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.”

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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.

The SEAL SR team’s morally courageous, and most would say, morally correct, decision cost many lives. There is no doubt that the moral rightness of the SEALs’ decision is small consolation to the families and loved ones they left behind, and that at least some of those loved ones, if not all, would clearly have preferred to sacrifice the lives of the goat herders for the lives of the American servicemen they lost.

In addition to the ‘Lone Survivor’ episode, a number of unpublished accounts of the unplanned encounter scenario are scattered throughout military operational files and mission reports in U.S military archives. In 1983, a SEAL platoon in Grenada was compromised by a local civilian. During Operation Desert Storm, a Special Forces ODA was come upon by a local Iraqi civilian, which forced the ODA to abort the operation after freeing the noncombatant. Both missions were compromised.

The first modern, relatively full account of the results of an unplanned encounter between a special operations unit and a noncombatant on the battlefield was provided in the book “Bravo Two Zero,” by Andy McNab. In his account, McNab explained what happened to his SCUD-hunting, eight-man British SAS patrol during Operation Desert Storm in January 1991, after the patrol was compromised by a young Iraqi boy.

The patrol released the Iraqi child after he discovered the team, at which time the boy then reported the SAS unit’s whereabouts to local Iraqi forces. The Iraqi forces then hunted down the SAS patrol, capturing four members and killing a fifth. Three others died as a result of hypothermia while evading capture.

What should the SAS patrol have done with the Iraqi boy? Clearly, letting him go after he came upon the patrol’s location resulted in the deaths of three British SAS troops, the torture of four others, and the compromise of the mission. However, what was the alternative? Should the patrol have killed the boy on the spot to avoid compromise? Unfortunately, that tactic was used in the more recent past.

In the spring of 2007, during Operation Iraqi Freedom, a U.S. Army sniper team was compromised by an Iraqi civilian south of Baghdad, Iraq, and the leader of the team ordered one of his soldiers to shoot the civilian, who at the time was posing no immediate threat to the soldiers. According to reports, one of the snipers shot the Iraqi in the head with a pistol as the man lay on the ground, a prisoner of the sniper team. The team leader was later found guilty of murder in a U.S. military trial, and sentenced to 10 years for the killing.

Many would argue, and some have done so in a vociferous manner, that the sniper team had no choice but to kill the civilian, so as to protect their team. Why should American forces, they would argue, subject themselves to possible compromise and a resulting engagement with a superior enemy force, to save the life of one civilian? They need only point to the above-described episode of the British SAS patrol, or the ‘Lone Survivor’ episode, to make their point.

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In all of the above examples, the special operations unit involved was faced with choosing from the following:

  1. Release the captured noncombatant and risk subsequent compromise of mission and personnel
  2. Kill the noncombatant, and thus violate the moral imperative to spare civilian lives in warfare whenever possible
  3. Restrain the noncombatant, and thus effectively, possibly risk the death of the civilian due to environmental or other causes

This appears to be, in other words, a scenario with no good solution. A commander is faced with either causing the death of a civilian, whether directly or indirectly, or making a decision that could result in the death of the troops under his or her command, and mission failure. Surely, there must be a third, better option that preserves the life of a civilian noncombatant and the success of the mission and the lives of the military personnel involved.

In fact, such a possible solution was referenced in Dr. Butler’s article, when the author made note of the possible use of time-release handcuffs that might be applied to the civilian, and which would then release him or her at a designated preset time in the future. In fact, Butler went on to patent, and market to the military, such a device, though it has yet to be fielded in any meaningful way by any U.S. military units. (Full discretion: This author was involved in the marketing of the device.)

The overarching point, however, is that an analysis of this type of moral dilemma can help mission commanders plan to face such a scenario, before launching an operation, and thus also possibly allow them to avoid it altogether.

There is a pressing need for this type of probing look at the moral problems faced in warfare, so that such an inherently gruesome undertaking can be pursued in as ethical and moral a fashion as is possible. In this way, American forces can accomplish their missions while simultaneously acting in a fashion commensurate with the morals of the society they represent and serve.