America’s elite special operators are breaking their wall of silence like never before, 'betrayed' by Trump’s decision to pull back in Syria and erase years of hard work. But are they too late?
They are called “silent warriors” for a reason. By training and tradition, America’s special operators — Green Berets, SEALs, and the like — are supposed to get in, get out, do their work in the shadows, under the radar, underwater, and most certainly out of the public eye.
But in the past week, a remarkably large number of the U.S. military’s most-elite members have broken their code of silence like never before in the ISIS conflict. Their message: President Donald Trump’s decision to pull them out of northern Syria so suddenly was a mistake.
It’s extraordinary. Active and retired special operators of all ranks, from Syria to Washington, have talked to reporters to voice their humiliation. The president, they say, has forced them to turn tail (at least in the north) and leave behind their Syrian Kurdish partners and families to face a much greater oncoming force from Turkey, and in essence surrender a unique and un-replicable foothold in the Middle East it has taken five years to establish. Even Joseph Votel, formerly the top general at U.S. Special Operations Command and until recently in charge of the Syria mission, is lashing out publicly, arguing the turnaround is wrong from top to bottom. The word they are using most about their commander in chief: betrayal.
To these warriors, it’s a strategic failure that benefits adversaries like Iran, Russia, ISIS, and yes, Turkey. It’s a tactical failure that gives up hard-won territory and influence in the heart of the Middle East. It’s a moral failure that betrays everything Americans – and American service members – are supposed to stand for.
But those who are complaining now are too late. Trump made his decision, and its impact may be irreversible. The president, critics howl, does not understand what he’s done. He thinks he is giving his supporters what they want and what America needs – an alleged shot of reality that the United States no longer can and should sustain these wars. The public, for their part, does not understand the impact of what they’re asking. By abruptly “ending endless wars,” critics insist the president is putting the United States and the world at greater security risk. In short, they just don’t understand.
If that’s so, then Trump is not the only one to blame. Special operations forces have been at this for years, which means their leaders have had years to build a constituency for their work — and yet have largely refused to engage. One reason has been their clinging to the silent-warrior image and ethos. To be sure, the U.S. needs silent warriors who remain silent about special operations work. But in the modern era of YouTube wars and instant social media posts from the front lines, it has been clear – and clear for years now – that not every silent warrior can or should remain a silent warrior. Keeping quiet may help special operators survive a mission, but it sure hasn’t helped them win the trust and support of American voters, or persuade their president to finish this one.
For years, the special operations community has tried to have it both ways: remain silent, retain the full support and buy-in of American public and leaders in Washington. For sure, Americans love the military, as polls consistently show. And they love elite warrior characters like Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets. Our pop culture is sprayed with special operator-porn in movies and TV shows, fanboy Instagrammers and shooting-range “molon labe” wannabes, and public displays of patriotism. But having parachute teams drop in to NFL games hasn’t done the job of building a constituency for the missions those forces perform, or the policies behind them. Tampa is a long way from al-Tanf.
The special operations community enjoys strong support from key members of Congress. When their leaders testify in committees, there is hardly an adversarial moment and deservedly so, given what they are asked to do. But that is support for the money, the care. Members make sure SOF troops have enough body armor, bullets, and medical and family programs, while exercising relatively light oversight of their behavior.
Congress’ loyal support does not extend to SOF missions, however, in Syria or anywhere else. The missions are policies of the president and his administration, not the troops ordered to carry it out. In public hearings, we see a familiar dance. Senior commanders aren’t supposed to say that they want to keep fighting, but they can say that it is their “best military advice” to do so. This is where public support abruptly ends, especially recently. The “end endless wars” theme has percolated from Trump’s 2016 campaign to liberal challengers this year, reaching new prominence in recent months and a full-throated tweetstorm from the president this week. It doesn’t seem to matter that ending endless wars also means cutting off special operators at the knees. Love the troops, hate the war.
When I told one former senior defense policy official last year that special operators were worried this very thing would happen – that they would be told to stand down and walk away from the Kurds yet again in favor of placating Turkey — the official’s response was coldly pragmatic: those SOF guys will always complain but they don’t see past their noses. In Syria’s case, the official said, there are major long-term geopolitical considerations that outweigh whether the United States can stay with the Syrian Democratic Forces after ISIS is defeated.
Many of us could see this coming. Washington-based reporters who cover the U.S. military have struggled to tell the story of the counterterrorism wars that span from Ghana to Afghanistan. There are far too few media organizations that are willing and financially able to send journalists independently into war zones. The military’s embed system of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars’ earlier years provided American journalists at least with a way in to the war. It was less than ideal, but the times and conflicts had changed. Battlefield norms that used to permit safe passage to someone wearing “PRESS” on their vest no longer existed for enemies like the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and ISIS, whom sought journalists for hostage-taking.
