Should we use our special operations troops as assassins? Is it right, or even smart?

Summary: As we learn the details about the raid by US special operations forces on bin Laden’s home, we should reflect on how we have used our elite troops since 9/11. Years of dark deeds with bad outcomes show a people on the road to failure. Closing our eyes while we fantasize makes the ride more enjoyable, but not the end.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

“I’ll be the good guy.  You be the American special ops assassin.”
— Children at play around the world.

Special Forces
Image by Eric A. Hendrix.

Contents

  1. Destroying the brand.
  2. The tip of our spear.
  3. Consequences.
  4. Other posts in this series.
  5. For More Information.

(1)  Destroying the brand

Every first year MBA student knows that a company’s brand is among its most valuable assets. So it goes for nations as well, where brands attack allies and generate foes. WWII created the brand that we think of as America. But we’re creating a new brand for America that will influence our grand strategy for generations to come.

The CIA has long had a dark reputation overseas, overthrowing democratically elected governments that dare to oppose America. It installed tyrants. But the doers of these dark deeds was compartmentalized, it’s deeds somewhat concealed.

The bin Laden raid shows a next step in the formation of a new face for America as our finest soldiers indelibly stain their reputations by becoming assassins, striking from the night (much as America’s technology becomes Skynet — drones run by cowards that kill from cushy seats on the other side of the globe).

The occasional hit might be forgiven or overlooked.  But as the Romans said, Dosis facit venenum.  It is the dose that makes the poison.  Too many hits and our special ops forces might as well adopt “America’s Sword and Shield” as their motto.  If the KGB will lend it to us.

KGP Logo

(2)  The tip of our spear

“It’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.”
— District Attorney Rachel Dawes in Batman Begins.

In many ways our Special Operations forces are the best we have: brave, talented, and dedicated men (and perhaps soon women). They make sacrifices for us on a scale that nobody would do for just money. In that sense they are heroes. But that does not mean that we have them doing heroic deeds. People are judged by what they do as much as who they are and why they serve.

In The Story of Philosophy historian and philosopher Will Durant summarized Aristotle’s writings as “we are what we repeatedly do.”  We increasingly use our Special Operations Forces (SOF) as storm troopers and Gestapo-like enforcers of US foreign policy. Heavily armed SOF teams burst into peoples’ homes at night to kill and kidnap. They train tyrants’ secret police in the methods of torture and oppression (see School of the America’s Watch and its Wikipedia entry). What does that tell us — and other nations — about America?

Such dark deeds may be effective (though post-WWII history says otherwise). Doing such deeds is often dangerous. But they are not heroic in any usual sense of the word.  We can loudly shout “hero hero hero” to commemorate their deeds. Perhaps that will convince ourselves, but will not impress our allies. But our deeds will inflame our foes, and recruit more to their causes.

Special Operations Command

(3)  Consequences

“Sooner or later, everyone sits down to a banquet of consequences.”
— Attributed to Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894).

We require our soldiers to obey a chain of command that extends up to elected officials at the top. The responsibility for their deeds lies on our hands, not on those of our soldiers following orders (that’s a subject for another day).  Through elections every two years we collectively acknowledge and take as our own the deeds done in our name. Our passivity in holding the reins of government not only excuses nothing, it indicts us for negligence and irresponsibility.

I believe if we continue on this path our special operations forces will be seen as villains, as is the CIA today. Ultimately the US too will be judged by the means used to enforce our policies, not just as the policies themselves. We pride ourselves on being the exceptional nation, the exceptional City on a Hill of Matthew 5:14), the one those on the Mayflower hoped to build. The world might hold us to the standard we set for ourselves, and which we have for long boasted about — and see us as just more global gangsters.

We destroy our brand in exchange for nothing, since these methods have repeatedly failed for us and scores of other nations Mao brought 4GW to maturing during WWII. Generations of counterinsurgency experts study past failures (e.g., intently watching The Battle of Algiers), then repeat these errors (see links below for details). It’s a combination of tactical success and strategic failure that feels strong but can bring down the most powerful Empires.

Empires often earn their fall through the harsh logic of the Nature’s God evoked in the Declaration of Independence.

My power proceeds from my reputation, and my reputation from the victories I have won. My power would fall if I were not to support it with more glory and more victories. Conquest has made me what I am; only conquest can maintain me.

Friendship is only a word; I love nobody … I know perfectly well I have no real friends. As long as I remain what I am, I shall have as many as I need so far as the appearance goes. Let the weak whimper, that’s their business, but for me, give me no sentiment. I must be firm, have a stout heart, or else leave on one side war and government.

