“You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall.”
Last week, the arrest of a Navy SEAL brought forth a series of news articles and editorials on the circumstances surrounding the arrest, the conduct of the SEAL overseas, his mental health status, and the manner in which Navy Criminal Investigative Services (NCIS) treated the SEAL’s family. While the principle of frequency illusion- the idea that once we are presented new information we start noticing it everywhere—is particularly prevalent on social media due to its algorithmic nature, there appeared to be one opinion piece that was shared most and more often.
Fully in support of the Navy SEAL and in complete condemnation of NCIS, the OpEd covered significant ground culminating in the supposition that there is no such thing as a moral war and our warfighters deserve free reign, no judgement, and zero oversight when conducting warfare on our Nation’s behalf. This article is not about the SEAL, his actions or the actions of his teammates (another SEAL was arrested on Friday), or even the behavior of NCIS. This article is a refutation of the notion that ‘what happens at war, should stay at war.’
The very foundation of that clause is repression, oppression, and in direct opposition to the principles on which our Nation was founded. Warfare is inherently political. As a liberal democracy, the assumption is that strategic decisions are best guided by the will of the people expressed through political representation. Our armed forces are meant to defend society, not define it.
Moreover, from a mental health perspective, too often our combat veterans are implicitly and explicitly told their experiences do not belong in polite company. I was recently told a story by a man, who back from his first tour of duty, wanted to go home and share his experience with his lifelong, hometown friends. Out at a bar, he finally opened up, desiring to connect and unburden himself with those he considered bearers of unconditional love. By the time he finished, all of his friends had wandered off, leaving him alone with his drink and his memories.
The ugly of war must be borne, in part, by the country and population who sends a volunteer force to their fate. If we sanitize combat and fail to address the moral ambiguity of warfare, troop action remains an exceptionally appealing political tool. Moreover, the more distant the violence from the average American, the more our service men and women became nameless, faceless “heroes,” whitewashed into becoming either parodies of themselves or the broken veteran capable of snapping at the smallest provocation.
There are countless examples from history that tout the importance of exposing the reality of warfare to its populace. The exposure of the horror of chemical warfare in the First World War led to the prohibition of the use of chemical and biological agents in war. The devastation and revelation of the aftermath of Nagasaki and Hiroshima resulted in the deterrent doctrine of mutual assured destruction.
It is when we fail to confront our shortcomings that atrocities occur. In August 1967, a 200-page report “Alleged Atrocities by U.S. Military Forces in South Vietnam” was completed. It concluded that many American troops did not fully understand the Geneva Conventions– no further action was taken. In March 1968, the My Lai massacre occurred. Between 347 and 504 unarmed people were killed including men, women, children, and infants. Some of the women were gang-raped and their bodies mutilated. Initial reports claimed substantial enemy forces were killed in a day-long, intense firefight and General Westmoreland, the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) commander, congratulated the unit on their “outstanding job.” It was a year and a half later that the Associated Press, not the military, broke the story.
More recently, US soldiers engaged in the gang-rape and killing of 14-year-old Iraqi girl and the murder of her family in March 2006. Also, initially covered-up by the soldiers, the incident went unnoticed. However, in retaliation, a checkpoint manned by soldiers in the perpetrators’ unit was attacked and overrun. Specialist David Babineau was killed and Privates First Class Thomas Lowell Tucker and Kristian Menchaca were captured, tortured, killed and their bodies mutilated. It was the horror of this incident and the good counsel of a non-commissioned officer, which led to a young soldier reporting the atrocity. However, the reverberations of this incident persisted. In July 2006, the downing of an Apache and a suicide car bomb near the entrance to the Green Zone in Baghdad, were connected to the crime committed by US troops.
For now, human beings are behind every trigger pull, literally and metaphorically. The wearing of a uniform does not erase the humanity, for better or worse, of the person underneath it. Our current process for screening recruits does not take into account potential personality characteristics or moral flaws that might make them unfit to bear the responsibility of carrying equipment solely meant to end human life. For that reason alone, the behavior of our men and women at war should be subject to oversight.
Death, brutality, and violence are hallmarks of armed conflict. There is indeed a massive gray area that exists between the black and white we so desperately want to cling to. In the early years of the Global War on Terror (GWOT), service members were long-trained and prepared for full-spectrum conflict, a remnant of the Cold War mindset. In our collective conscious, our Nation’s enemies were signatories of the Geneva Conventions, fought in uniform under their country’s flag, and understood the law of land warfare. While September 11, 2001, disabused us of that notion, changing an entire standing military’s approach to warfare overnight is, as we found, impossible. Irregular warfare, where state and non-state actors struggle for legitimacy and influence over the population, presents challenges we still struggle to understand and adapt to.
Make no mistake, the American military is the best at what they do. The technology, training, and people ensure we are the mightiest military force the world has ever known. Modern-day forces stand on the shoulders of giants and look to previous generations of warfighters for inspiration. There is a very real psychological reason we love the ‘pinks and greens’ of World War II, even outside their physical appeal. We long to fight an enemy like that, someone ‘worthy’ of our sacrifice. However, we will, and always have, engaged in combat where our Nation send us. Yet, we struggle, when our enemy does not look, act, or behave like us.
Our enemies are smart. They read our doctrine and know our standard operating procedures. They grasp that we are beholden to laws and regulations they do not adhere to. They make use of and exploit the gaps in our flawed rules of engagement. For them, it is a victory, every time, we fail to live up to our potential and our professed ethic. It is what we do in the shadows, when our morale is dwindling and the burden of grief is most heavy, that our actions matter most. In those most human moments of weakness, when anger and frustration drive us, the strength of character of the collective whole must be leveraged to sustain the individual and assist in the restriction of base impulses.
As champions of freedom and representatives of the American way of life, our service members aspire to carry the light of freedom even in the darkest corners of the globe. There is no victory if we do not win with our values. Warfare is ugly, brutal, and devastating, and we honor the men and women who engage in it by holding us all accountable for its declaration, waging, and aftermath. This holds true for both how our service members treat our enemy combatants and conversely, how service members are treated by their senior non-commissioned officers, officers, military branch, and the American public. What happens at war, should not stay at war, and frankly, it doesn’t anyway.