Navy SEALs, Pentagon Brass Push Back Against Political, Media Exploitation

Navy SEALs Zero Dark Thirty
Annapurna Pictures / The Kobal Collection / Olley, Jonathan via AFP

When Taya Kyle, wife of “American Sniper” Chris Kyle, fondly recalled her late husband’s humility on Breitbart News Daily Tuesday morning, she was speaking in the context of a New York Times article published over the weekend. The article described a growing rift among current and former Navy SEALs, and Pentagon commanders, over what some denounce as the commercial and political exploitation of the legendary service.

The opening anecdote in the Times story concerns Missouri gubernatorial candidate Eric Grentens, who has made his experiences as a SEAL the centerpiece of his campaign, to the consternation of former colleagues who have accused him of “exaggerating his record” and “unduly benefiting from his time in the SEALs.”

Curiously, the New York Times article does not mention Chris Kyle, whose biopic American Sniper was a colossal critical and box-office success. However, there is some discussion of Marcus Luttrell and his book and movie Lone Survivor, and the 2012 film Act of Valor, which made much-touted use of real Navy SEALs as actors. Movie audiences got another look at what the SEALs can do in the 2013 Tom Hanks film Captain Phillips.

Much of the increased public interest in the SEALs was, of course, due to their role in the death of Osama bin Laden, which became the subject of the high-profile 2012 film Zero Dark Thirty.

It is duly noted that Luttrell was actively encouraged to write Lone Survivor by Naval Special Warfare Command, and he was well aware it represented a significant change of attitude for the formerly humble and secretive SEALs. Act of Valor was practically a recruiting film, a project launched after the SEAL command was tasked with dramatically increasing its manpower.

The makers of Zero Dark Thirty were given such enthusiastic cooperation by the Obama administration that it became a subject of congressional inquiry. While they certainly understood public interest in the raid on bin Laden’s compound, some in the special-operations community were concerned that the film would give away too many details about how SEAL teams operate. (Conversely, after the movie was released, there were some complaints that it downplayed the SEALs too much, in favor of the CIA operatives who hunted bin Laden down.)

In another curious omission, the NYT does not mention any of that, or directly refer to Zero Dark Thirty at all, although it does bring up the bin Laden mission as a watershed moment for the public image of the SEALs. The Times is quick to slam Fox News for having too many SEALs as guests but has not a word to say about the Obama administration granting unprecedented access to a Hollywood team working on a movie the president very much wanted in theaters, as quickly as possible.

Many SEALs are said to be unhappy with this public-relations drive, saying it has spiraled out of control into political and commercial exploitation. The brass would appear to agree. The Times notes that Naval Special Warfare Command has “told its men to lower their profile and tried to rein in public appearances by active-duty members,” while the Pentagon “imposed a rule last September restricting the appearance of service members in video games, movies and television shows.”

Defense Department directives to increase recruiting for their notoriously difficult service would obviously prompt the SEALs to change their public-relations posture, and such a change is difficult to reverse, once a fair number of special operators have enjoyed great success as authors, speakers, and talk-show guests.

The Obama administration’s eagerness to emphasize the death of bin Laden was an important factor driving this change, as was the administration’s often-stated reliance on special operators instead of regular troops to handle terrorism operations.

It is difficult to sell such a strategy to the American public without giving them a much better look at special forces troops and their capabilities. The public was eager to take that look, especially once the media floodgates opened on stories of military heroism after the 2008 election.

It is hardly surprising that people would devour books about extraordinary military service, and turn to political candidates with elite military experience, in a time of great anxiety about national security.

SEAL Lt. Forrest S. Crowell expressed the dangers of SEAL commercialization in his master’s thesis for Naval Postgraduate School, as quoted by the New York Times. “The raising of Navy SEALs to celebrity status through media exploitation and publicity stunts has corrupted the culture of the SEAL community by incentivizing narcissistic and profit-oriented behavior,” he wrote.

Crowell added that bringing the SEALs into partisan politics, and disclosing their tactics, “erodes military effectiveness, damages national security, and undermines healthy civil-military relations.”


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