On a stark mountaintop in Afghanistan, Leading Petty Officer Luttrell and three Navy SEAL teammates found themselves having just such a discussion back in 2005. Dropped behind enemy lines to kill or capture a Taliban kingpin who commanded between 150 and 200 fighters, the SEAL team was unexpectedly discovered in the early stages of a mission whose success, of course, depended on secrecy. Three unarmed Afghan goatherds, one a teenager, had stumbled across the Americans' position, presenting the soldiers with an urgent dilemma: What should they do?If they let the Afghans go, the Afghans would probably alert the Taliban to the their whereabouts. This would mean a battle in which the Americans were outnumbered by at least 35 to 1. If the Americans didn't let the goatherds go -- if they killed them, because there was no way to hold them -- the Americans would avoid detection and, most likely, leave the area safely. On a treeless mountainside far from home, four of our bravest patriots came to the ghastly conclusion that the only way to save themselves was forbidden by the ROE. Such an action would set off a media firestorm, and lead to murder charges for all.
It is agonizing to read their tense debate as recounted by Marcus Luttrell, the "lone survivor" of the disastrous mission. Each of the SEALs was aware of "the strictly correct military decision" -- namely, that it would be suicide to let the goatherds live. But they were also aware that their own country, for which they were fighting, would ultimately turn on them if they made that decision. It was as if committing suicide had become the only politically correct option. For fighting men ordered behind enemy lines, such rules are not only insane, they're immoral.
The SEALs sent the goatherds on their way. One hour later, a sizeable Taliban force attacked, beginning a horrendous battle that resulted not only in the deaths of Mr. Luttrell's three SEAL teammates, but also the deaths of 16 would-be rescuers -- eight additional SEALs and eight Army special operations soldiers whose helicopter was shot down by a Taliban RPG.