Officially, it was a capture-or-kill mission. The target, regarded as a holy man by many of his fanatical followers, was considered a key element in an insurgency that had flooded an already unstable country with blood.
While the target certainly would have had intelligence value, and his capture would have been a significant propaganda coup, the circumstances of the mission made capture unrealistic, practically. And nobody really wanted the target alive anyway.
The operators knew full well what their true mission was: a targeted killing. Some might call it assassination.
Diligent intelligence work, developing native sources opposed to or threatened by the insurgency, had pinpointed the location of the target, and now the operators were moving stealthily to assault the target’s position. A combination of stealth, lethal speed and precision small-arms fire ensured that the target went down before he was fully aware of danger.
Creating a fiery diversion, the operators made a successful exfil and returned to their base with a successful operation under their belt.
Not everyone considered the mission a success, however. Critics of the small but savage war accused the operators of cold-blooded murder of an unarmed man — perhaps even the wrong man entirely. Angry voices called for investigations into what some were calling an atrocity.
The operators shrugged off the criticism. They were the men on the line; they weren’t inclined to heed the second-guessing of military bureaucrats or civilians back home who could not conceive of the nature of the war they were fighting. If there was any judgment to be cast, they would handle it themselves. And they had more work to do.
If you’re thinking that that scene played out somewhere in Afghanistan, or Iraq — or maybe Abbottabad, Pakistan — some time in the past 18 years, you’ve missed the x-ring. But just barely; you’re in the black.
The targeted killing described above was the American scout Frederick Russell Burnham’s mission to assassinate the M’limo, believed to be the spiritual leader of the Matable Rebellion of 1896 in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Though the elements of the mission are over 100 years old, they would have been the same on the Ohio Valley frontier in 1780, and they are still familiar today.
Regardless of technology that allows drone pilots in Nevada to hit targets in the Northwest Frontier Territory of Pakistan or that allows desk-bound intelligence agents to listen in on the communications of terrorists half-way around the world, the elements of the Global War on Terror (GWOT) are instantly familiar to a student of Frontier Partisan warfare. And some of those elements are dark, indeed.
Last week, the investigative website The Intercept published an in-depth report entitled The Crimes of SEAL Team 6. I discovered it through a link provided by SOFREP.com (Special Operations Forces Report), where co-founder Jack Murphy, an Army Special Forces veteran, has been raising concerns about the conduct of some SEAL elements for a while now — and, he says, taking heat for it in the Spec-Ops community.
The heavily-sourced piece by journalist Matthew Cole depicts a unit gone rogue:
Officially known as the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, SEAL Team 6 is today the most celebrated of the U.S. military’s special mission units. But hidden behind the heroic narratives is a darker, more troubling story of “revenge ops,” unjustified killings, mutilations, and other atrocities — a pattern of criminal violence that emerged soon after the Afghan war began and was tolerated and covered up by the command’s leadership.
It’s long and there are some gruesome bits, but I encourage you to read the whole thing. Cole’s piece hits hard and should provoke a great deal of discussion. Unfortunately, the discussion seems to be relegated to an echo-chamber in the precincts of the angry, “anti-colonialist” left. There seems to be no traction for the story anywhere else. That’s largely The Intercept’s own doing. They tout “adversarial journalism,” which is why, for all its depth and range, The Crimes of SEAL Team 6 ultimately comes off reading like a hit piece. The Intercept has an ax — or in this case a tomahawk — to grind with the role and actions of the United States in the world, and, while I think the reporting in the piece is solid, the bias is apparent. To my way of thinking, the biggest weakness of the piece is that it lacks a vital piece of context: The purported conduct of a number of SEAL operators is not an aberration of the GWOT — it is a common feature of Frontier Partisan warfare, played out across centuries on the bloody edges of empire.
Even something as superficial as the reaction to the physical appearance of “rogue warriors” is consistent across time. Cole reports that some military personnel had problems with the rough-hewn appearance of SEAL operators.
It was at this point that some critics in the military complained that SEAL Team 6 — with their full beards and arms, legs, and torsos covered in tattoos — looked like members of a biker gang.
That description echoes the depiction of the barbaric appearance of the Texas Rangers in the Mexican War of 1846-48.
