Quiet Professionals Part 2 “No Easy Day”

This is part 2 because I have already written on this topic for Naval Special Warfare’s Ethos magazine, and posted it in this blog in January of this year – just scroll down.   I think it was a pretty good essay, but it didn’t get much attention when I wrote it – but it was certainly timely.   I’ve been thinking about ‘Mark Owen’s’ recently published book about his experiences during the preparations and conduct of the mission which killed Osama bin Laden, and thought I would add my two cents into what has now become a national discussion – not that my input will be included in that discussion, but I continue to be asked my thoughts on it, and so I share them here.

I’ll begin by referring to my first essay, “Quiet Professionals in Naval Special Warfare” (Part 1).  I wrote then, and continue to believe that we need SEALs to share their experiences – but not just SEALs;  ship-drivers, aviators, submariners, Marines, Airmen, Soldiers, politicians, diplomats, businessmen.    We learn by hearing, reading, and discussing the stories of others.  Those who have participated in and learned from important events, and then who share their perspectives with us, do us all a great service.   Without these first person accounts of eye-witnesses to history, our civilization would be much poorer.

The contentious issue for me in the case of ‘Mark Owen,’ is how it was done, when, and to what purpose.  In Part 1, I offered three criteria by which I suggested we judge whether former SEALs sharing their perspectives and story in public deserves our praise or our condemnation.  Let’s consider these in judging No Easy Day:

  1. Is it fair and honest, and does it constructively contribute to the public understanding of NSW? Or does it primarily promote self-interest or a personal agenda?
  2. Is the warrior exhibiting ‘a strong dose of humility,’ to include respect toward those with whom he might disagree?
  3. Does the perspective or story serve the interests of those still in the arena, or does it make their lives and work more difficult, more complicated, or even more dangerous?

I have not yet read No Easy Day, but I’ve read reviews by people who have.  It appears that the book may arguably meet criterion one regarding the factual content – perhaps not regarding the personal agenda.  I am led to understand that it meets part of criterion two, in that it appears that ‘Mark Owen’ is a straightforward guy telling his story as he experienced it, and it appears that he is not grandstanding to exaggerate his role.  And from the reviews I’ve read, it doesn’t appear that he has any axes to grind, though he apparently is not a fan of President Obama. And several who have read it say that it does not appear to reveal tactics, techniques or procedures not already well known in the public sector.

However, publishing this book clearly does not meet criterion three.  I believe that getting his story out into the press at this time, will significantly hurt the guys still in the fight.

The timing could hardly be worse.   While some will disagree with me, I believe this story needs to be told, and I expect and hope that we’ll eventually see additional books by participants in this classic and history-changing raid.  But now is not the time.  Not yet.  It is too soon.  Not during the heat of a presidential election, not right in the wake of Act of Valor, at a time when you can hardly turn on the television or read the newspaper without finding former SEALs pontificating on matters of politics, strategy, or national security.  Former SEALs have recently not been ‘quiet’ professionals, and it seems that many are drawing attention to themselves, for purposes that are not consistent with the Professional Military, or the SEAL, Ethos.  The fact that  ‘Owen’ and his advisors chose to rush to press and ignore established protocols designed to give proper attention to matters of national security, suggest that he was in a big hurry – perhaps to beat his team mates into the market.  Had he waited until a more appropriate time, the political issues would have diminished, and we still would have gotten his story.

My sense – and fear – is that the timing and manner of the release of this book will do damage to the credibility and reputation of the Navy SEALs that may take a long time to mend.  Senior political and military leaders may think twice about having SEALs included in sensitive missions, wondering how soon they will see a recently separated Navy SEAL, seeking celebrity status,  discussing it on Good Morning America, or Imus, or 60 minutes.    You can almost hear senior leaders thinking: “Which one of these guys will go to the press, or write a book?  We’re not sure we can trust the SEALs.”

I recall General Wayne Downing telling me when he was Commander of US Special Operations Command, “You have no idea how much damage Dick Marcinko has done to the reputation of your community.”  I thought we had finally weathered that storm, and restored our reputation as ‘military professionals,’ but a friend of mine, who is very senior in the military establishment, recently told me regarding the impact of this book, essentially that we have no idea how much damage No Easy Day has done to the SEAL community’s reputation within the Department of Defense.

