I recently watched Act of Valor, an action film about Navy SEALs in which the soldiers were played by actual Special Forces operatives. The movie, marred by stilted acting and a shallow plot, currently has a 30% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. SEALs may not need stunt doubles, but they certainly need acting ones.
While some were troubled by the Department of Defense’s close support for the film and its propaganda-like qualities, our cultural landscape is rife with depictions of heroic warriors. Act of Valor is no different and is hardly a standout in that genre (it is a fun movie though).
However, I found a different aspect of the film far more troubling: the air of impunity and exception with which the Special Forces approached sovereignty and American power. The SEAL teams parachute or swim into Thailand, Somalia, Mexico, and other countries with little mention of diplomatic back channels or permission. They start firefights, capture or kill their targets, then disappear into the night and move onto the next locale.
Now, the film probably elided the intense negotiation that allows these operations to occur. But, a reading of Marc Ambinder’s well-reported book on the Special Forces, The Command: Deep Inside the President’s Secret Army, portrays an organization which sees itself as the elite backstop of American and global freedom, an attitude that has poisoned our government’s covert operations apparatus before.
In being the best of the best, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which encompasses the SEALs, espouses a mentality that elites in general often adopt: they are the only ones who can fix the problem, as no others can match their sheer ability. Ambinder writes about JSOC’s audacious covert exploits in China, Iran, Peru, Pakistan, and elsewhere that certainly echo the tone of the film. He also details JSOC’s buck-stops-here mindset, “The Command hoards contingency planners. When the president travels overseas, a JSOC team usually shadows him. Its members are trained to take charge should the mammoth security structure of the Secret Service break down…JSOC is also a key part of the classified contingency plans to preserve the U.S. civilian government in the event of a coup from the military or anyone else.”
These elites are also implicitly trusted on the assumption that their capability is unimpeachable or beyond comprehension (and in this case, important to keep secret). Ambinder makes clear that JSOC allows only select members of Congress and political appointees to be privy to its planning. This free hand further allows for plausible deniability: politicians can honestly tell Pakistani officials that they are fully confident of Pakistan’s capacity to secure its nuclear arsenal. JSOC, of course, already has an elaborate contingency, ready to intervene in Pakistan if the need should arise, Ambinder reports.
Of all arenas, the military is one where elitism is understandable; certain people are excellent shooters and operators, and only the best SEAL team could covertly kill Osama Bin Laden. Yet, even in the military, there are glimmers of the hubris and self-confidence that elite institutions can breed—especially in deep secrecy.
And JSOC has not been immune. In Iraq, JSOC brutally interrogated detainees: “Reportedly, special operations officers acted as though they were above the law, and the Senate review later concluded that JSOC interrogators regularly brutalized their detainees. At the same time, members of both the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) sent word up their respective chains of command that JSOC was possibly breaking the law.” Ambinder further explains that the Department of Defense itself attempted to impose a set of more humane—and legal—interrogation standards on JSOC, only to be ignored. By late 2003, JSOC’s tactics were so beyond the pale that the DIA, FBI, and British Special Forces all refused any further cooperation with JSOC. It took General Stanley McChrystal to finally clean up JSOC in 2004.
This hubris seeps into every elite institution. Andrew Delbanco recently wrote in the New York Times about this tendency in higher education, “The charge that elite college culture encourages smugness and self-satisfaction contains…a germ of truth.” Our hubris is an intellectual one—that, we know better than everyone else. We are often reminded by our professors and peers that we are the best and that the world is ours to change. Rarely, however, are we told to be humble in thought and prescription, that for all we do know, we still know so very little. Delbanco continues, “To the stringent Protestants who founded Harvard, Yale and Princeton, the mark of salvation was not high self-esteem but humbling awareness of one’s lowliness in the eyes of God.” Delbanco’s solution to this smugness is an emphasis on charity and service, a worthy recommendation. But, maybe we could just start with acknowledging the self-importance—intellectual, martial, and otherwise—that elites breed.
History is littered with the stunning failures of the best and the brightest. Elitism has its place in solving the world’s tough problems. But without a healthy self-awareness of its limits and overconfidence, elitism is worse than mediocrity.