Review: The Lone Survivors’ Other Survivors

Afghan Friends

The 2014 winter movie season kicked off with the much-hyped, Mark Wahlberg-produced blockbuster “The Lone Survivor,” the true story of four Navy SEALs sent on a disastrous reconnaissance mission of Taliban leader Ahmad Shah. The film’s release met a flurry of commentary, but much of it wasn’t your standard movie-review fare, such as cinematography comparisons, acting chops observations, or musings on Wahlberg’s rendition of his character’s South Texas vernacular. No, most reviews couldn’t resist the kind of charged political debate only a war movie can generate. Some, for example, practically eulogized the film as a beautiful expression of selfless heroism. Others rejected the training montages and the use of pre-mission love letters as a cheap ploy to simplify and endear our doomed protagonists. Still others rejected the endearment itself as unworthy given the (in)justice of the American SEALs’ very presence on that ridge in southern Afghanistan. This brand of appraisal is unique to the war movie review.

Of course, since few endeavors inflame such passions as the state-sanctioned taking of human life, the range of reactions to a film like “The Lone Survivor” can be understood. What is hard to understand, though, is how so many reviews missed a critical element of the film—an element on which “The Lone Survivor”-is-just-a-film viewpoint and the political commentary both hinge—that Wahlberg’s Marcus Luttrell, the lone survivor, wasn’t alone at all. There were other survivors, in fact, Afghan ones, and they were devastated to see him leave.[1]

And here’s where the reviews miss the mark: “The Lone Survivor” presents the passion of Navy SEALs to American viewers precisely because Marcus Luttrell isn’t anonymous. For one, he came home to recount his harrowing story. Moreover, he was able to do so because friendly Afghan villagers made their own dangerous sacrifice—to give him sanctuary. Their anonymity is the movie’s failure. That just about every movie review failed to recognize this—well, that is our failure.

Director Peter Berg gives short shrift to the film’s Afghan allies and their difficult choice to defend Marcus Luttrell. He chalks up their sacrifice to Pashtunwali, a code of honor among Afghans of Pashtun ethnicity, one tenet of which is Nanawatai—meaning asylum. While my own experience confirms that such a code does exist, by presenting it as inviolate Berg does so at the expense of these Afghans’ conscious humanity. This is like a westerner saying, “Well I want to kill you, and I would. But I gave it up for Lent. Want to come in for some tea?”

In the film’s last scene, as Luttrell is taken away by American rescuers, he struggles to embrace a boy he had befriended in the village. The boy is in tears. But the question the film ignores is why, exactly, he cries. Was the boy really able to develop such a strong bond with a foreign-speaking stranger over the course of two days? Did his adherence to Pashtunwali demand such a response?

“The Lone Survivor” is ultimately about friendships—and their implications. While the boy was lonely, he didn’t cling to Marcus Luttrell because he wanted his friend to stay; he clung because he feared what might come after the American left. Marcus Luttrell and the boy are both lonely. Marcus Luttrell feels the sting of that loneliness as he is separated from his friends—his fellow SEALs. The boy’s loneliness is realized as it becomes apparent that he began to consider Marcus Luttrell his friend. His tears in the last scene show his belief in such a bond—whether that’s with an individual person or, more broadly, with American military presence.

My experience reflects this. I, too, made friends with Afghans (pictured above). Pir Mohamad, who bunked in the jailhouse we managed together in order to avoid a perilous commute, told me almost daily that we couldn’t leave his country. His deputy, Assadullah, half-joked over chai and cigarettes one night, “When you leave, I leave for Pakistan.” And their elder assistant, Saifullah, who slept atop the jail each night under the dark sky keeping vigil against potential intruders, felt the same. While I left Afghanistan in late 2011, Pir Mohammad and Assadullah and Saifullah, as far as I know, still live there. Because of this, they despair.

