Sep 15

You might have two thoughts after reading the title to this post. First, if you’re a truly dedicated On V disciple, you might be thinking, “Didn’t you already debunk this word three years ago in "Getting Orwellian: Contractors, Mercenaries, Private Security and Terrorists’?” Second, you might be thinking, “What’s wrong with the word ‘terrorist’?”   

To the first question, I (Eric C) didn’t remember writing about it. And that post was about the American media applying the word “terrorist” to every combatant in an active war zone. (In short, a soldier/insurgent probably isn’t a terrorist in an active war zone. Especially a civil war.)

To the second question, there’s nothing wrong with using the word “terrorist”, if you’re describing the actions of terrorists. A terrorist is someone who uses extreme acts of violence to achieve political, religious or ideological goals, usually targeting civilians. It’s someone who, outside of warzones, engages in ideological violence. Simple, right?

Except, in a two week span, I saw three anti-democratic world leaders use the word “terrorist” to delegitimize legitimate political opponents.

First, Egypt:

“Egypt is set to put 20 journalists, including four foreigners, on trial Thursday on terror-related charges in a case with ominous implications for freedom of expression under the military-backed interim government.”

The interim cabinet in Egypt labeled journalists--who weren’t using violence--as terrorists. Is the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization? I mean, yes, at times. They were also the ruling government of Egypt before a military coup, which throws the whole thing on it’s head. I mean, a government wouldn’t use terrorism against itself, right? What would that even look like?

Next up, Ukraine:

On January 22nd protesters hungry for action and tired of empty talk from both the government and the opposition clashed with the police, lobbing Molotov cocktails...Russian state television portrayed the protesters as Western-sponsored radicals and terrorists…

“... Sergei Glazyev, an adviser to Mr Putin on Ukraine, openly called on Mr Yanukovych to use force against “terrorists” to prevent chaos.

Again, anti-government protesters, some of which were violent, were labelled as terrorists, both by the Kremlin and eventually by the ousted president. But the vast majority of the protesters were peaceful. And ethnic Russians, protesting Kiev, eventually used violence themselves. Why didn’t Russia label them as terrorists?

Finally, Syria. As CBS wrote it up in their interview with Bashar al Assad, “Instead of civil war, Assad said, Syria is facing ‘terrorism through proxies,’ referring to foreign backing of the rebellion against his regime.” And that’s completely wrong--wait, no, that may be completely accurate. Islamic extremists associated with terror groups are fighting in Syria. And many of them are backed by Saudi Arabian donors. Then again, some fighters opposing Assad are legitimate freedom fighters engaged in a civil war.

(The amazing thing about the rise of ISIS is how so many of the things we thought we knew about the world since 9/11 had to be reversed. If America had intervened against Assad, we’d have been fighting alongside Sunni extremists (terrorists) who saw fit in the last few weeks to chop off the heads of journalists held hostage. Also, when does a terrorist group become a nation state? Do nation states count as terror groups?)

What matters isn’t that world leaders have misused the word “terrorist”; it’s why. Like every other Kanye album, 9/11 changed the game. Terrorism became America’s first concern, especially internationally. Because America cared so much, and because we hold so much sway, terrorism--instead of larger, economic global progress--became the number one concern of the rest of the world as well. We made it matter.

And now that word is being used against us. We only have ourselves to blame.

Aug 26

A few years ago, I stopped listening to the PRI show Studio 360 because it just wasn’t fair. In particular, it held America to absurd standards that it didn’t hold the rest of the world to.

They used an editor taking the N-word out of Huckleberry Finn as an example of censorship one week, then in a later episode, discussing Iranian censorship, Kurt Andersen said, “Again, it is wonderful for me to see that the ambiguities that are so rife throughout this situation...it’s an authoritarian regime, yes, but they have to allow this, then they find they have to allow this...I adore when things are not as black and white as they are portrayed in the media.” In short, Iran’s censorship isn’t so bad.

