Expect no Hollywood reprise of Zero Dark Thirty following the death of Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens, a 36-year-old Navy SEAL killed in action in Yemen on Jan. 29, 2017. President Trump’s explanation for what happened: “They lost Ryan.” The raid on a terrorist compound did not go according to plan. There were civilian casualties, some children, and the target escaped.
Days afterward, President Trump experienced the awful symbolic duty of being Commander-in-Chief as he stood with gravitas on the tarmac at Dover Air Force Base, watching a military detail remove Ryan’s flag-draped coffin from the cavernous fuselage of a C-17 transport. No doubt this was on his mind when he recently spoke to a joint session of Congress and promised, “We will never forget Ryan!” and everyone present rose from their seats in bipartisan cheering.
For once, Trump spoke at least a half truth. He may never forget Ryan, as he should not because he approved the raid. But sadly, except for his family, old high school buddies, community members, and fellow SEALs, the vast majority of around 319 million Americans will forget Ryan.
Since the Vietnam era, the military has become hermetically sealed. Dinnertime frontline war footage of our wounded and dead, served up by the three major networks, eroded popular support for the war. Ever since, our military has restricted access to combat by selectively “embedding” journalists and exerting tight controls on what can be filmed, photographed, or reported.
Today less than one percent of Americans serve in our all-volunteer force. Many Americans don’t know any Middle East veterans, much less about their lives as soldiers overseas. Consequently, they also don’t understand why this military generation has the highest rates of suicide, divorce, drug abuse, spousal abuse, unemployment, and homelessness of any in our long history of wars.
To minimize U.S. casualties many combat actions are undertaken by elite, small special operations units like Navy SEALs. The demanding and dangerous nature of their work depends on secrecy and the element of surprise. Few journalists could physically endure SEAL missions as it’s not unusual to be dropped by helicopter miles from a target, trek to it carrying 100 pounds of arms and equipment, engage in combat, then trek back for extraction, sometimes hauling the dead and wounded.
After the bin Laden mission, SEALs were as revered as Jedi
A couple years ago, I had the opportunity to spend time with some retired SEALs whose careers spanned Vietnam to the War on Terror. After the SEALs’ successful mission to eliminate Osama bin Laden, they were revered as Jedi’s. I was curious to find out what these elite soldiers are actually like.
The one I was most curious about was the youngest of them, a retired commander in his early forties. He had just been out of the service for a few weeks when I met him, ending 20 years of service, most of the last 10 in the Middle East. Call him Jim, not his real name (SEALs have a tradition of keeping a low profile; American Sniper-type tell-alls are rare).
Jim was a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy with an advanced degree in international affairs. He was quiet, modest, of average height, wore a trimmed beard, and was fit looking. You would never pick him out if he were standing in a line to purchase movie tickets with his lovely wife and kids.
Jim wasn’t much for small talk, but we were able to connect when he heard I had moved from Colorado. He said that early in his career he had trained for a mission in Bosnia up in the Collegiate Range west of Buena Vista, Colo. He smiled remembering when the chopper dropped him and a group of other San Diego-based SEALS into waist-deep powdered snow on an unknown ridge.
Most civilians are clueless
Over the few months I spent weekly time with him, I always had questions. He would answer patiently, but I sensed Jim thought most civilians, including me, were clueless and lacked interest in or knowledge of the Middle East or the lives of soldiers serving there.
The older SEALs were curious, too. Sometimes I’d hear scraps of cryptic conversation as he and his shipmates (that’s what they called each other) talked about missions, those that went “kinetic” (their word for violent) like one where they breached a door and were met by an armed “bad guy,” so for some reason the lead SEAL rammed the barrel of his rifle into the man’s eye socket, instead of shooting him. Or the time an Army medic accompanying the SEALs got caught out in the open when an RPG exploded and Jim had to pull him behind a wall, the look on the medic’s face when he regained consciousness, bleeding from his ears and nose, and realized he was alive, but deaf. These snippets were always short, matter of fact, with no trace of braggadocio.
I asked Jim how he learned to function amidst the violence and chaos. He said you don’t ever get used to it, but suggested I read Lt. Col. Grossman’s On Combat and On Killing, as he did during his training.
I asked if he believed the U.S. still needs to be there—the public is tiring of wars. His answer was terse: if we don’t get them there, they’ll come after us here as they did on 9/11. I expected a more elaborate geopolitical analysis, but that was the gist of it.
How does this end?
I asked how does this end? He said you will never understand the greater Middle East until you know the difference between a Shia and a Sunni and the nations dominated by each. The violence will not end any time soon, and will get worse and spread. Turns out, he was prophetic.
How is your knowledge about Islam? Take the quiz at the end of this article.
Jim was looking for work. Fishing or paddle boarding, even going to the local shooting range, didn’t offer much of a thrill to a frogman. He had applied for various corporate jobs, but got no interviews. He tried with the state police, but was turned down. One of the older SEALs asked him why. Jim surmised that during the interview they asked about any problem areas he perceived with the police and public. He said police departments had become too militarized, especially the tactical squads with armored personnel carriers and carrying very-high-powered assault weapons.
I suggested with his degree and experience he should teach at the local community college. But he said no chance, I’m not politically correct—I don’t like Muslims. He said he’s a Christian, but that’s how he felt after what he witnessed.
I never saw him again after that summer ended. I heard from one of his shipmates that eventually he got a job with the local police department. However, that didn’t last long. Something was missing just handing out tickets and arresting drunks.
Jim ended up going to work for a private contractor providing security to state department facilities in the Middle East. He’s overseas half the year. The work is dangerous (remember Benghazi), but the pay is much better than being a cop (or, for that matter, a SEAL).
Now whenever I hear of attacks on U.S. facilities in Iraq, I pause and think of Jim.
Results disastrous in terms of lives and money
I also thought of Jim when President Trump proposed a $50-billion increase in defense spending. We already spend more on defense than all the other great military powers in the world combined. We’ve always had a militaristic and interventionist streak, but it went ballistic after 9/11. The result has been disastrous in terms of lives (our soldiers, bad guys, and orders of magnitude more innocent civilians) and money.
If you really appreciate the courage, dedication, and sacrifice of our soldiers—as I do—you also need to be very skeptical of anyone who advocates solving international problems with force.
We need to confront the reality that Americans live now in a perpetual fog of war created by their political leaders, the chickenhawks in both parties, striking macho poses in front of the TV cameras. They are actually consumed with fear, and thus vulnerable to the relentless pressure of military-industrial complex lobbyists, apocalyptic religious zealots, and fair knee-jerk patriots.
To do so doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate our soldiers, simply we demand to know the why, what, when, how and where of our defense policies before deploying them to godawful places where Americans are hated.
Ryan Owens joined more than 6,000 other U.S. soldiers killed in the Middle East since 9/11. Due to insidious mission creep, our fatality reports now include losses in Yemen and Syria. I’d wager the majority of people in Congress—who vote on the defense budget—would not be able to identify either country on a map of the Middle East if the countries were not labeled. Neither could their constituents, I suspect.
The financial support for our growing defense misadventures resides with Congress, the very people who rose to cheer Ryan’s shaken widow, a mother of four children. Appropriately, the cheering lasted over two minutes, a record for such tributes. However, there was something hollow and superficial about it, like it was a convenient, carefully staged photo-op.
Prior to voting on more defense spending, a more fitting tribute, and reality check, would be for every member of Congress to drive from the Capitol Building over the Potomac to Arlington National Cemetery. It’s only about 15 minutes away.
Amidst the endless rows of white marble tombstones, they’ll arrive at Grave 11483 in Section 60. There they’ll find Ryan.