By now, most SOFREP readers, and indeed, most Americans, are familiar with the story of ‘Lone Survivor,’ subject of a bestselling book and popular Hollywood movie. For those who are not, it’s essentially about a four-man SEAL element in Afghanistan in 2005 whose mission was compromised, forcing them to evade a large Taliban force pursuing them. While the book and movie appear to depict a seemingly rare, and surely tragic, chance encounter between a group of civilian goat herders and a U.S. Navy SEAL surveillance and reconnaissance (SR) unit—which ultimately resulted in the deaths of 19 U.S. service members—such a scenario is unfortunately more common than most realize.

In a 2000 article titled “Tactical Medicine Training for SEAL Mission Commanders,” author, retired Navy SEAL, and medical doctor Frank K. Butler, Jr. described the need for a tactical simulator to assist SEAL officers in mission planning. Such a simulator, Butler suggested, would help SEAL mission commanders think through difficult scenarios they might face on the battlefield, thus better preparing them for the rigors of command.

One such scenario referenced in Butler’s article was the so-called ‘unplanned encounter’ between a special operations element and an unarmed non-combatant on the battlefield. In this scenario, a local civilian comes upon a SEAL element in the field, discovers the team in a hide site or clandestine observation post, and is subsequently detained on site by the SEAL unit. The unit must then decide what to do with the noncombatant, who, if released, might divulge the location of the SEAL unit to enemy forces in the area. Does this scenario sound familiar?

Over the past 30 years, such unplanned encounters have occurred relatively frequently, and have often resulted in tragic outcomes. It was, in fact, roughly five years after Butler’s article was published that Petty Officer Marcus Luttrell’s four-man SEAL surveillance and reconnaissance mission was compromised by the three local goat herders in Afghanistan.

The Afghan civilians came across the element in its hide site. After detaining the men, the SEAL element commander, Lt. Michael Murphy, gave his team their options:

“We’ve got three options…number one, we could just kill them quietly and hurl the bodies over the edge…number two is we kill them right here, [and] cover ‘em up as best we can with rocks and dirt…number three, we turn ‘em loose, and still get the hell out, in case the Taliban come looking.”—Marcus Luttrell with Patrick Robinson, “Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10.”

Some of the other members of the ‘Lone Survivor’ SEAL SR element also wrestled with how to deal with the goat herders. Luttrell described that he knew the right tactical decision could kill them, but that the right moral decision, according to his self-described “Christian soul,” was to spare the unarmed men. In other words, the scenario pitted the moral exigencies of war against both tactical necessity and self preservation.

The SR team ultimately gave in to the moral imperative, against the opinion of at least one team member, and freed the goat herders. It would end up costing three of the four SEALs, as well as 16 others who would later try to rescue them, their lives. The goat herders informed an approximately 100-man Taliban force of the SEALs’ location, and the Taliban force overwhelmed the four-man unit and shot down a rescue helicopter that came to exfiltrate the besieged element.