What also makes the untimely release of this book particularly painful, is that it appears ‘Mark Owen’ violated the trust of his team mates, caused damage to the reputation of the Naval Special Warfare community in which he’d honorably served, and made himself a pariah….for money.   It appears that in order to be first-to-market with the first-person account of the raid, and to garner the fame, notoriety, and the biggest pay check, ‘Mark Owen’ readily violated the ethos of his SEAL tribe, and the military ethos that places ship and shipmate before self.

‘Owen’ says he just wanted to tell his story and the story needed to be told. And others (among whom, the President, Vice President, the SECDEF, and others) may have already revealed what previously would not have been revealed, and perhaps for self-serving purposes. But they were not part of the Tribe – they were not sworn to be ‘quiet professionals,’ sworn to live up to an ethos of service before self, of honor, courage, and commitment, where service to the nation, team, and team mates always trumps opportunities for personal glory or gain. It appears that he has gone his own way, doing damage to his brothers who are still in the fight, for a healthy paycheck. We in the military, we in the Special Operations community, we in the SEALs, claim to be better than that. And because ‘Owen’ was a SEAL, the values and honor of the entire SEAL community are now called into question.

Am I going to read the book? Yes. It is now part of the national discussion, and unfortunately, just like Dick Marcinko’s Rogue Warrior a generation ago, it is now part of the identity, culture, and heritage of the Navy SEALs. Hopefully, those still in the fight can make adjustments to reduce the chances that this will happen again, and hopefully, senior military and political leaders will come to forgive us this one. I’m told that the SEAL community has an unpublished list of former SEALs who are persona non grata, and now ‘Owen’ is at the top. Though they may be toasted at celebrity cocktail parties, people on this list are no longer welcomed at Naval Special Warfare functions. Their names are no longer spoken with reverence and respect by those in the SEAL community. Their professional reputations are forever damaged. And though they may be laughing all the way to the bank, in the end, I continue to believe that the most important thing we have, is our honor and reputation within our community. You can’t buy those with a big bank account.

————–

After writing the above, I did view the 60 minutes interview with ‘Mark Owen’ and as I expected, I found him likable, credible and he told his story in what seemed to be an honest and straightforward manner.  He said he has the support of his former team mates in getting the true, inside story of the raid into the public arena, countering some of the various inaccurate versions that are out there.  Perhaps some of his team mates may support him, but certainly not the senior ones.  My experience in the Naval Special Warfare community is that many of the operators have little appreciation for the political nature of their work, and how credibility at senior levels is what provides resources, funding, and gives important missions to units.  As I stated above, no matter how credible and straightforward Mark Owen may appear on 60 minutes, bringing this story out now, in this manner, violates the rules of the tribe, and hurts the credibility of SEALs in the arena where key decisions are made.

11 thoughts on “Quiet Professionals Part 2 “No Easy Day”

  1. Bob, I thoroughly enjoy your blog and the substantial thought you give to the subjects about which you write. I haven’t commented previously on anything you’ve written, but this time feel compelled to do so.

    I have read ‘Owen’s’ book, and left the following review on Amazon:

    The content of the book is generally not engaging and for many stretches within is poorly written.

    The big question about this book is what was so friggin important that it had to be written. It is widely accepted that the author wrote this book in violation of the procedures required by agreements he voluntarily entered with the United States Government. (His justification for violating his agreements with the US gov (something along the lines of, “Well, since the President did it, I can do it too.”) is nothing short of lame.)

    The author states that his intention in writing the book was to “set the record straight.” However, it is unclear how this author’s account of what happened in the bin Laden raid was *materially* different from what has been reported. At most, it seems that he provided details that only those on the ground would have known. However, the variances between his report and what was previously disclosed are rather insignificant. So, what was so important that the author had to violate his agreements with the US government?

    Having patently failed in achieving his stated intention, one is led to suspect that the author really had other motives. Profit would be a good one that I cannot or would not condemn, but be honest about it or at least don’t mislead your audience. An attempt at political influence might be another — he takes a couple of awkward jabs at his Commander In Chief who ordered the raid (though the author acknowledges that the order was the right one) — but in this too he fails because the author’s negative (if you can call them that) comments about Obama are tepid at best and in all events unreasoned (e.g., ‘most of the guys did not like Obama’. No explanation of why and, frankly, I think most people would say, Who cares. Lots of people dislike their bosses).

