Modern Warfare’s Secrets

Modern Warfare’s Secrets

What do the crimes of a Navy SEAL tell us about U.S. military culture?

Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher in Iraq in 2017 (courtesy photo via Navy Times)

Read this interview in Polish here.

In early May 2017, Navy SEALs Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher allegedly murdered a fifteen-year-old ISIS fighter receiving medical assistance for non-fatal wounds in Iraq. Witnesses watched as Gallagher pulled out his hunting knife and stabbed the teenager several times in his neck and chest. A week later, he texted a photograph of the corpse to a fellow SEAL in California, writing “Good story behind this, I got him with my hunting knife.”

Chief Gallagher’s trial begins next week on June 10. The decorated thirty-nine-year-old veteran is charged with committing ferocious war crimes, including shooting at innocent civilians with his sniper rifle and firing a machine gun into a residential area. Members of Gallagher’s platoon testified that their priority was often to “protect civilians from Chief Gallagher, not ISIS.” Gallagher has pleaded not guilty and denies all charges against him.

What do the crimes of a Navy SEAL tell us about American wars and military culture? To discuss this, I met with former U.S. marine and writer Lyle Jeremy Rubin.

Sławek Blich: Just before his retirement, after nearly twenty years of service, a highly decorated Navy SEAL chief committed such shocking acts of violence in Iraq that his own platoon commandos put their own careers at risks and decide to turn him in. Why was Edward Gallagher willing to risk his reputation and his family’s future?

Lyle Jeremy Rubin: That’s a difficult question and I need to be cautious about my response. I can only speculate based on my own experience as a forward-deployed marine in Afghanistan. I know next to nothing about Gallagher’s inner state of mind.

I imagine he’s suffered some degree of PTSD. But I have no way of knowing, and I doubt such horrific acts can be chalked up to PTSD alone. I know many people who suffer war trauma, but none of them, to my knowledge, have murdered a fifteen-year-old in cold blood.

Blich: According to a confidential Navy SEAL criminal investigation report obtained by the New York Times, Gallagher enjoyed bragging about the number of people he had killed, and scrawled a message on the wall of a sniper nest: “Eddie G puts the laughter in Manslaughter.”

Rubin: Military culture in the United States amounts to a culture of impunity and mutual silence. That culture is part of its DNA. And not just the DNA of the Navy SEALs, but of the military in general, as well as U.S. foreign policy and the military-industrial complex in which it is embedded. It is a culture that has given up on accountability, especially for those holding any real power, ranging from Chief Gallagher to former president George W. Bush.

When I was in Afghanistan I heard stories about chilling crimes being committed by Navy SEALs. We called them cowboys.

Blich: And the Middle East is their “Wild West,” I presume?

Rubin: Cowboy culture and the related genocide of American Indians tells us something deeper about the collective unconscious informing America’s latest wars for supposed freedom and democracy. Gallagher’s crimes, in a sense, have taken place within this wider story.

Blich: How do you mean?

Rubin: The use of the word “cowboy” to describe the Navy SEALs is suggestive for a variety of reasons. For one, it implies a “Wild Wild West” lawlessness on the U.S. imperialist periphery, one that, on the face of it, seems to run up against official claims of humanitarian intervention, liberal-democratic nation-building or state-building, counterinsurgency, and so on. But in light of the actual history of the United States, there isn’t much of a contradiction. The Afghanistan war, after all, is a continuation of America’s frontier, and it is not a coincidence the troops refer to their presence there as being “in country,” a term that can be traced at least as far back as the Vietnam War and that, as the historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has noted, was originally intended as an abbreviated form of “Indian Country.”

Blich: In your reasoning, why is the apparent neocolonialism of a military intervention not contradictory to America’s story of exporting freedom and democracy?

Rubin: Because the American frontier has always contained a double meaning. At the level of rhetoric and ideology, it is the place where freedom, democracy, and the rule of law expands. But in reality it’s a place of harsh exception, where such liberal protections or checks and balances go to die. And these so-called frontiers are everywhere. Not just in nineteenth-century Dakota Territory or the twenty-first-century Helmand Province of Afghanistan, but on the over-policed peripheries of Washington, D.C. and Baltimore.

This helps explain one of the main functions of U.S. military reeducation, which is to normalize what, among respectable and official civilian company, is considered abnormal behavior. What was once considered abnormal in the most civilized quarters of the civilian world becomes a normal, even integral component of one’s everyday routine in uniform. For those who came from a place where the abnormal was already normal, that abnormal norm is often heightened. And this begins at boot camp.

Blich: In what way?

Rubin: Previous rules of conduct are corroded. Or at least that was the case for me, someone who came from a self-consciously “civilized” (some might say privileged) sector of society. In theory, drill instructors were not allowed to hit recruits, spit in their faces, or traffic in racist or misogynistic insults. But of course, all of this took place, and the more it took place, the more recruits felt comfortable transgressing in such ways.

Blich: But there are supervisions and evaluations at the end of boot camps, aren’t there?

