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:
- 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?
- Is the warrior exhibiting ‘a strong dose of humility,’ to include respect toward those with whom he might disagree?
- 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.