A daily bulletin of news & opinion

4 September 2012

Recruiting a special forces soldier is a complex, somewhat counterintuitive task. On the one hand you are looking for a discreet, humble, team-player – a quiet intellect, someone who could enter a room and melt into the crowd. On the other hand, you need a fearsome temperament, physical hulk, courage, confidence and presence. Someone who can shoot-to-kill. Someone, who more often than not, has ego in spades.

It’s an awkward balance and something that military institutions have sought to weigh-up, calculate and determine with complex personality tests. None more so than in the US military and its elite force, the Navy SEALs.

The SEALs foster a culture of robust teamwork, confidentiality and trust. The bedrock of their training is the Basic Underwater Demolition – otherwise known as BUD/S – a gruelling training course that culminates in something known as “Hell Week”. This is followed by a second phase (eight weeks of diving) and a third phase (nine weeks of land warfare). These endurance tests are in the hope of weeding out the errant publicists from the silent warriors. It’s about camaraderie, rapport and the culture of confidentiality.

The US Department of Defense is now pondering a response to the public airing of No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama bin Laden, a book from a Navy SEAL who has broken protocol and stepped into the public realm.

Matt Bissonnette, who writes under the pseudonymous name, Mark Owen, has entered the world of press conferences, media junkets and autographs; he has stepped out of the shadows. And it’s a pretty big deal for the SEALs.

Unlike other departments – such as the CIA where ex-officers such as Philip Agee have told all, during the past 51 years since their creation, the SEALs have managed to keep their secrets under wraps. And this salacious account comes at a sensitive political junction in US politics.

It’s hardly a huge surprise. In today’s media-saturated world it is too easy to sell a tale to clamouring publishers. But the US DoD’s own recruitment tactics are also distinctly confusing, with a website that belies the true understated nature of the job. A glance at the shows a filmic aesthetic with a heroic, vaulted soundtrack. There are even fireworks to announce the SEALs logo.

This recent embarrassment is a wake up call for the establishment. Anonymity is out of place in the 21st century culture. Discreet, silent heroes are uncommon. Let’s face it; who wants to attend a party masquerading as a low-level squaddie or as a card-filing civil servant – when in fact you are at the frontier of national security? Nobody.

The culture of social media – the “look-at-me-here-now” Facebook generation, make this almost impossible. But the world’s institutions must address these contradictions. Special operations must be quiet and muted assaults conducted by people nurtured away from glory and the public eye.


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