What’s Wrong with the World

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Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?


There is much cause for worry concerning the entire US Navy SEAL command. The strength of this proposition I draw from some of the deeper reporting, and wider commentary, which has accompanied the President’s pardon of Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, combined with long interest in the fabled Navy unit in which he served, until his recent retirement concomitant with said pardon.

Good summaries of the details of Gallagher’s trial can he found in various places, including the Navy Times and the fascinating special ops blog SOFREP.com. In brief outline, Gallagher was accused by his former SEAL comrades of terrible crimes; investigated and brought to trial by the Navy’s internal police unit; cleared of all but the most minor charge in a dramatic courtroom reversal, when an immunized prosecution witness introduced reasonable doubt; then pardoned of the remaining charge by Trump. Following this came a bureaucratic wrestling match among the Navy, the DOD and the White House, which after several intriguing surprises, ended up costing the Navy Secretary his job.

Continuing with the attempt at tight summary, Gallagher’s former units, SEAL Team 7 and SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team 2, are what’s known as “tier two” special operations forces -- second from the very top. As light infantry, the units are close to being unmatched; but their budgets and missions are rarely secret, and they operate under their own service branch’s independent hierarchy. Put another way, generally speaking tier two operators have not, in such great profusion, the varied spy skills of JSOC’s top badasess such as the Navy’s SEAL Team 6, the Air Force’s 24th STS or the Army’s Delta, who often integrate with the CIA for clandestine missions. They’re not quite on the level of what the outlaw-country singer (and Navy veteran) Sturgill Simpson refers to, in his fantastic song “Sea Stories,” as “SAD-SOG BMF sandeaters.”

What the operators in tier two SEAL teams do is fight. All over the world, in all imaginable circumstances, these men deploy into places where lead is flying everywhere, or will be in an instant if something goes even slightly wrong.

20 years have nearly concluded since September 11th: two decades of SEAL warfighters bringing battle like the mongoose to some of the nastiest cobras on earth. Such a length of heavy-use direct action exacts a toll on even the strongest men. Some break bad and turn themselves into snakes. As Dostoevsky reminds us, man grows used to everything. Once decide on murder and mayhem and plunder, what’s there to contain it?

It is idle to entertain the notion that human organizations of any kind can be protected from human evil. Elite combat units offer no exception. Far from it. Given the conditions in which SEALs operate, human evil is presented with a very wide field for sowing ruin and horror.

Most armies, over the history of this vale of tears, have made plunder and rapine part of the recruitment pitch. It’s the Melian Dialogue: “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must” -- the farthest thing from attempting to investigate and aggressively prosecute crimes committed on the field of battle.

We must not, as citizens in whose names the SEALs fight, kill and die, dismiss out of hand the possibility that some SEALs may become cobras in human shape and of American origin. The chilling scene in Jean Larteguy’s massively influential novel The Centurions, when Capt. Esclavier draws a knife and breathes, “only the men,” memorably conveys the moment when the special operator has decided “to hell with law and morality” and given himself over to bloodlust. From there it is but a step to turning renegade. A mafia composed of men who completed BUD/S training is a formidable menace indeed.

As with the French paratroopers in Larteguy’s roman a clef, the resolution to bare the knife against innocents hardly restrains itself to men.

In our sad and disconcerting America story, Gallagher stood accused of going well beyond males only. And the accusations included the clear implication of renegade stuff: that he scrupled not to turn his fury on his own comrades. One accuser is reported to have testified to the effect that he stayed on under Gallagher’s command, despite persistent misgivings, precisely to protect younger SEALs from his reckless sadism. Then again, the Navy prosecution, also according to current reporting, clearly committed misconduct of a shocking nature. I don’t really know which is worse: a renegade sadist commanding SEALs, or a bunch of treacherous subordinates colluding with corrupt prosecutors to railroad a SEAL of integrity. Or maybe, heaven forbid, aspects of both evils were at play.

Beyond the CPO Gallagher case, there have been other stories of grave wrongdoing among American special operations forces. Back in May, a SEAL Team 6 (tier one) operator pleaded guilty to killing a Green Beret (tier two) in some kind of drunken hazing effort gone horribly wrong. Several Marine accomplices are coming up for trial and may well share his fate of a long stretch in a military prison. A sexual assault charge may be added. A year ago I wrote briefly about the ugly service-branch infighting, and possible SEAL command high-handedness, that was finally resolved with the posthumous Medal of Honor awarded to Air Force Sergeant John Chapman, fifteen-plus years after his heroism. Rumors of widespread drug abuse and other criminality also abound.

So ample cause exists for worry about the health of the SEAL command, and indeed the entire SOF structure of the US military. Americans must fervently hope, and pray, that the service branches and JSOC can address and mitigate it. These are our best soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen; they have carried a huge portion of the burden of our wars over the last two decades. May God bless them and preserve their honor.

