Tuesday, January 14, 2014

It was not fate

“I was torn about the message of the film in the same way that I think I am about the war in Afghanistan itself. I don’t want any more senseless American death. And at the same time I know that there were bad people there and good people that need help.” –Jake Tapper

Assessing a mission as “senseless” depends on the likelihood of victory and whether the benefits outweigh the costs. If the likelihood of victory is low, or the costs of losing outweigh the benefits of winning, the mission may be called senseless. Only the military and civilian leadership, to whom all the risks are known, can make that call.

Whether giving a mission the green light is the right or wrong call, people’s verdict rests on the outcome, not on the factors that go into the decisionmaking process. In that sense, every losing effort could be called “senseless” because, looking back, we see decisions that we know have led to failure.

Jake Tapper may have been lamenting the human toll in the Afghan War in general and Operation: Red Wings in particular. In light of America’s imminent withdrawal without achieving strategic victory in Afghanistan, the blood and treasure sacrificed in the last 12 years do seem wasted and, therefore, senseless.

Or he may have been making a critique of Lone Survivor that the disastrous outcome of Operation: Red Wings hangs like a pall over the warriors on the screen. All their expertise, advanced training, and advanced weapons fail to save their lives. The S.E.A.L. team has no idea their mission is going to fail or that they are about to die. You are meant to feel dread and pity as you watch them careen obliviously towards their deaths.

The reenactment of fate is a major element of this type of movie. Take Titanic, for example. Sappy romantic subplot aside, viewers are well aware of what happens to the doomed passengers aboard the ship. The first-class passengers’ arrogance and displays of wealth provide a stark contrast to the watery fate that awaits them. They, too, could be said to be embarking on a “senseless” voyage. The fools don’t know! we think.

Neither do we, when our time comes.

It was not fate that made the Titanic sink, nor was it fate that made Operation: Red Wings a failure. In the course of events, the future is not set. The Titanic could have completed its maiden voyage or not. S.E.A.L. team member Marcus Luttrell and his comrades could have won the battle or not. That’s why he bristles at Tapper’s characterization of the operation as senseless. His team was called to do a job and it failed. He did not proceed on the mission with the knowledge that it would fail.

But that’s not how the narrative was shaped after the event took place, and it’s not the narrative presented in Lone Survivor. The movie’s point is not to bemoan the loss of one battle, it’s to bemoan the battle ever took place.

The lesson we should extract is the lack of trust Americans receive in non-Western countries, and the futility of trying to “empower” tribal people to embrace democracy. If anything doomed Operation: Red Wings, it was the rules of engagement that stressed winning the Afghanis’ hearts and minds, which forced Luttrell’s S.E.A.L. team to release local goat herders who had found them in the mountains. In Afghanistan, anyone could be an enemy. It’s impossible to tell friend from foe. This proved true in Luttrell’s case, as the goat herders immediately informed the Taliban on his team’s position.

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