside, Luttrell was tasked with confirming Shah’s location and then providing guidance to a second group of SEALs and Marines, who would find and then “capture or kill” (read: kill) Shah. This was the first of the operation’s five projected “phases,” which would culminate with US and Afghan troops assessing the nearby village’s needs, staying for up to a month to provide security and oversee the construction of basic infrastructure, and then leaving — a metonym for the objectives of the war as a whole. But the SEALs never made it past phase one, and Luttrell, portrayed in the film by Mark Wahlberg, was the only one who made it out.
In the film, as in Luttrell’s memoir, the SEALs quickly locate Shah but encounter some difficulties with their radios and satellite phones, which they need to communicate with the second group. As they look for higher ground they are spotted by three Afghans with a small herd of goats. They apprehend the Afghans. What to do with them? The SEALs cannot very well take them prisoner and then drag a herd of goats up a mountain. If they let them go, one of them — a teenager who stares at them with undisguised hatred — might alert the Taliban to the SEALs’ presence, and then they’d have a firefight on their hands. They could also kill them; that would solve the problem. The SEALs engage in reasoned debate, after which their leader, Lieutenant Michael Murphy, decides that because the three men are civilians, they will be allowed to leave.
With its subsequent shots of the teenager sprinting down the mountainside while ominous music blares, the film strongly implies that the soldiers’ suspicions about the goatherds were well-founded. The Taliban attack within the hour, killing three of the four SEALs, shooting down a Marine helicopter that had been sent to provide rescue, and leaving Luttrell unconscious with serious wounds. Facing certain death, he is then saved by a local Pashtun named Gulab, who takes Luttrell back to his village. It does not take long for the Taliban to track Luttrell’s location, but Gulab insists that his fellow villagers protect the American, in accordance with their ancient code of honor and hospitality. Outnumbered by the villagers, Shah and his men retreat, which buys Gulab enough time to get word to the Americans that their missing SEAL is alive. The Marines arrive just in time to repel Shah’s second attack and airlift Luttrell to safety. The film closes with a montage of still photographs of its characters’ real-life counterparts, including one picture of Luttrell and Gulab reunited and smiling in 2010. The montage is set to Peter Gabriel’s mournful cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes.” (The rest of the film’s soundtrack is dominated by the indie band Explosions in the Sky, who also did the music for Friday Night Lights.)
Lone Survivor is one of the most lucrative war on terror films Hollywood has yet produced. It proved to be so popular on its opening weekend that one Texas movie theater canceled its screenings of Anchorman 2 and The Wolf of Wall Street in order to accommodate demand. The film is a work of pro-war propaganda in the classic 21st-century American style. Politics as such is conspicuously absent: nobody says the name of any US government official or argues about the wisdom of invading. It’s not the 1950s anymore, and Hollywood knows better. Instead, as the Times review obligingly put it, Lone Survivor is a film about “professionalism . . . concerned above all with doing the job of explaining how the job was done.” Having insulated itself against accusations of any political agenda, the film then presents a cast of soldiers who are unfailingly brave, thoughtful, tough, loving, skilled, rough-and-ready. They exercise in the gorgeous morning light, josh around about their girlfriends and wives back home, give one another a hard time, and listen in reverent silence as one of the new guys recites a motivational Navy SEAL poem (“I’m a hard-bodied, hairy-chested, rootin’ tootin’ shootin’ parachutin’ demolition double-cap crimpin’ frogman”). After Gulab rescues Luttrell, we see Americans and Afghans fighting and dying side by side, working toward the freedom that was promised back in the autumn of 2001. The film’s Afghans love their American protectors, and they are right to feel this way, because America’s soldiers are some of the best people in the world.