As thousands of families flee Fallujah, Iraq amid an Al-Qaeda resurgence, and while the Pentagon proposes plans to remove combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, I don’t think about geopolitics or justice, and I didn’t expect “The Lone Survivor” to do so, either. I think about the individuals—my friend sleeping alone on the dark roof. And while I don’t know him, that boy in tears. All I can do is I wonder. What will become of them? That, to me, is the question that should have been explored in “The Lone Survivor,” as well as the subsequent debates. 

[1] While I have served as a member of the armed forces in Afghanistan, I am not a Navy SEAL. Not even close. My own commentary is not meant to diminish the loss, despair, and indeed loneliness that Marcus Luttrell endured as he fought for his life. In fact, my observations of Navy SEALs (of which I have a few, here and abroad) have reflected a passion—for a dangerous, largely anonymous vocation—that few of us have about anything.


Randy Leonard is a writing student at Johns Hopkins. He is an Afghanistan war veteran and a professor of military law. His writings have appeared in the Military Law ReviewStars and StripesThe Baltimore SunProceedings Magazine, and The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review. His first novel, Tranche, is on the hunt for a publisher. He lives in Capitol Hill with his wife Hadley and their dog Lincoln, an Afghan emigre.


A Long-Range Missile

Jentso and me

On one end of the earth it sounded like the Super Bowl; on the other end I’m not sure, because nobody heard it. I saw the Super Bowl version, which to those of us in attendance felt like the Super Bowl, too, as if our team had just won on a last-second Hail Mary. It even came down from the sky like a Hail Mary, small and spherical, with a subtle but undeniable hiss.

Our seat to this spectacle was a special section known as the Tactical Operations Center, or TOC, where we had stadium seating, our own high-definition flat screens, instant replay technology, where we could make out the explosion at first, then the huddle of smoke, then upended earth, then nothing but dust.  With a familiar anxiety, we waited for an unobstructed camera angle. Then the huddle cleared, a clearer picture emerged. And the play in the orchard fields was confirmed: three Afghan men, would-be roadside bombers, lay dead, dismembered, as lifeless as the shovels strewn around them.

The ensuing glee was unadulterated. Hugs. High Fives. Fuck Yeahs. If champagne were authorized, the bottles would be popping. With each replay the glee was checked, but only slightly. High fives were traded for handshakes and Well Dones. The calm satisfaction that accompanies victory eventually settled over the members of the unit and our small outpost in rural Kandahar Province. The thrust of the praise, however, went to the Fire Support Officer, the FSO, the trigger man who remotely dropped and directed the hellfire missiles and whose chest elevated, if only slightly, with each hail. But something changed for everyone. The chow hall chatter grew livelier. Pranks were doled out with more frequency.  The hot, dusty air of the outpost, which only moments before was a hellacious wasteland for every American there, developed a new quality—one brought on by pride, just for having been a part of the killing.

That same day, I would later learn, 9,000 miles away in Washington, DC, my best friend James Hwang died alone in his apartment.  Thirty-one years old, himself a war veteran, and by every conceivable measure in perfect health, he died of Systemic Inflammatory Response Syndrome, SIRS. SIRS is little more than an immune response to infection. But in a special dose of cruelty, it afflicts many yet kills only those whose immune system is strongest. Disease-fighting cytokines attack the infection; for the especially robust, too many cytokines can mount up, saturating the battlefield. If that battlefield is a lung or kidney, it’ll shut down. If not treated immediately, so will the whole body. When my future wife called me the next morning, I learned that the battlefield was indeed saturated. In a packed plywood box for a call center, over the sounds of the crackling phone call, I learned—in stunned silence, she’d later recount—about one of the few things I hadn’t prepared for. My best friend, home and safe and lying in his bed, was dead.

When a service member deploys to a warzone, he does an inventory of those things he is prepared to do. Dying is one of them. Killing is another. Celebrating that killing is yet another. But mourning the unexpected death of a loved one back home? That is not.

When the occasion visited me in July 2011, the subsequent sound was only that which I could replay in my head. The battle rhythm persisted uninterrupted—morning patrols, afternoon briefings, and the constant overwatch from the TOC, an omniscient eye in the sky, for any martyr-bound IED-implanters. But I couldn’t hear any of it.

