This Friday will see the release of “12 Strong” about the U.S. Special Forces soldiers who spearheaded the invasion of Afghanistan after the events of September 11th, 2001. The Jerry Bruckheimer production was directed by Nicolai Fuglsig and stars Chris Hemsworth as a fictional Special Forces Captain, likely a composite character such as those seen in other contemporary war flicks such as Black Hawk Down. The movie depicts a stylized version of events that are an important part of Special Forces history and perhaps one of the crowning achievements in the War on Terror.
Of course the movie also carries some baggage and controversy, some of which may be warranted, but others are simply rumors that have spun out of control on the internet. One of the stories going around in Special Forces circles is that 5th Special Forces Group soldiers who participated in the 2001 invasion were kicked off the set or that one stormed off it himself after a confrontation with a Vietnam-era Navy SEAL turned technical advisor. SOFREP reached out to the actual former SEAL who did the technical advising on the film as well as two former Green Berets who have situational awareness of what was happening on set, this rumor turns out to be just that. These events simply did not take place.
From what SOFREP was told, the 5th Group Green Berets who actually participated in the events that 12 Strong attempts to depict were brought on set late in the game. The script had already been written and the movie was well into production so by then it was too late to make any big changes. In the end, the 5th Group veterans had little if any input into how the film was made. When the script was first submitted to SOCOM it was initially laughed at because it was so inaccurate, but in the end it was blessed off on by the Pentagon for the simple reason that it makes Special Forces seem really, really cool. The book that the film is based on, written by Doug Stanton, is also said to be wildly inaccurate according to SOFREP’s sources.
The real life horse soldiers were not consulted when the script was written. In the end, 12 Strong is a cowboy movie that could do for Special Forces what Top Gun did for aviators or what Act of Valor did for Navy SEALs.
The moniker, “‘Based on true events’ leaves the door open to make whatever movie you want,” Scott Zastrow, who served as a Special Forces medic (18D) on ODA 555 during the invasion, told SOFREP. “Already saw it at the Tampa screening,” Zastrow continued describing the movie as, “entertaining and full-on Hollywood. Never expected it to be remotely accurate. Still a better love story than Twilight.”
Back in the day there were perhaps less than a 100 Special Forces soldiers and other U.S. government employees who were inserted into Afghanistan for the invasion. Many of them continue to work for the government or have reputations they need to maintain in the community and won’t speak out publicly. Privately, they expressed to SOFREP that they are not offended by the film in anyway and acknowledge that it is a fun movie that takes liberties with the facts for the enjoyment of the audience.
What some of the Special Forces veterans find interesting however is that only two real life Green Berets are mentioned in the film. The two named Green Berets are both officers, John Mulholland who was the 5th Special Forces Group commander at the time and Max Bowers who commanded 5th Group’s 3rd Battalion. The actual horse soldiers, those who served on the ODAs that inserted into Afghanistan are not named supposedly because the studio did not want to have to pay them for the permission to do so.
Who gets named and who doesn’t exposes a rift between the senior ranking officers and essentially everyone else. Early in the War on Terror, the Special Forces Colonels blocked attempts that the media made to interview those who had boots on the ground using the excuse that there were PERSEC issues involved that would put their lives in jeopardy. In this way, senior officers got to go on television and claim credit for what the ground pounders felt was a pretty ill-planned invasion which left the ODAs to improvise and overcome on their own initiative. Of course, many Green Berets could care less who gets credit for what, but why the real life horse soldiers are not mentioned shows who gets the privilege of writing the history books and it isn’t those who had boots on the ground.
“They don’t mention Max Bowers losing an MBTR [military radio] and shutting down satellites for the whole theater while we were in active combat,” Zastrow commented about the film. Other Green Beret veterans mention Bowers later being removed from Afghanistan due to a separate incident at Mazar-i-Sharif. From the a technical standpoint, the film appears to have dropped the ball as the gear used is incorrect, reflecting SOF around 2005 rather than in 2001 when Special Forces soldiers had LCE’s and really basic tac-vests. This is par for the course with Hollywood and very few movie goers will ever know the difference.
Controversies and rivalries aside, 12 Strong sets out to positively depict some real life American soldiers who did something incredible. These 12-man Special Forces teams were inserted into Afghanistan not long after the 9/11 attacks, fighting for their country and taking charge of the situation when most Americans were frightened and confused. Some of these soldiers even rode into combat on horseback. On a day-to-day basis they survived by their wits, their training, and with teamwork. These Green Berets overcame every obstacle thrown in front of them and set a high watermark for how modern unconventional warfare is conducted, one which stands to this day.
It is too bad that Hollywood didn’t make that movie and produced a work of creative fiction instead. A lot of what really happened when CIA officers and US Special Forces invaded Afghanistan remains a hidden, unwritten history. More can be learned about what really happened during the invasion of Afghanistan by reading SOFREP’s in-depth interview with Scott Zastrow.
(Lead image courtesy of Warner Brothers)