Here is a selection of headlines from the days following Kabul’s August 15 takeover by the Taliban: “The last days of the ‘New Afghanistan’”; “Afghans working for U.S. government broadcasters fear Taliban backlash”; “In an Overrun Kabul, Many Have No Place to Run”; “The Tragedy of Afghanistan”; “Chaos and Desperation at the Kabul Airport”; “Colbert on Afghanistan: ‘It’s Heartbreaking’”; “For Afghan Women, Taliban Stir Fears of Return to a Repressive Past”; “Afghan Paralympic Athlete Pleads for Help to Leave the Country”; “A Celebrated Afghan School Fears the Taliban Will Stop the Music”; “How Are Our Afghan Allies Feeling?”; “‘My Dreams Died’: On Kabul’s Streets With a Woman Protest Leader”; “The future of Afghanistan’s all-girls robotics team is in peril”; “The Taliban says it will respect women. But we Iranians have seen this movie before”; “My Afghan news channel won’t stop its important work. We hope the world doesn’t look away.”
Elegy proved to be one of the dominant journalistic modes during the final weeks of the conflict. Yes, the war had been lost. Yes, it had been wasteful in many respects. No, the many thousands of veterans who had served there could not pinpoint exactly what went wrong, nor could anyone say how long it would take Afghan society to recover. But America’s foreign correspondents were eager to remind their readers that the war had effected positive changes as well, changes now menaced by the victorious Taliban. In Afghanistan’s six major cities, a kind of low-income modernity had been established. Life expectancy had increased, especially for Afghan women. According to the Brookings Afghanistan Index, women now live to the age of 54 on average, as opposed to 45 in 2001, and the number of female students at university had risen by a factor of seven since 2003. While GDP per capita has stagnated over the past seven years, it nearly doubled between 2004 and 2014. And civil society had begun to establish itself, with independent newspapers and television stations offering critical reports on Afghanistan’s fragile parliament.
One might have wondered at the media’s failure to report on this cornucopia of positive developments at any point over the previous ten years, but until the ghosts of America’s humiliation in Saigon began rattling their chains in Kabul, coverage of the war in Afghanistan had been sparse. Over the past six years, the evening news broadcasts of America’s three major television networks cumulatively spent just an hour covering Afghanistan each year on average. In 2020, the total bottomed out at just five minutes. The news more or less stopped paying attention after 2014, which is exactly when they should have noticed that Afghanistan’s economic development has been a mirage. Growth was indeed impressive in the decade following the invasion, but this was due almost entirely to foreign aid. Between 2009 and 2020, the decrease in the numbers of international troops stationed in Afghanistan was accompanied by a collapse in aid flows, from around 100 percent of GDP to less than 45 percent. The country’s growing services sector, which depended on these aid flows, began to contract. Aid dependence wasn’t the only problem, however. Even before 2014, military development spending exceeded civilian development spending by a factor of ten, and when major civilian projects were attempted, they were often never completed. The US spent $3 billion, for example, on the construction of a ring road, which by allowing for the timely circulation of goods and materials within the country would have been a meaningful step toward economic modernity. The ring was never closed, however, and the parts of it that were completed are rapidly deteriorating. The only truly well-funded project in Afghanistan was the war.
As a result, the country is not much closer to achieving a functional national economy today than it was ten years ago, with most of its citizens still dependent on agriculture or small-scale merchant trading and piecemeal work. The Taliban has been blamed for much of this economic backwardness, thanks to the supposedly enormous profits it reaps from heroin production. It is true that heroin production has steadily increased in recent years, but the size of the drug profits that actually accrue to the Taliban, as well as the extent to which the Taliban is financially dependent on them, have likely been overstated. A recent Financial Times analysis found that in one province, some 80 percent of Taliban revenues came from taxes levied on vehicles and cigarettes, with additional funds coming from taxes on fuel imports. (Of the money that does come from drugs, most of it is from methamphetamine, not poppies and heroin.) In early August, President Biden told reporters that Afghans would have to “fight for their nation.” In economic terms, however, there is no such nation to fight for.
