I promise that this post will be a review of Marcus Luttrell’s Service: A Navy SEAL at War. First, though, I have to start with the ridiculous, before I can give proper context, not to the sublime (because war isn’t sublime), but to the important and meaningful.
The ridiculous is, of course, MSNBC’s own Chris Hayes, who earned himself a great deal of much-deserved ridicule for his inability to acknowledge military heroism:
CHRIS HAYES: Thinking today and observing Memorial Day, that’ll be happening tomorrow. Just talked with Lt. Col. Steve Burke [sic, actually Beck], who was a casualty officer with the Marines and had to tell people [inaudible]. Um, I, I, ah, back sorry, um, I think it’s interesting because I think it is very difficult to talk about the war dead and the fallen without invoking valor, without invoking the words “heroes.” Um, and, ah, ah, why do I feel so comfortable [sic] about the word “hero”? I feel comfortable, ah, uncomfortable, about the word because it seems to me that it is so rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war. Um, and, I don’t want to obviously desecrate or disrespect memory of anyone that’s fallen, and obviously there are individual circumstances in which there is genuine, tremendous heroism: hail of gunfire, rescuing fellow soldiers and things like that. But it seems to me that we marshal this word in a way that is problematic. But maybe I’m wrong about that.
One doesn’t need a psychiatric degree to know that Mr. Hayes probably suffers from, or should suffer from, paruresis — the inability to urinate in front of others. Regardless of the exact nature of his physical attributes, this is a guy who, deep down, is pretty damn sure that he’s under-endowed and can’t measure up. Only a deep and abiding inferiority complex could see a young man, ostensibly in the prime of his physical life, unable to recognize and appreciate that others are willing to make sacrifices he’s incapable of even contemplating.
Perhaps because I’m a woman, it’s easy for me to acknowledge my own physical cowardice. Maybe a man has to rationalize himself away from a fight in which he could have served. For example, I know a man who could have served, but didn’t, in Vietnam. He was once an anti-War protester. Now, though, he goes around boasting about how he’s more man than anyone who served — “I could have done that, and I, with my super-duper manly-man skills would have out-gunned everyone there. I just chose not to serve [and, sotto voce, I'm eternally grateful my draft number didn't come up].” Hayes represents the other end of the self-justification spectrum: “Service is stupid. I would never have gone into a fight because I’m not stupid.”
This is the mindset that results in movies such as the Danish film In a Better World, an Oscar-winning foreign film. Aside from some indescribably boring film-making techniques, the movie got off to a promising start, with a premise that seemed startlingly un-European: Fight back against bullies.
In the movie, Sofus, a bully, is going after another schoolboy, Elias. A new kid, Christian, who has traveled with his father and experienced many new schools, comes to this particular school and, when he is too friendly with Elias, Sofus turns on Christian too. The next time the bully starts on Elias, Christian beats the crap out of Sofus. When Christian’s father picks him up from school and asks “Why?”, Christian has a simple answer: If had hadn’t done this, I would have been bullied again. Now, all the kids know to leave me alone.
I was impressed. Who knew that a European film could be so wise? After all, we know that, unless you stand up to bullies, they’ll keep bullying. Stand up to them, however, even if you take some knocks, and they back off. It’s basic school yard logic.
It turns out that I was impressed too quickly. Christian, the boy who stood up to bullies was actually a psychopath who started dragging poor victimized (but peaceful) Elias down the path to total warfare. This scenario, the movie implies, although it never says so, was how Columbine got started. Never defend yourself, because if you do, you will become a crazy wacko who tries to commit mass murder. Always let wiser, peace-making heads intervene, causing you to back off, leaving more room within which the bully can operate.
And so, at long last, we get to Marcus Luttrell’s Service. Incidentally, when I speak here of Luttrell, that’s a bit of a shorthand, since he worked with James D. Hornfischer, who wrote the excellent Ship of Ghosts: The Story of the USS Houston, FDR’s Legendary Lost Cruiser, and the Epic Saga of her Survivors. My best guess is that Luttrell provided the stories and that Hornfischer shaped them into a very readable book.
Boiled down to its essentials, Service is the un-Chris Hayes and the un-Northern European pacifism. Instead, it’s about those men who understand that the only way to deal with bullies is to take them on and defeat them.
Does this mean that those who stand against bullies are bullies themselves? No. Unlike bullies who happily and viciously trample anyone in their path, a hero carefully targets his fight, taking it to the bully, and then stands down when that fight is finished. It’s that ethos that permeates Service.
I found Service very difficult to read, not because it’s a bad book, but because it’s a good book. Luttrell’s first book, Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10, was painful to read, but it had what was, for me, a recognizable story arc: our hero trains; our hero faces a terrible battle in which his comrades, after fighting with awe-inspiring bravery, die; and our hero struggles through adversity to survive. I knew what was coming in advance because that operation was so famous, and because I recognized the narrative arc (although it was still upsetting for this armchair warrior and bona fide coward to read).
