Editor’s note: This is the latest article in “Rethinking Civ-Mil,” a series that endeavors to present expert commentary on diverse issues surrounding civil-military relations in the United States. Read all articles in the series here.
Special thanks to MWI’s research director, Dr. Max Margulies, and MWI research fellow Dr. Carrie A. Lee for their work as series editors.
In May 2017, a US Army and Marine veteran posted on social media:
SEAL = SEAL
SEAL ≠ policy expert
SEAL = Creative non-fiction writer
SEAL ≠ ethical
SEAL ≠ Business expert
SEAL = CrossFit instructor
SEAL ≠ good governance
SEALs are good at being SEALs.
While the post was in jest, it illustrates the degree to which former special operations forces (SOF) personnel, despite their small numbers, are held in such high esteem even in areas only tenuously connected to their military service. Furthermore, the post’s explicit references to policy expertise and good governance are indicative of how certain portions of the electorate value the former SOF members’ opinions as a litmus test of American policy. Flipping through the news channels reveals a number of former SOF personnel discussing not only military topics but also social and cultural issues that have little connection to national security issues.
This oversaturation of SOF in the media raises questions about the state of civil-military relations. Why, for example, does having been a Navy SEAL have any bearing on being qualified for political office or leadership? What does Special Forces experience have to do with social and cultural expertise? This seeming prerequisite is problematic for political and cultural discourse, specifically when it comes to when and where military service is applicable or relevant.
SOF in American Popular Culture and Politics
Since 9/11, the SOF community has increasingly deviated from its historical reputation as “quiet professionals.” This change is due in large part to politicians and others using the image of these special operations units to present their political agendas, but equally it is a function of a media and entertainment industry that increasingly makes SOF the subject of TV shows and movies. Rather than being quiet professionals whose exploits are not the focus of the nightly news, special operations units are now at the forefront of popular culture’s portrayal of the US military, and the image of the US military is now disproportionately influenced by SOF. Between 2012 and 2017 the movies Zero Dark Thirty, Act of Valor, American Sniper, and Lone Survivor were box office hits. TV shows like SEAL Team brought the SOF emphasis to the small screen. Even the reboots of Hawaii Five-O and Magnum, P.I. gave their leads ex-SEAL backgrounds. Another TV show, The Unit, was based on the US Army’s Delta Force and included a former Delta Force operator as a creator. Furthermore, in a recent reboot of Superman, Clark Kent decides to become a Navy SEAL, rather than a reporter, before he becomes a superhero.
In addition to the movies and shows, the public has been saturated with books, podcasts, and other items that promote a special operations lifestyle and experience. While some former SOF personnel write books directly related to their expertise, namely about survival, physical fitness, and combat, others have strayed further afield to write novels or nonfiction books about everything from self-help to child-rearing. Moreover, many former members have also used their experience in special operations to move into a career in new media with podcasts or YouTube channels. In addition, anyone can purchase clothing, equipment, or coffee from companies owned by SOF veterans.
One of the critics of the self-promotion cycle is Navy SEAL Forrest S. Crowell, who wrote his thesis at the Naval Postgraduate School on the problems of self-promotion in the SEAL community. He commented that “the cultivation of celebrity status has incentivized narcissistic and profit-focused behavior within the SEAL community, which in turn has eroded organizational effectiveness, damaged national security, and undermined healthy civil-military relations.” There are individuals like Crowell who are worried about the impact of cultural and image changes. However, it is worth considering whether the opinions expressed in academic theses, novels, TV shows, movies, and podcasts by SEALs are being given the attention they deserve.
The intersection of former SOF personnel and politics is problematic in regard to civil-military relations. One political action group, Special Operations for America, explicitly ties combat experience with knowing “how to best keep Americans safe and preserve our way of life.” The implication is that veterans, specifically SOF veterans, are inherently qualified to govern the nation. Additionally, a few former SOF personnel have jumped into politics themselves, winning various offices by using their SOF careers as a major part of their platforms. For example, in 2022, nine former members of the US Army’s Special Forces and six former Navy SEALs ran for congressional seats to fill what one laudatory observer described as “a void in leadership at the National level.” Having veterans serving in elected offices certainly has benefits for the nation, but relying on SOF experience as a litmus test of the ability to legislate and govern is problematic. Unfortunately, this only becomes undeniably clear when the assumption that SOF experience uniquely equips these elite operators to govern is undermined publicly and in spectacular fashion.
Of course, the public attention paid to US SOF can have positive effects. It can inspire young Americans to serve in the military, as occurred in the recruiting boom in the 1980s after the release of Top Gun. And the books former SOF personnel are writing about their experiences give nonmilitary readers at least some exposure to the military. Still, it risks fostering a culture of militarism in American politics that is in tension with the model of civil-military relations established in the US Constitution and promoted since the early days of America’s founding by President George Washington and others. The German historian Alfred Vagts, in A History of Militarism, defined militarism the “domination of the military man over the civilian, an undue preponderance of military demands, an emphasis on military considerations, spirit, ideals and scales of value, in the life of states.” According to Vagts, militarism is not just about having actual authority but also involves a focus on military spirit, ideals, and values. Some former SOF personnel have taken on the role of the protectors of the nation. It is important to acknowledge that these individuals are not representative of the entire SOF community and may be a small minority. But even while such a minority’s intentions may be patriotic and genuine, their actions could harm the relationship between the military and civil society.
