Jun 13

(To read the rest of our coverage on foreign policy, the military and the presidential primaries, please click here.)

“On Violence, what do you think of Serial’s second season on Bowe Bergdahl?”

We’ve been asked that question a lot, by friends and family, by people in the military and outside it, and by people we meet online. The whole gamut.

But usually we don’t say anything, and we haven’t written anything about Bergdahl since Serial: Season Two dropped. Which feels unusual because we dubbed Bowe Bergdahl’s release one-half of our most thought provoking event of the half year back in 2014, where we, mainly, debunked some instant criticism heaped on President Obama for securing Bergdahl’s release by the Taliban.

So why not address Serial: Season Two sooner? Fear of the rabbit hole. I (Michael C) knew that as soon as I started listening, I’d be flooded with post ideas. And I was right. As I listened to the first episode, I was flooded with ideas, which I’ll now roll out over the next several months.

But before we get there, let’s start simpler. At the beginning. With the theme music. At almost exactly 4 minutes into episode one, the Republican candidate for President says:

“In the old days, deserters were shot, right? [CHEERS]”

Usually, this is where I would let out the snark on Donald Trump and lambast this position. Except I have to be honest: I’ve made this argument. At two separate parties, I prefaced my opinion on Bergdahl--really to convey the seriousness of what he did--by saying that, in the olden times, America executed deserters.

Oops.

To be fair, just because someone is odious doesn’t mean their positions are similarly odious by default. We’ve gone at the reverse of this quite a bit in our “Quotes Behaving Badly” series. Just because Einstein said something doesn’t make it witty and just because Hitler said something doesn’t make it inherently evil.

I can admit though, I was wrong on this point. Just a moment of self-reflection reveals this to be a bad argument. And I have three variations on this theme.

1. We don’t do a lot of things in general we used to do.

For instance, slavery. America, Great Britain and all the colonial powers used to take people from their homes in Africa in chains, ship them across the sea, and hold them in bondage. This bondage was enforced through corporal punishment, torture and murder.

Society also used to sacrifice animals, which used to be a common part of religion, including the Abrahamic tradition. I mean, if you go back far enough in time, religions used to sacrifice people.

In almost every way, in every facet of society, the way we do things now is better than the past. That includes not shooting deserters. So yeah, we used to do a lot of things we don’t do any more.

2. We used to shoot people for a lot of crimes.

For instance, shoplifting, cutting down cherry trees, escaping multiple times as a slave, stealing cattle, or sodomy. So yes, we used to shoot deserters, but we used to shoot people for a lot of crimes we no longer use it for. So it isn’t a great argument.

3. We used to do a lot of things in warfare we don’t do anymore.

We’ll go into this in much more detail, but the most striking thing about the Bowe Bergdahl case, for me, is how much effort was expended in rescuing Bergdahl in the initial months after his desertion and capture. Literally, operations ground to a halt across Afghanistan to find a single soldier.

This just didn’t happen in prior wars. When B-29s flew over Germany in WWII, many of them didn’t return. Either because they were shot down, crashed or got lost. The Allies didn’t have the manpower to hunt down each missing plane. This applied to boats lost at sea and soldiers lost on the ground.

But warfare is different with an all volunteer force. We bring every single soldier back including their bodies. We’ll stop the war effort to do so, even if doing so would likely cause us to lose us the war. While the contemporary force refuses to admit this fact, we did not used to fight wars that way.

So Donald Trump is correct. We used to shoot deserters. We don’t anymore. That’s a good thing.

Jun 06

(To read all of our Lone Survivor posts, please click here. The most important post is "A List of the Mistakes and Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality" so read that first if you are new to the blog or this topic.)

In the last few years, kick-started by the Osama bin Laden killing, Navy SEALs have dominated the military-themed universe. Of course, we were on this way early, starting with our week on Lone Survivor (as part of Eric C’s series on post-9/11 war memoirs). Since then, we’ve catalogued the films, the news stories, the political action committees and the books by and about Navy SEALs. (And listed the political inaccuracies contained therein.)

A new academic paper on this issue lays out the potential costs to the SEAL community. Navy SEAL Lieutenant Forrest Crowell, doing graduate work at the Naval Postgraduate School, has written his Master’s thesis called “Navy SEALs Gone Wild” that analyzes the degradation of the Navy SEAL’s ethos when it comes to publicity.

Here’s the opening paragraph:

“What would have happened if U.S. Navy SEALs had not killed Osama bin Laden, but rather he had been killed by a drone strike? Would President Obama’s administration have handled the publicity differently? Would the name and location of the drone operator’s unit have been released? Would the man or woman who pulled the trigger to release the missile have been lionized in mainstream American culture? Would Fox News have hired this drone operator to be a Fox News contributor, paid to comment on domestic and foreign policy? Would drone operators have materialized from the shadows to write tell-all books, star in movies, blog about sensitive drone operations, criticize the president, and run for political office on the platform that they were drone operators? (Hint: this is what many former SEALs are doing.)"