    In the end, the author comes across as being quite confused about the purpose of his book. He states that the raid was just like hundreds of others he’d performed in his career but, it appears, after all of the fanfare that followed the raid the author was able to see that the country’s insatiable desire to know more about it and these highly trained soldiers presented a once in a lifetime opportunity for him. Taking advantage of an opportunity is fine and I have no qualms about it so long as self interest is not elevated over more important things such as the promises the author made that allowed him to be in the position to have the opportunity to be on the raid in the first place.

    Despite the foregoing, I would sincerely say congratulations and thank you to all of men and women who participated in taking out the best known terrorist in the world. However, I did not need this book to do that.

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    • Thank you Robert – an interesting and valuable perspective – one I hadn’t heard before. A counter-view is that so many people are now fascinated by all things ‘SEAL’ given all the hyperbole that has been in the press lately, that there is indeed an interest in the on-the-ground perspective. As I said, I DO want to get that perspetive, but not when it is at the expense of the credibility that I spent so much of my professional life trying to win with senior political and military leaders for Naval Special Warfare. I could have waited a few years for this book, and found it perhaps more interesting, and perhaps more compelling, with the advantage of greater hindsight and more context. He said last night on 60 minutes that he is supported by his old team mates. That is not what I’m hearing. That he chose to leave the Navy after 14 years, when he had earned a cushy shore duty position to ride out his 20, and could have retired with a life-time pension of ~$40k and many opportunities in the private sector, tells me this might well have been pre-meditated. I wonder if he chose to leave the Navy because he wanted to be first to market, and grab the big bucks. I don’t know. Ultimately, I think it is a sad story. Bob

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      • Bob,

        Thanks for your reply. The appearances certainly add up to profit being the primary motive. It would be interesting to know what the Pentagon’s analysis is of prosecuting (whether civilly or criminally; I don’t know if remedies are available under both schemes) for breaches of the agreements even if no confidential information was divulged. It seems to me that the Navy, with it’s standing within DoD special missions potentially compromised, would be behind such action. Defending a legal action could seriously eat into the profits and would diminish the lure for others to write tell-all books without going through the vetting process.

        Don’t get me wrong — I love to read good first-hand accounts by SEALs. Wasden’s book was outstanding. Owen’s violation of his agreements, done in a rush to be first, really sinks his otherwise not-so-good book.

        I’ll continue to enjoy your future articles. First rate.

        Rob

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  2. So “Owens” has been voted out of the tribe after 13 back-to-back combat deployments?

    Well, it seems there were a few more senior folks in the chain-of-command who should also be looked at with severity. That Pakistani doctor who helped us wasn’t arrested because of any beans spilled by “Owens.”

    “Owens” clarified to the mothers of America that SEALs are not sent on deliberate “kill” missions, though killing the enemy is part of our mission. Sure “Loose Lips Sink Ships,” but this September 2012 and the leaks began May 2011. “Owens” is a diversion from a far worse lapse in operational security.

    The first big mouths were the chest-beaters who want to show what gutsy decision makers they were. They named the unit and they divulged where we got help. They are the same gutsy decision makers who have quietly stripped troops out of AFG leaving SpecOps dangerously exposed.

    No easy answers here.

    First, OPSEC is important and ought to be observed, but its application cannot be selectively enforced against the rank and file and then enforcement ignored when it comes to the higher command. Every officer should know that discipline and unpleasant duties must be dished out fairly and evenly.

    Second, leaders in wartime to have a mature grasp of their responsibilities and apply their power fairly without regard to their own benefit. Under civil law there is the doctrine of clean hands. It is inequitable for a party to seek redress for damages arising from a problem that party (the first chest beaters) helped create. No action was taken by the Pentagon after May 1, 2012, and no action was taken by the Pentagon against “Owens.” The Pentagon is in the middle and avoided taking a stand. It is hard to put your superiors on the carpet.

    It is the Department of Justice that’s driving this now and strangely the DOJ has not sought an injunction against “Owens.” An injunction requires a showing of immediate and irreparable damage. Apparently the DOJ is not confident they can show that. Strangely they made no attempt to stop publication of “No Easy Day.”