Tell that to Jahar Panafi.

I bring this up, because, in the last few weeks, you could accuse us of doing the same thing. We’ve been pointing out dozens of examples of American hate speech against Islamic people without providing examples of Islamic hate speech. So let’s be clear: American hate speech has nothing on the hate speech of much of the Islamic world.

It took a lot of searching to find mainstream examples of anti-Muslim hate speech, mainly because Americans reject hate speech. To find examples, I had to search the fringes of society. (Not surprisingly, I found most of the examples on conservative milblogs. Take that for what you will.) But I can find examples of Islamic hate speech from just watching The Daily Show. Or say, listening to a speech by the former President of Iran.

Islamic extremists use one word above all others to express their hatred of the Westerners and the west: infidel, or “Kafir”.

Islamic extremists use this term to dehumanize their enemies. From Christopher Hitchens, “But in practice, Islamic fanatics operate a fascistic concept of the ‘pure’ and the ‘exclusive’ over the unclean and the kufir or profane.” Extremists use this term to separate one group (Muslims) from another (non-Muslims or “infidels”). (Though we aren’t Arabic scholars, we know that kufir has religious meanings that extremists often distort.) One would only use this phrase if they wanted to permanently cut themselves off from another group. Terms like these keep conflicts going, preventing dialogue and peace.

Except for hateful extremists, who else would use this term?

Oh yeah, soldiers.

Don Gomez of Carrying the Gun has covered this topic pretty extensively. In short, in an ironic reclaiming of the word, soldiers have embraced the term kafur and its English translation “infidel” through brands like Major League Infidel or Infidel Strong. Gomez neatly summarizes the problem with this “reclaiming”:

“My problem with this phenomenon is twofold: 1) whether people mean it or not, the word casts a conflict in religious terms, which is what we don’t want, and 2) the brand is worn to be antagonistic, not simply factual.”

(Don later wrote a second and third post on this term.)

We have three more thoughts on soldiers embracing the word “infidel”:

1. In English, infidel actually means “Not a Christian”. Seriously, we looked it up. From Wikipedia, in August of 2014:

The word originally denoted a person of a religion other than one's own, specifically a Christian to a Muslim, a Muslim to a Christian, or a Gentile to a Jew. Later meanings in the 15th century include "unbelieving", "a non-Christian" and "one who does not believe in religion" (1527).

Actually, let’s just go to Merriam Websters’ definition. The first expanded definition: “one who is not a Christian or who opposes Christianity”.

So anyone wearing the word “infidel” is actually defining themselves as “not a Christian”. Oops.

2. This blog is aimed at Americans and American soldiers. Yeah, I wrote a whole introduction about how we were going to focus on Islamic hate speech this week, but that doesn’t make a ton of sense, does it? Islamic extremists don’t read our blog; soldiers do. We’re writing this blog to improve the U.S. military and U.S. foreign policy.

3. Embracing the term infidel doesn’t help us win the wars we were fighting. From the original Military.com article that inspired Don:

“Sulayman, a Lebanese American who commanded a Marine infantry platoon in Iraq’s Anbar Province in 2008, said he had one Marine who made Kill Hadji stickers.

‘When your Iraqi interpreter sees that, what does he think? Your partners in the Iraqi army -- when they see that, what are they going to think?’ he would ask his Marines. ‘You wouldn't walk up to sergeant so-and-so and drop the N word on him.’

"...Sulayman said he doesn't think the companies that market infidel products to troops mean any harm. He also said he's certain that Florida pastor Terry Jones didn't mean any harm when he oversaw a public burning of a Quran last year because he believed it promotes violence.

"It’s his right, Sulayman said. But is it really helpful?"

No, it isn’t. This is the single biggest argument against soldiers embracing or co-opting this term. They are actually preventing peace and reconciliation.