Service, however, lacks the familiar narrative of an epic tragedy. Instead, Luttrell walks the reader through the fight in Ramadi from 2006 to 2008. Patrol after patrol, fire fight after fire fight, frustrating bureaucratic interlude after frustrating bureaucratic interlude — as you read the book, you feel as if you’re there and for me, that’s a tough feeling. I knew about the bureaucracy (especially the increasingly restrictive rules of engagement), and I had a sort of vague, MSM-ish understanding of the reality of battle, but Luttrell’s book is much more intense. Here’s part of his description of the end result of a battle that went south for the SEALS:
When the QRF [quick reaction force] arrived outside [the building being attacked] with a couple of Bradleys, the squad moved quickly downstairs and lined up to break out of the house. They tossed two smoke grenades outside to cover their exfil, then burst through the door. Two Iraqis were in the lead, followed by Elliott [Miller, who had shrapnel wounds and was bleeding heavily], hobbling along with help from Johnny Brands. The jundis [Iraqis fighting with the Americans] had just hit the street when the world went dark. The IED might have been dropped down on them from the roof in a backpack. Or it might have been planted in the ground or hung on the gate while they were inside. All we know for sure is that it was a trap set by enemies who were obviously wise to everything we were doing and how we were doing it. They knew that straight-on firefights were losing propositions. So they snuck around and planted their bombs where they thought we’d be. They sure got it right that time. An enormous explosion engulfed our guys as they exited the house.
The explosion killed the two Iraqis leading the way; the first man simply disappeared, evaporated by the blast, his scan remnants driving away in the air, a pink mist, while the second, partly sheltered by the leader, was nearly sliced in half at the waist. The blast still had enough force to devastate Elliott. It tore into his body wherever it wasn’t protected by body armor. His legs were shredded from midthigh down. He had a hole in his right shoulder and the parts of him that weren’t covered by plates were being eaten into by a terrible chemical residue.
Johnny was better off, but that wasn’t saying much. Both his feet were attached to his ankles only by the Achilles tendons.
Looking down at Elliott, Dozer saw that his friend’s legs seemed loose and detached in the bloody mess of his pants. The steel rifle magazine stored in his front vest pouches had been dished in by the blast. Elliott’s watch was charred and black but, amazingly, still kept time. Only his body armor saved him from being killed instantly. Dozer ran his hands under Elliott’s plates, checking his torso for wounds. As he removed Elliott’s gear, Dozer realized he didn’t have the first idea where to begin treating such a seriously wounded man. That was when he heard another explosion, a smaller one, go off in the courtyard. A grenade. The insurgents were still out there, probing them, probably planning another attack. (Service, pp. 145-147.)
And so it goes, as the men work desperately to extricate themselves and their wounded teammates from a rain of fire. The SEAL team did eventually make it to safety, and Elliott and Johnny Brands survived, but it was a close thing, and their injuries were devastating.
I chose the above excerpt because of the immediacy of the story. With Luttrell’s narrative abilities and Hornfischer’s writing chops, you, the reader, feel as if you’re there, in the middle of a battle in the streets of Ramadi. That’s why it took me a while to read the book, despite the fact that it’s interesting, entertaining, and moving. After going (in my head) through a battle with the guys, I need to rest and regroup.
There are a few overarching themes in the book: Luttrell believes deeply in God, country, and America’s armed forces. His love for his twin brother (also a SEAL) and for his SEAL teammates generally is transcendent, and keeps bringing him back to the fight. In addition to being an action-adventure story and an homage to the SEALS specifically and the fighting forces in Ramadi generally, this book is also a eulogy and a memorial to those SEALS who made the ultimate sacrifice there and in Afghanistan: Mark Lee, Michael Monsoor, Carson Vaughn, Jon Tumilson, and so many other good men (including all those who died on August 6, 2011), each one a man who directed his formidable strength, intelligence, and energy, not to mindless X-sports, but to protecting his country and fighting for his comrades.
This middle class, female, armchair warrior walked away from Luttrell’s book pretty convinced that Navy SEALS are crazy — but I mean that in a good way. Only crazy people (in a good way) would put themselves through the training they do and live for the fight the way they do.
Thank God for these crazy people, who can bend their energies to a focused fight against bullies, and who have the moral decency to live by America’s rules of engagement, even as nothing constrains the other side. Even though Luttrell vividly describes the way the SEALS chafe and suffer at times when the ROEs prevent them from hitting a known and obvious target, they are proud of the fact that they reserve their fire for combatants, and that they neither target nor shield themselves behind the innocents. This ethos, one that one can call civilized warfare,” makes the fighting much harder in the rabbit warren of Ramadi, but it is one of the things that separates the heroes from the sadistic bullies.
If you would like to immerse yourself in a book that details ferocious urban warfare against a wily and amoral enemy, Service is your book. The stories are compelling, the writing styling is clear and gripping, and the people you meet in the book are people you’d like to meet in the real world too.