Comments (3)

So ample cause exists for worry about the health of the SEAL command, and indeed the entire SOF structure of the US military. Americans must fervently hope, and pray, that the service branches and JSOC can address and mitigate it. These are our best soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen; they have carried a huge portion of the burden of our wars over the last two decades. May God bless them and preserve their honor.

I agree: we must fervently hope and pray that the service branches, and command structure, can address the problems. But we can, with relative confidence, predict that they won't successfully address it until truly gargantuan changes come along - and not just within the military itself.

The problem is that the tools now available to a military infrastructure that has been denuded of much capacity to address moral issues (by our amoral legal and political theory), and has chosen to further dispense with internal organizational capital (by enthusiastically swallowing such foolishness as the whole gender craze) are not going to be ultimately very effective at re-creating an ordering principle and ethos that is effective with the problem, which is a moral and spiritual problem at root, not a problem of better education or rearrangement of management titles.

Don't get me wrong: I have been blessed to know quite a number of people in the military, including Marines and some higher up the food chain as well. Many of these people are the very best kind of people, just the sort you would like to see there. But they themselves are dismayed at the difficulty there is within the military organizations to retain even so much moral sense as they still have, i.e. just to stem their ongoing downward slide. Part of the problem can be pointed easily as merely the reflection on the larger society: if the people as a whole are undergoing a moral degeneracy (of nearly unprecedented scale), then the pool of people the military organizations have to pull from for new recruits is, likewise, tainted by such demographics. Garbage in / garbage out is as valid in large personnel activity as in databases.

And the other part of the problem is the unhitching of social and legal standards from any principled moral framework that can be urged as being TRUE and obligatory on all men: you aren't allowed to say "premarital sex is wrong" in public entities because you can't insist that all men agree with your "religious" values - as if the meaning of marriage is really a "religious" issue rather than something that belongs to human nature as such. As a result, there ends up being no backbone to any structure of rules that a public organization tries to live by, the stated rules don't bind because they instantiate fundamental moral norms, but because "that's how we have decided to arrange things". The latter approach might work pretty well for the studious elite who got her MBA and now spends her days at a desk in a large firm, but it is going to fray a lot more among people whose very profession is to deal with people who don't follow our rules.

And the third element is that while one might, in the short term, find a culture of sense and wholesomeness without it being explicitly ordered to God, it won't long stay a culture of sense and wholesomeness without reliance on God: we need His grace to overcome our inborn propensities toward evil, and the more, the better. Christianity holds out the best promise not only for the next life, but for this one too. I think we have proven pretty thoroughly, at this point, that insisting that society as a whole can successfully rely on the moral and religious training of children by individual parents, but without societal support of that moral and religious training, is a false hope. Yes, we need to be able to rely on parents to do THEIR part, but then we have to have society do its part as well; saying at the social level "it's not our job" is a denial of man's social nature and of temporal society ITSELF being ordered to something else. If you want to have a truly GOOD society, you can't have that society reject Christ at the level of politics.

I fear that until there is a deep change in our political landscape, one that reverses our Endarkenment-driven choice to drive a wedge between social ordering, on the one hand, and moral and religious foundations, on the other, we will at best paper over the problems with Seals and other military groups with veneers that are too thin to last long or truly rout the problem. With lesser changes, we might mitigate the problems, but it is predictable that there will be ongoing (and worse) eruptions of the same sort of worrisome barbarities from within their ranks.

Lots of good points, Tony. I share your worries.

And as a general statement, I wholly agree with your chief emphasis: that our individual institutions will ultimately reflect the character of our people. Still, within so broad a statement, covering so huge a country, there are wide variations.

For instance, we find fairly solid grounds for stating that, in the Second World War, the sheer battlefield savagery of the European theater was exceeded by that of the Pacific theater. A similar comparison might be made of the US (conscript) military in Vietnam, where atrocities were not uncommon, as against the US (volunteer) military in the later Cold War and after.

Furthermore, we must to face squarely the fact that confessionally Christian armies in the past have often operated in ways indistinguishable from cruel heathens. For example, while it might well be argued that, given their demonic commitment to human sacrifice, the Aztecs had it coming, that in no way authorized the Spanish massacres of noncombatants. Nor did Greek belligerence toward Latin adventurers in the Byzantine Empire in any way authorize the sack of Constantinople 1204. And so on.

Back to the situation today: My hope is that better leadership might mitigate some of these problems. It certainly doesn't help to have the Chief Executive openly conveying the view that war crimes are no big deal.

Thanks for this report, Paul. I have no "hot take" on the circumstances you describe. They sound dire, as you say, either way. What is most unnerving is that it seems like someone here in the SEALS must have been very bad indeed--either Gallagher himself or his accusers. I agree with you that in principle the natural light can still result in a military command that has honor and doesn't permit atrocities or recklessly accuse others of them. One wonders what it would take to reinstate this knowledge in the concrete in our own military and what the forces are that are undermining it.

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