It doesn’t matter if Muslims use hate speech, because we can be better than our enemies. We can be the bigger person. We can apologize when we make mistakes; we can turn the other cheek; we can treat others the way we wish we were treated; we can be the change we want to see in the world. Yeah, those are all touchy-feely idealistic (and mostly Christian) ideas…

But they also work.

Aug 18

Everyone knows the easiest, most annoying way to win an argument on the internet: compare your opponent to Hitler. (Also known as Godwin’s Law, here are two shining examples from pop culture: Troy in my favorite monologue from the third season of Community, “I use comparisons to Hitler to win arguments on the internet at the drop of a hat.” Next, Emily Nussbaum writing about Veep, “The show has more Hitler comparisons than an Internet flame war.”)

Over the last few weeks, we pointed out examples of people--mainstream and not--demonizing America’s extremist enemies with terms like “barbarian”, “savage”, and “primitive”. But those examples explicitly denigrate and demonize our enemies. Another term has the same effect, only more subtly and with a veneer of intellectual rigor:

Islamo-fascism

“Islamofascism” (and its close relative “Islamism”) compares extremist Muslims to Hitler. All in a single word. It’s a one word example of Godwin’s Law.

To start, let’s break the terms down. And they need to be broken down, because as words, “Islamofascism” and “Islamism” make no sense.

We’ll begin with the proponents of the phrase trying to defend these terms. Christopher Hitchens advocated for the term here, writing that both fascism and Islamism love empire, oppose intellectualism, and display anti-modern, anti-gay, anti-women and anti-semitic tendencies. Except that, as Hitchens writes, “There isn't a perfect congruence. Historically, fascism laid great emphasis on glorifying the nation-state and the corporate structure.”

In other words, the most important part of fascism--the importance of the state over all else--is also the biggest difference between it and so-called Islamofascism--which is based on a love of religion over all else. Fascism is, primarily, a form of government, an authoritarian/totalitarian dictatorship. Islamofascism most commonly refers to a group of non-state actors--al Qaeda--which just seems especially silly. Though al Qaeda dreams of a caliphate (a Sunni Caliphate), they don’t actually represent a state...yet.

Of course, in the last few months, Islamic extremists, for the first time, took over and maintained parts of Iraq and Syria, but the term Islamo-facism existed well before Islamic extremists started their first, completely unrecognized and fragile nation-state. And those extremists clearly value religion over the idea of a nation.

As On V fave Geoffrey Nunberg wrote, this particularly didn’t apply to Iraq:

Actually, the term "Islamo-fascism," if taken literally, doesn't make sense. The "fascist" part might fit Saddam Hussein's Iraq, with its militaristic nationalism, its secret police and its silly peaked officers' hats. But there was nothing "Islamo" about the regime; Iraq's Baathists tried to make the state the real object of the people's devotion.”

The next problem with Islamofascism is that it exaggerates the threat posed by Islamic extremists. Hitler and Nazi Germany actually did threaten millions and millions of people. They threatened all of Europe, if not the globe. As Paul Krugman’s sarcastically wrote about this comparison, “Yep, a bunch of lightly armed terrorists and a fourth-rate military power — which aren’t even allies — pose a greater danger than Hitler’s panzers or the Soviet nuclear arsenal ever did.”

Which brings us to the third problem: this term lumps way too many people together under one umbrella term. Katha Pollitt of The Nation explains:

"Islamo-fascism" conflates a wide variety of disparate states, movements and organizations as if, like the fascists, they all want similar things and are working together to achieve them. Neocons have called Saddam Hussein and the Baathists of Syria Islamo-fascists, but these relatively secular nationalist tyrants have nothing in common with shadowy, stateless, fundamentalist Al Qaeda--as even Bush now acknowledges--or with the Taliban, who want to return Afghanistan to the seventh century; and the Taliban aren't much like Iran, which is different from (and somewhat less repressive than) Saudi Arabia--whoops, our big ally in the Middle East! Who are the "Islamo-fascists" in Saudi Arabia--the current regime or its religious-fanatical opponents? It was under the actually existing US-supported government that female students were forced back into their burning school rather than be allowed to escape unveiled.