    With unclean hands the chest beaters can’t now get holier-than-thou when they caused more damage than the fellow they wish to hang.

    That Pakistani doctor is in prison because of OPSEC violations in May of 2011, not September 2012.

    Why would any individual want to help the US now? Why would anyone now volunteer for hazardous duty to become a political prop not for his country, but for a political faction?

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  3. I haven’t read the book, and I am not a SEAL, so (to paraphrase Mae West) my comments may not exactly enlighten society. Anyway, I was trying last night at dinner to explain to my spouse, mother, brother, sister-in-law (etc) why I thought that this book was so wrong. I really appreciate Bob and his interlocutors for helping me put my thoughts on the subject in order. What I mean to say is that the military grants you a lot of authority, power and prestige. You can screw with people unmercifully, “unleash hell,” be privy to secrets and other exciting stuff. On your side, the bargain is that you use the power of membership and leadership in a responsible and accountable way. You aren’t being paid to wage private wars or crusades. The only time that you break ranks is for a serious moral reason, and it is the responsibility of the actor to provide this reason to justify his actions. In this case, this is lacking, in fact the need to provide one seems to have been obtusely ignored. What gives him the right to ignore rules that he agreed to obey?

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    • Great Comment Reed, as usual. I was just speaking to my good friend George Reed, COL US Army retired, and Assoc Dean of the School of Leadership at Univ of San Diego. As we teach at the Academy’s, the Constitional paradigm demands that our loyalty to our service be superseded by our loyalty to our country, and when that happens, we have a tough call to make, and must be ready to be pariahs. We discussed the revolt of the Generals a few years ago. But in this case, Owen’s need to get what he believed was the ‘accurate’ version of what happened on the raid, and to get it out now, seemed to serve no greater purpose than to enrich himself personally. His other justifications just don’t hold water. And he has damaged the credibility of his shipmates. Leon Panetta told Norah O’Donnell this morning on television: “I cannot, as Secretary, send a signal to SEALs who conduct those operations, “Oh, you can conduct these operations and then go out and write a book about it…and/or sell your story to the New York Times.” How the hell can we run sensitive operations here that go after enemies if people are allowed to do that?”
       
      Bob Schoultz
      “The MSGL prepares students to succeed in the global arena through study of the principles of ethical leadership, best business practices, and respect for cultural, political, and economic differences.”

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  4. First, thank you for sharing your thoughtful and ‘inside’ opinion. As an outsider – civilian and older female, I found myself oddly uncomfortable with the notion that the author of No Easy Day has lost his ‘tribe’ because of the internal standards of his tribe. From the outsider view point, I’m pleased that he wrote the book (although I haven’t read it as yet). I realized that it finally jelled for me the nagging annoyance I’ve had about war coverage in general – frankly, that there just isn’t coverage! My father was a WWII Vet, and I grew up on stories of the sacrifices and efforts of the ordinary American citizen during that war, mixed with WWII movies and books. And then it was my generation’s turn – Vietnam. I was 18 in 1968 and it was my brother, friends, boyfriend who went to war. Because of the draft, every mother & father of a draft-age son was extremely conscious of the war, and we watched it night after night on TV, and our streets were full of those protesting against it or in support of it. Protest songs and songs like the Ballad of the Green Beret and Tie a Yellow Ribbon Around The Old Oak Tree filled the airways. We knew we were a nation at war and it touched the lives of every American, as it did the generation before us. And then there was peace – but of course, there really wasn’t. Warfighters were still being sent off to someplace, but we, the citizen, generally never knew of those places and those actions. And then came 9/11 and once again a nation at war, but this time we – the citizenry – barely saw or felt the war. It was a volunteer military and news was carefully parceled out by embedded journalists. And as the years went by, the news was less and less. Unless one had a family member serving (as I did) or lived in a military town (as I do), the out-of-sight, out-of-mind scenario was heavily in play. Even as a family member, it has been difficult to find information, be actively involved, be a member of a country at war. Where were the sacrifices demanded of me? Where could I contribute to the war effort? When my family member was home & safe (after 3 deployments), the war started to recede from my mind and I was appalled. Dammit, I’m an American and it’s my war too..or it should be. So, I had to work to keep myself informed and knowledgeable. As a citizen, there are decisions I need to support or oppose. It is my tax dollars, my vote, my political stance, my charitable contributions that impact – for good or ill – those fighting on my behalf. And so, I read books, watch documentaries, read blogs to keep informed, and I am not alone in those efforts. I do not like the ‘disconnect’ I feel with this war – I should be feeling it, supporting those fighting it, understanding their sacrifice and somehow find a way to contribute – to do my part. I know many who have this same frustration with the disconnect. We are Americans and WE are at war. This is a round-about way to explain why I value, treasure the books, documentaries, blogs – real life thoughts and experiences shared by those who stand in harm’s way for me. The author of No Easy Day protected me for 14 years. You protected me – a stranger – for years as well. The very least I can do is ‘hear’ what you all have to say and quietly honor and be thankful that such men stood for America and me. I’m sorry, I’m saying this so poorly.

