On July 8 the Washington Post reported the story of the April 20 death of three U.S. Special Operations Forces service members in Mali, a North African country known for a growing Islamic insurgency, and more recently the scene of a coup in March. The soldiers’ deaths are believed to be the result of vehicle accident, as their rented Toyota Land Cruiser went off a bridge in the pre-dawn hours, and plunged into the Niger River.
While tragic, what is curious is that this accident and these deaths came a full month after the Obama administration officially suspended military relations and humanitarian assistance with Mali’s unstable government. Even more curious, along with the bodies of our soldiers found in their vehicle were the bodies of three dead women, all of whom have been reported to be Moroccan prostitutes.
Fresh off the U.S. Secret Service prostitution scandal in Colombia where agents embarrassed themselves and an agency previously recognized as the “standard bearer” for professionalism in government service, on its surface the Mali incident appears to be another example of “wheels up, rings off” behavior. But it is certainly more.
A press release from the combatant command responsible for military operations in this area, the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) reported “military members were in Mali as part of an on-going engagement prior to the unrest that occurred in Mali on March 21. Though U.S. military engagement has been suspended in Mali, those U.S. military members in country remained to provide support to the U.S. Embassy.” There of course, was no mention of the civilian women killed alongside the soldiers, and AFRICOM states the “cause of the accident is currently under investigation.”
In today’s post-9/11 world, I believe it’s assumed by many Americans that our government is working both openly and clandestinely to prevent or deter any threat to our nation and our national interests. Indeed, the Post article reported that our troops in Mali were “secretly engaged in counterterrorism actions against al-Qaeda affiliates.”
The use of Special Operations Forces (SOF) – Navy Seals, Army Delta Force, Green Berets, etc. – is integral to both the prevention of a threat or the mitigation of it, and not just through violence however. Training allies, providing medical care to locals, teaching others how to develop sustainable markets, etc., are the stock and trade of our SOF. Our defense budgets reflect the fact that we have and continue to invest a greater amount of money and resources into the SOF infrastructure. More people, more and better equipment, and more enhanced training and skill development for these troops.
The administration’s January 2012 “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for the 21st Century Defense” very clearly states, “[a]s a new generation across the Middle East and North Africa demands their universal rights, we are supporting political and economic reform and deepening partnerships to ensure regional security.” [Emphasis added] Partnership development and ensuring security is primarily the SOF mission.
That said, is it appropriate for members of our military to be in places where we say we are not? Is that just part of the “cat and mouse” game we must employ to ensure our country’s future? If it’s not appropriate (or perhaps even legal according to U.S. or international law or convention), then what were these guys doing in Mali a full month after we said we weren’t there?
Vice Admiral John M. Richardson recently blogged about “character” in the U.S. Fleet Forces Command Blog . He defined “character” as “our moral and ethical quality…hard-wired to the success of our mission…” The admiral was addressing the Navy’s submarine force sailors primarily when he went on to say, “[w]e are independent and invisible, providing…a non-provocative platform that can quietly inform diplomacy one day, and then enforce it the next. Invisibility and independence is our advantage and it’s critical to our mission.” [Emphasis added] A very similar comparison can be made to our nation’s SOF military. They often operate “invisibly.” We, the American people, must therefore trust that they are doing so in our nation’s best interest.
Admiral Richardson went on to say, “Invisibility and character have a long relationship, and it hasn’t always been a healthy one. Being out of sight can uniquely challenge one’s character.” Is this what we’re seeing with the particularly unfortunate exposure of dead U.S. soldiers operating in an area that we say we officially exited? While we should not condone this type of behavior, will the fact that they were found with dead prostitutes blur or distract us from the bigger picture?
What do we really expect from our military; from our elected leaders? Is the Mali incident an isolated one? Does the possibility of the administration’s lying about the mission in Mali trump the perception of elite U.S. service members paying for sex? Admiral Richardson referenced Plato in his blog, saying, “Plato surmised that we are moral because we must be – and that left unchecked by society’s eye, we’d devolve to a state of low morality, of low character.” So, perhaps we cannot wash over the Mali incident with a swipe of the hand and the bravado blustering of “well we have to lie, we have to torture (Abu Ghraib); we have to resort to the methods of the enemy. That’s how we’ll win.”
No, we cannot allow ourselves to sink to the depths of character that excuse it while no one’s looking. The very nature of our success as a military, as a country, as a society are exactly what the good admiral suggested, our moral and ethical qualities are “hard-wired.” We shouldn’t lose sight of that, nor should we allow our government or military to do so either. We cannot afford any less.