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.