Putting the Warriors on Terror on Trial
“It is natural for mankind to set a higher value on courage then timidity, on activity than prudence, on strength than counsel.” —Montesquieu, “The Spirit of the Laws”
They are undoubtedly America’s favorite, most lauded shock troops. More, even, than the Marines or the Army’s Green Berets and Rangers, Navy SEALs have captured America’s (and, certainly, Hollywood’s) attention. Despite their small ranks, they are nothing less than the face of the post-9/11 U.S. “war on terror.” It was the SEALs, after all, who killed Osama bin Laden, prompting spontaneous, nationwide chants of “USA! USA!” Sure, the Army and Marines do most of the fighting and dying, but there is something romantic in the collective American mind about those SEALs.
Yet currently, in the wake of a couple of major scandals and seemingly credible allegations of serious war crimes, it’s as though the entire organization is on trial. Maybe that’s for the best.
What unfolded in the increasingly absurd and always disturbing trial of Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher was nothing less than a war for the soul of the whole special operations community. Still, the minutiae and singularity of the individual case masked the larger questions and conclusions worth drawing from the entire spectacle: Why is the U.S. fighting abroad? Who, exactly, is doing that fighting? What happens when aggressive, highly trained commandos are repeatedly shipped abroad and given immense leeway and power over foreign lives and deaths?
These, to name only a few, are key queries to consider regarding the Gallagher case and a separate scandal in which another SEAL recently pleaded guilty to a 2017 hazing attack in Mali that resulted in the strangulation death of an Army Green Beret. In the second case, why were these special operators in remote West Africa in the first place? The answer is relevant to the tragic incident itself.
As for Gallagher, he was accused and acquitted of shooting an elderly civilian and a young girl without cause, and of killing a teenage Islamic State prisoner with his knife, then convicted of posing with the captive’s body as a trophy before texting out boastful photos. His war crimes trial increased in absurdity as Gallagher’s SEAL team divided into two camps (for and against the chief) and testified against each other. This marked a rare breach of a kind of special operations team code of silence, one that bears remarkable similarity to the domestic police “blue wall” of silence. That Gallagher was ultimately turned in by fellow SEALs, who proceeded to publicly testify against him, is telling, and uncommon, lending, I felt, weight to the prosecution’s case.
Look, I was a military man—though not a part of special operations tribe—and worked closely with both Green Berets and SEALs, particularly while undertaking village stability operations (forming government-friendly village militias, essentially) in Kandahar, Afghanistan. As such, I was perhaps less surprised when the testimony of the SEALs and some Marines in the Gallagher trial not only seemed to implicate the chief in war crimes but inadvertently exposed a prevailing culture of poor discipline and indecency among the team—particularly a widespread proclivity to take “cool guy” photos with enemy or civilian corpses. The practice is gruesome, disturbing and highly common—and, though I never partook in that particular morbidity, I’m certain most Iraq and Afghan war combat vets would agree with me regarding its banality.
Had he been convicted, Gallagher would certainly have represented an extreme case, but the fact that so many military comrades and armchair warriors at home backed him demonstrates that the problem runs deep. It raises certain questions, along with some disconcerting answers. For example, Gallagher was on his eighth—count them, eighth—deployment in a 19-year career. Special operators such as he and his team make up just 2% of the U.S. military, but since the troop reductions in Iraq and Afghanistan were enacted in 2011 and 2014, respectively, they increasingly the bear most of the burden for fighting an absurdly unwinnable fight that now stretches from West Africa to Central Asia.
Too many deployments, too much extended action and, critically, too much power have been entrusted to these men. There are bound to be excesses, the sort of wartime criminality that does the “terrorist” recruiting sergeant’s job for him. Just as too many of Gallagher’s—and other special operators’—leaders turned a blind eye to the inevitable murmurs about wrongdoing, too many folks at home have simply patted U.S. commandos on the back and then ignored what was done in America’s name. In such an atmosphere of citizen apathy and unwarranted military adulation, all during nearly two decades of ill-defined, indecisive wars, it’s amazing that there aren’t more (publicized) incidents of individual cruelty (leaving aside, for a moment, the inherent savagery of waging air and ground combat in unnecessary wars of choice).
Regardless of the verdict in the case, it’s a safe prediction that a shocking portion of the American populace felt a peculiar sympathy with Gallagher and the other accused special operators. That’s because, as Montesquieu astutely noted in the 18th century, mankind relishes warriors more than it should, more than almost any other profession. This military man, at least, thinks it a pity. Nonetheless, I’m in a tiny minority by taking such a position. And perhaps it should come as little surprise to me. After all, when Lt. William Calley ordered and enthusiastically took part in the massacre of hundreds of Vietnamese civilians in the village of My Lai, a staggering 77% of Americans polled thought he’d been railroaded by the military justice system.
President Trump is unlikely to know many details about the My Lai massacre or the ins and outs of the charges against Gallagher. But make no mistake: Trump and his hawkish cheerleaders have the pulse of the American people on these issues, on the dark side of patriotism. That’s why the president was reportedly considering a pre-conviction pardon for Gallagher. Trump knew he wouldn’t lose any political points defending a military man, even a potential monster. Trump is hardly sophisticated, but he’s got the street con’s intuition that Americans’ sense of exceptionalism and reflexive adulation of the military lacks complexity or nuance. Even an accused war criminal can be sympathetic, so long as he’s American—one of ours.
It is all a consequence of waging forever war; of what happens to the soul of an (ostensible) republic when a select minority—a Praetorian Guard of sorts—is trusted with the management of violence the world over while the populace proverbially sleeps.
This is far from a defense or apology for Gallagher. I’m fairly certain we’d loathe one another. Still, it must be said—the uncomfortable takeaway from all this barbarity: Boys will be boys (although they mostly are men in the special operations community), and they are capable of much evil when unrestrained and perpetually deployed into worldwide combat. Aggressive, highly trained and hypermasculine warriors like the SEALs ought to remain metaphorically sealed behind glass labeled “break only in case of emergency,” not utilized, as they have been, as the go-to tool for waging normalized and increasingly mundane global imperial war.
My gut tells me that Gallagher and a sizable portion of other special operators have run off the rails through repeatedly fighting in foreign locales. The SEAL community won’t like me weighing in, but more oversight and control over them seems necessary. What’s more vital is that American policymakers follow a basic adage: Don’t “break the glass” and unleash these highly trained killers unless there’s a damn good reason and a clear end state. Because once they’re unbridled, America owns all that unfolds, and it’s often ugly. It’s certainly far darker than the sanitized military Independence Day parade that Donald Trump has planned.
Only here, too, Trump is betting on a messy truth: that most Americans relish the patriotic spectacle over the dark reality of war and its consequences. And he’s right, once again.Wait, before you go…
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