I only heard the sounds of James. His inviting refrain—“sure, sure”—to anyone who addressed him. His annoying chomp when he ate, which I always just chalked up to him being Asian. Or the sound of his car horn out front of my apartment most Saturdays, our own version of reveille to brunch and college football games.

But most often I speculated about the sound of his death. Was it as silent as my response, I asked myself. Maybe in his sleepOr did he struggle, pawing at the phone in his last competent seconds? I didn’t know what to make of the thoughts; I simply replayed and replayed until every sound around me and in my head—even his—was muted entirely.

On rare occasions they reemerged, and when they did they sounded like a guilty conscience.

More than two years later they still do. To Navy psychologist Daniel Snow, who specializes in battlefield emotional traumas, this isn’t surprising. “The five stages of grief are very real,” he insists, referring to the widely-accepted theory first advanced by Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (the five stages are Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance). When deployment demands disturb the process, Dr. Snow says, the psychological reaction becomes unpredictable. One might begin to interpret the death “as if it isn’t even something real,” a natural response, he says, “because you have to survive yourself.”

But at some point the reality returns. For those grieving the deaths of loved ones back home, that reality is dark, but unique from that of those who lose comrades in combat. “Think about it,” Dr. Snow says, “home is the safety net. Home is what we’re fighting to protect. If people are dying back home, then it strips meaning from what we’re fighting for.”

“It really shakes the bedrock,” he adds.

A delayed grief response, Dr. Snow calls it, one brought about by guilt and a diminished sense of purpose—just for having been there while they died here.

Then you return to the happy homecoming, to the smiles and congratulations, to the hugs and high fives. My wife was at mine, lost in blue jeans and a red silk top among the other patriot-clad family and friends convened in the international terminal at Baltimore airport. She closed in on me without me noticing her. When I did see her, I saw joy and relief on her face, though I didn’t hear much amid the deafening cowbells and applause. For a brief moment while we embraced, I thought about James. I thought that if he were there, if he had picked me up with that honk of his horn, we might have gone straight from the airport to a bar, for a meal and a beer and maybe a ballgame. There I would have asked him, and he would have told me, and then I would have known what it was I was supposed to do next.


Randy Leonard is a writing student at Johns Hopkins. He is an Afghanistan war veteran and a professor of military law. His writings have appeared in the Military Law Review, Stars and Stripes, The Baltimore Sun, Proceedings Magazine, and The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review. His first novel, Tranche, is on the hunt for a publisher. He lives in Capitol Hill with his wife Hadley and their dog Lincoln, an Afghan emigre.


BBQ and the Supernatural

We were having dinner. I had the brisket, L half an Amish chicken, and my sister a mound of pulled pork piled high on her plate. There were five sauces lined up on the table for us to try: Spicy, Mustard, N.C., Apple, and Sweet.

L and my sister are close friends; they met in college and have stayed close in the years since. They’re relaxed with one another. They have similar taste buds, both preferring the Apple sauce with its warm cider flavor.  I was less relaxed. For the first time in years, I felt very little sister tagging along with the grown-ups.  Their relationship was built on college and adulthood. My relationship with my older sister is still tinged with childhood. The day before this, she had found a furry, black-and-white headpiece with a widow’s peak that she had worn to be a penguin in a dance routine. We’d bickered over how big her head was then vs. now (the headpiece fit her adult head and voluminous adult hair without strain) and whether human heads even grow.

 “Did I tell you that my mother-in-law went to a psychic?” L asked my sister.

The sweet sauce tasted off to me. It tasted too familiar, but with some extra spice or flavoring that was driving me nuts because I couldn’t identify it. I was too busy tasting it to respond.

 “No.” My sister said.

I am a magnet for people’s stories about the supernatural. Close friends, acquaintances, family members, talkative people on public transportation have talked to me about:

Being told they were on a journey;

Bird calls surrounding you means a deceased loved one is always near;

Psychics exist because they are only the ones who see the true pattern of the universe;

This card says you will be successful in your professional endeavors;

The fortune says, “You are always on my mind”;

An unknown voice whispering on an audio file encouraging them to leave;

Lights surrounding a house in photographs.


