1/22/14

Pashtunwali . . .


At its root, Lone Survivor is a "military" movie. It is the retelling of a real mission where four highly-trained, highly-skilled, highly-brave Navy SEALs are sent to verify the presence of a higher-level al-Queda operative, responsible for the death of lots of US soldiers and natives in the mountains of Afghanistan. Once they verified that the earlobe-less guy was there, there was supposed to be a flood of military support to take out the operative. I, as a naive and grateful US citizen presume missions similar to this happen every day in the world as a way to keep my lazy, office working ass safe, warm, and cozy.

If the mission went off without a hitch it would probably still be a thrilling 130 minute ride. That just about nothing went as planned made it a "better" story to tell and Peter Berg (an actor, writer, and director I first became really aware of when he put Friday Night Lights on NBC many years ago) did a great job with the material. I went to see Lone Survivor, candidly, because I knew it would be "about" a military operation as much as Friday Night Lights was "about" high school football . . . barely to not at all. I was not disappointed.

Lone Survivor is made beautifully and intensely. There are scenes in the movie where the SEALs are free-falling down a steep, shale mountain and the "realness" of their bodies striking rocks, trees, branches, and dropping through open air felt so intense that my body actually ached at the thought.

But, like a show not about football, this movie is not about war. In my opinion the movie is about loyalty.

It starts early - the opening credits feature a montage of SEAL training where candidates are challenged in a way that makes my internships and early professional life seem far easier. They vomit, cry, pass out . . . endure. Those that can't put their helmets on the porch and ring the bell three times. The rest "get" to put their lives on the line for you and me in ways that they can't even really tell their most inner circle about. They do it because of the sense of loyalty to each other, their families, and their country.

Once the movie itself starts loyalty becomes an intense theme . . . an engaged SEAL's fiancee wants an Arabian horse for a wedding gift and he wants her to have it. A married SEAL's wife wants sunset honeydew tile for their home and he wants to understand her home renovation craziness. A foot race between friends leads to discussion of "punishment" for losing, a new SEAL fulfills the rites of passage to fully belong. And that is just in the first 10 minutes or so.

Once on the mountain, the four men are truly legion. Not long in to their work, they are discovered by three herders with their own loyalties. The soldiers debate loyalty to themselves, each other, their country, the rules of war, the reputation of all SEALs, the codes of conduct that govern all of the above. Failed communications make the SEAL support teams uneasy in their loyalties and responsibilities to their brothers on the mountain. A shortage of military equipment and the complexities of the mission put loyalty and responsibility in the context of the laws of supply and demand. It is worth noting that a shortage of equipment is the only time in the movie, except the disclosure of the cost of Arabian horses where loyalty is not seen as just a mental/emotional item with limitless reserves.

Later there are intense, long firefights where dozens of men, with loyalty to their nation or the al-Queda forces that rule sections of it, try to kill these strangers without even knowing why they are there. I noticed one thing that struck me - these brave soldiers were all shot at least five or six times each and they fell down mountains but never once did they express the level of their pain or fear of what was going to happen (with the exception of one scene as a soldier is slowly bleeding out). When pain is brought up it is dismissed as something that the soldiers must push trough. The loyalty to survival must trump the loyalty to the body's threshold for pain that makes most of us stop running on the treadmill the minute the cramping begins.

There is MUCH blood shed. Almost too much in a way. I don't like violence and I avoid it in media so I've been re-sensitized in a way so I cringed and groaned a lot during the film. Three of the four SEALs are killed (the name of the movie is LONE Survivor - no need to consider this disclosure a "spoiler") all three in ways that showcase the loyalties that carried the men on to that mountain side. All three died thinking of things they were loyal to (or so Berg tells us).

As the lone survivor wrestles with his own survival  (grammar?) he is ultimately rescued by locals. They endure language barriers, mutual fear and concerns, and even the wounds sustained by the SEAL because of a form of loyalty I had never before heard of . . . pashtunwali.

Pashtunwali is older than religion, the written word, or any cultures that govern this earth today. It is simple and beautiful . . . it is the obligation to be hospitable and loyal to those in need even it if it as your own expense. The men that welcomed this US soldier in to their homes did so knowing they might all die for gesture - and those they loved, too. They clothed, fed, watered, bathed, and protected the soldier while one older man set out with nothing more than a cane and a confirmation of location and identity for the survivor . . . and many paid the ultimate price for this loyalty.

I highly recommend seeing Lone Survivor. It is a tough subject matter. It has its flaws but it is beautiful (the score by Explosions in the Sky is powerful and the closing credits featuring "(We Can Be) Heroes" redone by Peter Gabriel playing over a montage of photos and videos of the SEALs involved in the mission left me sobbing gently in my popcorn bucket). It is humbling to those of us that don't have the physical or mental strength to risk their lives for strangers. It is a great reminder of how hard military life is for all involved and the risks and challenges facing our soldiers.

It is something that will remind you that loyalty in the world is all around and is powerful in many, many ways. It will make you want to know more about the idea of pahtunwali. It will leave you looking at your own life and if and where you have hints of pashtunwali as a giver or recipient. It will make you glad such a thing exists. It will make you want more of it.

To the men and women out there risking their lives and well-being to keep me and other strangers safe . . . THANK YOU!