Case Study In Cultural Ethics Rot: “Bin Laden Shooter” Robert O’Neill

Dead, but still helping to corrupt our culture...

Yes, dead, but still helping to corrupt our culture…

Do you remember all those World War II, Korean War and Vietnam veterans who published books and gave interviews taking personal credit for the successes of the United Armed Services? No, neither do I, because there weren’t very many. The ethical culture of military organizations has always been that the unit is what matters, not the individual. For a soldier to seek credit, accolades and celebrity through his own disclosures was regarded as disgraceful conduct, and a betrayal of military honor and tradition.

Those values, and the important larger cultural values that they reinforce, are crumbling rapidly. Former Navy SEAL Robert O’Neill, one of many U.S. special forces members to storm Osama bin Laden’s compound on May 2, 2011, confirmed to The Washington Post that he was the unnamed SEAL who fired the fatal bullet at the terrorist leader. His decision to make himself an instant celebrity and speaker circuit star comes nearly two years after another Seal in the mission, Matt Bissonnette, published his account of the raid, “No Easy Day.” The Post says that O’Neill has endured “an agonizing personal struggle, as he weighed concerns over privacy and safety against a desire to have a least some control over a story that appeared likely to break, with or without his consent.” There is no struggle if O’Neill accepted that fact that his ethical obligation is to shut up, and not dishonor his colleagues, his profession and his country by choosing celebrity over preserving a vital ethical standard.

Will future Seals jeopardize the success of their missions as each tries to deliver the “money shot” that will literally result in millions? Why wouldn’t they, now that soldiers are absorbing the American culture’s obsession with cashing in and becoming famous as the primary objective of human existence? Like all ethical standards, the tradition of soldiers neither seeking individual credit nor wanting it had strong practical reasons for its existence. A military unit is the ultimate team, and no team can function at maximum efficiency if the members regard themselves as competing for glory.

When O’Neill’s planned interviews on Fox News and The Post were leaked by some of his former peers—they have obviously been corrupted too– SOFREP, a Web site run by former special-forces operatives, registered its disgust at the rotting ethics exemplified by O’Neill and Bissonnette. It also published a critical letter from Rear Admiral Brian Losey, Commander of NSWC, and Force Master Chief Michael Magaraci that argues that violators of that ethos “are neither teammates in good standing, nor teammates who represent Naval Special Warfare,” because central to the ethics of the profession is “not advertising the nature of their work, nor seeking recognition for particular actions.” Here is a photo of the letter (the type is faint):


Naturally, O’Neill has rationalizations. He told the Post that his decision to go public was made  after a private encounter over the summer with relatives of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on New York’s World Trade Center. He had been invited to address a gathering of 9/11 family members at the National September 11 Memorial Museum, and overwhelmed with emotion, he says, O’Neill decided spontaneously to talk about how bin Laden died. “The families told me it helped bring them some closure,” O’Neill told the Post.

Oh. Well then, if it makes those families feel better, that completely justifies undermining a core military value that is vital to the success of the armed forces and has been honored by soldiers in all armies for centuries.

Hogwash. Maybe O’Neill’s reasoning abilities are that flawed and his ethics alarms that damaged. Whatever the reason ( I could also believe that this was a carefully calculated justification that seeks to defuse criticism by invoking sympathy for the victims of the 2001 terrorist attacks), it’s pure rationalization.

I don’t blame O’Neill for the origins of this ethics rot, just for perpetuating and hastening it. The destruction of the standards were well underway before he abandoned them. The celebrity culture is pervasive, and like a fish in poisoned water, he is subject to its toxic influence without even understanding how or why. It didn’t help that his Commander-in-Chief thumped his chest, gracelessly ignored the work of those who preceded him, and accepted personal credit for Bin Laden’s death to employ for political gain. Nor did it strengthen the standard of non-disclosure to have two Secretaries of Defense, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, cash in themselves by violating the ethical standards of loyalty to one’s superior in government service, and the duty to keep information accepted in confidence, confidential forever. O’Neill’s most prominent leaders and role models weren’t being ethical, and most of the public didn’t seem to mind.

Then there was the example of O’Neill’s comrade, Matt Bissonnette, who is now suing his former lawyers for malpractice, claiming they gave him bad advice by assuring that he could safely publish his account of the raid without checking with the Pentagon. That turned out to be wrong, and the suit  says the result tarnished his reputation, cost him his security clearance and made him surrender much of the book’s profits to the government. His suit may have a chance, but Bissonette was cashing in too. His rationalization? Bissonnette says he decided to write the book after realizing that others who did not know the accurate facts were writing about and discussing the daring May 2011 raid by SEAL Team 6 in Pakistan. This is another variation on the “Everybody does it” rationalization, the “Everybody’s been doing it and I can do it better” self-deception.

