Publicity for military operations is a sensitive business - Monocolumn | Monocle


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27 February 2012

I’ve heard lots of stories about the US Navy SEALs. We all have, even though SEAL missions are supposed to be top secret. Every once in a while they do something so daring – killing Osama bin Laden in a compound in north-eastern Pakistan, for instance – that it gives us a glimpse inside the world of this elite fighting force.

This past weekend, the SEALs were back in the media spotlight, not because of a clandestine mission but because of a movie: Act of Valor. Released in cinemas across the US, the film is a fictional tale based on real events, starring real-life active-duty Navy SEALs who uncover a terrorist plot while rescuing a kidnapped CIA agent. It’s a Navy recruiting video posing as a box office blockbuster.

And I have to admit I want to see it. Not that I have much interest in combat. My curiosity stems from my father’s work history: He was a Navy SEAL in the early 1970s. Back then the SEALs numbered 400; now there are over 2,000, and the US Navy is eager to find more minority recruits for the unit. Hence, the film.

I’ve asked my father about SEAL training, the physical and psychological endurance tests that no ordinary person would volunteer for – or survive. “Hell Week” is the one that stands out in my mind. It comes after months of hard training and it lasts for six days, 24 hours a day, with no time for food or sleep. “Once you get through the training, you think you’re superman,” my father recently told me.

I don’t think he ever shook that mindset. In the early 1990s, he had open-heart surgery. A day later he was walking laps around the hospital wing where he was recuperating. A year later he ran a marathon.

In 2009, a thief made off with the licence plate on my father’s car, which he only realised after he was fined for parking violations he hadn’t committed. When the police refused to hear his appeal, he used the parking tickets and a map and tracked down his stolen plate. Then he alerted the police.

He proudly told me about these exploits. But when it comes SEAL missions, he is discrete.

As a journalist, I’m firmly in the camp for disclosure, for holding special forces accountable, with some limits to protect their safety. A lack of scrutiny has its perils. For instance, a few years ago when reports surfaced about a hush-hush special forces unit that had abused and tortured detainees for years during interrogations at Camp Nama in Iraq.

My father thinks the SEALs are better off keeping a low profile, and he has firmly told me, “One thing I will not describe to you are the operations.” Another time he said, “When you’re there making split-second decisions, it’s hard to explain to people who are sitting far away [from the action]. You do what you need to do to survive and that’s why I’m still here.”

My father plans to see Act of Valor. He and I will no doubt come away with very different – maybe even opposing – views. Which is why I’ll be asking him about it. “I will tell you what’s truth and what’s hype,” he told me. I can’t wait.


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