Rubin: At the end of boot camp each recruit sits down with the company commander and is asked a series of questions. Did a drill instructor ever hit you or another recruit? Did a drill instructor ever order you or any other recruit to hit another recruit? Did a drill instructor ever make a racist or misogynistic remark? And every recruit, regardless of the reality, would answer “no” to every question.

Blich: Did you lie, too?

Rubin: Of course, just like everyone else.

Blich: Why?

Rubin: Because I wanted to get the fuck out of dodge. Reporting any violations wouldn’t have been worth it. It would have required a whole lot of bureaucratic and legal entanglements. I probably would have been stuck on [Marine Corps training site] Parris Island for a long time and risked being ostracized as well.

In the military your survival becomes predicated on your group loyalty. In a way you tacitly pledge to violate civilized norms for the sake of the group. That unspoken promise of moral rule-breaking for the sake of unit cohesion begins at boot camp and only intensifies afterward.

Blich: And there you are, deployed to the front line.

Rubin: You are like a frog being cooked in boiling water and going to war represents the final stage of that process. Military indoctrination trains you not so much to be disciplined as undisciplined—morally undisciplined. You are conditioned to slowly indulge in—rather than restrain or check—wanton passions or acts of violence. This is the big secret of modern imperialist warfare and the training that goes into it.

Blich: One of the most shocking parts of the Navy SEAL report is how many times the commandos unsuccessfully tried to report Gallagher’s behavior.

Rubin: I saw and heard about many terrible things in Afghanistan. Sometimes I reported what I saw or heard to peers or superiors. I expressed concern about what some of the combat units I worked with were doing. I doubted whether rules of engagement were being followed. But the conversations seemed to always end in the same way: “You don’t know what really happened, Rubin. The situation was complicated and you were not in a position to assess it confidently.”

I was told, and I told myself, that my perspective or experience was too limited to cast judgment. I now figure I was right in most cases, but just like at entry-level training, the risks or costs to seeking formal complaints were high and it’s almost certain the investigations would have gone nowhere. My reputation would have been ruined and the morale in my platoon would have plummeted. I would have likely been forced out of my command as a signals intelligence officer, been considered a traitor, and been roundly despised. This is the worst fear for most marines, and I was too weak to overcome it.

Blich: So what makes some people make such a difficult move?

Rubin: Courageous whistleblowing is often (but not always) left to those who are already marginalized or excluded from the group, people like Chelsea Manning who are already considered outsiders and therefore have less to lose (although they still have plenty to lose).

Blich: But Gallagher was reported by a group of at least seven commandos from his own platoon.

Rubin: I’m not saying that’s the case with Gallagher’s troops. I don’t know enough about them to make a judgment one way or the other. It’s hard to tell, but I imagine these men experienced their chief’s outright barbarity one too many times and possibly felt unsafe in his presence.

But I’m going to say something controversial. The decision to report such crimes isn’t always motivated by mere virtuous instincts. Sometimes the crimes being committed are so outrageous, obvious, and (in this case) regular that it’s wise for those involved to blow the whistle before anyone else does, if only to cover their own asses from a legal liability standpoint. There’s a point at which it becomes less risky, for one’s own career, to come forward than not come forward. I doubt this was the case when it came to Gallagher’s subordinates, but it might have factored into the final-stage decision-making of higher-ups.

Blich: As a former marine, have you ever experienced anything like this before?

Rubin: Not personally, but a lieutenant in my area of operations was accused of murdering multiple civilians. A group of his own marines reported him, and the case was brought to military court.

Blich: What was the ruling?

Rubin: The lieutenant won.

Blich: What’s next for Gallagher?

Rubin: As a student of history I can’t help but think of the case of Lieutenant William Calley, who was accused of murdering twenty-two unarmed civilians during the Mỹ Lai massacre in Vietnam. He was sentenced by a military court to life imprisonment but released two days later by President Nixon. He spent some time under house arrest and was then pardoned by President Ford.

Blich: Meanwhile some of the press and public opinion vilified Hugh Thompson, the helicopter pilot who stopped the massacre of civilians, for turning his weapons against his fellow troops.

Rubin: Yes, Hugh Thompson is a hero of mine and I lectured about him in a Vietnam War course I co-taught a few years back. I do see similarities between the Gallagher case and Mỹ Lai, especially when it comes to the polarized nature of the media discourse. And I haven’t seen this much U.S. media interest in an American war crime in years.

Blich: President Trump tweeted, “In honor of his past service to our Country, Navy Seal #EddieGallagher will soon be moved to less restrictive confinement while he awaits his day in court. Process should move quickly!”

Rubin: I wouldn’t be surprised if Gallagher is acquitted by the court. But I also wouldn’t be surprised if he’s not acquitted and Trump pardons him anyway. The best way to know Trump’s next move is to watch Fox News, and Fox keeps defending Gallagher and claiming his accusers are mendacious careerists or disgruntled employees.

Blich: Dave Philipps, who broke the story in the New York Times noted that “The biggest story in a war crimes case isn’t always the crime itself. Sometimes what the crime reveals about the culture and inner workings of a military unit is the real headline.” What is it that Gallagher’s case revealed?

