Lone Survivor reviewed in the New Statesman
Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson Little, Brown, 400pp, £17.99
Texan men take great pride in their bravery. The doomed defenders of the Alamo are immortalised as the first heroes of the Lone Star State. Audie Murphy, another Texan, came to symbolise heroism to the nation during the Second World War. After winning more than 30 medals, including the US's highest military Medal of Honor, Murphy went on, unsurprisingly, to have a Hollywood career. George H W Bush is another Texas war hero - having been shot down in the Pacific during the war, he went on to become president.
In the country's latest wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the most recent "hero" to emerge is also Texan. His name is Petty Officer Marcus Luttrell and he has more modest ambitions: trained as a medic by the US navy, he merely wants to study med icine at Yale.
Luttrell has been propelled into the public gaze by his lengthily titled memoir Lone Survivor: the Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of Seal Team 10. It recounts how, on 28 June 2005, he and three other Navy Seals were dropped on a mountainside in the rural Hindu Kush in eastern Afghanistan to carry out a reconnaissance mission and, if possible, assassinate the Tali ban warlord Ben Sharmak.
Shortly after landing, the men were surprised by a trio of unarmed Afghan goatherders. The team had to choose: kill them and face possible war crimes charges or free them and risk their telling the Taliban about the soldiers' position. The Seals took a vote and Luttrell, a native of Huntsville, Texas - home to the state's infamous Death Row - voted to offer the Afghans a stay of execution.
He now calls that "the stupidest, most southern-fried, lamebrained decision I ever made in my life". Perhaps, in a way, it was: before he was rescued nearly a week later, two of Luttrell's team members died in his arms, his best friend died as he called his name for help, and a further 16 Special Forces soldiers perished when their helicopter was shot down by an RPG while attempting a rescue. It became known as the most tragic day in the history of the US Special Forces.
Luttrell's story shot to the top of US bestseller lists. It's easy to see why - at a time when confidence in the "war on terror" is at an all-time low, Luttrell offers a feel-good, swashbuckling testament to the bravery of the men on the frontlines. He describes in detail how he, along with his teammates Matthew Axelson, Danny Dietz and Michael Murphy, killed perhaps half of the 100 to 150 Taliban who attacked the team before they themselves were shot apart piece by piece. Luttrell, his leg shredded by an RPG, with three cracked vertebrae in his back and a broken nose, is only saved by chance when he's found by an Afghan doctor who takes him in and, along with his fellow villagers, vows under the 2,000-year-old Pashtun tradition of tribal hospitality to protect him with their lives.
Lone Survivor is every bit as thrilling as Mark Bowden's 1999 bestseller Black Hawk Down - but it is also provides a disturbing insight into the physiology, psychology and politics of elite soldiers. Luttrell's world-view has been formed by peering through a sniper scope: he sees only friends and enemies. Texans - especially President George Bush - Christianity, bravery, loyalty and self-sacrifice are good; the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the Geneva Convention are bad.
His political views are equally polarised. At the same time as Luttrell extols the virtues of his fellow Seals, he derogates those on the left, especially lawyers and the media, whom he blames for the death of his fellow soldiers. Describing his decision not to execute the Afghans, he writes: "I'd turned into a fucking liberal, a half-assed, no-logic nitwit, all heart, no brain, and the judgement of a jackrabbit." Luttrell's convictions may have endeared him to US conservatives, but they have made him few friends in the liberal media.
Edward Nawotka is a reporter for Bloomberg News