Which brings us to the fourth problem, “the Saudi Arabia problem”. If one country represents both Islamic theology and dictatorship, it’s Saudi Arabia. Why does Saudi Arabia take the crown from Iran? Because Iran has a working parliamentary system with elections. Saudi Arabia doesn’t have anything close to that, and oppresses women and minorities way more than Iran.

They’re also one of America’s closest allies.   

Some pundits--like Christopher Hitchens above--fear a pan-Islamic front. They believe that all Islamic nations could rise up together to oppose, and possibly destroy, the Western world. Except that Muslims aren’t uniting; they’re dividing. Dexter Filkins, on the New Yorker’s “Political Scene” podcast, (somewhat accurately) predicted an all out Sunni/Shiite civil war. Instead of the world facing a unified front, America’s greater concern would be a multi-state religious war...between Shia and Sunni Muslims.

Which just goes to the point of the whole thing. If there is a giant Sunni/Shiite rift in the religion of Islam--even if there isn’t a gigantic pan-national intra-Islamic war--it doesn’t make sense to use one term to bunch all extremist Muslims together. Unless you want to dehumanize and demonize them.

America has enemies. Some of them are Islamic, but we can’t group them under one umbrella term. Especially an umbrella with overt references to America’s number one historical enemy, Hitler--who superseded the British for Northerners and Abraham Lincoln for formerly confederate states--as America’s number one enemy. It prevents any sort of dialogue or bridge building.

Instead of “Islamo-fascism” we should use what we always have: Islamic extremists. This phrase does two things: 1. Identifies a group (or groups) that uses violence to achieve a myriad of political goals. 2. Separates the extremists from the rest of the Muslim world.

Which is much more accurate.

Aug 12

(To read the rest of our posts on language and war--our “Getting Orwellian” series--please click here.)

To prove that many (too many) Americans demonize our enemies, we’re listing examples, starting last week and continuing today, of examples of hate speech against Muslims. What better place to do that than with conservative milblogs?

In the minds and words of some milbloggers, Muslims aren’t human. They’re barbarians, primitives, or savages. In other words, they’re less than human. We’ll detail why--on moral, ethical and practical ground--this language is unacceptable in later posts. Today, consider this post to be the proof, slaying the “straw man” ahead of time.

Without further ado, the hate, uncensored:

Barbarians

They are ruthless barbarians who boast about killing those they have taken hostage.

- The Jawa Report, “Beheading Desecration Video of Dead U.S. Soldiers Released on Internet by al Qaeda

It is high time for Pakistan to decide whether it belongs to civilization or to the barbarians.

- The Captain’s Journal, “When It Comes to Pakistan, We Just Can’t Handle the Truth

They are barbaric and full of hatred and vile for this country, regardless of whether we’re following the rules or not.

- A Soldier’s Perspective, “Take Off The Gloves

 “Feel better now you sub-human swine?...F**ing animals!

        - Blackfive, “Our Barbarian allies Kill UN Workers in Kabul

I hope the stars stay aligned for more operations against these barbarians.”  

- This Ain’t Hell, “US Marines free German ship from pirates”

Primitives

The primitive peoples of the middle east are perhaps the most gullible ethnic group on the planet.

        - Blackfive, “Squandering Our Victory”

Savages

So let me say that the proper response is not to look deep inside our souls and reflect on how it is that we could have done something to not offend these savages.

- Blackfive, “It’s not you, it’s me...

We are driving down the road of appeasement in speaking with savages that understand only one thing; power.

        - Blackfive, “1979 Anyone?

“...let's not let a bunch of marginally-civilized savages screw around with international shipping.

