Commentary Magazine


Topic: Navy SEALs

American Sniper and the Truth About Iraq

Having seen American Sniper last night, I came away stunned by the controversy over the film. As The Washington Post summarizes, a billboard for the film in West Hollywood was spray-painted with the word “murderer,” Michael Moore has claimed that snipers are “cowards” not “heroes,” Seth Rogen has likened it to a Nazi propaganda film show in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, and some have even compared Chief Petty Officer Chris Kyle to the very jihadist terrorists that he fought.

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Having seen American Sniper last night, I came away stunned by the controversy over the film. As The Washington Post summarizes, a billboard for the film in West Hollywood was spray-painted with the word “murderer,” Michael Moore has claimed that snipers are “cowards” not “heroes,” Seth Rogen has likened it to a Nazi propaganda film show in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, and some have even compared Chief Petty Officer Chris Kyle to the very jihadist terrorists that he fought.

Listening to the criticism you would think that American Sniper was a mindless, pro-Iraq War movie. That’s not the movie I saw. Almost entirely apolitical, American Sniper had nothing to say one way or the other about whether the Iraq War was worth fighting and even showed Chris Kyle’s younger brother cursing the war at the end of his deployment as a marine. It is true that the main narrative of the film depicts Kyle’s martial skills in uncritical fashion–he was the most deadly sniper in American history, with 160 confirmed kills–but it also makes much of the emotional cost of four combat deployments for both him and especially for his family. Among other things, the movie is a sensitive and understated depiction of post-traumatic stress syndrome, showing how much trouble Kyle had in adjusting back into the civilian world after leaving Iraq.

Why, then, all the criticism? Perhaps because almost all of the Iraqis are depicted as bad guys–or to use the word that Kyle used “savages–while Kyle and his SEAL teammates are depicted as dedicated professionals who try as hard as possible to avoid killing civilians. Although the movie shows a scene at the beginning of Kyle killing a woman and her child who are carrying a grenade to blow up a Marine column (in reality he only killed the woman–there was no child present), it later shows how relieved he is that a child who picked up a rocket-propelled grenade and aimed it an American Humvee put down the weapon and ran away before Kyle could shoot him. This is, in short, not a movie like  Platoon or Born on the Fourth of July or In the Valley of Elah or MASH that depicts American soldiers in the worst possible light.

But guess what? In my experience having visited Iraq a number of times during the war, Clint Eastwood, the movie’s director, is telling it like it is. Oh sure, large elements of the film are fictionalized (no, Kyle did not have a personal duel with a Syrian sniper called Mustafa), as is the case with pretty much every Hollywood movie. But the movie gets the larger truth right–that, with some lamentable and inevitable exceptions, American soldiers did behave themselves in exemplary fashion in Iraq, certainly compared to their enemies who drove car bombs into crowds of civilians and ruthless tortured to death anyone they suspected of opposing them.

The movie gets it, right, too that for many combat became an addictive high that was hard to let go of, and that, while many veterans bear psychological scars from their service, few have any regrets about their service. Many would no doubt nod in recognition along with Chris Kyle when he says that his only regret was that he couldn’t save more American soldiers–by, presumably, killing more of their enemies. Now many veterans would add another regret to their list–that President Obama pulled out all American troops from Iraq in 2011, allowing the extremists to retake towns from Fallujah to Mosul that Americans had fought so hard to clear. But I haven’t heard any veterans say their service was a mistake and that they were victims of a malign and deceitful American government–which is presumably what the MoveOn.org crowd is waiting to hear.

American Sniper could and should have done more to depict the brave Iraqis who fought alongside Americans against Shiite and Sunni extremists. (No Iraqi soldiers are shown, only interpreters who may or may not have been Iraqis.) It at least does have one scene which shows the extent to which Iraqis themselves were victimized by these fanatics–a harrowing depiction of an enforcer called “The Butcher” killing a boy with a power drill. What the movie’s critics may not like, but which is nevertheless true, is that this is an accurate depiction of the enemy that American troops were (and are) fighting–merciless fanatics who have staged the worst terrorist killing spree in history. And unfortunately that spree continues because ISIS, the group that has taken over large swathes of Iraq and Syria, is a direct descendant of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the group that Kyle and his fellow SEALs fought in the movie.

No doubt some would love to see American Sniper show moral equivalence between SEALs and their jihadist enemies in the manner of Jean Renoir’s 1937 masterpiece Grand Illusion, which depicted the commonality between French and German soldiers in World War I. That might make the movie more complex and more artistic, but it would also make it fundamentally false. Sorry, there simply isn’t any moral equivalence in the ongoing battle against jihadism—any more than there is any moral equivalence between American soldiers in World War II and their Nazi enemies.

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Hero’s Dilemma Exaggerated Yet Real

Esquire magazine has just posted a much-discussed article about “the Shooter” who is said to have killed Osama bin Laden. This is not a simple tale of heroism, a la “No Easy Day,” the best-selling book written by another member of SEAL Team Six who was on the raid. This article has a strong point of view, as is made clear by the headline: “The Man Who Killed Osama bin Laden… Is Screwed.”

