'A Very Old and Terrible Lie': Lone Survivor and Morality in a War Zone

Peter Berg's Lone Survivor/Photo © 2013 Universal Pictures

“A true war story is never moral,” wrote author Tim O’Brien in his award-winning 1990 story collection The Things They Carried, based on his experiences in the Vietnam War. “It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.”

What then to make of Peter Berg’s “Lone Survivor?” Those who have seen the film — it expands wide Friday, January 10 — have largely praised it for its honorably realistic depiction of the fighting and its horrifying consequences as well as their effects on the bonds of the American soldiers at the story’s center. But is there a positive message to be found among all the human carnage? Are those who walk away from the movie clutching at the courage, loyalty, and brotherhood of those men merely fools actively deluding themselves so as to avoid the truth of war’s ultimate “obscenity,” as O’Brien labels it? War stories may not be moral, but they’re inherently political. And where you fall in your gut reaction to a film as well-intentioned, sad, and brutal as “Lone Survivor” will inevitably be determined by your ability to find any meaning in war itself.

Berg’s movie is based on Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson’s Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10, published in 2007. The mechanics of the story couldn’t be more straightforward: In late June 2005, four highly trained American soldiers on a covert mission in the mountains of Afghanistan are ambushed by a much larger group of local fighters and only one, miraculously, makes it out alive. A tragedy, for sure, but one — again, depending on your point of view — marked by heroism and humanity. What gives the story depth and resonance, though — what gives all war stories depth and resonance — is its window into the relationships between the men, particularly when thrust into a violent showdown with fear and mortality. Whether there’s a lesson there or not, that privileged peek into the sacred and profane is what gives the movie purpose, a reason to exist.

Loyalty and selflessness are given a lot of lip service as basic virtues in American culture, but very few of us ever experience a literal life-and-death scenario where saving our own ass is a genuine option, potentially at the expense of our fellow human beings’. In our far less dramatic daily lives, we fail this test all the time. At heart, what we as an audience really want to find in a film like “Lone Survivor” is an answer to the questions, how did they do it? What accounts for the ability of these men to maintain honor, resiliency, and dignity even in the most frightening of conditions? And: Do I have that inside me?

Books have always been much better equipped to find answers to these questions than movies, though their nature has changed and their volume has increased. It’s not so much that the reporting is different — the best of it still requires a unique combination of humanity and insanity — but that the military culture and media landscape have adapted to a ravenous populace that demands transparency and unlimited access. For many Americans, the shock and awe of a war correspondent’s detailed report from a faraway hellhole may now be muffled by the fact that snippets of live combat are all over YouTube, but book-length narratives still offer the possibility of capturing the feelings, thoughts and behaviors of a group of men and women in combat in an expansive way that never really translates on film — a medium built on fantasies of heroism.

Among the modern-era books that best uncover the singular camaraderie of soldiers in the field are Mark Bowden’s 1999 account of the 1993 battle between American forces and Somali militiamen in Mogadishu, Black Hawk Down, and Evan Wright’s 2005 book Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America, and the New Face of American War, which sprung from his time embedded with a Marine battalion during the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Sebastian Junger’s War, which chronicles the lives of soldiers fighting and dying in the Korangal Valley in 2007-08, is an ambitious companion piece to the documentaries he directed, “Restrepo” and “Which Way Is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington.” And to complement O’Brien’s heralded works (If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, Going After Cacciato), Dispatches by Esquire correspondent Michael Herr, published in 1977, provides an excellent ground-level example of the best Vietnam War reporting.

But no honest account of man’s experience in war — no matter how poetic or patriotic — can escape the basest of its truths. “War is hell, but that's not the half of it,” wrote O’Brien, “because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.”