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    • Storm – I am of the same era as you – I was 18 in 1970 and had a draft number and went to college on NROTC. I expected to go to Vietnam when I graduated, but Saigon actually fell while I was in SEAL training. You’re right that the country was much more engaged in that war than it has been in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Four young men were killed this week in Afghanistan by enemy action, yet we don’t see it on the news. The WHOLE COUNTRY disconnected from the war. My son is also in the SEALs and will be heading probably to Afghanistan this summer. I also agree that we need these books -just not in the manner and timing with which this book came out – it is not a good day for the SEALs when the Secretary of Defense goes on National Television and says we can’t have SEALs writing books on their operations like this – we don’t know whether we can trust them! Statements like that from the Secretary of Defense sting, and are not forgotten. I am hoping for more books on the bin Laden raid to come out next year, after the election when the topic is not so politcally charged. How we keep the current wars in the public consciousness – I don’t know. Write our congressmen, I suppose! THanks for your thoughtful comment. Bob

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  5. I am in no way involved with the military, I’m only a civilian who has been reading all of these SF discussions online recently. As an outsider, I keep thinking that the easiest way to ensure that SEALs (and other high-level operators involved in these sensitive missions) do not seperate and sell their stories – is to perhaps offer them some retirement or compensation that matches their sacrifices and contributions.
    Do I have it correctly that a man could separate from the SEALS after more than 10 years of service, with more physical impairment than an NFL linebacker, and then be left with very little in the way of benefits?
    Considering what we pay our good-for-nothing Congress people, this is shameful. It also explains why people who have families to support may be enticed by the money.
    Perhaps if they were giving decent benefits after separating, and then there is a clause that says “if you sell a sensitive story before you’ve been out for 5 years then you don’t get the benefits anymore”?
    Anyway just my 2 cents

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    • Katy Seals who are pretty beat up get disability, just like everyone else in the military. The military benefits are ‘decent’ but not extravagant. Most who retire after 20 can live modestly on their retirement, but most prefer to work and use their retirement as a base line. The reality is, people come into the military and the Seals as volunteers, and we want people who go in with their eyes open and do it for their love of country and team mates. We expect them to use their Seal experience when they leave the Navy to make a living – but we also expect them to respect and continue to honor those still in the fight. By getting his story out the way he did, and when he did, may have served himself, and perhaps the public, but it hurt the guys he left behind in the Seal Teams. Bob

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  6. As one of the Fire fighters that was lead by Bob on the Nols trip, it’s hard to give people an idea of how great of a man/person/lead that Bob is. Maybe that’s how all Navy Seals are and maybe that’s how Bob is, either way we faced some good lesson learning adversity on this hike and as far as I could see out of the two leaders, Bob was unwavering in his commitment to us and getting out alive. I read all the reviews, the books and such, haven’t actually read any of the seal books but your piece on the Nols trip was very good. As you know I didn’t think the Nols trip was too bad, seeing how hard it was for the rest of the guys made it interesting. How we had to step up in almost every way to help our Comrads for a successful mission. Breach any gap that needed filling. And be there for not only physical, but more importantly I found to give people emotional support. And we found out a lot about each other. And more so about ourselves, even though I was in my 7th year as a fire fighter and had previously had a lot more strenuous missions in the past. This was still one great mission I enjoyed start to finish, more so that you were there Bob, your a great man. Keep sharing with the world whether mission based or just writing books/columns ect.

    Joseph R. Storey

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