Journalist Phil Bronstein, who interviewed “the Shooter,” laments “that a man with hundreds of successful war missions, one of the most decorated combat veterans of our age, who capped his career by terminating bin Laden, has no landing pad in civilian life.” He explains that “the Shooter will discover soon enough that when he leaves after sixteen years in the Navy, his body filled with scar tissue, arthritis, tendonitis, eye damage, and blown disks, here is what he gets from his employer and a grateful nation: Nothing. No pension, no healthcare for his wife and kids, no protection for himself or his family.”

Numerous veterans have pointed out that this is an exaggeration and in fact Esquire has already posted a correction and changed the language above which had previously suggested that there is no healthcare for him, not just for his (separated) wife and his kids. The magazine notes: “A previous version of this story misstated the extent of the five-year health care benefits offered to cover veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Department of Veterans Affairs offers comprehensive health care to eligible veterans during that period, though not to their families.” There are also numerous other benefits such as the GI Bill which would enable “the Shooter” to go to college.

Nevertheless the article does have a serious point to make—the nation is not doing right by the small number of infantrymen and special operators, a tiny percentage of the overall armed forces, who are at the pointy tip of the spear. The problem is two-fold.

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Esquire magazine has just posted a much-discussed article about “the Shooter” who is said to have killed Osama bin Laden. This is not a simple tale of heroism, a la “No Easy Day,” the best-selling book written by another member of SEAL Team Six who was on the raid. This article has a strong point of view, as is made clear by the headline: “The Man Who Killed Osama bin Laden… Is Screwed.”

Journalist Phil Bronstein, who interviewed “the Shooter,” laments “that a man with hundreds of successful war missions, one of the most decorated combat veterans of our age, who capped his career by terminating bin Laden, has no landing pad in civilian life.” He explains that “the Shooter will discover soon enough that when he leaves after sixteen years in the Navy, his body filled with scar tissue, arthritis, tendonitis, eye damage, and blown disks, here is what he gets from his employer and a grateful nation: Nothing. No pension, no healthcare for his wife and kids, no protection for himself or his family.”

Numerous veterans have pointed out that this is an exaggeration and in fact Esquire has already posted a correction and changed the language above which had previously suggested that there is no healthcare for him, not just for his (separated) wife and his kids. The magazine notes: “A previous version of this story misstated the extent of the five-year health care benefits offered to cover veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Department of Veterans Affairs offers comprehensive health care to eligible veterans during that period, though not to their families.” There are also numerous other benefits such as the GI Bill which would enable “the Shooter” to go to college.

Nevertheless the article does have a serious point to make—the nation is not doing right by the small number of infantrymen and special operators, a tiny percentage of the overall armed forces, who are at the pointy tip of the spear. The problem is two-fold.

First, the military’s retirement system is designed to provide generous benefits to those who retire after 20 years but far less to those who get out sooner, as “the Shooter” has decided to do. This is counter-productive because it leads the military to lose many who could make an important contribution even after 20 years of service, while not providing adequate recompense for those who serve for a slightly shorter period.

The second problem is that there is little if any difference in combat pay between those like “the Shooter” who routinely go on extremely dangerous raids or patrols and clerks who spend their entire deployment in Afghanistan or Iraq sitting behind a computer on a comparatively safe Forward Operating Base. We should offer more generous financial rewards to those who are in the thick of combat given the risk they take and the psychological trauma they will have to live with.  

Finally “the Shooter” faces an issue unique to his case: He will be a marked man for the rest of his life. Many people already know his name and it is a safe bet that Al Qaeda will be gunning for him. Under those circumstances the Navy owes him more than a handshake: It should offer him a new life and a new identity in a version of the “Witness Protection” program.

Even if Bronstein’s indictment is overstated, he has a valid point that we as a nation need to do a better job of caring for our heroes.

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Will Obama’s “Bumps in the Road” Hurt?

The Romney campaign spent Tuesday criticizing Obama for referring to the riots and embassy attacks across the Muslim world as “bumps in the road.” But now the mother of one of the former Navy SEALs killing in Libya said she agrees with the road-bump characterization, and is sad to see the incident politicized, according to the Boston Herald:

The mother of a former Navy SEAL from Winchester killed in Libya said it is “very sad” that her son’s death was being used as political theater yesterday — and she agreed with President Obama’s controversial assessment that the latest round of deadly troubles in the region constitute “bumps in the road.”

She said every day, men like her son are making a difference for those who live in that region.

“Those people, not only there, but other places, are under horrid dictatorships,” Barbara Doherty told the Herald yesterday. “They’re very angry. They’re poor. It is a little bump in the road. They are making progress. You can’t expect it to happen in one night. Progress is slow.”

That will probably settle it for the media, which, as John wrote in his New York Post column, was already trying to ignore Obama’s indelicate comment anyway. How long do you think it will take for the press to turn this into a Romney-gaffe story? Maybe we can look forward to another round of breathless “did Romney jump the gun?” headlines.

