“Yes, makin’ mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep. Is cheaper than them uniforms, an’ they’re starvation cheap.”—“Tommy,” Rudyard Kipling
The Navy SEALS have been lauded and feared, praised and criticized for their work since Vietnam. Forty-five years later, Americans heralded SEAL Team 6 for raiding Osama Bin Laden’s hideout, confiscating valuable intelligence, and killing the world’s most-wanted terrorist. Yet from that time to the present, their training, tactics, gear, and missions have been increasingly under scrutiny. In a lengthy piece that ran last Saturday in the New York Times, a slew of coauthors argue Team 6 is reckless and needs more oversight, a thesis that is both faulty and contradictory, not to mention bunk.
The entire piece is presented as investigative journalism, yet it reads as more of a red herring, a way to disclose sensitive information that isn’t exactly relevant to the story but pimps the author and publication. “Almost everything about SEAL Team 6, a classified Special Operations unit, is shrouded in secrecy — the Pentagon does not even publicly acknowledge that name — though some of its exploits have emerged in largely admiring accounts in recent years. But an examination of Team 6’s evolution, drawn from dozens of interviews with current and former team members, other military officials and reviews of government documents, reveals a far more complex, provocative tale.” This is fancy journalistic-speak for We don’t have mountains of proof, but we do think SEALs are reckless, so we’re trying to prove our fabricated thesis with what we’ve got and call it journalism instead of opinion.
One senior-ranking Army official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that certain publications and journalists are somewhat infamous and despised within the military community, either because of their lackluster work or mysterious ability to reveal what is typically classified information. This leads some to question their sources and methods—even their loyalties. They happily risk our nation’s secrets and military for their own ends.
SEALs Aren’t Perfect; They’re Just the Best
In the piece, military officials admit SEALs have made mistakes, but the claim that they have been, as the tagline reads, “converted into a global manhunting machine with limited outside oversight” seems like an embellishment at best and baseless at worst. (SEALs have become a man-hunting machine, but there is plenty of oversight.) Many soldiers, but especially those associated with special forces, would scoff at such a claim for numerous reasons.
The Times throws out less than a dozen examples of missions that went awry, where a captive was killed instead of rescued, or uncorroborated claims that unarmed children were killed at SEALs’ hands. SEALS have participated in hundreds of missions, yet the Times asserts that oversight doesn’t exist because of a few errors (which remain debatable). In fact, much of the piece, when read closely, is merely a description of training, non-classified missions, and a regurgitation of opinions about SEALs.
Many SEAL missions are planned for months, yet executed in less than an hour. When the SEALs seized two Iraqi offshore oil terminals hours before conventional military attacked Iraq, there were more units involved than ever before. Yet they were able to take control of the space in less than five minutes. Sometimes, as with the Bin Laden raid, it takes under an hour, but things don’t always go according to the plan. This requires each soldier to make life-or-death decisions in seconds.
Not everyone is capable of making such decisions in that split second, yet those who really have no clue want to hold them accountable to an impossible standard of perfection. That is why they are chosen, that is why they are few, and that is why they are the best. Does the New York Times really think this is like the movies? That every soldier looks like Bradley Cooper and every mission is choreographed and directed by Clint Eastwood to ensure cinematic effect and flawless execution? Life is not a movie. Navy SEALs are the best and most highly trained. Like Tom Brady playing a high school football game, their mistakes are few, but they are still fallible human beings. The Times, of all institutions, should understand human fallibility.
Insinuations and Implications Aren’t Argument
Several paragraphs are devoted to SEAL weaponry, particularly the use of primitive, “Last of the Mohicans” (literally, the same craftsman) tomahawks. “‘It’s a dirty business,’ said one former senior enlisted Team 6 member. ‘What’s the difference between shooting them as I was told and pulling out a knife and stabbing them or hatcheting them?’” The assumption is that the Team 6 member’s comment seems too candid, too callous. But isn’t using passenger airplanes to crash into workplaces, while certainly less primitive, just as dirty?
If a robber invaded your home, you might grab a chef’s knife to defend yourself, no matter how primitive, dirty, or bloody it might get. I should hope the most elite unit in the world would use whatever weapon is most effective at the moment, and that our enemies need not know about every single one of them. This portion didn’t even merit space in the piece, it’s so absurd.
The piece claims SEALs recklessly kill civilians. “Team 6 has successfully carried out thousands of dangerous raids that military leaders credit with weakening militant networks, but its activities have also spurred recurring concerns about excessive killing and civilian deaths.” In 8,000 words, their proof? The testimony of former Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai.
Team 6 was assigned to protect him, but he later claimed they “routinely killed civilians in raids.” Karzai openly disdains the U.S. government and used his farewell address last year to slam the U.S. effort there. This doesn’t prove Karzai is lying but it does show pre-existing disapproval. After all, he is just a politician, who is likely to say whatever he can to make his base happy. (That sounds familiar.)
