If you read liberal news sites, chances are good that last week you encountered a story reporting that a retired Navy SEAL named David Cooper had authored a report warning that the planned Keystone XL oil pipeline, which has long been criticized by environmentalists, could also be a national security risk. The story appeared in Salon, the Huffington Post, Think Progress, and others, all of which noted in the headline that the report had been authored by a former SEAL.
The same report was also written up by the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribute, The Hill, and other more mainstream outlets, but with a different emphasis. Rather than focusing on the fact that the report had been authored by a former Navy SEAL, they led with the billionaire Democratic environmentalist whose group had contracted Cooper and paid for the report.
This is a uniquely American phenomenon, whereby any debate can supposedly be won by having a former Navy SEAL publicly agree with you. That liberal outlets were so eager to note that a retired Navy SEAL had affirmed the liberal opposition to Keystone XL was a somewhat extreme but not unusual example of this. Former SEALs have been frequently quoted as authorities on President Obama's role in planning the Osama bin Laden raid, on Middle East policy, on White House communications, on the 2013 government shutdown, even on smartphones. When it comes to any subject even remotely related to national security, the ultimate conversation-ender is to be able to say, "I found a retired Navy SEAL who agrees with me."
Beyond being patronizing, this fundamentally misunderstands Navy SEALs and what they do. It's also frequently misleading; there are lots of retired SEALs, so it's often possible to find one who will share any given policy position. More ironically, this line of argument cynically exploits the very soldiers that it is supposedly honoring.
"From the president on down, people are using the popularity of SEALs to attach themselves to the brand, and leverage their own agendas," Brandon Tyler Webb, a retired SEAL who has also authored several books and runs the news site SOFREP.com, told me.
"If you're a Special Operations veteran and you've been deployed to overseas to Iraq, Libya, or elsewhere, then you can weigh in and have an important voice on certain topics," Webb said. "But it doesn't make you an expert on everything."
SEALs are certainly deserving of our admiration and gratitude for their service, and are rightly lionized for their reputation as soldiers. Many retired SEALs, like Webb and others, will go on to develop policy expertise, which is informed and enriched by their experience seeing national security policy enacted up-close.
But this experience, for all its depth and value, does not in itself create high-level expertise on national security policy, foreign policy, or Middle East politics. That's not a knock on SEALs or their intelligence. But expertise on, say, planning and executing a special operations raid in Iraq does not necessarily translate into full, conversation-ending expertise on Iraqi sectarian politics or the nuances of America's Middle East policy, any more than a really talented American diplomat in Iraq would become an expert in military maneuvers by virtue of his or her experience in Middle Eastern diplomacy.
So why do we treat SEALs as unchallengeable experts on subjects for which they may not necessarily even be that rigorously versed? Why do politicians and activists so frequently trot out a retired SEAL to back them up?
"Because it works," Webb answered. People use SEALs to win political arguments because they think it will work. When I asked Webb if people ever try to co-opt his status as a retired SEAL, he didn't hesitate. "Oh, without a doubt. The Navy SEAL brand is big, and plenty of people try and latch on."
Part of this, Webb says, may be an unintended consequence of the military building up the "brand" of Navy SEALs as a way to buoy public support and drive recruitment. The campaign has been almost too effective.
"I've watched the SEAL brand grow over the course of my career," he said. "I remember being on active duty and seeing the parade of Hollywood celebrities and professional sports teams come through the Naval Special Warfare Command compound on the West coast. It's all about recruitment, it can be extremely disruptive, and the Naval Special Warfare Command, which is the parent organization of the SEALs, have overexposed the community in my opinion."
Maybe that big branding campaign began as about honoring SEALs, but it has since come to exploit them as well. Their "massive brand," Webb explained, has been deployed to star in "Navy-sponsored media like the movie Act of Valor, and the video game SOCOM US Navy SEALs. It's no surprise that Lone Survivor, which was a also Navy-sanctioned book, turned into a blockbuster movie. American Sniper is also coming out next year, and is sure to be a huge hit."
It's hardly surprising that the Navy-driven SEAL-worship, and the broader culture of exploiting SEALs for their popular and commercial appeal, would also lead them to be exploited politically.
Part of the issue is also that the community of retired SEALs is large and, with so many civilians eager to co-opt SEALs for their own gain, not all veterans are able to resist.
"Because of the popularity of the SEALs, guys in the community can easily go on Fox News and voice their opinions," Webb said, "but what people need to remember is that one SEAL doesn't speak for an entire community."
Media outlets or politicians who use SEALs as props are of course eager to present the one or two they're promoting as speaking for all SEALs. This has created some tension among retired SEALs. "What angers a lot of guys in the Special Ops community is when one individual tries to represent the entire community," Webb said. "I recently saw a SEAL on Fox News claiming that all SEALs feel a certain way about President Obama; making such a statement like this is wrong and is a false representation of the community at large."
While last week's Keystone XL stories showed that using SEALs to win an argument is far from an exclusively conservative habit, Fox News seems to be a serial abuser, particularly when it comes to finding retired SEALs who are willing to criticize Obama.
As Fox and other conservative outlets increasingly promote retired SEALs who criticize Obama, regardless of their immediate connection to the issues on which they're asked to speak, this may be causing some problems for the same institution that created the SEAL brand in the first place: the military.
"You've got this big Godzilla of a brand that WARCOM has built and now they're scared to death of what they've created, and that they can't control it," Webb said, referring to the SEAL's parent organization in the Navy. As SEALs are increasingly turned into media assets, sometimes very lucrative ones, their sponsors often steer them to criticize not just Obama but Obama's military.