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The Romney campaign spent Tuesday criticizing Obama for referring to the riots and embassy attacks across the Muslim world as “bumps in the road.” But now the mother of one of the former Navy SEALs killing in Libya said she agrees with the road-bump characterization, and is sad to see the incident politicized, according to the Boston Herald:

The mother of a former Navy SEAL from Winchester killed in Libya said it is “very sad” that her son’s death was being used as political theater yesterday — and she agreed with President Obama’s controversial assessment that the latest round of deadly troubles in the region constitute “bumps in the road.”

She said every day, men like her son are making a difference for those who live in that region.

“Those people, not only there, but other places, are under horrid dictatorships,” Barbara Doherty told the Herald yesterday. “They’re very angry. They’re poor. It is a little bump in the road. They are making progress. You can’t expect it to happen in one night. Progress is slow.”

That will probably settle it for the media, which, as John wrote in his New York Post column, was already trying to ignore Obama’s indelicate comment anyway. How long do you think it will take for the press to turn this into a Romney-gaffe story? Maybe we can look forward to another round of breathless “did Romney jump the gun?” headlines.

Nobody is arguing that the attack in Benghazi is an insurmountable setback in the country or the region. But when the Commander-in-Chief describes it as “a bump in the road,” he’s suggesting that it was minor, unavoidable and inconsequential. That’s not what we’ve seen so far. This was the first assassination of a U.S. ambassador in over thirty years. For most Americans, that’s not a minor concern. There is evidence that we lost a massive amount of intelligence in the raid — again, not impossible to overcome, but something that will have consequences in the region. As for whether the attack could have been avoided, there are serious concerns about why the State Department failed to secure the consulate and the ambassador.

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Admin Using Fallen Ex-SEALs For Cover?

Obama administration officials have denied there were security breakdowns at the Benghazi consulate, with UN Ambassador Susan Rice citing the two former Navy SEALs killed in the attack, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, as part of the “substantial security presence” at the compound. But the Washington Guardian reports today that Woods and Doherty were not part of the official security detail:

The officials provided the information to the Washington Guardian, saying they feared the Obama administration’s scant description of the episode left a misimpression that the two ex-Navy SEALs might have been responsible for the ambassador’s personal safety or become separated from him.

“Woods and Doherty weren’t part of the detail, nor were they personally responsible for the ambassador’s security, but they stepped into the breach when the attacks occurred and their actions saved others lives — and they shouldn’t be lumped in with the security detail,” one senior official said, speaking only on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about the State Department. …

In fact, officials said, the two men were personal service contractors whose official function was described as “embassy security,” but whose work did not involve personal protection of the ambassador or perimeter security of the compound.

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Obama administration officials have denied there were security breakdowns at the Benghazi consulate, with UN Ambassador Susan Rice citing the two former Navy SEALs killed in the attack, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, as part of the “substantial security presence” at the compound. But the Washington Guardian reports today that Woods and Doherty were not part of the official security detail:

The officials provided the information to the Washington Guardian, saying they feared the Obama administration’s scant description of the episode left a misimpression that the two ex-Navy SEALs might have been responsible for the ambassador’s personal safety or become separated from him.

“Woods and Doherty weren’t part of the detail, nor were they personally responsible for the ambassador’s security, but they stepped into the breach when the attacks occurred and their actions saved others lives — and they shouldn’t be lumped in with the security detail,” one senior official said, speaking only on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about the State Department. …

In fact, officials said, the two men were personal service contractors whose official function was described as “embassy security,” but whose work did not involve personal protection of the ambassador or perimeter security of the compound.

Former Navy SEALS, who were in Libya as private contractors, were serving in some capacity unrelated to their official titles. That’s pretty vague, but you can probably connect your own dots from there. Whatever Woods and Doherty were doing, they were not in Benghazi as State Department employees, nor were they tasked with directly protecting the ambassador or the compound.

And yet both Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice have implied they were providing embassy security for the State Department at the time of the attack. During an interview with Jake Tapper earlier this week, Rice rejected charges that the State Department hadn’t provided adequate security for the consulate, saying that “two of the four Americans who were killed were there providing security” along with “other colleagues who were doing the same with them.”

TAPPER: Why was there such a security breakdown? Why was there not better security at the compound in Benghazi? Why were there not U.S. Marines at the embassy in Tripoli?

RICE: Well, first of all, we had a substantial security presence with our personnel…

TAPPER: Not substantial enough, though, right?

RICE: … with our personnel and the consulate in Benghazi. Tragically, two of the four Americans who were killed were there providing security. That was their function. And indeed, there were many other colleagues who were doing the same with them.

It would be perfectly understandable if the administration didn’t get into the details about what Woods and Doherty were doing in Benghazi, particularly if they were there in some covert capacity. But it’s another thing for the administration to use them as cover for the State Department’s failure to provide adequate security. These men served their country with honor, and they deserve more from this administration.

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