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In Lone Survivor, why didn't they just take their prisoners up the mountain and call for extract? It seems a critical mistake - had they taken the prisoners with them, they could let them go at the time of extraction, not before...

The prisoners were an old man, a young man, and a boy... and some goats. All I can reason is there was some burden of bringing them with but it was not discussed during the decision making dialog.

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  • Apparently, in real life there was no vote - the book it is based on was ghost written by a fiction author. The AAR did not have a voting incident in it. Sep 21, 2023 at 1:51
  • Couple of points, though more IRL than movie: ROE at the time said do not kill unarmed civilians. The team would have known this and observed this. Also, IIRC, the extraction points were swiftly overrun by ACM. Sep 21, 2023 at 2:56

2 Answers 2

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According to the movie script and Wikipedia article, the team was

ordered to execute a counter-insurgent mission to capture Shah.

However, they encountered communication problems.

Upon arriving at their designated location, the SEALs are accidentally discovered by an elderly shepherd and two teenage goat herders. Knowing that if they release them, the herders will likely alert Taliban to their presence, the team is split about whether to execute the herders or not.

Then, the most important thing was to find a spot where they can communicate with their headquarter and safely return as their mission couldn't continue because they were discovered by three Afghans.

The goats sound like they are howling. The vibe on the mountain is becoming deathly serious.

If Taliban soldiers or sympathizers had heard the goat howling, they would have noticed something was wrong. Therefore, the best decision was to move away from them as soon as possible. They couldn't take the prisoners up to the extraction point as it would take more time and goats were howling.

They had only three options; (1) kill them and run away, (2) let them go and run away and (3) tie them (in the movie, they worry about wolves eating them if they tie them up) and run away. Since goats were howling, No. (1) and (3) options would not have made such a big difference. They had to choose No. 2 and got into trouble.

The script shows Luttrell saying:

Luttrell: I don’t know. I don’t like it. We kill them. Yea ok. We kill them. Bury them. They get found. Then what...

Axe: Then what?

Luttrell: I’m just saying. It ain’t gonna be private. Gonna be out there for the whole fucking world. CNN -- SEALs kill goat farmers. I don’t want that legacy, bro. I’m not killing goat farmers. Not feeling that.

...

If we kill these kids, it’s international news. CNN doesn’t care about Rules of Engagement. Seals kill kids. That’s the story. Forever.

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The screenplay is fairly clear on the order of events;

  • The SEALs need to make double time to their potential extraction point, across rough terrain up a mountain.
  • They don't think that these are high value targets, persistently referring to them as "a goat-farmer" and "some kids".
  • The younger of their captors has repeatedly tried to escape and has demonstrated that he is a very fast runner, and will therefore need to be monitored constantly.
  • They're expecting an attack from Taliban irregulars at any moment. Every soldier tasked with keeping an eye on their POWs is someone who isn't able to fight.

That leaves them with three options:

  1. Killing them is unpalatable, primarily because they're such low value prisoners, because of their young age and because of the likelihood of reputational damage.

  2. Tying them up means that they don't know when they'll be found by the Taliban. ("We tie them up, we have no control over when they get found; get free. I will die before I let them dictate when we die." and "Tie 'em up. Move out. Probably take them 15 minutes to get out.") That introduces an unacceptable element of uncertainty.

  3. Letting them go, which will result in the Taliban attacking shortly afterwards.

They choose to free them. This means that they can control the dissemination of the information they hold about the SEALs, and hence can predict when the Taliban will make their assault. Knowing when your opponent is going to make their move is pretty valuable intel when you're outnumbered.


In the source novel the choice was even more stark. The SEALs literally stumbled on a farmer and his kids. There's little or no suspicion that they're Taliban and they debate whether they can kill them (for military reasons) despite the fact that they're very clearly unarmed civilians.

Finally, Mikey and Danny made their way up through the bleating herd and saw immediately what was going on. Like me, they noted that one of the three was just a kid, around fourteen years old. I tried to ask them if they were Taliban, and they all shook their heads, the older men saying, in English, “No Tali-ban...no Taliban.”
...
The question was, What did we do now? They were very obviously goatherds, farmers from the high country. Or, as it states in the pages of the Geneva Convention, unarmed civilians. The strictly correct military decision would still be to kill them without further discussion, because we could not know their intentions.

They debate killing them but decide that if their captors disappear it won't take long for their relatives to come looking for them. Regardless of what they do with the humans (killed or captured), there's no way they can make a hundred goats disappear.

Mikey was thoughtful. “Listen, Marcus. If we kill them, someone will find their bodies real quick. For a start, these fucking goats are just going to hang around. And when these guys don’t get home for their dinner, their friends and relatives are going to head straight out to look for them, especially for this fourteen-year-old. The main problem is the goats. Because they can’t be hidden, and that’s where people will look.

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