The American military effort in Afghanistan has been a waste from start to finish.Tweet
Afghanistan’s social progress has also been a mirage, one that begins to dissolve in the heat once you look beyond the country’s six largest cities. These cities — Kabul (growing at one of the fastest rates in the world), Kandahar, Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif, Kunduz, and Jalalabad — have enjoyed relative peace and stability while air strikes, firefights, and special operations raids have continued to terrorize rural Afghans throughout the countryside. The media commentary on Afghanistan following the withdrawal becomes easier to understand once you grasp the fact that when most journalists talk about the Afghanistan that will be “lost” with the Taliban back in power, they are talking about these six cities, not the country as a whole. Implicit in this calculus is the belief that subjecting rural Afghans to perpetual military violence is an acceptable price to pay for the stability and security of the country’s garrisoned city-states. Anand Gopal is one journalist who refused to sign on to this brutal framework. His book No Good Men Among the Living made it clear that the war was unwinnable all the way back in 2014, and in early September 2021 he published a brilliant piece of reporting in the New Yorker titled “The Other Afghan Women.” These women live in the countryside and have spent the past two decades fleeing from village to village to stay ahead of the nighttime raids, air strikes, and US-backed warlords. “I’ve never met a foreigner before,” one of Gopal’s interview subjects told him. “Well, a foreigner without a gun.” The piece is a vital corrective. The George W. Bush Administration’s claim that it was sending troops into Afghanistan in part to protect the rights of Afghan women was just as big a lie as its later claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, but it’s only the first lie that is still repeated by columnists and politicians today. “This is not ‘women’s rights’ when you are killing us, killing our brothers, killing our fathers,” one woman told Gopal. “The Americans did not bring us any rights. They just came, fought, killed, and left.”
Politicians and commentators have not been uniformly hawkish in response to the Taliban’s ascendance. Most major outlets have run editorials arguing that America’s failure in Afghanistan has been inevitable for years and that withdrawing entirely was the only reasonable course of action. (This is to their credit, even if it’s not at all clear that these editorial pages have changed their previously pro-war positions out of intellectual conviction — perhaps they’re just adhering to the conviction that in matters of war, it’s best to agree with whatever the executive branch says.) But alongside this batch of dovish op-eds there have also been righteous condemnations of America’s withdrawal delivered in terms that justify the rest of our ongoing military commitments — along with the wars America might want to launch at some point in the future. It is said that by leaving, the United States has betrayed the people of Afghanistan, in particular the many thousands of Afghans who worked for American soldiers, corporate contractors, NGOs, and journalists. It is said that the United States has made it more likely that extremist groups will proliferate and that these groups may one day attain the necessary strength and organization to mount an attack inside America’s borders. It is said that the United States has made it harder for its allies to trust that America will live up to its military commitments. Few commentators went so far as to argue that Biden should have simply ripped up the withdrawal agreement Trump signed with the Taliban and maintained America’s troop presence indefinitely, but many of them suggested, or insinuated, or implied that Biden should have done something different. (The specific contents of that something have not been laid out so far.) In the days after the withdrawal formally began, the failures of the evacuation were emphasized to the point of fetishization. When reports circulated that a number of US military dogs had been left behind in Kabul, the New York Post portrayed it as a stain on America’s honor, with the president of a humane society describing herself as “devastated” that the Army could have abandoned “brave U.S. military contract working dogs to be tortured and killed at the hand of our enemies.” Less hysterical criticism greeted footage of Afghans clinging to American transport planes, as well as the suicide attack at Kabul Airport that left at least thirteen Americans and many more Afghans dead. Both were horrifying. But for all the outrage, nobody could articulate a serious argument for what the Biden Administration should have done differently. The truth is that there was no better alternative. The United States lost a war, and as a condition of its negotiated defeat, it had to leave the war zone. That’s not a process typically characterized by perfect order, and for the military to have airlifted some one hundred and twenty thousand people out of the country in two weeks is no small achievement. Nevertheless, in the face of this reality, the chief foreign correspondent for MSNBC, who once wrote in his memoir about reporting on the Iraq War that “Iraq was a land where careers were going to be made,” went on television to call the withdrawal “the worst capitulation of Western values in our lifetimes.”