In 2014, when the Iraq War rekindled as the counter-ISIS war, there were no embeds to be had. I recall in the fall of 2014 one reporter asking then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno when he was going to resume embeds into Iraq. Odierno said, give him 30 to 60 days for the U.S. to get its footing back. That month became a year, then two, and then three. Reporters without the bankroll of giants like the BBC or New York Times sought to cover the U.S. military’s mission and begged for embeds with the U.S.-led coalition’s return to places many remembered all too well, like Fallujah, Ramadi, Mosul. It never really happened.
Further northwest, inside sovereign Syria, the landscape was even less familiar. U.S. troops began to set up firebases, but it was secretive work. Some SOF troops and a stream of CIA and private military contractors — America’s own version of “little green men” — were hopping in and out via an expanding military base at the international airport across the border in Irbil, the capital city of Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government. It was a jumping-off point to hunt, capture, and kill ISIS leaders; find and train Syrians willing to fight; and avoid the civil war against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government forces.
That’s where elite units come in. While the public thinks of these operators as badass door-kickers who get in and get out — and many of them are — they are also deeply trained for their core mission: to “build partner capacity.” That means training local forces, speaking their language, knowing their customs, and persuading them to fight ISIS for us. It’s the “by, with, through” method. Immediately, the Syrian half of the ISIS war became a special-operations effort. SOF units began pouring into Syria, but with no journalists in tow. Or with very few, at least. Some larger news organizations — the major wire services, newspapers, and television and radio networks — were able to send and keep small numbers of reporters in the region, equipped with armor, security guards, and life insurance. Others like James Foley went alone, and the grim history of those decisions is etched on the tombstones of reporters who were taken hostage and executed.
U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM, is the regional combatant command in charge of American troops from Syria to Afghanistan. U.S. Special Operations Command, or SOCOM, is the organizing body that parcels out troops to the regional commanders. Reporters begged these commands to begin taking journalists on embeds into Syria to showcase their work, report on the ground situation, objectively document the war in all its glory and grim reality, as they had for 15 years since 9/11. They declined. Instead, a few members of the press at a time would be invited to travel with the CENTCOM commander into the region for ground-level tours and face-to-face meetings with senior commanders from secret war room headquarters to far-flung firebases.
But these so-called distinguished visitor, or DV, reporting trips are not the same as independent or embedded combat reporting. They do not offer ground-level granularity. Yet both types of reporting are needed. DV trips provide Washington-based reporters with intimate, days-long access to senior commanders and their staffs, giving journalists important context and understanding of how senior military leaders think and react to their civilian policy bosses, view the wars they are fighting, make decisions with their teams, and are viewed by their subordinates. And the generals and admirals who drag reporters into the warzones get to talk to the reporters who hold the pen on their life’s work, to learn what stories they and their news organizations are most interested in, and to influence how the battlefield story is being told to the public. They build trust.
Those trips only provide toe-touch moments in country, and journalists know it. The general swoops in on a C-17 and gets quick briefings at the main base from spit-shined subordinates. Reporters get to sit in on briefings — some more valuable than others — learning key metrics of the war, hearing the military’s version of events, and asking questions. Then they move on, usually to visit more remote points for a drop-in on forward-deployed troops, often not far from enemy lines, before war-zone-hopping to the next country.
The military leaders who make those trips possible should be applauded. They provide the public with a window to see U.S. policy and the U.S. military at work. We are encouraged to see CENTCOM commander Gen. Frank McKenzie continuing the practice. But much more was needed.
To his credit, retired Gen. Tony Thomas, who retired as SOCOM’s four-star commander in March, understood the problem. In 2018, after I reported about a bad joke he made about mock-shooting journalists during a special ops demonstration in Tampa, he made a point to seek me out and apologize for the offense. He also answered my questions about SOF’s collective public voice and constituency-building. “I don’t have enough hands to count the number of journalists I consider to be confidants, teammates,” he said. “I cultivate that because I want them to know about SOF and hit through all the mysticism that usually is out there.” But he also seemed to struggle with the balance of saying too much that would reveal tactics or worse, get in front of the political leaders who sent them into wars most Americans had forgotten. “America should know. We should be that transparent, they should know where we have our most precious resources in harm’s way and what we’re trying to do.”
If the special operations community wanted to finish their job in Syria, they needed more than cheering congressmen and stadiums. They needed more than silent warriors and leaders with quiet lifelines into the Washington establishment. They needed a constituency. They needed to convince the voters. They needed to convince President Trump.
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