        - Blackfive, “Taking down pirates the hip thing to do

(For more examples from Blackfive, please don’t click here, here, here (also a Washington Times op-ed.) or here.)

Yeah, well, here’s the thing; these goat roping 6th century savages are going to attack us no matter what we do – remember the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the attacks on our African embassies, the attack on the USS Cole, the attacks on 9/11?

- This Ain’t Hell, “Peace talks inspire more terrorist groups”

“...goat-humping, 7th century, savage...

- This Ain’t Hell, “Ask an Infantryman”

Have you considered what would happen if the US and NATO declared victory and left your backwards-assed, 7th century collection of savages that you call a country...”

- This Ain’t Hell, “Just a Friendly Note to President Karzai from Col. Nathan Jessup

- “The Democrats recommend that we negotiate with 12th Century savages who are still cutting off hands and executing criminals in public. Savages who deny that there were millions executed in Europe because of their religion and sexual preferences in the last century.

- This Ain’t Hell, “Jack Reed; this drawdown is not a drawdown

Two thoughts: one, which century are these savages actually from? The sixth, the seventh or the twelfth? Finally, This Ain’t Hell has two more examples of using “savages” here and here.

Jun 30

(To read the rest of our posts on language and war--our “Getting Orwellian” series--please click here.)   

In our ongoing quest to “Get Orwellian” on the uses of language in war, for the next few weeks, we’re writing about hate speech. Since we try to limit the length of posts, consider this post “Exhibit 1” of using language to dehumanize one’s enemy.

In this short post, we provide examples of mainstream ] sources demonizing the Islamic world and Muslims:

“I think that the Islamists, whether elected or not, whether violent or not, Islamists of any sort whatsoever are barbarians, are totalitarians, are far worse than dictators.”

- Daniel Pipes, Intelligence Squared US, “Better elected Islamists than dictators

“In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”

- Pamela Geller and American Freedom Defense Initiative’s subway ad

“To meet these guys in these remote Pashtun villages only made the conundrum more difficult. Because right here we’re talking about Primitive with a big P. Adobe huts made out of sun-dried clay bricks with dirt floors and awful smell of urine and mule dung. downstairs they have goats and chickens living in the house. And yet here, in these caveman conditions, they planned and then carried out the most shocking atrocity on a twenty-first-century city.”

- Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson

“What people are not dealing with is the fact that we’re going up against a culture that finds it acceptable to do things that the rest of the world left behind with the barbarians in the 6th century. I’m a little tired of people worrying about being polite. We are fighting in the face of fascists.”

- Frank Miller, Los Angeles Times interview.

“Like Alexandria, like Bamiyan, Timbuktu's priceless manuscript heritage destroyed by Islamic barbarians.”

- Richard Dawkins, via Twitter

“To all the Operators here today I give you this charge: Rid the world of those savages.  I’ll say it again, RID THE WORLD OF THOSE SAVAGES!”

- Dorothy Woods, originally quoted on Blackfive.

“It’s hard to keep track of all the barbaric behavior emanating from that part of the world.”

- Glenn Reynolds, Instapundit.com (H/T Glenn Greenwald)

“The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers soldier was killed whilst off duty near Woolwich Barracks in South-East London in May. Islamist barbarians, Michael Adebowale and Michael Adebolajo, are accused of the 25-year-old’s murder.”

- Andrew Sullivan

Jun 24

We’ve been writing about language for years here at On Violence. If I, Eric C, have a bigger obsession than lying in memoirs, it’s using words properly. (The military is an easy target.) But we’ve never collected all of our language posts in one place before, so consider this an “On V Link Drop” to our language posts, finally collected in one place.

We first “got Orwellian” analyzing “Al Qaeda in Iraq”, “Contractors, Mercenaries, Private Security and Terrorists”, and “Military Intelligence and Interrogation”. We also briefly discussed “heroes” in this link drop. We might as well have called our post “What You Should(n't) Be Afraid Of” “Getting Orwellian: Existential Threat” instead. In August, we added a new addition to the series in “Getting Orwellian: Navy SEALs”.