These critiques say more about America’s damaged sense of superiority than about the reality of Afghanistan. They describe a world in which America’s military, always and forever the best in history, cannot be defeated unless it is betrayed, in this case by President Biden’s senility and incompetence. They view America’s military force as a disciplinary gift to the rest of the world and see any drawdown of that force as a kind of cruel abandonment, like when a teenage boy slips into drug use because he doesn’t have a father around to keep him on the straight and narrow. They see America’s intentions as unimpeachable, and the global poor as uniformly oppressed and desperate for American intervention. War here becomes a burden of the kind described by Kipling, and the United States has no morally decent choice but to bear it. The messianic rhetoric of the Bush Administration has given way to a more somber tone, but the burden remains the same.
The truth is simpler. The American military effort in Afghanistan has been a waste from start to finish. The United States never came close to succeeding in twenty years, and Afghans today would be better off had America never gone there at all.
That sense of waste and loss has produced bitterness and anger across the political spectrum. While the centrists agonize over their impotence, the right howls about America’s troops not being allowed to finish the job. Even on the left, however, the withdrawal has been the occasion for odd bouts of angst. In mid-August, the political scientist Corey Robin wrote on Twitter that “90% of the American public supported the war in Afghanistan when it began. By some miracle, the 10% who opposed it were all on Twitter.” I thought that was good for a bit of a grin as I kept scrolling, but many dozens of other people felt otherwise. Responses to Robin’s tweet were almost uniformly outraged. Some assured Robin that “literally every fellow millennial I knew/know was against it.” Others, feeling personally attacked, told Robin they were too young back then to be blamed for the war’s support: “well they didn’t poll me because I was like 11,” one wrote. Someone even critiqued the methodology of the Gallup poll Robin cited, suggesting, I suppose, that opposition to the invasion of Afghanistan was much higher in reality. This suggestion is nonsense. Public support for the invasion of Afghanistan and the overthrow of the Taliban was overwhelming. In a selection of thirty-one opinion polls conducted in the fall of 2001 on whether Americans supported the war, none saw support for the invasion at less than 80 percent, and nine clocked support at 90 percent or higher. Those are astonishing numbers. There were a handful of protests in American cities before the invasion, with around twenty thousand people marching in Washington DC in late September 2001, as well as smaller actions in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. But none of these protests disrupted anything other than car traffic, and they did not exert any material pressure on the country’s politics.
There is probably not much cause for guilt in failing to stop the invasion of Afghanistan (and it is an impression of suppressed guilt, of protesting-too-much, that one gets from Robin’s social media critics). Afghanistan was home to the group that planned and carried out September 11, and the Bush Administration was run by ideologues who had spent the previous decade arguing that America should put its overwhelming military superiority to more frequent use. Add in the opinion polls, and it is hard to think of any foreign or domestic policy initiative over the past two decades that was more politically unifying. It is neither unreasonable nor defeatist to say that the invasion was inevitable.
It’s the duration of the war, rather than the fact of the initial invasion, that might be a better occasion for some self-recrimination. As the war dragged on in its obvious uselessness through four different presidential administrations, the left failed to make it a live political issue. This was not for lack of trying. There were regular complaints, for example, about the cost of the war and the wider scale of the country’s military budget, usually accompanied by statistics about how many units of low-income housing could be built, or how many crumbling bridges repaired, with the money that could be “saved” by ending the war. (The founding text of this line of argument was Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes’s 2008 book The Three Trillion Dollar War.) But these arguments did not build political leverage, for the simple reason that they weren’t made in good faith. Progressives have understood since the financial crisis that there is no finite pot of money that determines what the US can and cannot afford. The Federal Reserve prints the world’s reserve currency, and as a result the government can fund whatever programs it likes, right now. For antiwar progressives to resort to the very same monetary fallacy they consistently (and correctly) reject when conservatives make use of it to argue that we cannot afford unemployment benefits could not be the basis for a coherent or vibrant anti-imperialist politics.
