Deep inside the military’s special operations forces there is a crisis of conscience unfolding. The publication of “No Easy Day,” a former Navy SEAL’s account of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, is forcing many to rethink a fundamental point of military honor. How much should America’s commandostalk about what they do?
It’s a debate that goes beyond disclosure of classified information, which is a crime. The discussion now centers on honor, ethics and cultural values inside the ranks.
“This is a battle for the conscience of the SEALs,” a recently retired senior SEAL told me.
He served for decades in operational positions in the force, and has never told me any of the details of his missions. For years he did what every SEAL has done: Go on raids, find targets and, if necessary, kill them. It’s what the nation asks of them.
The question now: Is the SEAL community taking that Tom Clancy superman image and turning it into celebrity? “Was No Easy Day” indeed that last straw?
“It’s a generational thing that is happening to some extent,” the retired SEAL said. Some younger SEALs who have grown up in the age of the Internet and instant online communications simply feel it’s their right to talk about their work, as long as they can claim it’s not classified, he said.
This senior SEAL said he and his peers grew up in a generation where “we don’t talk about what we do,” and he feels it should be kept that way.
In fact, the chief Navy SEAL wrote a scathing e-mail to his 2,500 troops, which began with the fundamental SEAL ethos.
“We do NOT advertise the nature of our work, NOR do we seek recognition for our actions,” said Rear Adm. Sean Pybus.
Pybus told the men he is “disappointed, embarrassed and concerned” that troops are now openly speaking and writing about what they do.
“Most of us have always thought that the privilege of working with some of our nation’s toughest warriors on challenging missions would be enough to be proud of, with no further compensation or celebrity required.
“Today, we find former SEALs headlining positions in a presidential campaign; hawking details about a mission against Enemy Number 1; and generally selling other aspects of NSW training and operations.”
Pybus continued: “For an Elite Force that should be humble and disciplined for life, we are certainly not appearing to be so. We owe our chain of command much better than this.”
Every SEAL, indeed everyone in U.S. military special operations units, knows exactly what Pybus is saying. He’s warning that fundamental trust is at risk. And the risk is on many levels, from the campfire to the Oval Office.