A Phenomenon Decades in the Making
While SOF members have long been described as quiet professionals, they have been the subject of heroic portrayals in popular culture since the 1960s, including, for example, Robin Moore’s 1965 account of the Green Berets in Vietnam and the movie based on the book. After the end of the Vietnam War, the portrayals of SOF in popular media continued to depict them fighting terrorists, communist guerrillas, or even Soviet intelligence forces—from the novels of Tom Clancy to movies like Navy SEALs.
However, with the end of the Cold War, the enemies in some popular portrayals of SOF, especially novels, changed from external to internal threats. And with that change, there emerged a depiction of these elite forces as the saviors of the nation from both. One of the major authors that illustrated this shift was a former commander of SEAL Team Six, Richard Marcinko, who cowrote a series of sixteen adventure novels that starred a fictionalized version of himself and some of his friends. While his band of warriors fought outside threats like Islamist terrorists, North Koreans, and the IRA, there was usually a subplot in which Marcinko had to battle cowardly or treasonous US officials (many thinly veiled copies of actual officials). Marcinko’s works promoted a narrative where violence was the only way to protect America, and it was the diplomats and the politicians that were willing to sell away the nation.
After 9/11, this literary motif continued. For example, in All Lines Black, one of a series of novels by Dalton Fury (the pen name of a former Delta Force commander), protagonist Kolt Raynor is sold out to a terrorist group by the secretary of state as part of a larger deal. Again, the SOF soldier works to keep the nation safe while the corrupt politician is concerned only with personal ambition. More recently, in ex-SEAL Jack Carr’s novel The Terminal List, his protagonist learns that elements of the American government were behind the ambush that killed his team, and later killed his family. And it is not only books by former SOF members that reflect these themes. Novelist Brad Thor’s series also features an ex-SOF hero, who similarly has to battle both internal and external threats. Conspiracy theories have even emerged that mirror the plots of these fictional novels. Even if these novels are not causal of any specific problem in civil-military relations, I would contend that they are representative of a loss of faith in civilian leadership.
This genre often portrays the government as an adversary of both citizens and the military. These storylines—featuring SOF members as the only ones capable of combating external and internal threats and contrasting their courage and selfless service with the corruption of government officials—are reminiscent of the stabbed-in-the-back myth popular among some German citizens in the wake of their nation’s military defeat in World War I. After the war, that narrative weakened the public’s opinion of German elected officials in the decade leading up to the ascendancy of a regime that would adopt an especially militaristic approach to the nation’s political and social problems.
How Can We Fix the Problem?
Naturally, we cannot prevent individuals from writing novels or memoirs or creating podcasts about their experiences, and it would be unwise to try. However, we can utilize the image of the SOF to support positive civil-military relations within our nation.
In order to reestablish the culture of quiet professionalism within the SOF community, it is important to take a collaborative approach from both the top down and the bottom up. This can involve working with current writers, novelists, and podcasters to shift the focus of stories and revive the culture. Additionally, conducting academic studies on the portrayal of SOF in popular culture and its impact on how Americans perceive SOF through institutions such as the Naval Postgraduate School or Joint Special Operations University can further this goal. It also is crucial to separate the SOF community from direct partisan politics, just as it is for the military as a whole, to ensure that the level of trust between the nation and its military, which has its roots in the founding documents, is maintained.
It is important to accurately represent the diversity within the SOF community in all US DoD publications. This will show that the SOF community is made up of individuals with different backgrounds, much like the United States as a whole. It would also be helpful to encourage more publications that highlight the history of SOF members fighting external threats, particularly during the Cold War. This will help demonstrate their role in protecting the nation in times characterized by peer threats.
During the Global War on Terrorism, US SOF played a crucial role in safeguarding the nation. These units, many of which had previously operated with little public attention, became more visible, and the public’s perception of the military became disproportionately influenced by SOF imagery. Politicians and others utilized the image of these elite units to promote political agendas, while they have simultaneously been featured increasingly as the subjects of TV shows, movies, and other media. Collectively, this had an adverse impact on civil-military relations. As Crowell argued, former SOF personnel are “the core of what is becoming a special interest pressure group that uses the credibility of special operations to push partisan politics.” It is imperative to ensure that the image of the US military in popular culture is nonpartisan, democratic, and a symbol of unity for the nation.
Edward Salo, PhD is an associate professor of history at Arkansas State University. Before coming to A-State in 2014, he spent fourteen years as a consulting historian for various firms across the nation. His work has been published by War on the Rocks, The National Interest, 1945, InkStick, and by the Modern War Institute. He is also a research fellow for the Modern War Institute, host of the Sea Control podcast, and a member of the New America Nuclear Futures Working Group.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense, or that of any organization the author is affiliated with, including Arkansas State University.
Image credit: Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Anthony W. Walker, US Navy