General Zachary Taylor appreciated the work the Rangers did, but he had issues with their indiscipline and their roughneck appearance:
“One species of mounted force, peculiar to the western frontier of the United States is … efficient. The inhabitants of that frontier, from their vicinity to hostile Indians, are well practiced in partisan warfare, and although they will not easily submit to discipline, yet take the field in rough, uncouth habiliments, and, following some leader chosen for his talent and bravery, perform partisan duties in a manner hardly to be surpassed.”
The appearance of the Rangers terrified the Mexicans — and their fear of Los Tejanos Diablos was justified, since the Rangers considered their war with their southern neighbors a blood feud. The Texans were not always terribly particular about whether the Mexicans they killed were combatants.
One citizen wrote:
“My heart almost failed me… The Texians, with their coarse hickory shirts and trowsers confined by a leather strap to their hips, their slouched hats, and their sweat and powder-begrimed faces certainly presented a most brigandish appearance!”
According to Cole, the operators of Red Squadron, whose “mascot” was a native warrior, took that identity very seriously:
Since the 1980s, when Red Team was first created, there were many operators in the unit who had experienced a “metamorphosis of identity and persona” into Native American warriors.
That, too, is not uncommon in frontier history. Captain Samuel Brady’s Rangers, who patrolled the western Pennsylvania frontier during the American Revolution, prided themselves on looking exactly like the warriors they pursued. The disguise was practical — it helped them infiltrate “Indian Country.” But it also set Brady’s Rangers apart from other militia units, and men of the 18th Century were no less compelled by the cool factor than we are today.
The SEALs’ identification with native warriors was given a sharp edge — literally — and another connection with the heritage of the Frontier Partisans:
In keeping with Red Squadron’s appropriation of Native American culture, (the squadron commander) came up with the idea to bestow 14-inch hatchets on each SEAL who had a year of service in the squadron. The hatchets, paid for by private donations Howard solicited, were custom-made by Daniel Winkler, a highly regarded knife maker in North Carolina who designed several of the period tomahawks and knives used in the movie “The Last of the Mohicans.” Winkler sells similar hatchets for $600 each. The hatchets (the commander) obtained were stamped with a Native American warrior in a headdress and crossed tomahawks.
At first the hatchets appeared to be merely symbolic, because such heavy, awkward weapons had no place in the gear of a special operator. “There’s no military purpose for it,” a former Red Squadron operator told me. “But they are a great way of being part of a team. It was given as an honor, one more step to strive for, another sign that you’re doing a good job.”
For some of (the) men, however, the hatchets soon became more than symbolic as they were used at times to hack dead fighters in Iraq and Afghanistan. Others used them to break doorknobs on raids or kill militants in hand-to-hand combat.
I would dispute characterizing a tomahawk as heavy and awkward. And from New York to New Zealand from the 17th Century through the 19th Century, they were part of virtually every native warrior or frontiersman’s kit.
One SEAL interviewed for the story thought that the hatchets were a bad look:
“Guys are going out every night killing everything. The hatchet was too intimate, too closely aligned with a tomahawk, to have been a good idea.”
One of the accusations that comes up again and again throughout Crimes is that SEALs mutilated the bodies of dead enemies. Such acts are expressly forbidden under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and you may recall that three U.S. Marines got in serious trouble for pissing on the corpses of several dead enemy fighters. The incident came to light because one of them photographed the episode and shared the pix.
The most common form of mutilation among the SEALs was “canoeing” — shooting a corpse at the top of the forehead, which blows the head out in a “V” or canoe shape, exposing the brains. It became a kind of signature for the operators. Reportedly, one of the SEALs who took out Osama bin Laden canoed him, which is one explanation as to why ID photographs were never released.
If that did happen — and it seems so — it was a mission-compromising act of indiscipline, which is a problem in itself, regardless of how you feel about blowing the brains out of the most wanted man in the world.
But it bears keeping in mind that mutilation of enemies is a primal aspect of warfare. Many a many “solid citizen” who came of age on the frontier had a dried up old scalp somewhere among their possibles. Crimes notes that pieces of skin or scalp were often requested from SEAL missions for DNA testing and identification of al Qaeda operatives. It shouldn’t be surprising that such actions might lead to trophy-taking.
And we should not forget that warfare in Afghanistan in particular has always carried a special edge of savagery, including mutilation of the dead — and in the case of Pathan tribesmen — mutilation of the wounded . Ask the British; ask the Russians. Ask Kipling…
When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.
