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A Former Navy SEAL Questions Rules of War

In June 2005, Marcus Luttrell and three of his fellow Navy SEALs set off on a mission in the mountains of Afghanistan. They were ambushed by the Taliban, leaving him as the only survivor among the American special operations team.

Luttrell, who has since retired from the military, recounts the ordeal in a memoir, Lone Survivor, co-written by Patrick Robinson.

The book has received much attention this summer, in part because of the decisions the SEALs made. They're the kind of decisions that lie at the heart of the war on terrorism: Who do you target — and who you do kill — when the enemy doesn't wear a uniform?

"War's not black and white," Luttrell tells Steve Inskeep. "You can sit there and put it on paper, like, 'This is what has to be done in this certain situation.' But when you get up there on that mountain, or when you're in a battlefield, it doesn't work that way. And sometimes stuff has to be done so you can preserve the life of your men."

Luttrell faced at least two decisions with lives at stake, including his own. The first decision came after the SEALs moved into the Afghan mountains. That's when they were discovered by Afghans who might betray their presence.

The SEALs were looking down from a mountainside, waiting for an enemy leader who was suspected to be in the village below.

They soon encountered three males and about 100 goats. The SEALs interrogated the herders, but "couldn't get anything out of them," Luttrell says. "And then, we just had that uneasy feeling. A lot of times, you can talk to villagers and they're really forthcoming with information, and sometimes they're not."

The SEALs discussed their options — tie up the herders and take them along, tie them up and leave them, or to kill them. In the end, the Americans decided to turn the herders loose.

Luttrell says he's still not sure if they made the right call.

In the book, Luttrell raises questions about the rules of war — and whether Americans should be following them. He writes:

"Sometimes, it's hard to fight an enemy when ... they're following a different set of rules. They're not following any rules, actually, in some regards. And when we go out there to deal with it, it's tough."

"There's a lot of smart people in the military. We're not as dumb as everybody thinks, and we know how to do our job really well. If you're going to send us in there for war, then that's what you do. You just send us in there and let us do what we need to do. We'll get done and we'll get home, and it'll be over.

"But as soon as we get in there and then rules start coming down the pipe, you know, 'This needs to happen, this needs to happen.' When you're not out there actually on the battlefield, it's just tough for us to understand how you can implement something like that."

Luttrell emphasized that he's not talking about killing civilians.

He writes that when the unit commander polled his men on what to do, Luttrell chose to spare the Afghans, despite the security risk.

Luttrell knew in his soul that he should kill them. But, he adds, "I have another soul, my Christian soul."

He suspects that those goat herders went on to reveal the Americans' location. Soon after Afghans walked away, scores of Taliban fighters attacked.

Luttrell describes what he did to survive:

"I crawled into the side of that mountain and covered myself with rocks, took mud and anything I could find, packed it into the open holes in my legs ... I lay there all day. Then night came around. I finally got the feeling back in my legs. I stood up, best I could, walk-crawled for at least four miles off that mountain and then onto another one. Then I got shot again the next day, then I crawled three more miles and finally found some water."

Luttrell says he then encountered some villagers, and was unsure if they were friend or foe.

"I was apprehensive from the beginning. I almost killed three of them, but ... I just didn't pull the trigger. I don't know why."

Those people ultimately saved his life, protecting him from the Taliban who had surrounded their village.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.