This is an amazing anecdote and really shows the stark differences between special operators and other soldiers. It also sets up the key challenge addressed by the paper: how can an elite unit that needs secrecy to thrive, survive when former members commoditize their experience?

Apparently the article has made the rounds in relatively small Naval Special Warfare community. This New York Times article describes a bit about that.

Take a read.

Jun 01

(To read all of our Lone Survivor posts, please click here. The most important post is "A List of the Mistakes and Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality" so read that first if you are new to the blog or this topic.)

As we wrote on Monday, Newsweek has a cover article on Mohammad Gulab’s struggles after saving the life of Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, the famed author of Lone Survivor. The piece also questions what actually happened on the mission, including some new information we wanted to highlight.

To start, Gulab’s account differs from Luttrell’s story in a number of ways. He starts by telling a different narrative about how the insurgents in the area discovered the SEALs:

“Gulab maintains the SEALs were far from the stealthy, superhuman warriors described in Lone Survivor. ] They didn’t die because they spared civilians, he says; they died because they were easily tracked, quickly outmaneuvered and thoroughly outgunned. The militants, like many others in the area, heard the helicopter drop the Americans on the mountain, Gulab claims. The next morning, they began searching for the SEAL’s distinctive footprints. The way Gulab heard it from fellow villagers, when the militants finally found them, the Americans were deliberating about what to do with the goat herders. The insurgents held back. After Luttrell and company freed the locals, the gunmen waited for the right moment to strike."

This calls into question the central argument of Lone Survivor (book) that restrictive ROE got the SEALs killed.

The next inaccuracy casts doubts on the severity of the firefight, questioning the number of rounds fired by Luttrell.

“More puzzling: While Luttrell wrote that he fired round after round during the battle, Gulab says the former SEAL still had 11 magazines of ammunition when the villagers rescued him—all that he had brought on the mission.”

In addition to those two new potential inaccuracies, the article provides further evidence that Luttrell’s account inflated both the number of enemy fighters and how many of those fighters the SEALs killed:

““[Luttrell’s claims] are exaggerated nonsense,” says Patrick Kinser, a former Marine infantry officer who participated in Operation Red Wings and read the former SEAL’s after action report. “I’ve been at the location where he was ambushed multiple times. I’ve had Marines wounded there. I’ve been in enough firefights to know that when shit hits the fan, it’s hard to know how many people are shooting at you. [But] there weren’t 35 enemy fighters in all of the Korengal Valley [that day].”

And...

“The battle, Gulab claims, was short-lived. He wasn’t on the mountain with Luttrell but says everyone in the village could hear the gunfire. Gulab scoffs at the estimate by Naval Special Warfare Command that 35 Taliban died in the battle. (A Navy spokesman declined to comment on the matter.) But the Afghan claims the villagers and American military personnel who combed the mountain for the bodies of the dead SEALs never found any enemy corpses. (Andrew MacMannis, a former Marine Colonel who helped draw up the mission and was on scene during the search and recovery effort for the dead SEALs and other military personnel, says there were no reports of any enemy casualties.)"

Here are some other thoughts on the article:

First, especially in light of the rest of the article, one shouldn’t take everything Gulab says as gospel. He’s just one source. And he clearly has a bias, as the rest of the article shows. That said, one shouldn’t take everything Luttrell says as absolutely true, which almost every journalist who interviews him does. Schneiderman took a much more nuanced approach which is missing in a lot of quick hit journalism nowadays.

Second, this is a great article by R.M. Schneiderman, but we really wish he hadn’t repeated the inaccurate details of the mission before casting doubt on them later in the article. Schneiderman questions the basic facts of the story, using the amazing work by Ed Darack and links to our posts on Luttrell’s story changes, but only after he retells Luttrell’s original, and inaccurate, story. First, it’s a long article, so a lot of people just won’t finish it. (Thanks, internet.) Even worse, a lot of research has been done by psychologists that shows how difficult it is to change people’s minds when they are presented with inaccurate information. Some readers, even if they read the facts contradicting Luttrell’s story later in the story, will still be inclined to believe him.

Third, Schneiderman includes one possible explanation for some of the inconsistencies in the book Lone Survivor:

“Robinson says he interviewed Gulab extensively, took notes and double-checked details with the interpreter, but as with Lone Survivor ], he didn’t record the interviews.”

Finally, I, Eric C, remain frustrated at the double standard that the media holds for veterans. Last year, we wrote a piece--that we couldn’t get published--after Brian Williams got in trouble for exaggerating his personal experiences in combat zones. Also last year, two different memoirs (Primates of Park Avenue and On the Run) were accused of inaccuracies, and the accusations were widely covered in the mainstream media, including hundreds of blog posts and even taking up segments on cable news and morning news.

No one, it seems, cares about veterans exaggerating their details, at least not as much as liberal professors, nannies or news anchors. I have theories why, but I’m still disappointed.