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Opinion Special Operations forces are stretched to the danger point

Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher in San Diego in July 2019.
Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher in San Diego in July 2019. (Gregory Bull/AP)
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In late 2015, a Navy lieutenant wrote a graduate school thesis titled “Navy SEALs gone wild: publicity, fame, and the loss of the quiet professional.” That was a warning of trouble among America’s bravest but most stressed warriors.

The ethical squeeze got worse last year, when President Trump intervened in a military discipline case to protect a publicity-hungry SEAL named Eddie Gallagher, who had become a darling of Fox News despite allegations that he had violated SEAL rules. Pentagon leaders cringed at the president’s meddling, knowing it could make discipline problems worse.

“I was not pleased with the way that Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher’s trial was handled by the Navy. He was treated very badly,” Trump complained in a November tweet. He probably thought he was standing up for the military, but four retired four-star generals told me this week that Trump’s comment was a gut punch to the order and accountability these brave men and women need to perform their missions honorably.

A former commander warned of the cost to military ethics and discipline of presidential interference in the Gallagher case and two others Trump championed: “Now, the tendency is to reach out to Fox News. You might end up smelling like a rose, and you might even get invited to Mar-a-Lago,” as Gallagher and his wife were.

Special Operations Command (SOCOM) took an important step Tuesday to protect the integrity of its forces with the release of a comprehensive review of the “culture and ethics” of these elite units. It’s written in careful language (perhaps to a fault) and doesn’t go near the issue of Trump’s intervention in the cases of Gallagher and others.

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But the thrust of the report is clear: Special Operations forces (SOF) are badly frayed by nearly 20 years of war. They’ve been the fix for every big military problem since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. They’ve become the most fearsome killers in the history of warfare. But they’re at the red line.

Army Gen. Richard D. Clarke, the SOCOM commander, told reporters Tuesday: “We have a ‘can do’ culture with a bias toward action,” but nearly two decades of war have “imbalanced that culture” and “set conditions favorable for inappropriate behavior.” Clarke underlined that message Tuesday with a letter to the roughly 75,000 servicemembers under SOCOM: “Trust is our currency,” he wrote, but recent discipline issues have “jeopardized that trust.”

SOCOM warned in its 69-page report that it had “uncovered not only potential cracks in the SOF foundations at the individual and team level, but also through the chain of command, specifically in the core [tenets] of discipline and accountability.” If the underlying conditions aren’t addressed, “unethical behavior and misconduct” could put performance and safety at risk.

The military has known for a decade that its Special Operations forces were stretched to the danger point. Elite units were deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan almost continuously, sometimes with no “dwell time” at home between assignments. A SOCOM commander worried a decade ago that the force was ragged. His master sergeant responded that it was worse; there were “gaping holes.”

SOCOM commanders have tried hard to repair the damage. Adm. Eric Olson in 2011 reported on pressure faced by special operators and their families. Adm. William H. McRaven, his successor, created mental- and physical-health facilities to better protect forces and families; Gen. Joseph Votel, the next commander, had earlier removed a Special Operations unit from Afghanistan that was reporting far more enemy killed-in-action than other units; Gen. Tony Thomas, who followed, sent troops a 2018 “guidance on ethics” and directed a focus on core values.

The pressures have eased. Because SOF personnel have nearly doubled since 9/11, servicemembers can now, in theory, spend two years at home for every year they’re deployed.

But culture begins at the top, with the United States’ political leadership. When Trump complains, as he did in a tweet last year, “We train our boys to be killing machines, then prosecute them when they kill!” he risks undermining commanders’ work on accountability. Even worse is when he seems to condone Gallagher’s attack on the SEAL commander for conducting a peer review of Gallagher’s SEAL status. “I would have torn him apart,” says one retired four-star general of Gallagher’s behavior. “That was insubordination, pure and simple.”

The United States’ debt to its SOF fighters is immense. They’ve lived the burden of combat and the reality that it can bring out the best and worst in people. Part of protecting these warriors is reducing the burden of too many deployments — and maintaining discipline and accountability when bad things happen.

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