The military official I spoke to shrugged off these allegations and said Afghani locals were paid for “damages” they claimed, payment increased if it was a family member, and the burden of proof was not too hard to reach. It’s unsettling that the word of random Afghan civilians is believed over our nation’s most elite soldiers.
Um, Killing Bad Guys Is SEALs’ Job
Repeatedly, the Times piece describes missions that sound excessive. In Afghanistan, “[b]etween 2006 and 2008, Team 6 operators said, there were intense periods in which for weeks at a time their unit logged 10 to 15 kills on many nights, and sometimes up to 25. ”This is just a testament to their job description and effectiveness. Baseball players play baseball; SEALs kill bad guys. When more bad guys surface, they kill them, too. It’s not like we send them over there to crochet scarves for Afghan women.
The piece asserts “Only Team 6 trains to chase after nuclear weapons that fall into the wrong hands.” Aren’t you glad someone is trained to do that? If that does happen, whether via tomahawk or MP7, clandestine or in broad daylight, with swagger or humility, let’s all hope SEAL 6 takes control of a nuclear weapon before, say Iran. Savvy?
Several ex-SEALs are quoted describing decisions that, in retrospect, seem like grey areas. The piece describes an incident where Team 6 invaded an area occupied by a Taliban leader, who was nowhere to be found. After a “local” official investigated, Team 6 was accused of killing unarmed children. Was proof ever given, or was it a calculated accusation for selfish gain?
Little Understanding of What SEALs Do and Why
It’s difficult to question what each man does on the ground. However, after years of intense training, it comes down to a split-second of best judgment. Is there anyone else you want making that life or death decision? Remember, this is not a video game. There are no extra lives, do-overs, or practicing the same level until you get it right. There is one chance, seconds to decide, your life is on the line, and some journalists can’t wait for you to be human.
The article provides little compelling proof of a need for oversight beyond what’s already in place. It quotes a military command statement that says, “All allegations of misconduct are taken seriously. Substantiated findings are dealt with by military or law enforcement authorities.” But the NYT doesn’t believe them.
In another instance, 11 members of the Navy revealed classified information to promote a computer game, “Medal of Honor: Warfighter.” These members were reprimanded. When two SEALs leaked information following the Bin Laden raid, reprimands and investigations quickly followed. Same thing with another Team 6 sniper, who reportedly killed three unarmed people, including a child, because he felt they “posed” a threat, (instead of proving he was actually threatened). He was forced to leave the team. So where is the lack of oversight?
If anything, the piece proved the public needs, not more oversight, but an understanding of what SEALs do, why they do it, and most importantly (despite the inability to completely verify this, and rightly so,) what catastrophes they have prevented. At the risk of sounding contradictory, provided the few examples cited are completely correct—that some think several SEAL members behaved “outside the law” and recklessly so—logic raises the question: How can the most elite units, who are expected to abide by the most restrictive Rules of Engagement (ROE) in the world, defeat a fragmented, spirited enemy that has no rules?
This isn’t the Revolutionary War, people: We are not British redcoats, standing in formation, firing at squadrons in a single-file line. This is guerilla warfare against a determined enemy. Yes, the United States should uphold the Geneva Convention, and should abide by the ROE, but lawless enemies also require soldiers to do everything they can to deter them.
Increased Visibility Undermines Necessary Secrecy
There is this underlying notion that we, the average public, along with the journalistic elite, should know every single thing going on in this country’s military. “But the bulwark of secrecy around Team 6 makes it impossible to fully assess its record and the consequences of its actions, including civilian casualties or the deep resentment inside the countries where its members operate. The missions have become embedded in American combat with little public discussion or debate.”
Like a sullen five-year-old sent to her room after trying to overhear an adult conversation between her parents, The New York Times folds its arms and demands: Why can’t we know every single action of our most valued and effective military units? Does their “right to petition the government for a redress of grievances” under the guise of the freedom of the press usurp risking our “common defense” and the safety of American citizens? Of course not. What does The New York Times want? For them to fess up to all the risky, unfathomable, dangerous situations SEALS have been in, thereby putting U.S. citizens working in military and intelligence operations around the globe in jeopardy?
The six reporters who drafted this article might want to count themselves lucky they were able to report on such dangerous SEAL missions. Without them, they might be dead. Does that excuse the need for a team of people of the appropriate rank and security clearance to be aware of—and to give consent when necessary—military activity? No. But does The New York Times really think—more importantly, did they find—that not to be the case? The piece, unsurprisingly, leaves that detail conveniently out, leaving astute readers to wonder, and many to assume the former is true, that these men are actual rogue warriors, executing missions without consent or remorse.
This article displays the truth of George Orwell’s adage: “We sleep safely in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would harm us.” Apparently the NYT would wake up, roll over, tell them they did it wrong, and call the police. As one of the commenters on the article stated: “I want to condemn the excesses of units like Seal Team 6, but if I were a hostage, I would hope they were going to show up to rescue me.”