Lone Survivor: When You Are Forced To Make Killer Decisions

Posted on January 3, 2014

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“What do we do now?”

I have no stones to throw when it comes to judging the wisdom of that decision made in March of 2005 amidst the complicated hills of Afghanistan. I certainly lack the military experience to make judgment on this moment in history—a moment soon to be exposed on the large screens of theaters around the world.

LoneSoldierThe men who were there on that fateful day weren’t sure which option was the least abominable. Even as we look back with 20/20 vision there is no obvious answer to the difficult question of what should they have done with these guys.

It’s been well over a year since I read of the encounter. I remember the enormous quandary I felt as I read about it. If I had been there I would not have known what to do. Yet, what it has done for me is give me a better understanding of how complicated decision-making can be.

“What do we do now?”

What Do We Do Now?

LoneSurvivorLone Survivor is the riveting and heart-wrenching story of four Navy Seals in Afghanistan. While tucked away in the hot desert mountains they took every precaution not to be seen as they embarked on Operation Red Wings. But then it happened. Three goatherds traversing the mountain with a hundred sheep stumbled upon the Seals. The four had been discovered. Everything changed.

Holding the goatherds at gunpoint, the Seals debated what to do with these the two men and the barely teenage boy with them. Kill them?  Or, let them go and risk them alerting the Talban?

In the words of the Geneva Convention, these were “unarmed civilians.” As the debate among them raged one of the Seals expressed concern that if they killed the three it would only be a matter of time before someone came looking for them. If the bodies were found the Taliban would go straight to the media and even the U.S.A. media would “latch on to it and write stuff about the brutish U.S. Armed Forces.” “Was I afraid of the liberal media back in the U.S.A.?,” asks Marcus Luttrell. He answers his own question, “Yes.”

Yet, “to let these guys go on their way was military suicide.” “The military decision [was] obvious. To turn and let them loose would be wrong.”

Unable to get through on the radio for guidance, the four were left alone to determine not only the fate of the three farmers, but their own.  It was a gut-wrenching whirl of contradictory viewpoints. Murder?  “My Christian soul.” Unarmed civilians. Fear of the media. Mission failure or mission success.

What do we do now?

A vote was finally taken and the decision made. In the words of Marcus Luttrell, “a massive mistake” was made. As the Seals watched the three goatherds scamper up the mountain to safety, there was the sense they had done something wrong. Luttrell writes, “It was the stupidest, most southern-fried, lamebrained decision I have ever made.”

Their fears were justified. In just a few pages later I read, “Lined along the top [of the mountain] were between eighty and a hundred heavily armed Taliban warriors, each one of them with an AK-47 pointing downward.”  The ensuing pages are filled with a progressive riveting story of courage, determination, anguish and agonizing defeat.

The mission was lost and, in the words of the book’s title, in the end there was only one lone survivor.

In honor of these four men, here are four lessons for leaders in making decisions.

Lone Survivor: Rated L for Lessons in Leadership

  1. Some decisions don’t come with a win-win option. We can study this story through and through and not find a solution that provides a win-win option. Leaders are often placed into situations where a decision has to be made. In these situations even a decision not to do anything is still a decision. Regardless of what some feel-good inspirational speaker may say, not every situation can end with a win-win. Sometimes—many times—even in the best of outcomes somebody, some thing, some ideal has to suffer. It’s in these situations that leaders must decide—they must decide who suffers loss. Hopefully, such decisions are accompanied by angst and compassion.
  2. Leadership requires a committed willingness to be unjustly criticized. The Monday morning quarterbacks can now blasts the Navy Seals for allowing the goatherds to go free. Yet, if the Seals would have taken the only other option before them they would be lambasted in the media and perhaps forced to spend “many, many years in a U.S. civilian jail alongside murders and rapists.” In many situations, no matter what decision is made, there will be an open door for criticism.
  3. Leaders must embrace continued service while living with the disapproval and ignorance of those who are affected by the leader’s decision. Some people refuse to have a capacity to consider the tough questions. They will only focus on the fallout of your decision while refusing to consider the unintended consequences of their decision of choice. The most difficult decisions, especially those greatly affecting the lives of others, may never be approved. Leaders know that the best decisions are not always the most popular.
  4. Our fear of how others will perceive us can prevent us from making the right decision. The four Navy Seals didn’t hide their fear of being wrongly perceived. It would not have been murder, but it would have been perceived to be the murder of unarmed civilians. Their fear was complicated, not by simply a fear of criticism, but the consequences forced upon them by those who would judge their actions unfairly. Fear of others’ perceptions can prevent us from making the best decisions.  Great leadership is evidenced by the ability to make the right decision in the face of impending backlash.

Lone Survivor is the story being told through a book and shown on the movie screen. However, the same story—with different players and locations—has been repeated multiple times by the men and women in our military. Rarely, is the story told with such fanfare among the general public. Yet, faced with life and death situations they act, not as actors, but as keen decision makers.

We may never be placed into a situation where the consequences of our decision has consequences as magnanimous as the decision faced by these four Navy Seals. Yet, many of us will be called upon to make tough calls which will impact the lives of others. May we wrestle with the contradictory viewpoints and use the best information we have to make the wisest decisions possible without regard for personal glory or recognition.

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In honor of Marcus Luttrell and in memory of Michael Patrick Murphy, Matthew Gene Axelson and Daniel Richard Healy.

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