Despite the fact I knew what I was getting myself into reading such a sob story, it still managed to make me physically ill (though certainly not for the reason intended). No doubt there is some sense of irony and sadness within any story that shows how the ruling class molds human beings into willing assassins who believe what they're doing is noble, and then laughs in their face when they're broken and no longer useful, but it would require a level of patriotism I do not have in order to be comfortable with the overall tone. We're meant to take up this man's cause, while ignoring that of those he has killed.
Still, it was an illuminating trip into the mind of a professional hitman - a tool of war coming to the stark realization that he was nothing more than a tool of war.
Perhaps I wouldn't have been as bothered by what I read if the rhetoric were not so cringe-inducing. But this too should have been expected, as only someone who accepts the entire war on terror dialogue could manage to get close enough to this guy (who wishes to remain anonymous on fear of his life) for long enough to even write a meaningful story.
Still, all the usual talking points are there. Washington D.C. is referred to as "the capital of the free world". The shooter is a "determined alpha male in the ultimate alpha crowd" and "an essential part of the team helping keep us safe since 9/11". Every Arab is either dead, the butt of a joke, potentially wearing a suicide vest, or all three (seriously).
At one point Bronstein even takes to gloating about his closeness to his source [unless otherwise noted, all emphasis from here on is mine]:
[Bin Laden is the] number-one celebrity of evil. And the man in my backyard blew his lights out.
America, fuck yeah!
As the shooter went over gritty details of the raid itself, the extent to which he had been molded and shaped into a Real American
Instead of counting, for some reason I said to myself the George Bush 9/11 quote: Freedom itself was attacked this morning by a faceless coward, and freedom will be defended. I could just hear his voice, and that was neat. I started saying it again and again to myself. Then I started to get pumped up. I'm like: This is so on.
This is some serious Navy SEAL shit we're going to do. This is so badass. My foot hit the ground and I was still running [the Bush quote] in my head. I don't care if I die right now. This is so awesome.
Propaganda works - never forget it. Here you have one of the top Navy SEALs - supposedly the best and brightest out there - quoting George Bush's 'freedom' inanity in his head for inspiration. He's bought into the whole culture clash dichotomy hook, line, and sinker, and he's using it to get pumped up to kill people.
Kill or capture?
We were thinking, Yeah, okay, good. It's about time that we kill this motherfucker. It was simple. They were either going to bomb the piss out of the compound with two-thousand-pound ordnance, they were going to send us in, do some kind of joint thing with the Pakis, or try what was called a "hammer throw," where a drone flies by and chucks one fucking bomb at the guy. But they didn't want any collateral damage. And they wanted to make sure he was dead and not in a cave or a safe room.
While it's not entirely surprising there was no real effort to capture bin Laden alive (given the ambiguous 'militants' American air strikes, drones, and special forces raids assassinate on a daily basis), it's still important to note for the sake of posterity.
One of the most overlooked aspects of the raid, however, was the fact that it took place in Pakistan, without the consent of the Pakistani government. It violated the sovereignty of Pakistan for what I won't even start to pretend was the first time. Mostly for this reason, the SEALs thought they weren't going to come back. The shooter admits to spending the entire flight in worried they would be detected on radar, and the preparation apparently involved a lot of talk about whether or not they would surrender to the military if they showed up in time.
This is hearsay, but I understand Obama said, Hell no. My guys are not surrendering. What do we need to rain hell on the Pakistani military? That was the one time in my life I was thinking, I am fucking voting for this guy. I had a picture of him lying in bed at night, thinking, You're not fucking with my guys. Like, he's thinking about us.
Just hearsay, but I wonder how many Americans would have been okay with starting a war with a nuclear power because the special forces which violated its sovereignty on the hopes of killing a terrorist got into a firefight with the state's military. Or better yet, would they be okay with the Pakistani military going in under the radar to take out a terrorist on American soil, with fighter jets ready to 'rain hell' on the American military if they intervened?
In any case, the intent here was to kill. The shooter explains how he dealt with one particular squad member who went in firing:
"Hey, man, I just shot a woman." He was worried. I told him not to be. "We should be thinking about the mission, not about going to jail."
Well, you're already breaking international law in order to conduct an assassination mission, I'm sure no one will blink twice at a few extra war crimes.
One SEAL tries to take out bin Laden at first sight, but apparently misses. The shooter explains:
We had to move, because bin Laden is now going to be grabbing some weapon because he's getting shot at.