Asked only to feel bad about the air strikes and nighttime raids, most Americans found it even easier to just stop paying attention.Tweet
Progressives also did what they could to foment outrage about the human costs of war for Afghans, highlighting the innumerable human rights violations that were a regular part of daily life for the Afghans who lived under the occupation. Weddings attacked by Predator drones, civilians executed by special operations forces in nighttime raids, families killed by air strikes while traveling from one village to another — there was no shortage of abuses to highlight. But antiwar activists ran into difficulties again when they tried to convert this outrage into political action. One difficulty had to do with “human rights” as a category of analysis. Abstract, ideal, and disconnected from a specifically political analysis of the war, complaints about human rights abuses committed by American soldiers could often be neutralized by citing a corresponding human rights abuse committed by the other side: No, that drone strike did not go the way we wanted it to, but what matters is that we intended to kill Taliban fighters, who had just carried out another suicide attack in Kandahar. Another had to do with the fact that progressives never made an effective case for any material or political link between murdered Afghans and the Americans they were trying to mobilize — that is, that drone strikes targeting a mountain village would also negatively impact the lives of people living in New York, Georgia, or Wyoming. They could not press their case beyond the moral. Asked only to feel bad about the air strikes and nighttime raids, most Americans found it even easier to just stop paying attention.
Finally, the antiwar left worked to bring attention to the war’s human costs to America’s soldiers. These costs were enormous. Americans didn’t suffer casualties on the same scale as Afghans, but the low number of deaths relative to prior wars obscures the extent of the damage. In 2019, Brown University’s Costs of War project estimated that in addition to the 2,298 US military deaths in Afghanistan — the only deaths the Pentagon felt obliged to catalogue and report — there were 3,814 deaths among US contractors, not to mention more than 64,000 Afghan military and police officers who were also killed. Improvements in body armor and advances in the logistics of military medical treatment also kept many soldiers alive in Afghanistan and Iraq who would have died in prior conflicts, but at the cost of making them more vulnerable to horrific injuries requiring months or even years of treatment and recovery — treatment that in turn made those soldiers more vulnerable to opiate abuse, depression, and suicide, all of which have been prevalent at epidemic levels among veterans. While these problems received significant attention (except as they pertained to contractors, who, because they are an embarrassment to America’s official ideals of service undertaken out of patriotism, have been kept invisible) they primarily registered as domestic political issues. Failures to care for injured veterans were often blamed on the inadequacies of the Veterans Health Administration, a staple topic at both parties’ presidential conventions, while activism around opiates focused overwhelmingly on the villainy of the Sacklers. The Sacklers’ malevolence was not overstated, and they deserve much worse than they got, but insofar as opiate addiction affects veterans specifically, the true causes of the problem — the foreign policy decisions that sent people off to war zones in the first place — were allowed to slip out of view.
These problems are not unique to the antiwar movement; they are endemic to the American left as a whole. Bernie Sanders’s inability to make foreign policy anything more than an accessory to the domestic economic populism at the core of his candidacy was perhaps the greatest shortcoming of his two presidential campaigns, and for all the activist energy that exploded across the United States after the financial crisis — first with Occupy Wall Street, then with Black Lives Matter in 2015, and finally with the anti-police uprisings that followed the killing of George Floyd in 2020 — none of those protests incorporated foreign policy to a meaningful degree. So long as the left insists on discussing foreign policy exclusively in terms of morality, so long as it refuses to move into the political, it will continue to exclude itself from the contemporary moment’s most pressing debates. For instance, what would a leftist foreign policy look like with respect to Afghanistan, now that the Taliban has returned to power? It is not enough to say that the US should admit as many refugees as possible. It should do that, but to stop there is to tacitly accept that the US military will continue to turn people around the world into refugees for years to come, when the point is to fight for a world in which there are no refugees in need of resettlement. Nor can progressives afford to continue talking about the foreign and the domestic as though they have nothing to do with each other. A movement that cannot connect American militarism to domestic wealth inequality, or that cannot draw a bright line between the racism of the Minneapolis police and that of the soldiers who came up with the term haji to refer to the people whose countries they occupied, has no chance of success.