Rubin: I’ve already talked about the culture of impunity, but if we want to think about it in a more structural way, it’s not hard to draw parallels between the policing of poor, nonwhite populations in Afghanistan and Iraq and the policing of poor, often nonwhite populations in the United States. And what do these situations have in common? For one, uniformed perpetrators of unjustified (and sometimes lethal) force in these places are rarely held accountable for their actions. Now, when it comes to domestic policing, left social movements in America, like Black Lives Matter, have begun to force the public and political class to move beyond the “bad apple” excuse and reckon with the systemic causes of excessive state violence and license. Why is it, for example, that cops keep brutalizing and killing poor people and people of color at such disproportionate rates and keep getting away with it?

Blich: Typically, the answer would be: it’s to keep us safe. Someone has to protect us, therefore we have no choice but to stand by our protectors. Unfortunate accidents happen.

Rubin: And what if it’s really not about “public safety” or “national security”? After all, capitalism as a system must keep accumulating capital in order to survive, and capital can’t accumulate unless markets keep expanding. In order to expand markets into new areas, you must first make room for those markets, and that requires ongoing violence or “primitive accumulation” (as Marx would have it). It also requires violently managing the social fallout of such a cutthroat political economy, which in turn means increasingly policing surplus populations.

Cedric Robinson talked about racial capitalism. He argued—and I’m paraphrasing Robin Kelley here—that capitalism never fully broke with the racialized feudalism and imperialism that preceded it, which means its concrete hierarchies, divisions, and policing apparatuses have always been racialized.

Blich: Are the police becoming increasingly militarized, too? Their uniforms and gear look more and more intimidating, they borrow equipment and tactics from the military, and with it, the level of aggression intensifies to the point where police interventions sometimes resemble fighting in enemy territory.

Rubin: The dynamic runs in both directions. Domestic cops have no doubt become more militarized through the years, especially since the 9/11 attacks. Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces (2013) traces this development as far back as the aftereffects from the Watts riots in 1965, specifically in the birth of the SWAT team. But it’s just as true that, for at least a century now, the U.S. military has functioned more and more as a global police force. I met numerous police advisors in Afghanistan, for example. As I wrote in a review essay of Nikhil Singh’s work, their prevalence speaks to the other half of the story, where American war has become an uninterrupted series of police actions.

Blich: Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh gained recognition in 1969 for exposing the Mỹ Lai massacre and its cover-up during the Vietnam War. Years later, whistleblower Chelsea Manning was imprisoned for releasing military documents, including the so called “Collateral Murder” video and handing it to—now also arrested—Julian Assange.

Rubin: Despite the admirable efforts of whistleblowers like Snowden, Manning, and Assange—and I should say I have serious problems with Assange—and despite the activism and media frenzy surrounding these figures, a mass awareness of (and opposition to) the oppressiveness of the U.S. national security state has yet to go mainstream. That said, I do suspect these dissidents will prove themselves necessary precursors of a more viable anti-militarist and anti-imperialist politics in the coming years.

Blich: Can it become a topic in the forthcoming presidential elections?

Rubin: Yes, I expect we’ll see candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren coming up with relatively progressive proposals when it comes to reining in the excesses of U.S. foreign policy.

Blich: Relatively?

Rubin: I doubt any of the candidates will use words like “empire” or “neo-colonialism,” but they will criticize America’s endless wars and put forward an agenda to rein in those wars and their accompanying policing and surveillance apparatuses. I know several advisors close to Sanders, Warren, and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and it’s clear they’re thinking along these lines.

Blich: What will it take to break the political deadlock in Washington when it comes to the military?

Rubin: I’ve mostly been in despair since returning from Afghanistan in 2011, but for the first time I see a real chance for contesting the militaristic status quo in Congress and maybe even the post-Trump White House. There’s a way in which Trump’s embrace of the worst of the neoconservative legacy—his appointment of John Bolton as National Security Advisor first and foremost, never mind his politicization of the Gallagher case—is already pushing Democrats to draw genuine contrasts with Trump and the bipartisan foreign policy consensus he’s both channeling and accelerating.

Blich: What has military service taught you about today’s America?

Rubin: The gravest dysfunctions of the United States, from systemic racism to misogyny to violence to a rigid class society, are thrown into stark relief in the military. Conventional wisdom assumes what happens in boot camp or the front lines of Afghanistan marks a necessary exception to the essence of America. But I would argue the opposite. The U.S. military epitomizes America’s discontents.


Lyle Jeremy Rubin is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Rochester. He served in the United States Marine Corps for five years, and nearly a year of that service in the Helmand Province, Afghanistan. His articles have appeared in, among others, The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Nation, and n+1.

Slawek Blich is managing editor and journalist at KrytykaPolityczna.pl, one of the most influential online political news sites in Poland. He also works with A2larm.cz, a progressive political magazine in the Czech Republic. You can reach him at slawek.blich@krytykapolityczna.pl.


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