I pointed out how writers can say more with less in my post on post-9/11 war novels, “The Humvee Flew Over The Mountain: Jargon, Lingo and Military Writing”.

Two years ago, we discussed whether it was “Eye-Rack, Ee-Rack or Ur-Ahk?” and made an argument for how “How Lexicography Can Create World Peace”.

Last year, going a bit weirder, we wrote about “Language Behaving Badly: Strategic Reachbacks, Service Members and Operation Nude On”, “Army Words for Regular Things” and our “Readers Nominate More "Language Behaving Badly".

This year, we got Orwellian on “The Legal Dodge: Getting Orwellian on the NSA's Most Popular Defense” and “We're All Ordinary Americans: Getting Orwellian on the NSA”.

More "Getting Orwellian" posts:

- Demonizing Your Enemy, Exhibit 1: Mainstream Media

- Demonizing Your Enemy, Exhibit 2: Milblog Edition

- Islamo-Nazi-Facists: Getting Orwellian on Islamofascism

- Infidel Strong: Getting Orwellian on the Military’s Favorite Brand

- Dictators Can’t Use Our Word! Getting Orwellian on Fake “Terrorists”

- Haters Gonna Hate, Hate, Hate: Getting Orwellian on Hate Speech

- The Most Confused Term in IR Theory: Getting Orwellian on "Realism"

Demonizing Your Enemy, Exhibit 1: Mainstream Media-

Getting Orwellian on Orwell

We choose the title “Getting Orwellian” for our series on language because George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language” is probably the most famous essay on writing in the last century.   

But if I’m being intellectually honest, too many writers and thinkers overrate this essay’s importance, and insight.

First, if you’ve read any of our guest posts on writing at Write to Done, you know that I hate rules about writing. No one rule can govern all writing. Orwell loves rules, but he doesn’t like following his own advice. From the brilliant Language Log blog:

“Orwell wrote (apparently without irony, Nunberg noted) that in the evasive kind of writing he disapproves of, "the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active".

Just to clarify: in the very sentence where Orwell tells writers to not use the passive voice, he uses the passive voice. Oh, he also uses the passive voice in his opening sentence. Find other examples of Orwell breaking his own rules in this second Language Log blog post on the essay, including using long or foreign words and outdated metaphors. Geoffrey Pullum points out other inconsistencies in two articles at the Chronicle of Higher Education, including Orwell’s use of metaphors and the “not un-” rhetorical technique.

More important than the style advice is the overall message. On Violence fav, Geoffrey Nunberg, criticized the overall message in his book Talking Right:

“Objections to jargon and euphemism are well taken, but they tend to leave you with the impression that the ‘plain’ or ‘common’ words that people defend are unproblematic. Yet in political language, it’s the common words that work the most mischief, precisely because they’re the ones that people are unlikely to examine for their hidden assumptions...

...Those ‘plain words’ work on us far more deeply and unconsciously than any others, and they can persist for long periods of time without becoming frayed or yellowed they way euphemisms tend to do.”

This passage turns Orwell’s argument on its head, in the most logical way possible: average people don’t like complex words. They stop paying attention to them. So what words will politicians use and manipulate? The plain, little ones.

We use the phrase “Getting Orwellian” because it neatly sums up what we’re doing with our language posts: questioning the standard uses of language. Orwell’s essay does just that. But don’t think he had all of the answers; he didn’t.

Jun 17

When I joined the Army, like most impressionable young cadets, I dreamed Special Operations dreams. The Army path to becoming a modern John Matrix (Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando) roughly follows: 1. Branch Infantry. 2. Get my airborne wings. 3. Graduate from Ranger School. 4. Become an Army Ranger. 5. Join the Special Forces. 6. Go to Delta Force. 7. Go to the even more secretive Intelligence Support Activity.

