With bin Laden, we’ve become a nation of voyeurs
Am I the only one bothered by the aftermath of the Osama bin Laden mission? Don’t get me wrong, I’m pleased we seized the opportunity to kill him, and I’m proud to have the Special Ops team under the American flag.
But the White House, the news media and the American people have conducted themselves like children. I suppose some of us have always been unable to control our urges to gawk, insisting that we see the blood and guts, like rubberneckers slowly passing an auto wreck and urgently trying for a glimpse of the brains on the windshield, a broken bone poking through flesh or maybe the bonus of a severed limb awaiting discovery on the blacktop.
For the adults I know who have experienced the ugliness of war, it would have been quite enough for the President to announce the death of Bin Laden at the hand of our Special Ops team, details withheld to preserve security of our sources and methods and to protect the team’s personnel and families, never mind keeping from our enemies the details of how much about them we learned from the mission.
So I applaud the President’s decision not to release photos of bin Laden’s corpse as proof to doubters. I also applaud the burial at sea, eliminating the frenzy to examine the body or turn his grave into a shrine. Those decisions appear to me the sole brief moments of good judgment in the mission’s aftermath.
Many on the right are criticizing administration spokesmen for getting things wrong. First they said there was a 40-minute firefight in which bin Laden resisted and was killed after sacrificing women as human shields.
Holy smokes! In a firefight, 40 minutes is an eternity and suggests the surprise raid was stopped in its tracks.
They said bin Laden’s compound was a mansion without computers or TVs. Over time and many versions they said the firefight was brief against a single gunman, that bin Laden’s wife was shot in the leg when she lunged at one of our men, that bin Laden was shot while not armed, then that he may have been reaching for a weapon, that his compound was rustic but loaded with technology and intelligence on hard drives and thumb drives.
First it was a kill mission and then a capture mission with kill as an option. Each version seemed to be wrapped in the standard Washington, D.C., claim of “No blame here!”
I don’t fault them for getting it wrong at first. The fog of war makes initial reports understandably wrong; they usually are. The real fault lies in the rush to release salacious details that serve no purpose but to titillate the public and to toughen the image of a White House that had earned a reputation of being soft on terrorists.
The fault is also in pundits, reporters and citizens scrambling after every tiny bloody tidbit about the mission.
Spokesmen eagerly reported the examination of the intelligence gathered at bin Laden’s compound, as if al Qaeda operatives were not listening, and that we found for starters a plot to blow up trains in various cities.
I suppose politicians publicly patting themselves on the back for a “well-done” trumps the advantage we might have gained by revealing nothing of what we had learned of a national security nature. I wonder if there are any adults remaining in our nation’s capital?
The pinnacle of absurdity for me is lauding President Obama for his “courageous decision” to approve the mission. I suppose courage is supposedly required due to the political risk had the mission gone bad, but you’ll have to pardon my doubts for two reasons.
First, I don’t think any president, Republican or Democrat, could ever explain away passing up the chance to kill or capture bin Laden after 9/11. Second, any real leader would approve such a mission in a heartbeat no matter the political consequences simply because it is so unmistakably the right thing to do. Congratulating the President’s courage for making the “Go!” decision feels a little silly in contrast to the Special Ops team that did the deed.
I marvel at the things these men do to keep us safe in our blissful ignorance. They are called when the mission is nearly impossible, far too dangerous for line military units.
They are highly trained in close quarters battle, helicopter jumps to a combat dive, high-and-low altitude parachuting, infiltration, recon, intelligence, interrogation, high-speed drops and pickups, fast-rope descent, land navigation, mountain climbing, unconventional warfare, demolition techniques, structure penetration, sniper methods, advanced first aid, radio communications and dozens of other disciplines honed to a razor edge.
Long ago when I was at my physical peak, such as it was, on my best day I could never come close to achieving what these men do every day just to stay mission-ready, like capping off a day of physical training with a five-mile swim in cold surf.
We have no concept of life in their world, and the second-guessing by talking heads on TV raises stupid to new heights.
As I tell high school students when I guest-lecture one class each semester, we now seriously handicap our own ability to fight a war by wanting to send real-time video back home, to capture the excitement and maybe even catch someone doing something wrong.
I tell them the only way we can win a war these days is to get it over quick before the news media starts to root for the underdog, as is human nature. The real secret, I tell them, is that home life and the battlefield are two completely separate worlds that should never touch.
Combat is an evil that is sometimes necessary, a dirty, nasty business of bodies torn apart, ugly, sad, unforgiving, full of chaos and errors and snap decisions that can easily go wrong, killing fast and furious in a desperate attempt to get it done and survive.
The only glory in combat is in the movies and we should not sully the home life of America with the gruesome details of distant battle. And yet nowadays we do just that.
We sit in our living rooms in comfort and safety, watching talking heads on TV hold forth on combat in their makeup and coifed hair under lights in air conditioning as if they know all about it, serving it up for us to second-guess our own warriors on the battlefield and whether or not they properly applied all the rules of engagement.
Why is it those most eager to second-guess are least likely to realize the home world and combat world are vastly different, that you cannot measure in one by standards from the other?
It all gives me the urge to puke.
Maybe some day our nation will grow up and realize that when our armed forces pull off a tough mission, doing our dirty work while we safely sleep, we don’t need to know all the gory details, that it is sufficient that we give them a nod of gratitude and respect.
But I’m not holding my breath.
[Terry Garlock lives in Peachtree City and writes columns occasionally for The Citizen. He has authored a book, “Strength & Honor: America’s Best in Vietnam.” His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.]