Putting the actions of the SEALs in the context of an old tradition of frontier warfare does not excuse conduct that is a violation of military law and human decency, nor does it excuse lies and cover-ups that erode the integrity of everyone involved. But it should raise the awareness of those charged with building culture and instilling discipline that these kinds of actions tend to evolve naturally out of the primal nature of a certain kind of irregular warfare. Then, perhaps, greater vigilance can be applied to see that such practices don’t catch hold.
When revenge is part of the motivation, the potential for atrocity grows.
The ugly, primal nature of the combat they were to engage in at a relentless tempo for 15 years was set for SEAL Team 6 early in the Afghan campaign. As The Crimes of SEAL Team 6 reports:
Neil “Fifi” Roberts, a member of the SEAL recon team, fell 10 feet from the back of a Chinook and was stranded as the helicopter took fire from foreign al Qaeda fighters who were already on the snow-covered mountaintop. Two hours passed before the SEALs in the damaged helicopter were able to return. They didn’t know it, but Roberts was already dead, shot at close range in the head shortly after his helicopter departed the mountaintop. A Predator drone video feed filmed an enemy fighter standing over Roberts’s body for two minutes, trying to behead the dead American with a knife.
Roberts’s death, and the subsequent operations in eastern Afghanistan during the winter 2002 deployment, left an indelible impression on SEAL Team 6, especially on Red Team. According to multiple SEAL Team 6 sources, the events of that day set off a cascade of extraordinary violence. As the legend of SEAL Team 6 grew, a rogue culture arose that operated outside of the Navy’s established mechanisms for command and investigation. Parts of SEAL Team 6 began acting with an air of impunity that disturbed observers within the command. Senior members of SEAL Team 6 felt the pattern of brutality was not only illegal but rose to the level of war crimes.
“To understand the violence, you have to begin at Roberts Ridge,” said one former member of SEAL Team 6 who deployed several times to Afghanistan. “When you see your friend killed, recover his body, and find that the enemy mutilated him? It’s a schoolyard mentality. ‘You guys want to play with those rules?’ ‘OK.’” Although this former SEAL acknowledged that war crimes are wrong, he understood how they happen. “You ask me to go living with the pigs, but I can’t go live with pigs and then not get dirty.”
Again, the history of Frontier Partisan warfare provides a clear precedent for members of an elite irregular unit going off the rails in acting out vengeance for a dead and mutilated comrade…
In 1901, the British Empire was fighting a nasty, brutal guerilla campaign in South Africa against Boer “bitter enders.” Small, ragged but well-armed groups of highly mobile Boer riders (such units were called Commandos) blew up trains and hit garrisons in lightning raids, escaping into the vastness of the veld.
The British turned to “colonials” to fight the way the Boers fought. Canadians and Australians and some South African frontiersmen, all of whom lived in the saddle, were formed into irregular anti-partisan mounted infantry units. One of these was the Bushveldt Carbineers, and among them rode an Australian bush poet and horse breaker of English birth, Harry Harbord “Breaker” Morant.
Morant’s commander, Captain John Hunt, was wounded and left for dead when his patrol was ambushed while conducting a raid on a Boer commando holed up in a farmhouse. Hunt’s body was terribly mutilated — Morant believed by Boers (though a descendent of the man who killed Hunt says it was native auxiliaries who mutilated Hunt and other corpses).
Morant arrived after on the scene after Hunt had been buried, but the reports of what had happened to the man he considered his “best friend on this earth” sent Morant into a rage. He was described by BVC trooper George Witton, who would stand trial with him, as being “like a man demented.” The BVC chased the Boers and caught them in a camp in a ravine. In his lust for revenge, Morant opened fire too soon and most of the Boers escaped. One, a man named Visser, was shot through both ankles and couldn’t flee. He was wearing items of khaki clothing. In his demented state, Morant convinced himself the clothing came from Hunt’s body. He had Visser propped up and a firing squad mustered to blow him into eternity.
Later that month, Morant and Handcock led a patrol out to intercept a column bringing in prisoners from Viljoen’s commando. Morant had the prisoners pulled out and shot down by the side of the road, under the muzzles of a firing squad of Enfield Rifles, Caliber .303.