The shooter eventually ends up in that final confrontation, but despite claiming that bin Laden was about to reach for an AK and that he thought maybe his wife had on some sort of suicide vest, it's difficult to see what reasonable chance anyone had to resist in the first place. Even Bronstein says, "The SEALs had nightscopes, but it was coal-black for bin Laden and the other residents. He can hear but he can't see."
Even in our kill houses where we train, there are targets with his face on them. This was repetition and muscle memory. That's him, boom, done.
How sweet. Seriously though, could a group of assassins who trained on bin Laden target dummies have even kept their cool if this were a capture mission? After all, this was certainly the culmination of their entire 21st century existence.
His forehead was gruesome. It was split open in the shape of a V. I could see his brains spilling out over his face. The American public doesn't want to know what that looks like.
Certainly not - that might have put a damper on the whole celebrating in the streets thing!
Not in dispute is the fact that others have claimed that they shot bin Laden when he was already dead, and a number of team members apparently did just that.
"I would have done it if I'd come in the room later. I knew I was going to shoot him if I saw him, regardless. I even joked about that with the guys before we were there. "I don't give a shit if you kill him — if I come in the room, I'm shooting his ass. I don't care if he's deader than fried chicken."
I suspect this is the main reason pictures of the body were withheld. Not only did they shoot to kill, they shot to desecrate. And given the many cases of American soldiers doing just that, who knows what else happened. Part of being a hero apparently involves pissing on the dead... and the shooter makes a point to repeatedly talk about relieving himself, even saying he had a bottle of urine from earlier in his pocket during the raid.
Then I realized that bin Laden's youngest son, who is about two or three, was standing there on the other side of the bed. I didn't want to hurt him, because I'm not a savage.
Well now, who would suggest such a thing?
Kill 'em all
"When we first started the war in Iraq, we were using Metallica music to soften people up before we interrogated them," the Shooter says. "Metallica got wind of this and they said, 'Hey, please don't use our music because we don't want to promote violence.' I thought, Dude, you have an album called Kill 'Em All. "But we stopped using their music, and then a band called Demon Hunter got in touch and said, 'We're all about promoting what you do.' They sent us CDs and patches. I wore my Demon Hunter patch on every mission. I wore it when I blasted bin Laden."
Interestingly, Demon Hunter self-identifies as a Christian band. A Christian band more than happy to lend their support to a predominantly white, Christian American military torturing, killing, and destroying the countries of, predominantly, Arab Muslims. You don't need to be a medieval historian or a disciple of Jesus to see how problematic that position is.
Metallica, on the other hand, claims they never talked to the military at all, only referring to it in an interview to say they just really didn't like their music used to make a political statement (that is, support for the Iraq War at a time it was hugely unpopular). They certainly seem to have no aversion to the use of torture, with lead singer James Hetfield even commenting back in 2008: “Part of me is proud because they chose Metallica. It’s strong, it’s music that’s powerful. It represents something maybe they don’t like, freedom, aggression, I don’t know. Freedom of speech.”
Anyway, back to killing 'em all:
At Jalalabad, the Shooter saw the CIA analyst pacing. She asked me why I was so calm. I told her, We do this every night. We go to a house, we fuck with some people, and we leave.
If the surge in Iraq ordered by President Bush in 2007 was at all successful, that success is owed significantly to the night-shift work done by SEAL Team 6.
"We would go kill high-value targets every night," the Shooter tells me. He and other ST6 members who would later be on the Abbottabad trip lived in rough huts with mud floors and cots. "But we were completely disrupting Al Qaeda and other Iraqi networks. If we only killed five or six guys a night, we were wasting our time. We knew this was the greatest moment of our operational lives."
From Al Asad to Ramadi to Baghdad to Baquba — Al Qaeda central at the time — the SEALs had latitude to go after "everyone we thought we had to kill. That's really a major reason the surge was going so well, because terrorists were dying strategically."
The idea that anyone was dying strategically surely depends a lot on making sure you're the 'correct' yardstick - just as you might compare drone strikes with carpet bombing, for example.
Incidentally, the enemies in every occasion just so happen to be al-Qaida, no matter if we're talking Pakistan, Iraq, or - like in this case - Afghanistan:
Once, [the shooter] was pinned down near Asadabad, Afghanistan, while the SEALs were trying to disrupt Al Qaeda supply lines used to ambush Americans.
Are they al-Qaida, or are they "Iraqi networks", Taliban fighters, 'local militants', etc? At what point does al-Qaida cease to mean anything other than whoever is currently resisting American aggression in the Middle East and Africa? Yes, I know those are uncomfortable questions.