Of course, as a nerd, I dreamed of doing intelligence work for Delta. (Or, as they’re called now, the Combat Applications Group (CAG).) The farthest I got was doing intelligence for 5th Special Forces Group. By the time I left the Army to pursue my MBA, the allure of CAG had worn off.

But it wasn’t just me who didn’t care about CAG/Delta; Americans don’t really carry either. America now loves its SEALs. Kick-started by SEAL Team 6’s assault on Osama bin Laden’s compound, the SEAL legend has morphed from puppy love into full-blown stalker obsession. The Navy SEAL’s emphasis on secrecy only fuels this passion. Oh, the Navy SEALs, America’s quiet professionals, they don’t brag, they keep to themselves, they don’t do interviews and they shun media coverage.

Except when they don’t.

Though they are “quiet professionals”, they make quite a bit of noise. (Find examples of SEALs or SEAL supporters boasting about their “quiet professionalism” here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.) While the last movie about Delta Force came out in the 80s (Fine, The Unit was probably Delta Force), Navy SEALs have filled American airwaves with their stories, silently and quietly in the news constantly since 2010.

On cable television alone, we have seen...

- The Military Channel cover SEALs 24/7. In a post last year, Eric C looked at the schedule for The Military Channel. That night, their schedule included the TV programs “Weaponology: Sniper Rifles”, “Weaponology: Navy SEALs”, “Secrets of Navy SEALs” and “Secrets of SEAL Team 6”. Notice a trend?

- Not to be outdone, the National Geographic channel rushed out a movie on the Osama bin Laden raid last year.

- Oh, and the Discovery Channel also filled us in on the secrets of SEAL Team 6, which again, are not very secret any more.

SEALs are even more prominent on the big screen. Though Hollywood made Navy SEALs in 1990, they hadn’t made a movie featuring these quiet professionals...until the Osama bin Laden raid. (SEALs made guest spots in Tears of the Sun (which no one saw) and Transformers (which also had Rangers).) Now our “quiet professionals” have starred in Act of Valor and Zero Dark Thirty two years ago, Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips last year, and Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor this year. And Clint Eastwood’s upcoming American Sniper comes out next year.

All of this reminds us of Marcus Luttrell’s outstanding description of SEALs from the introduction to Service:

In these pages, you’ll get a glimpse of our elite special operations warriors who occasionally make headlines but strongly prefer to remain anonymous, quiet professionals.

Coming from a man who has written two books (and sold one of them to become a film), we couldn’t agree less.

Jun 11

Yeah, we beat up on Peter Berg and Marcus Luttrell a lot on this blog. Mainly, it comes from wanting to correct the record on Navy SEALs. For instance, on The Q and A with Jeff Goldsmith, Peter Berg said:

“Navy SEALs are the least political people I’ve ever met...To talk to Navy SEALs about politics is an exercise in pointlessness.”

Berg repeated this claim in dozens of interviews; so did members of the media. In our research on SEALs, though, we’ve come across quite another beast from Berg’s archetype of a SEAL:

The political Navy SEAL.

As a group, SEALs have an incredibly powerful (and positive) public image, and some of them use that image for political purposes. In fairness, the vast majority of SEALs go through their service and post-service lives without using their time in uniform as a platform to express political views. Most SEALs. Some, though, can’t get out of the spotlight. These uber-vocal SEALs give the lie to the myth peddled by Berg and others that SEALs eschew politics to simply do their job, especially since Navy SEALs, when they do go public with a political message, get a lot of press.

We’ve found quite a few Navy SEALs who are very political. A few examples:

- Special Operations OPSEC Education Fund. First up, we have a series of Political Action Committees. There is nothing more political than a political action committee lobbying the government, most of whom have obscure sources of funding. The biggest and most political SEAL of them all is Scott Taylor, a former Navy SEAL, who founded this group. He and his organization briefly made waves in the last Presidential election with political ads against President Obama. Taylor also ran for a Congressional seat in Virginia. (They also have an accuracy problem.)

