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Michael Smerconish: Survivor’s story nuanced in film

“What to do with the goat herders?”

That’s the moral and ethical question that lingered long after readers closed the cover on Marcus Luttrell’s 2007 best-seller, “Lone Survivor.” The movie version of the book, starring Mark Wahlberg, is drawing large crowds nationwide.

Like the book, which was co-authored by Patrick Robinson, the Peter Berg-directed movie describes the events of June 28, 2005, during Operation Red Wings. Luttrell and three other Navy SEALs were dropped into the mountains of the Hindu Kush to surveil Taliban leader Ahmad Shah. Soon after their arrival, the mission was compromised by three goat herders who unwittingly discovered the Americans hiding in broad daylight along the Afghan-Pakistan border.

The SEALs’ dilemma over what to do with the goat herders has enlivened book clubs and sparked barroom debates: Tie them up and leave them, kill them or let them go and run the risk that they will further compromise the mission?

Sadly, everyone now knows how it ended. The SEALs released the goat herders and soon found themselves outnumbered by a Taliban force. Only Luttrell survived the ensuing firefight. Sixteen more Americans died when an MH-47 Chinook helicopter responding to the gunbattle was shot down by the Taliban, killing eight SEALs and eight Army Night Stalkers.

Luttrell’s written description about the handling of the goat herders touched a nerve with the father of Lt. Michael Murphy, the SEAL team leader of Operation Red Wings who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor by President George W. Bush. Daniel Murphy, a combat-wounded Vietnam veteran, objected to Luttrell’s characterization that his son had put the decision on the goat herders to a vote.

Luttrell wrote that Petty Officer Matthew G. Axelson wanted to kill the men, Petty Officer Danny P. Dietz was noncommittal, and Murphy initially deferred to him: “Marcus, I’ll go with you. Call it.” Luttrell responded: “We gotta let ’em go.” Next, according to Luttrell, “Mikey nodded. ‘OK,’ he said. ‘I guess that’s two votes to one, Danny abstains. We gotta let ’em go.’ ”

Not a day passes that Luttrell doesn’t rethink the decision. He wrote:

“It was the stupidest, most Southern-fried, lame-brained decision I ever made in my life. … I had actually cast a vote which I knew could sign our death warrant.”

Daniel Murphy first heard this version while watching a 2007 “Today” show interview with Luttrell when the book was released. Murphy told Long Island’s Newsday:

“That directly contradicts what he told (Murphy’s mother) Maureen, myself and Michael’s brother John in my kitchen,” said Murphy, who said he hasn’t read the book. “He said that Michael was adamant that the civilians were going to be released, that he wasn’t going to kill innocent people. … Michael wouldn’t put that up for committee. People who knew Michael know that he was decisive and that he makes decisions.”

Subsequently, Dan Murphy cooperated with the release of “SEAL of Honor,” written by Gary Williams, which presented a more nuanced view of how the goat herders were managed, while nevertheless footnoting Luttrell’s version of events:

“Despite their open discussion that day, each man understood that the team structure was not a democracy – there was to be no consensus and there would be no voting. After requesting and receiving appropriate and valuable input from the other members of his team, the final decision unquestionably would be made by the team leader, Lieutenant Michael Murphy.”

It remained to be seen how the movie would handle the competing versions of the critical sequence. Now we know.

“This is not a vote,” the movie Murphy (actor Taylor Kitsch) says at the penultimate moment in the film.

The good news is that the movie adaptation pleases Luttrell and Daniel Murphy.

“They did a good job in the movie,” Luttrell told me. “It’s not the way it went down, but like I said, this is a movie, so they’re going to take some liberties and do some stuff. It’s nothing that I got so bent out of shape about that I didn’t want to go see the movie. But yeah, I wasn’t there on set when that went down, the director made me leave, and he made me leave for most of the gunfight, so … they shifted some things around, but it still gives you a great explanation of how everything went down.”

Daniel Murphy told me he was pleased with Kitsch’s portrayal of his son, and called the movie’s depiction of the friendship between Luttrell and Michael “uncanny.” Still, he said, the movie is hard to watch. He noted that during a screening for family members, Michael’s mother left the theater and sat in the lobby. As for the goat-herder sequence, Murphy told me:

“Michael was never an officer that would say this is what you’re going to do, follow my orders and do them. Michael was always one who wanted the input from his men, but ultimately everyone understood that Michael makes the decision, he’s the team leader. … They don’t make SEAL officers who are unable to make decisions. So what goes on is there’s a discussion between Matt Axelson, Danny Dietz, and Marcus and Michael about what they should do with these goat herders and what are (their) ideas about what can be done.”

He likes the way the movie Michael sums up the options: “Cut them loose, terminate the compromise, or we tie them up and leave them and they’ll be eaten by wolves.”

“As this discussion goes on, Michael ultimately draws a conclusion, ‘OK, we’re going to cut them loose, we’re going to head for the highest peak, and we’ll establish communications and be extracted,’ ” Daniel Murphy said. “That was the main difficulty. … Communications were not going very well. They were intermittent, and so there was a loss of contact with headquarters, which is ultimately what resulted in Michael getting the Medal of Honor. … He broke cover, stepped out into the middle of this clearing, where he was clearly visible to make the call for help, and that’s when he suffered his mortal wounds.”

When we spoke, Dan Murphy stated his love for Luttrell, and underscored that the selfless way in which his son gave his life (even though shot he still ended the call with “thank you”) is known to the world only because Luttrell was the lone survivor.

Michael Smerconish writes for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may contact him via www.smerconish.com.


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