Al Qaeda, especially these days, is 99 percent talk. But that 1 percent of the time they do shit, it's bad. They're capable of horrific things.
Unlike the U.S. military, which is only capable of kindness.
Can we get a body count?
At Jalalabad, as we got off the plane there was an air crew there, guys who fix helicopters. They hugged me and knew I'd killed him. I don't know how the hell word spread that fast.
[Admiral William] McRaven himself came over to me, very emotional. He grabbed me across the back of my neck like a proud father and gave me a hug. He knew what had happened, too.
Touching, isn't it?
I never expected people to be screaming "U.S.A.!" with Geraldo outside the White House.
Again, you saw the body - they didn't.
A blunt object
I've had some close calls with death, bullets flying past my head. Even just driving, weird stuff. Every time, I would tell my mother, "There's no way I'm going to die, because I'm here to do something." I've been saying that for twenty years. I don't know what it is, but it's something important.
"I'm not religious, but I always felt I was put on the earth to do something specific. After that mission, I knew what it was."
That's our shooter talking about Manifest Destiny or something. O to be the man who would kill bin Laden! What an honor, to have such purpose in life!
With that mentality, it's no surprise he has had issues coping with life after herodom:
The command had mandatory psych evaluations. During one of those, the Shooter told the psychologist, "I was having suicidal thoughts and drinking too much." The doctor's response? "He told me this was normal for SEALs after combat deployment. He told me I should just drink less and not hurt anybody."
Well, that probably is "normal" for someone who has been broken into service, pushed his body to its very limits (he recalls a story of a recruit who has to be resuscitated after an underwater trial designed to test how far you're willing to push yourself - the recruit passes), caused and seen death on a consistent basis for the better part of two decades, and now internalized all of that suffering as necessary.
The Shooter's wife is indignant. "That's not normal!" Though she knows that "every time you send your husband off to war, you get a slightly different person back."
Slightly less of a person, no doubt.
What would a good story be without a little market failure. Shall we?
Bronstein presents the idea that there's a serious problem when America isn't even taking care of its veterans - the implication being that it's okay if the country doesn't take care of some people (you know, the ones that can be passed off as lazy or incompetent), but it certainly should at least support its military heroes, and especially the Greatest American Hero himself. Of course, because America doesn't offer universal healthcare - and what the mandated health insurance under Obamacare will provide is completely inadequate for anyone with even half the problems of an ex-SEAL - the real problem here is the never-ending faith in the market's ability to solve problems. But that's not a critique you'll ever hear in a piece like this one.
Instead we get retired Marine major general Mike Myatt, who has a brilliant solution - more capitalism:
"Can and should the DOD spend the extra effort it would take to help the superelite guys get with exactly the kind of employers they should have? Investment bankers, say, value that competition, drive, and discipline, not to mention people with security clearances. They [Tier One vets] should be plugged in at executive levels. Any employers who think about it would want to hire these people."
One former SEAL I spoke with is a Harvard MBA and now a very successful Wall Street trader whose career path is precisely the kind of example that should be evangelized to outgoing SEALs. His own life reflects that "SpecOps guys could be hugely value-added" to civilian companies, though he says business schools — degrees in general — might be an important step. "It would be great to get a panel of CEOs together who are ready to help these guys get hired." Some big companies do have veteran-outreach specialists — former SEAL Harry Wingo fills that role at Google.
Yes, exactly what the world needs. More authoritarians in corporate America. God knows there certainly aren't enough corporate executives with government and military contacts, insider traders with security clearances, or elites with no qualms about stomping on everyone else, treating the world as a playground.
He is furious about the high unemployment rate among returning infantrymen, as well as homelessness, PTSD, and the other plagues of new veterans. General Myatt believes "the U.S. military is the best in the world at transitioning from civilian to military life and the worst in the world at transitioning back."
But is he furious enough to examine the root causes, and to challenge even his own service? Has he considered that the military's structure and mission themselves are the problem? If you have to break a recruit in order for them to be fit for military service, do you really think they're going to just be able to revert to the mindset they held beforehand?
These, too, are thoughts which never find their way into the discussion. No one involved in this story, it seems, has made even the slightest effort on the way to self-reflection. Never was the narrative questioned, or the deeper aspects of the conflict discussed in critical terms.
Though there was a single, faint hint - hidden amongst the madness:
"Personally," his wife told me recently, "I feel more threatened by a potential retaliatory terror attack on our community than I did eight years ago," when her husband joined ST6.