Entry from November 12, 2014

The unseemly squabble among Navy SEALs and the political, legal and military authorities they once served over how Osama bin Laden was killed and who killed him provides a good example of what happens when a country loses its honor culture. The native or reflexive honor is still there, reinforced by the specialized military honor culture, but the larger social environment no longer retains any sense of what honor means, apart from one’s personal beliefs and values. Without that understanding, even our men of honor — in this case the SEALs — don’t know how to behave. Nor, I scarcely need add, do the journalists who have come forward to criticize Matt Bissonnette, author of No Easy Day and Rob O’Neill, now revealed (though not without further controversy over the claim) as the SEAL whose bullets to the head killed the terrorist leader.

Take the New York Times report of the letter sent to all Navy SEALs, present and former, by Rear Admiral Brian L. Losey of the Naval Special Warfare unit and the SEALs top enlisted man, Michael L. Magaraci, which — so said the Times reporters — "warned that there could be consequences for revealing military secrets and operational details. ‘We will actively seek judicial consequence for members who willfully violate the law, and place our Teammates, our Families, and potential future operations at risk,’ the letter said." But this makes it sound as if the Navy only cares about the unauthorized revelation of classified information and the danger it might cause to others. The text of the letter, not linked to by the Times, shows that its authors concerns were broader than that:

At Naval Special Warfare’s core is the SEAL Ethos. A critical tenant [sic] of our Ethos is "I do not advertise the nature of my work, nor seek recognition for my actions". Our Ethos is a life-long commitment and obligation, both in and out of the Service. Violators of our Ethos are neither Teammates in good standing nor Teammates who represent Naval Special Warfare. We do not abide willful or selfish disregard for our core values in return for public notoriety and financial gain, which only diminishes otherwise honorable service, courage and sacrifice. Our credibility as a premier fighting force is forged in this sacrifice and has been accomplished with honor, as well as humility. The most important credit we can garner is the respect of our Teammates and Partners.

You can understand why the Times might have left this part out, but its omission actually explains the breach of the SEAL "Ethos" by Messrs Bissonnette and O’Neill, since hardly anyone outside the armed services — maybe even outside special forces — is any longer equipped to understand what Admiral Losey and Force Master Chief Magaraci have written here.

In other words, the Ethos — a curious word for it, by the way, when "honor" expresses so much more exactly what they mean — may be specific to the Naval Special Warfare unit, but it requires some point of contact in the culture at large, some general understanding of honor if it is to have any hope of being treated as binding on those who have returned to life outside the military. They know that hardly anyone in the civilian world can be expected to know or care about what most people understand as the arcane practices of a sort of secret society, like Skull and Bones or the Masons. They want to know what happened and can see no reason why those who did it should not tell them, apart from concerns about the security of information that the media have been teaching them for two generations are invariably overblown. If Julian Assange and Edward Snowden can profit by publicizing our government’s secrets why shouldn’t these genuine heroes? If President Obama has turned a political profit from the death of Osama bin Laden, why shouldn’t those who actually killed him make a profit of another kind?

The only person known to me who has put the matter into its proper perspective is Harry de Quetteville in the London Daily Telegraph who, after years as the paper’s obituaries editor, developed a powerful respect for the many heroes of the Second World War whose obituaries he published and who never spoke of their own heroic deeds, even when there was nothing but their own sense of honor to prevent them from doing so. The Western honor culture hasn’t always looked down on braggarts and boasters, but the one still known to all those who served from 1939 to 1945, and still respected by them even if they thought it outmoded, certainly did. That code of honor, if the public’s understanding of it hadn’t all but disappeared at some point between the end of the Vietnam War and the beginning of the Clinton administration, would have been far more powerful than any legal sanction in teaching them when to keep their mouths shut.

By the way, what was for me almost worse than Mr O’Neill’s bragging about his own role in the death of Osama bin Laden was his telling Esquire — admittedly when he was still known only as "The Shooter" — that he had joined the navy in the first place only because his girlfriend dumped him: "That’s the reason al-Qaeda has been decimated," he said. "Because she broke my f****** heart." Oh dear. But by then it was already clear that he had never been taught the manners of a gentleman, so it’s no surprise that he didn’t know a gentleman doesn’t kiss and tell either. Clearly, his comment was a bid for celebrity, which is what the media culture of today ensures that kids will grow up to understand as once they grew up understanding the manners, and the honor, of ladies and gentlemen.

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