“She had her father contacted,” L said while cutting her chicken. 

“So, she got an earful.” My sister said. For a moment, I’d forgotten that she’d met L’s grandfather-in-law. She’d even visited him in the hospital last summer.

L laughed, but then grew serious. “She said that he said.”


“The psychic.” L said. “She heard what he was saying and then passed it on.”

“The psychic said he kept saying the word, ‘meatloaf’ over and over again. She asked if the word meant anything special, but no one could remember him being that crazy about meatloaf. Here’s the weird thing.” L paused and took a sip of water. “My husband was over at his grandmother’s house at the exact same time—and this was all happening in the morning at like ten or eleven—and she decided to just make him meatloaf.”

“He was watching over his wife.” My sister said, her eyes tearing up behind her glasses. She tends toward being sentimental only about animals.  The first time we watched Casablanca together—I was thirteen and a bundle of red-shaped hearts and feelings, she was seventeen and willing to indulge me—I wept an embarrassing amount at the ending, she tossed a piece of popcorn up in the air and caught it in her mouth.

“Well, shit.” I said.

My sister asked, “What else?”

“The psychic said that within the next year there would be two children born into the family. And that he was talking to them and getting them ready to join our family. He was sure that one would be mine.”

My sister stopped picking at her pulled pork and looked at L. I could feel the weight of several heavy conversations between them. L smiled. “He especially liked the girls.”

I watched her face as my sister asked her more questions. She was happy—the food; anticipation of a trip coming up; the potential of a yearned for child and the idea of someone she loved being happy, rested, and omniscient after death all contributed to that happiness. But she was also a little uncomfortable.  Her doubts at the psychic’s extraordinariness, the idea that there was someone else out there who could see signs, interpret patterns, hear whispers of elsewhere made her uneasy.

The spicy sauce was good. It didn’t need to be slathered on anything. It would be good even if someone started demolishing a vat of it with a soup spoon.

L then told us how the psychic establishes her credentials. As a teenager, she attended a catholic school. Much like the Saints she learned about, she was beset by visions: the deceased walked among the living and whispered secrets only she could hear; stigmata seeped down statues’ arms; and crosses appeared against lights.  Eventually, the psychic approached her priest.

“Seeing spirits has happened, but it is very rare,” the Priest said.

The psychic paused for a moment and then told the priest that she saw his son in the room with them. He was a young boy and listening to them speak. The priest began weeping; he had told no one about his son. He had been young when the boy was born, unsure of his calling.

“Oh my God,” my sister said.

 We ate in silence for a few moments. My sister seemed focused on her sweet potatoes; L had her cell phone out.  A cover I didn’t recognize of “Baby Please Don’t Go” played over the loud speakers and I tapped my foot to the beat as I considered what I’d just heard.

Who would I focus on if I was writing the short story of that encounter: the priest, the psychic, or the dead boy listening in on all the confessions? 

And was the story real? The Gothic details, the fact that the word “weeping” appeared, made me more skeptical than usual. The psychic could employ several very talented private investigators skilled at observing her clients—she worked on a, I think, three month waiting list—and digging up details. She could Google search and find out details about her clients. Maybe the story changed each time based on the client’s religion. There could be an interchangeable line-up of rabbis, ministers, and Houngans weeping over their dead sons.

I tried the N.C. on my brisket. It reminded me of all the other times I had eaten a vinegar sauce. The moments crystal-clear, yet stacked upon each other. It could’ve been an accordion of me’s seated at tables, all remembering with happy excitement that I liked vinegar sauce. I imagined all the me’s past and future colliding in my taste buds and sharing their experiences, their histories, their selves in that moment. Maybe I knew everything about me in those moments of eating, but the knowledge only remained as long as I was eating barbeque.


Megan Giddings is a master’s student studying fiction at Miami University. Her work was most recently featured in > kill author. She is currently working on a novel.