Though it is in its death throes, the tradition of honorable selflessness does survive, barely, in the conduct of such ethical traditionalists as Seth W. Moulton, the newly elected Democratic House Representative of the Sixth Congressional District in Massachusetts. Just before the election, the Boston Globe revealed that the Iraq conflict veteran had earned  the Bronze Star medal for valor and the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation medal for valor during his five years of service. Moulton had not mentioned either honor during his campaign. He explained to the Globe that he considered it unseemly to discuss his own awards for valor, and that he would not trumpet  his own awards out of respect to “many others who did heroic things and received no awards at all.’’

My late father, a Silver Star and Bronze Star recipient, felt exactly the same way.

But how long can a culture produce honorable and trustworthy citizens like Rep. Moulton, when the social media celebrates and encourages narcissism, when taking daily photos of oneself and sending them onto the web to be gawked at is considered normal and harmless  rather than proof of pathological levels of self-absorption; when not merely exemplary or heroic conduct, but also illegal or outrageous conduct are widely viewed as tickets to fame, books, riches and reality shows? How long will it take before the worst of the culture infects the best, until there is no best to remind us what ethical conduct is?

Harry Truman memorably said that It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”  The military had long understood that principle. Now members of the military are joining with the legion of greedy, starry-eyed self-promotors  to ensure the culture unlearns it.

And that is how our ethics rot.


Sources: Washington Post, SOFREP, Boston Globe, Yahoo

9 thoughts on “Case Study In Cultural Ethics Rot: “Bin Laden Shooter” Robert O’Neill

  1. Our “ethics rot” is a reflection of a regressing culture of “me-first(ism) if it leads to notoriety, fame & money. It’s a by-product of glory to the individual at the expense of the group or community. “I” built that vs my idea w/ the help of all enable my success!

  2. Bear with me on this please, I’m writing it with considerable frustration. I’ve recently been on a hard-core Texas Revolution research kick. During some online reading about it, I Google searched a topic, and one of the hits led to a book that I skimmed through online. By chance, I landed on a topic completely unrelated to the Texas Revolution, but the paragraph was nearly perfect. My computer shut down. I didn’t get the book title, the author, or even the search string I used that gave me the chance find. The paragraph I read is excellent for this topic, and I can only try my best to reconstruct it or at least it’s gist, followed by an excerpt from another book that I do recall:

    The gist of the first:

    When western armies finally left the European continent and exported their advanced military philosophies to new lands, the results were astounding. During a siege and battle by one of the conquistadors, his well oiled machine of war, which consisted of nameless soldiers each crafted with a special skill operated without fame as just another cog in a great mechanism met the ranks of native tribal warriors, the effect was devastating. As ranks of foot soldiers held the tribal forces attention, masses of mounted soldiers wheeled around and pierced the line from multiple directions. No Indian warrior was given a chance to fight the only way they knew – individual combat – in which personal glory could shine out and make it worth the risk of death. Instead, as each individual Indian, stripped of glory, looked down the battle line and saw their extended family members anonymously cut down by the killing machine of a European army, most of them turned and ran. The ensuing rout would be seen time and again across the globe.

    (If anyone recognizes where that came from, please let me know, because I didn’t do it justice.)

    The second article is from Max Boot’s “War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History, 1500 to Today”:

    “The discipline of Western armies, what historian John Lynn calls their “battle culture of forbearance,” was, in many ways, their secret weapon. Non-Europeans were able to manufacture or purchase European “hardware” (their guns) with reasonable ease. They found it much more difficult to duplicate the “software” that made these weapons effective. Drill and discipline did not come easily to warrior societies that were used to one-on-one battles. The brutality of Western warfare, its single-mindedness, its imperative to kill or be killed, ran counter to most non-Western traditions.
    This was not because most non-Westerners were “noble savages” who lived in a pacifist’s paradise, asa some Europeans once imagined. There was nothing edenic about the temples where Aztec priests ribbed the still-beating hearts out of thousands of victims. But even for the Aztecs warfare was severely constrained by tradition, ritual, and the scarcity of lethal weapons; their “flower battles” were designed to capture, not kill, their neighbors. Neither they nor most other tribal societies were prepared for the organized slaughter of the Western battlefield. As Victor Davis Hanson has written, “The most gallant Apaches—murderously brave in raiding and skirmishing on the Great Plains—would have gone home after the first hour of Gettysburg.” And no wonder. From a traditional warrior’s standpoint, there was little sense in fighting anonymously in the ranks where no one could see your feats of courage. If you did fight, it should be to gain loot or to protect your clan. Why risk your neck for an abstract cause or a distant ruler? Especially if the odds of getting killed were so high.”
    A similar mind-set—which, it must be admitted, has a powerful logic of self-preservation behind it—prevailed in Europe through the Middle Ages. The nobility, which derived much of its status from chivalric jousting on horseback, ceded power slowly and grudgingly. The emergence of modern states, whose most important unit of military force was the humble infantryman, took hundreds of years. Most non-European states woke up to the need to make this transformation, if they ever awoke at all, only by the time Western armies were already on their doorsteps. It was in large part the failure to master the Western way of war that led to the fall of such once-mighty empires as those of the Ottomans and the Moguls. Marshal de Saxe’s valedictory for the Turks applied equally well to other non-Western states: “It is not valour, numbers, or wealth that they lack; it is order, discipline and technique.”