In this reluctance to make affirmative arguments about the country’s foreign policy, to go beyond criticism and moral suasion, one detects a lack of political confidence on the left, an inability to believe that it will ever acquire sufficient power on the federal level to materially shape foreign policy. Now that the US is trying to use defeat in Afghanistan as a springboard toward a more confrontational relationship with China, the urgency of overcoming this lack of confidence is acute. It will be vital in the coming years to say No to war with China over and over again, but it will not be enough to say that. As I write this, the US, Australia, and the United Kingdom have just announced a trilateral security partnership designed to oppose China’s influence in the Pacific, with Australia to assemble a brand-new fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. China’s increased belligerence toward Taiwan has been cited repeatedly by Western governments as a justification for ramping up America’s military presence in the region, and China’s continued persecution of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in the country’s northwest is being used to paint Xi Jinping as a Hitler-style autocrat. (A more accurate analogy would be to America’s 19th-century persecution of Native Americans as the country’s borders expanded west; in both cases, the purpose was to crush any forms of solidarity or group identification that might supersede allegiance to the nation-state.) Progressives who cannot articulate a proactive policy program toward addressing these problems may well find themselves twenty years from now in the same position they occupy today with respect to the war on terror, endlessly repeating that they knew the US–China war would go terribly from the very beginning and complaining that Thomas Friedman’s support for the war never cost him his column at the Times.
Lone Survivor pushes things a bit too far toward the end, just before the concluding photo montage starts up. The last spoken words in the film, delivered, I think, by the real-life Luttrell (who also appears in the movie as an extra who dies in the helicopter crash), impart a lesson: “No matter how much it hurts, how dark it gets, or how far you fall, you are never out of the fight.” This is a wild way to sum up a mission that achieved none of its objectives, seemed incompetently planned from the outset, and left everybody dead except for Mark Wahlberg. Reporting done after the film’s release revealed that there were in fact a number of other gaps between reality and the story told in Lone Survivor. According to Luttrell, it was the SEALs’ decision to release their civilian captives that allowed the Taliban to find them. According to Gulab, however, the SEALs’ position was obvious from the beginning, as they had been dropped off by a helicopter, which could of course be heard throughout the valley. Where Luttrell’s memoir reported the SEALs facing down between eighty and two hundred Taliban fighters (a number Luttrell judiciously revised down to “thirty or forty” for television interviews), a journalist who investigated the operation estimated the Taliban’s numbers between eight and ten, and videos made by the Taliban themselves during the firefight show seven fighters. In addition, Lone Survivor shows Luttrell and his three comrades laying waste to the Taliban’s army before finally being overwhelmed, getting off precision head shots that send bursts of blood arcing and spraying through tree-filtered sunbeams. But these acts of desperate, heroic violence may have been an invention as well. According to a Marine colonel who was on the scene as US troops looked for the three dead SEALs, no enemy casualties were reported.
The “biggest tragedy” of what happened to the three other SEALs isn’t that people didn’t learn about their courage but that they died for nothing.Tweet
None of this did much to stop Luttrell from becoming one of the most famous veterans in American life. As a public speaker, he charged around $50,000 for a single appearance, and he started selling ammunition under the brand name Team Never Quit. The company has since pivoted away from bullets toward apparel, accessories, and charitable work, but one online reviewer had good things to say about its line of frangible bullets, which are designed to disintegrate if they hit a particularly hard target. He used Luttrell’s product to kill a rattlesnake on his patio: “For all the devastation one round of TNQ 9mm frang did to Mr. Rattles, my wall, porch, and glass are without so much as a scratch. I became a believer in frangible for this variant of home defense.” In 2016, Luttrell supported Texas Governor Rick Perry in the presidential primary and then spoke in support of Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention. “The world outside our borders,” he said, “is a dark place, a scary place. America is the light, and her people are the goodness that grows from that.”
Gulab didn’t make out so well — saving Luttrell ruined his life. The target of repeated assassination attempts by the Taliban, Gulab fled his village, and his family lost their home and business. Gulab spent years on the run. He worked at a US military base for a time, but eventually he was arrested because someone got suspicious that he was working for the Taliban. Gulab made it to the US in 2010 to appear at the gala opening of Luttrell’s Lone Survivor Foundation and then returned home. In 2013, he came back to the States to help Luttrell with the film’s promotion, which included a 60 Minutes interview during which Luttrell talked about the guilt he felt over allowing his friends to die and told Gulab that he loved him. That was one of the last times the two spoke. They had a falling out over money, and Gulab returned to Afghanistan. He then lived in India for a while, trying to scrape by, and finally made it to Fort Worth, Texas, where his family lived on the income of Gulab’s son, who made a bit more than $10 per hour working at a warehouse.
