Box Office Smash 'Lone Survivor' Sugarcoats Soldiers' Traumas
“Most people are tired of hearing about the war, but they're not war-weary because they haven't experienced it," says Karen Meredith, a Gold Star mother who was told her son, Ken Ballard, was killed by insurgents on Memorial Day 2004. Her son was number 818 killed in Iraq. (The term “Gold Star” refers to the lapel pin the military gives to family members who have lost a loved one in war.)
Meredith agreed to speak with me about Lone Survivor, a new movie she saw the first day it hit theaters in her home town of Mountain View, Calif.
“I wanted to make sure they didn't glorify [war]," she says. "I don't think they did at all.”
The film tracks the tragedy of Operation Red Wings, a covert mission on the mountain Sawtalo Sar in northwest Afghanistan in 2005. A team of four Navy SEALs deployed for a surveillance and reconnaissance mission are ambushed by their Taliban target, Ahmad Shah, and his men. Three members of the SEAL team—Mike Murphy, Matt Axelson and Danny Dietz—were killed, and a helicopter with eight more SEALs and eight special-ops aviators was shot down by an RPG, killing all on board. For his actions, Lt. Mike Murphy posthumously received the Medal of Honor. Marcus Luttrell was the only survivor.
Lone Survivor has been praised by conservatives and panned by some liberal commentators. In recent days, the debate over the film's political slant has gotten ugly. Director Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights) claims his new movie has “no politics” and represents "a chance for audiences to express their patriotism in a way that doesn't feel political."
The reaction to the film came to a head earlier this week when LA Weekly film reviewer Amy Nicholson called Lone Survivor a “jingoistic snuff film.” Glenn Beck promptly responded by offering to fly Nicholson to his studio to level the same claim at Marcus Luttrell, the Navy SEAL who co-wrote the memoir the film is based on. Beck said, “If you have the balls to say what you just said to Marcus Luttrell and back it up, go for it.” An angry mob soon formed on Twitter, and the rest is history.
While the movie has predictably stirred partisan controversy, much of it due to excruciating levels of graphic violence and paradoxically celebrated realism, many commentators have ignored the most important angle: what veterans and their families are saying about the film.
Jovanni Reyes, a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), reacted to the movie in a blog post: “I don't find a Band of Brothers bonding in the battlefield, while killing the 'other', the proverbial 'bad guy,' sexy at all.”
Jacob George, founder of the veterans' art collective A Ride Til The End, said Lone Survivor “demonstrated the complex nature of that specific battle/operation in a way that is palatable to its target audience, middle America. It wasn't designed to illustrate the complexity of the Afghanistan conflict, just tell a Hollywood version of a story.”
In one controversial scene from the film, the four SEALs face a “soft compromise” when they encounter a herd of goats and three goatherds, civilians who uncover their position on the mountain. Faced with a moral dilemma that proves to be the fulcrum of the film, the SEALs must decide how to handle the situation. The action unfolds from there. Some viewers say this kind of human politics overshadows the bigger picture, the architecture of the war.
“I'm more interested in learning what brought these men to the killing fields,” writes Jovanni Reyes. “The political dimension. The background story. Context. What was the political motivation of the old men who send these young men to slaughter and die. And who profits from all the carnage. That's what's more impressing to me.”
Lone Survivor doesn't pretend to play on suspense: the title gives away the ending. Instead, it offers a brazen look at combat, cataloguing every bullet, break and bruise the soldier's body endures with unflinching fidelity to reality. “I don't have a problem seeing the war scenes, the missing limbs,” Karen Meredith says. “It's not for any ghoulish reason, but that's what war is. Why would anybody be surprised about that?”
What does upset this bereaved mother are the references to the world outside of the war zone, solidly bookending the movie and sparsely populating its middle, a single, grueling, gunfight. “It was the personal parts that bothered me, seeing the photos of the guys and their families, that's always my interest,” she said. “If enough people see this movie, they'll understand: it gives these troops a face and a name, they're not a number.”
For years, this has been the crux of Meredith's activism: giving a face to an invisible war in an effort to bring the troops home. She began her journey shortly after her son died, joining Cindy Sheehan's anti-war bus tour in 2005, which included an encampment called Camp Casey outside the Crawford, Texas vacation home of George W. Bush. Then in early September, 15 months after she learned of her son's death, she received more startling news: the initial report had incorrectly identified the cause of Ken's death. He was not killed by enemy fire, but by machine gun fire from his own tank. The story made headlines, along with the death of former NFL safety Pat Tillman by friendly fire, and Meredith made a case that the Army needed to come clean and overhaul the Army Casualty Program.
The Casualty Program, or Army Regulation 600-8-1, is a mother's worst nightmare. It is a collection of policies and procedures for reporting military casualties and supporting families. An awkward, well-dressed soldier brings the bad news to your door—only, for Meredith, it didn't happen that way.
“From the moment of notification, everything was wrong,” she remembers. Army policy requires that the casualty notification officer be a rank above the deceased, but it was Memorial Day and no one could be reached, so a low-ranking officer was sent to her door, and when she could not be located, she was notified by phone. After a traumatic phone conversation, another casualty notification officer met Karen Meredith in person.
“The major who came was not prepared,” she said. “They didn't have any training for them in those days. I think he listened to a CD on the way to my house from Oakland.”
This is the reality Lone Survivor doesn't show, the true cost of war, which the survivors, veterans and families must cope with for the rest of their lives. The closest the movie comes is the end credits, which show photographs of Murphy, Dietz, Axelson, and others with their families, wives and children. It's a somber reminder that these young men had so much to live for, but it comes as the audience is leaving their seats, some already out the door.
I ask Meredith, what's missing from this movie?
“When somebody dies,” she says, “that person is a pebble that goes into the water, and it's impossible to tell how many people that affects. People don't realize how big the circle is.”
She tells me she has been to countless funerals since 2004 and seen tens, if not hundreds of families begin the grieving process. Each time, she grieves anew. “Does it ever get easier?” I ask. “No,” she says, “it doesn't get easier, it gets different, the scar gets thicker. It becomes the new normal.”
Meanwhile, earlier this week, eight civilians—one woman and seven children—were killed after a covert night raid targeting militants, like the one depicted in Lone Survivor, came under fire from insurgents. An airstrike was called in for support, and several compounds were destroyed, killing the civilians. This atrocity of war echoes the moral decision of the goatherds that weighs so heavily on the movie.
Karen Meredith likes Lone Survivor because it brings the soldiers alive again, but she cautions against the film being used as a justification for war.
“I think people misuse the word patriotism now. They wrap themselves in the flag—and that flag covered my son's grave. So don't tell me that that flag doesn't belong to me because I don't share the same thoughts about foreign policy. That red on that flag is the blood of my son. Don't tell me I'm not patriotic because I want this war to end one day sooner, to have one less mother's son die."
She adds, "And if I can end this war one day sooner, perhaps I will save the life of your son.”