    Interestingly enough, for a culture that espouses Individualism and personal achievement, we have understood that when the time comes to subsume the individual and behave as a loyal anonymous member of a centrally controlled crowd is in mass warfare. This discovery was made in the West, after the Greek dark ages inside the claustrophobic, sweaty, smelly, pulsing hoplite phalanx. Although it waned and resurged throughout European history, this way of war, has had more than just an effect on our battlefield culture. It also contributed key characteristics to our civic attitudes as well as to our war making ethics.

    As alluded to in Max Boot’s piece – the tribal warrior felt risking the self was only worth it for glory or loot in personal combat or quick raids on neighboring tribes. What does a modern Westerner call a person who kills out of the motivation for personal fulfillment or material aggrandizement? Murderer. Robber.

    No, we either decided, OR the very practice itself slowly affected us, that war is waged for more objective ends than fame or wealth (distinctly unethical reasons for war). It is not ethical to go to war for these reasons. O’Neill’s revelation is more concerning than narcissistic rot when viewed in this light. It means that, if a trend develops from this attitude, are we fighting for fame and glory? Or still to execute lethally the policy of our nation when peaceful diplomacy and commerce fails?

    Not only is the Western way of war – anonymous skilled parts of a well oiled killing machine – the best because it wins while minimizing friendly casualties, it’s the best because it publicly strips non-ethical considerations from those engaging in the war from them, therefore allowing the nation to engage in war on ethical terms.

    • … It was in large part the failure to master the Western way of war that led to the fall of such once-mighty empires as those of the Ottomans and the Moguls. Marshal de Saxe’s valedictory for the Turks applied equally well to other non-Western states: “It is not valour, numbers, or wealth that they lack; it is order, discipline and technique.”

      That first sentence is wrong; the Ottomans had mastered the “western” way of war, and in fact it was they who had (re)introduced it to the west – Christendom – as the regular part of their military effort that was used by the Janissaries and artillery trains in a combined arms way along with semi-regulars and irregulars like sipahis and bashi-bazouks. It was just that it had decayed as part of the general decay of strong and effective, intelligently administered central control in the reigns after that of Suleiman the Magnificent. The system was set up by the vizier Aladdin for his (half) brother the Sultan Orhan (I am not sure which Orhan, but I think it may have been Orhan II), and it made the Janissaries into the first paid, disciplined, tactically and otherwise trained, uniformed regular infantry since the Late Roman Empire (the uniform’s headgear included a symbolic soup ladle or spoon to indicate that the Janissaries would never starve, unlike the oppressed populace).

  3. I read “the tradition of honorable selflessness does survive, barely [emphasis added], in the conduct of such ethical traditionalists as Seth W. Moulton” as meaning that his conduct barely exemplified it, not that it was a full example that is rare these days.

  4. Thank God we still have veterans from World War 2 around who do not take nor expect credit for their sacrifices and bravery. They give all the glory and remembrance to those who didn’t come home.Bless them one and all !
    However this O’Neill has put almighty greed and media attention on himself above any sacred oath and loyalty to his fellow servicemen. Then when it turns ugly he will be the first to whimper and expect sympathy from the public. He is no hero and has no honor.And has endangered an entire country if not the entire civilized world.

  5. How did I miss this? When I was a SEAL hopeful back in the early 90’s, Puerto Rico’s pre-BUD/S “motivator” was an old “bullfrog” named HMCM Arturo Farias. I was very impressed with this man, the epitome of the Quiet Professional. In civvies, you’d never even suspect he was a frogman, especially since he never wore any of the “dig-it” hey-everybody-I’m-a-SEAL clothing, or acted like a prima donna. He never bragged, but from what I’d heard he had been involved in everything since Vietnam. When all of this stuff started happening, my first thought was “I’ll bet the Master Chief is sick to his stomach”.

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