—  From The Corsican: A Diary of Napoleon’s Life in His Own Words by R. M. Johnson (1910). To update it for our views, I substituted “weak” for “women” and “I” for “men”.

Scales of Justice
Nobody escapes. No individual, no nation.

(4)  Other posts in this series.

  1. The most useful news story of 2015: the truth about the bin Laden hit.
  2. The day after Hersh: rebuttals & more evidence about the bin Laden hit.
  3. The first rule of American war is not to believe what we’re told.
  4. The debate about Hersh’s revelations reveals more than his article.

(5)  For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about assassination, about special operations forces, and especially these…

  1. The military takes us back to the future. To Vietnam, again and again.. 14 March 2013
  2. Expanding the size and scope of our Special Operations Forces, an alternative to learning from our failed wars.
  3. “SAS kill up to 8 jihadis each day, as allies prepare to wipe IS off the map.” Bold words we’ve heard before.
  4. Who overthrew the Taliban: Special Forces’ guns or CIA’s cash?

15 thoughts on “Should we use our special operations troops as assassins? Is it right, or even smart?

  1. Brands come and Brands go. The CIA is us/US. And this has been going on in form since TR and Panama.

    I’ll tell you what FM. Institute the Draft. No student deferments. No medical deferments except for certain death involving situations. No exceptions. COs required to take a Lie Detector. No Felons allowed. Priority to those who come from families at or above the Median Family Income. All serve for three years. No special retirement deals.It’s a Duty.

    Now we’ll no longer worry about the SOPs dissing our Brand.

    Breton

  2. Two comments:
    1. We are already harvesting consequences. The first of which is that our internally facing law enforcement agencies are behaving more and more like our externally facing CIA/SOF/Regular Military. Please pass the salt, this banquet of consequences doesn’t taste very good.

    2. So, Breton, you’d take our military back to the 1930’s-60’s. Look at the record and you’ll see that the politicians found all sorts of evil ways to use the troops during and the US suffered for it. Changing the tool does not change the lying SOB’s who use the tool. The current system has the advantage(?) of reducing the amount of damage done to our country by the our errant political leadership.

    Since the days of Teddy Roosevelt, US political leadership has increasingly viewed the rest of the world as something to beat into subservience without regard for consequences. That trend was amplified by WWII and has gone off the scale since 9/11 (which I regard as the beginning of the American Empire although there were LOTS of signs we were heading that way already).

    FM is right to regard 9/11 as the most effective military operation in history, but most great victories require the active assistance of the loser and we have been doing everything we can to enshrine OBL’s place in history. The first rule of getting out of the hole is to stop digging and we are doing just the opposite. Changing the tool does not change the desire to dig faster and deeper.

    1. Pluto,

      (1) “we are already harvesting consequences”

      From our post-9/11 wars — COIN, the WOT — certainly. From the transformation of our SOF into assassins, imo not yet.

      (2) “but most great victories require the active assistance of the loser”

      That’s an important insight. Big decisive wins on the battlefield (wet or dry) are rare. From Cannae to 1940 France, they usually require some “cooperation” from the loser. This was especially so with 9/11, probably designed to produce a change in US public policy. Bin Laden found allies among US allies, people wanting foreign wars and less rights for Americans. Their tacit alliance changed history.

    2. Mr Pluto

      This entire Blog is an exhortation to the citizenry to please Engage.

      The USA has not won a war since 1945. And mainly in that regards, only during the Draft Days did the citizens have any skin in that Game. And skin is exactly what the boys of the citizens had in VN 50,000 KIA, 500,000 Wounded. And how did that turn out on the streets and in the Politics and on TV?

      https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=DgRVNjsuycQ

      You go figure. You sit with your sons at dinner and now some of your girls and consider. And just like then in the 60’s, you too may become engaged in what your Country is up to over There. But maybe not…….

      Breton

    3. Breton,

      Excerpt for border wars fought for limited goals (e.g., Korea, Kasmir), since WWII almost all the wars fought by troops outside their borders have been counter-insurgencies (the wars of Israel vs neighbors are among the rare exceptions). Almost all of them were defeats by the foreign army. It’s a cardinal but commonplace error to look at one of these and draw conclusions while ignoring the others. Volunteer army, draftees, mercs — everybody loses.

      Comparing the wars of the post-WWII era with WWII is silly, like comparing apples and airplanes.