- Special Operations Speaks. Special Operations Speaks’ website demands “accountability” for President Obama’s response to Benghazi and its masthead features at least one former SEAL demanding action.   

- SEAL Benjamin Smith. Another founder of Special Operations OPSEC Education Fund, Ben Smith deserves his own section because of his role in circulating an email in conservative circles that had so many errors that Snopes debunked it. Read about it here.   

- SOF for America. This is yet another PAC and website using their military experience to lobby and campaign for conservative causes. Founded by a former Navy SEAL, this group explicitly backs Republican politicians to “take back control of the Senate”.

- Former Navy SEAL Christopher Mark Heben. He went on Fox News to denounce critics of Marcus Luttrell’s film Lone Survivor. Along the way he said, “Nobody who wears a trident...is a fan of Obama or Hillary.” That sounds political to us. And, according to Heben, it means that all SEALs are political.

- Former Navy SEAL Don Raso. In this NRA “Patriot Profile” as a part of the NRA’s “Life of Duty” series, former Navy SEALs describe their love of the NRA and how it helped them protect America. In this feature, former Navy SEAL Don Raso uses his personal experience at war to criticize Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

- Books. At least five books about or by Navy SEALs repeat the false claim that Saddam Hussein had WMDs, as we wrote about here.

- SEAL Gabriel Gomez. While not involved in the current war on terror, Gomez was a former SEAL who left active duty in 1996, but he ran for John Kerry’s vacant Senate seat in Massachusetts in 2014. He has been associated with the Special Operations OPSEC Education Fund group described above, which specifically campaigns against President Obama.

- Father of sailor Michael Strange. The father of a sailor who conducted electronic intercept intelligence for the U.S. Navy--and frequently assigned to Navy SEAL teams--he sued the Secretary of Defense and blamed President Obama for killing his son. His son died in the Chinook helicopter crash in 2011 that killed 33 troops, the single largest loss of life in Afghanistan. You probably didn’t hear about this, but it made the rounds through the conservative blogosphere.

(Why didn’t we call Michael Strange a SEAL? Because frankly, we can’t tell if he is. Though his father repeatedly uses the phrase “SEAL” and let reporters/bloggers write that his son was a SEAL, multiple other reports don’t mention that he was a SEAL, and specifically do not classify him as a SEAL. We can’t tell what is the truth.)

- Navy SEALS Against Obama. This now defunct blog has a self-explanatory title.

- “The Shooter” in Esquire. This anonymous former SEAL has lobbied Congress for increased benefits and funding for special operations, using his veteran status to bolster his position.

- Of course, we’ll end with Marcus Luttrell’s memoir Lone Survivor. At its worst, the memoir Lone Survivor actually blames liberals for the deaths of SEALs during Operation Red Wings. If accusing a political party of killing soldiers isn’t politics, we don’t know what is. Marcus Luttrell semi-regularly appears on Glenn Beck’s show, recently attacking Obama for negotiating with the Taliban to free Bowe Bergdahl. (Luttrell also misuses the term “terrorist” which we wrote about here.)   

We don’t want anyone to think we are denying SEALs the right to engage in politics. Navy SEALs--especially retired SEALs no longer bound by decorum or UCMJ--can make their political viewpoints known. However, we don’t want SEALs describes themselves as “apolitical” when many SEALs are as vehemently political as any conservative radio host.

A better description of SEALs is that they engage with politics with the same gusto as most Americans. Some eschew politics; some love to talk it. What we can say, with certainty, is that among those vocal SEALs, they tend towards conservative or very, very conservative.

(Finally, why pick on SEALs and not Green Berets, Rangers or especially Delta Force? Because examples of uberly-vocal political Green Berets and D-boys are much, much harder to find. And they don’t describe themselves as apolitical either.)