A German minister, Reverend Heese, who had spoken to the prisoners despite Morant’s orders not to do so, was shortly found shot dead in his carriage on the high road to the town of Pietersburg.
Morant and Handcock later intercepted three other Boer commandos and, after they surrendered, disarmed them and shot them down.
Morant’s last operation was clean. He led a patrol on a 130-mile trek to track down an Irish-Boer leader named Kelly. The Breaker was under orders from a Major Lenehan to capture the Boer field-cornet alive. Morant’s men stealthily approached Kelly’s laager (encampment), rushed it in the pre-dawn hours and Morant took Kelly — who was not wearing any British Khaki — into custody and took him safely back to Pietersburg.
With peace talks in the offing and an end to the grinding guerrilla war in sight, the British authorities acted to clean up festering sore they had allowed to go untreated in the Transvaal. The BVC was suddenly disbanded and Morant, Witton and Lt. Peter Handcock were arrested and charged with war crimes.
At his trial, Morant angrily dismissed criticisms of the actions of the BVC:
“We were out fighting the Boers, not sitting comfortably behind barb-wire entanglements; we got them and shot them under Rule .303!”
All three were found guilty. Witton was sentenced to prison. Morant and Handcock were executed by firing squad.
Nobody quoted The Crimes of SEAL Team 6 is calling for the execution of Seal Team 6 operators for war crimes. But there is a question of accountability and integrity that can’t simply be dismissed. It is worth noting that we aren’t hearing such dark tales about other elements of Joint Special Operations Command — ‘Delta Force’, for instance. Nor are we seeing unseemly public spats and embarrassing acts of naked self-aggrandizement in other JSOC units. I’m not in a position to know why that is, but it’s not hard to hazard a guess: It likely has to do with leadership, discipline and the inculcation of a low-profile culture. The SEALs’ rock star status, in the end, does the unit no favors.
It is well to bring these matters to light. We should understand and confront what it is that our most storied warrior elite has done in our name in the GWOT — the dark and forbidden along with the heroic. The question becomes, what do we do with that understanding? If it truly is about discipline and accountability and the retention of honor — with the best interests of the warrior and the service in mind — probing the darkness is essential. I don’t think that’s really what The Intercept is about. There is an undercurrent in The Crimes of SEAL Team 6 of an attitude that is common among the self-loathing far left: that the U.S. and the West are really no better than the enemies we fight — or that we’re actually the “bad guys” in this tale. That, I categorically reject.
A full and well-balanced understanding has been the path I have tried to walk since I started this blog. We know that dark deeds have been done over and over again, in the mountains and the deserts, the forests and the plains of North America, Africa, New Zealand, and, yes, in Afghanistan, too, for many a long age, by men very much like the bearded, tattoo-covered warriors of SEAL Team 6. As readers of my book Warriors of the Wildlands have discovered, valor and viciousness, nobility and savagery, can abide in the same place and in the same man.
Such is the nature of Frontier Partisan warfare.
The commander of SEAL Team 6 has circulated a memo, obtained by The Intercept, to members of the command in response to The Intercept’s two-year investigation into the unit’s war crimes and subsequent cover-ups. In the memo, the commander claimed the article was “full of grievous, accusatory claims” and allegations that had been “previously investigated and determined to be not substantiated.”
“The article alleges involvement of ST-6 personnel in law of armed conflict violations, including accusations of cover up by senior officials,” the memo continued. “The 41-page online article goes into great detail on various operations naming specific people and operations dating back to 2002 up to 2011.”
“While this article appears damning on many members of our team and most likely evokes strong emotions,” the commander wrote, “we must be mindful about what a journalist can do who latches on to unfounded claims and is willing to print based on limited evidence.”
The commander’s letter does not dispute any facts or details in our January 10 report, which describes, in detail, accounts provided by former SEAL Team 6 leaders of what they believed were war crimes committed by members of the unit in Afghanistan and Iraq that were largely ignored or covered up by senior officers.
The memo obtained by The Intercept advised military personnel to avoid commenting on or acknowledging “The Crimes of SEAL Team 6,” even “among yourselves or with others via personal electronic devices,” in order to “maintain the highest OPSEC posture and limit the spread of the article.”
As a friend pointed out, the fact that The Intercept obtained the memo indicates that ST6 has an internal leak, which is interesting in its own right.