Shots fired. Rounds incoming.
As discussed recently here on SOFREP in an article by Brandon Webb, Jack Murphy, and Desiree Huitt, Navy SEAL Lieutenant Forrest Crowell wrote a master’s thesis for the Naval Postgraduate School in which he rather stridently disparaged those SEALs who “go public” and discuss the SEAL teams in the media. As noted in the article, and amply evidenced by his thesis, Lt. Crowell holds a dim view of those of us who dare speak about the SEALs in public. This author is, of course, included among that group of “rogue” SEALs, as are many others out there in the public eye.
Concurrent with SOFREP coming across that academic paper, this author was also personally provided a copy from an active-duty SEAL friend. The friend happens to be a long-time acquaintance, from long before either of us ever became Navy SEALs. He and I had a good discussion about it, and although we came at it from different points of view—he sees it from the perspective of a rising SEAL officer soon to assume command of a SEAL team, while I read it from the perspective of a former SEAL who comments publicly on various aspects of naval special warfare—we both agreed that it is a controversial subject these days within the SEAL teams, and that there are no easy solutions to alleviate the current conflict within the community.
Let’s face it: There is a segment of the SEAL population, both active duty and retired, that will never be okay with SEALs discussing the SEAL teams in public. That is just a fact. Some can never justify what they see as active-duty or former SEALs seeking public acclaim and/or glory. They cannot abide discussing SEAL operations or training in any way, nor would they ever be caught dead speaking or writing publicly about the teams.
That is their right, and they are obviously entitled to that opinion. They should never be forced to comment publicly, nor should they ever feel that they must sanction it in their own minds. I respect their point of view, especially since some of my own family members and friends adhere to this very philosophy. I just disagree with it.
One of the models of this “quiet professional” approach is retired SEAL Admiral Eric T. Olson, a hero in every sense of the word, and a 38-year career naval officer. He served with honor and distinction in the SEAL teams and has rarely ever made public appearances to discuss any aspect of his career or the teams.
Admiral Olson would probably disapprove of me even mentioning his name in this article, but he is not a “secret” figure. He was, after all, the first Navy SEAL to achieve three- and four-star rank, the first SEAL to command U.S. Special Operations Command, and a public figure in every sense of the word. Still, he chooses to refrain from maintaining a public profile, and that is his right.
Those of us who have assumed a public profile, on the other hand, including Brandon Webb, Eric Davis, and myself here at SOFREP, as well as many other SEALs, have chosen to do so for our own, and probably different, reasons. Glory, fame, and money are not usually the driving factors, in my experience. Yes, earning money is great, and I have mouths to feed just like everyone else. Nor do I write for free here on SOFREP (although, I probably would, but don’t tell Brandon). And yes, through writing, radio, and television, we become well-known to the audience that follows our content. That is just the nature of the game.
While I do not want to speak for the others out there in the public eye, I will say that most of us do what we do because we are proud of our community—the SEAL teams—and we want to let Americans know what it is that we do (to a limited degree) on their behalf. We want to share with them, to the extent that it is appropriate, what the SEALs are and are not. We want to share with those unfamiliar with the process how it is that one becomes a SEAL, what the training is like, and how the community functions, in general, within the larger U.S. military machine. We also want to herald the achievements and expertise of our elite community.
This author has also chosen to write, in general, simply because I enjoy writing. I love it as a form of art and expression. It fulfills a need within me. I choose to write about the SEAL community because that is what I know. If I cannot write about what I know—the SEAL teams, the CIA, international affairs, fatherhood, and other topics—then what the hell do I write for?
No, I do not write about things that I am legally restricted from writing about. Yes, I send CIA subject matter, when appropriate, through the CIA’s publication review board. Yes, I would send SEAL operational information through the Department of Defense’s review process, if I ever chose to write about any of it. No, I do not write recklessly, or without forethought, or without going through a process. I do choose to write, though, and I will continue to do so.
You see, there is a system that exists that allows people like me, Brandon Webb, former CIA officer James Powell, Marcus Luttrell, former Ranger Nick Irving, and all of the others, to write about these subjects. That is because we have a right to do so under American law. The U.S. government cannot muzzle our voices unless there is a need to protect classified information. When there is that need, we redact what they order us to redact.
Realistically, we rarely ever send anything classified up for review because we know that it will be rejected, nor do we think that those details need to be made public. They are classified for a reason. Sometimes, however, pieces of information slip through in draft, and that is why the process exists: to scrub information before its publication.
Problems with this system arise when people like Lt. Crowell try to muzzle us, or worse, try to convince the entire SEAL community, writ large, to do so. Lt. Crowell advocates intimidation and public shaming to accomplish this muzzling, because he thinks SEALs should never be able to “go public.” My answer to him is, that just isn’t going to happen. Americans want to know about U.S. special operations forces, where it is appropriate for them to do so, and they deserve to be enlightened by those of us who speak with some knowledge of the subject. That is their right, and that is our right.
To attempt to shut down all discussion of a subject that is not explicitly protected by a non-disclosure agreement—and the great majority of SEAL-related subjects are not protected by such an agreement—is not Lt. Crowell’s, nor any other SEAL’s, prerogative. Who made him the ultimate guardian of the “SEAL mystique?” Who even decided that “mystique” should be pursued as an end goal in and of itself?
In this author’s opinion, mystique for mystique’s sake is nothing more than vanity. Being mysterious does not make a SEAL more operationally effective. Conversely, Eric Greitens running for governor of Missouri, and noting his former career as a SEAL officer, does not hurt the SEAL community’s operational security. Nor does my writing about the shit-show of the BUD/S 5.5 mile swim compromise national security in any way. It just doesn’t. To argue otherwise is pure fallacy.
Let those charged with protecting classified information, through the various review processes at the Department of Defense and the CIA, worry about protecting that information. Their job is to actually safeguard secrets, not reputations or mystique. Operational details, tradecraft, tactics, techniques, and procedures that should remain classified will continue to remain so, as long as the process is in place (and so long as politicians do not declassify information on their own).
We do not need self-proclaimed protectors of the community regulating the First Amendment rights of the rest of us. The community will be just fine as long as it continues to be the operationally elite force that it has been for decades now, carrying out the nation’s work on the battlefield, whether in secret, or in publicly acknowledged operations.
That is the end goal for which all SEALs should strive.