  3. “We destroy our brand in exchange for nothing”

    That should not be overestimated. Eastern Europeans looking for support against Russia don’t give a damn about “brand”, they want somebody with a really big stick, if anything the more aggressive the better. Asian nations looking for a counterweight against China won’t care much about american human rights record either. Western european leaders will submit no matter what.
    Cadres of competent assassins will be a very useful addition for internal “security” purposes, that goes without saying.

    4GW works well only as long as genocide is off the table, should attitudes harden enough…

    1. Marcello,

      I agree with your points. However, the moral high ground has proved important in many wars — both conventional and 4GW. It was decisive in both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, for example. It was a major factor in Vietnam (the US never lost on the battlefield).

      “genocide is off the table”

      I don’t know what that means. The NAZIs faced fierce insurgencies all along their eastern frontier, despite being unlimited in their response. The colonial powers fought insurgencies after WWII, and many of them used massive force against the subject population.

  4. Once upon a time, yes the Secretary would deploy Mr. Phelps and his IMF Force.

    However, back then, should Phelps or his comrades be exposed, the Secretary would deny all knowledge of his activities.

    Nowadays, instead, the Secretary would celebrate him.

  5. “De Oppresso Liber” What a wonderful motto! It sums up a warrior code that should be the standard for every military unit. It was adopted by the U.S. Army Special Forces as its “raison d’etre” before the Green Beret became its distinctive headgear:

    “A mark of distinction, a symbol of excellence, a badge of courage” is how John F. Kennedy described it. That description of that hat probably still fits.

    But the motto? De Oppresso Liber = Free the Oppressed. How does that square with “counter-terrorism”, “targeted assassinations”, “secret renditions”, “harsh interogations”? We have turned our “Samurai” into “Ninja”.

  6. FB,
    Losers troops are tools in US foreign policy, see:

    This time, the U.S. government consultant told me, Bandar and other Saudis have assured the White House that “they will keep a very close eye on the religious fundamentalists. Their message to us was ‘We’ve created this movement, and we can control it.’ It’s not that we don’t want the Salafis to throw bombs; it’s who they throw them at—Hezbollah, Moqtada al-Sadr, Iran, and at the Syrians, if they continue to work with Hezbollah and Iran.”

    — “The Redirection” by Seymour M. Hersh, The New Yorker, May 2007 — “Is the Administration’s new policy benefitting our enemies in the war on terrorism?”

  7. If you are worried about our “brand” then the real problem is our foreign policy, assassination would just be an application of our foreign policy. But you have not presented an argument on why assassination in itself is intrinsically wrong. What makes an assassination right or wrong is, who you are killing, and what effect will a particular assassination have. If we had a proper foreign policy that actually took protecting American lives and destroying it’s enemies as it’s primary concern then maybe an assassination or two would show that our brand takes protecting it’s citizens rights and lives seriously.

    1. Apollo,

      ‘not presented an argument on why assassination in itself is intrinsically wrong”

      Yes, that’s correct. What’s your point?

      “What makes an assassination right or wrong is, who you are killing, and what effect will a particular assassination have.”

      I think the terms you are looking for are “effective” and “ineffective”, not “right or wrong”.

      “primary concern then maybe an assassination or two would show that our brand takes protecting it’s citizens rights and lives seriously.”

      How sad that Americans have come to worship force. Our TV shows are filled with killers and torturers as the good guys — and we seem to confuse these shows with reality. This is not likely to end well for us.

  8. “Yes, that’s correct. What’s your point?”

    That was my point, you are criticizing a particular method, but if you want to make a real argument that gets to the essence to what the problem is, then criticize our foreign policy which determines how we use our special forces. The argument it seemed that you were making, was that you thought that assassination is wrong irrespective of the context in which it is used, and that assassination is something that we should not do, no mater what because it tarnishes our “brand” or it is somehow intrinsically immoral.

    “The bin Laden raid shows a next step in the formation of a new face for America as our finest soldiers indelibly stain their reputations by becoming assassins, striking from the night (much as America’s technology becomes Skynet — drones run by cowards that kill from cushy seats on the other side of the globe).”

    This is written as if animals like Bin Laden deserve a face to face fight as equals with our soldiers. No, they are not equals, our soldiers are better. Also, the proper purpose of war is not to show how brave or manly you are, its purpose is to eliminate the threats that threaten the lives and rights of your fellow soldiers and citizens. If you can do that in the comfort of your couch without breaking a sweat, then that IS the proper way to do it. It is morally obscene to put the lives of your soldiers in danger, just so that you can show how brave they are in combat. War should be made as unfair as possible for the benefit of your side.