Videos of Luttrell’s speeches and media appearances can be hard to watch. Sometimes he talks too fast, and sometimes he trails off into odd silences. His eyes dart around. He does not seem like someone to whom public speaking comes naturally. Watching his bizarre address at the Republican National Convention, in which his deer-in-headlights throat clearing alternates with unconvincing bravado, one wonders why Luttrell turned himself into a public figure in the first place. I’m sure the royalties and speaking fees helped to nudge him in that direction, but I don’t doubt Luttrell’s sincerity at the end of his memoir’s prologue: “I’m writing this book because of my three buddies Mikey, Danny, and Axe. If I don’t write it, no one will ever understand the indomitable courage under fire of those three Americans. And that would be the biggest tragedy of all.” He seems to view the accident of his own survival as a burden, obligating him to tell the world about what happened to his dead friends for as long as people want to listen. The difficulty is that Luttrell’s audiences don’t want to hear the truth about his experiences, and he isn’t equipped to provide it. What his audiences want, and what he provides, is consolation, a way to avoid the fact that the “biggest tragedy” of what happened to the three other SEALs isn’t that people didn’t learn about their courage but that they died for nothing. Lone Survivor is an offensive, maudlin bedtime story, perfectly tailored to a popular culture and political system that are increasingly unable even to understand the world they inhabit, much less adapt to it. In not telling the truth about the war, it unintentionally tells the truth about the Americans on whose behalf it was waged.
I’ve watched Lone Survivor twice. The second time, I finally put my finger on something that had been bothering me. There is a distinctive-looking guy lurking in the background of a few scenes. He plays no role in the film’s plot, but his face appears often enough to be conspicuous. He has large biceps, somewhat piercing eyes, and a big, thick, precisely trimmed beard. He could well be just another extra with sufficient muscle definition to play someone in the special forces, but he isn’t. He is Dan Bilzerian, a mediocre professional poker player, playboy Instagram celebrity with more than thirty-two million followers, and son of a corporate takeover specialist who was convicted of securities fraud in 1989. Bilzerian first came to prominence because he had a more charismatic television presence than most of the other competitors at the World Series of Poker, but for around a decade now his celebrity has depended on his social media accounts, where he plays a 21st-century, gun-crazy equivalent of Hugh Hefner. Half his posts show him operating expensive machinery: automatic rifles, Lamborghinis, off-road vehicles with thick roll bars and complicated suspensions. The other half show him surrounded by mostly naked women, whom he seems to scatter around his various homes the way a college student scatters unfolded laundry around a dorm. The vanity plate on his 1965 AC Cobra reads SUCK IT.
Bilzerian, who tried to get into the SEALs as a younger man but didn’t make it through training, appears in Lone Survivor because he invested $1 million in the film’s production, with the deal being that he’d get at least eight minutes of screen time and eighty words of dialogue (eight minutes may not sound like much, but that’s all Judi Dench needed to win Best Supporting Actress for playing Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love). When the film came out, Bilzerian realized that almost all his screen time and dialogue had been cut. He sued the producers, but then the movie did so well, and provided such a good return on his investment, that he dropped the suit. He mostly shows up in the background of scenes back at base, sitting at a computer or listening to a briefing while Mark Wahlberg’s superiors fret, but he also gets a quick moment as one of the soldiers in the helicopter that crashes while trying to rescue the SEALs. That scene also includes the actual Marcus Luttrell. “I was on the other side of the mountain when those guys came to help me,” Luttrell said of his cameo to an interviewer from Men’s Journal, “so getting to die on the helicopter in the movie was a very powerful moment for me.” One wonders whether it made the moment more or less powerful to pretend to be your dead friend while standing next to Dan Bilzerian.