Everyone presumably knows by now that Peter Berg‘s Lone Survivor (Universal, 12.27) is the story of the failed Operation Red Wings in Afghanistan (June 2005), which resulted in the deaths of three Navy SEALS on the ground and eight more SEALS plus eight U.S. Army Special Ops guys — 19 in all. It’s being sold as a story about the four Navy SEALS on the ground (Mark Wahlberg as Marcus Littrell, Taylor Kitsch as Lt. Michael P. Murphy, Emile Hirsch as Danny Dietz and Ben Foster as Matthew Axelson) who got shot all to pieces, and about how three of them died nobly and bravely.

But if these guys had been more tough-minded (in the “diamond bullet” sense of that term as conveyed by Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now) and followed some basic strategic wisdom they might not have died at all.

The cause of the Lone Survivor tragedy was a huge tactical mistake made by the four SEALS when they encountered three goat-herders in the mountains. Instead of wasting the goat-herders or tying and gagging them, the SEALS set them free. This sealed their fate. The goat-herders ran right back to their village and told the local Taliban militia, of course, and before you knew it the SEALS were in a disastrous firefight and scared shitless and whispering prayers to their wives and girlfriends.

The obvious retrospect wisdom is that the SEALS should have at least restrained and gagged the locals, but they didn’t want to see their actions characterized as savage and ruthless by some New York Times reporter or on 60 Minutes down the road. The Wiki page reports that “after determining that [the goat-herders] were civilians and not combatants, Lieutenant Murphy had them released, as was protocol in the area of operations at the time, according to rules of engagement.”

Adhering to that “protcol” and those “rules of engagement” (i.e., “civilians are not targets”) killed those SEALS just as sure as you’re sitting there.

Let me explain something. You’re on a covert mission and you run into some locals who might rat you out if you let them go? You hold them captive and you shut them up until your operation is completed or abandoned. You don’t waste them (that’s Lt. Calley territory) but you don’t let them go. What, they might get cold if you leave them tied up in the mountains? Tough. War is not shuffleboard or tiddly-winks. The Breaker Morant guys would have known what to do with those goat-herders.