    “I think the terms you are looking for are “effective” and “ineffective”, not “right or wrong”.”

    No, I used the right word, for example, assassinating Hitler would have been a moral act, but is assassination a proper method for trying to achieve victory in that kind of war? No, so it would be moral to kill him, just not a very effective means of ending the war.

    “How sad that Americans have come to worship force. Our TV shows are filled with killers and torturers as the good guys — and we seem to confuse these shows with reality. This is not likely to end well for us”

    Please explain to me the proper use of force. If it is not a just act to kill Islamic Totalitarians then I don’t know what is. You say this as if there is a moral equivalence when we use force and when they use force, there isn’t. You completely drops context, it is never right to initiate force, it is only right to use force in retaliation .i.e. in self-defense. I advocate for the use of force to end this conflict,not to continue it forever in indeterminate wars.

    1. Apollo,

      “That was my point, you are criticizing a particular method, but if you want to make a real argument that gets to the essence to what the problem is”

      You are entitled to your opinion, but that’s not the way analysis is done in business, the military, or geopolitics. There are levels, analysis can be done on any of these. In military one can discuss tactics, the operational art, strategy — or, going beyond military matters to their use — grand strategy.

      “This is written as if animals like Bin Laden deserve a face to face fight as equals with our soldiers.”

      Too weird to deserve comment, and wrong on every level. Bin Laden is not an “animal” (in killing civilians, he’s small time compared to western governments). The idea of “deserving” a right to “face to face fighting” has been outmoded for a century. Conceptually this ignores everything we know about how wars start — and how they can be ended.

      “No, they are not equals, our soldiers are better.”

      Thank you, God. Always nice to hear from You.

      “If it is not a just act to kill Islamic Totalitarians then I don’t know what is.”

      Quite so. You obviously have not the slightest knowledge about the history or dynamics of war. But that realization can be the start of learning. I can suggest some books for you to read.

  9. “There are levels, analysis can be done on any of these. In military one can discuss tactics, the operational art, strategy — or, going beyond military matters to their use — grand strategy.”

    I know this, and I think that you know that I know this. There is also a level of fundamentality, for example, it doesn’t matter if you win every tactical engagement, if your strategy is wrong you will lose. And there is also, the moral-physical mental level, if you fail at a higher level, the success you have on the lover level will be undermined.

    Your argument wasn’t,” in this particular situation assassinations are the wrong thing to do. No, it was Assassination is immoral PERIOD. And my point is, NO IT IS NOT, what matters is who are we killing, and why. I am making the same argument that I would make in defense of torture. In war is it moral to torture your enemy? My answer is yes, if it saves American lives. Some people would argue that torture is impractical and that it doesn’t work, which means that doing it would be a waste of time. But that would be a completely different argument. If it doesn’t work, then don’t do it, but in that situation you’re not not torturing because you think that torture is intrinsically wrong, but because it isn’t effective.

    Now, if the point that I ascribed to you is not your point, then you failed to make your point, because that is what I keep getting every time I read this post. And there are “hints” of this everywhere, even in the tittle:

    “Should we use our special operations troops as assassins? IS IT RIGHT, or even smart?”

    ““I’ll be the good guy. You be the American special ops assassin.”
    — Children at play around the world.”

    “a new face for America as our finest soldiers indelibly stain their reputations by becoming assassins”

    “People are judged by what they do as much as who they are and why they serve.”

    ” Ultimately the US too will be judged by the means used to enforce our policies, not just as the policies themselves.”

    “Too weird to deserve comment, and wrong on every level. Bin Laden is not an “animal” (in killing civilians, he’s small time compared to western governments).

    You’re right, he isn’t an animal, he was below an animal. And what? are we in grade school? Since when is “I did something wrong but so did Timmy a proper argument?” If you want to discuss the nature and evil of statist that another debate.

    “The idea of “deserving” a right to “face to face fighting” has been outmoded for a century.”

    That was the point you were making, not me. You said “drones run by cowards that kill from cushy seats”. You are the one that thinks that killing from far away is cowardly. My point was that it is perfectly moral.

    “Thank you, God. Always nice to hear from You.”

    You do not have to be god to see that, by any Objective measurement anybody that is rational can see that if these Islamists win the form of government they institute will be destructive to human life and lead to total misery. But you are too busy hating your own country to see that we are not equal to Totalitarians.

    “I can suggest some books for you to read.”

    I’ll gladly buy any book you suggest if you do the same for any book I suggest.

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