It was a night in late January, like countless others in the War on Terror. American special forces were in harm’s way — this time in Yemen — preparing to assault a suspected al-Qaeda compound when they lost the element of surprise and found themselves facing a prepared and determined enemy. During the furious firefight that followed, al-Qaeda reportedly used civilians as human shields, women grabbed AK-47s and attacked U.S. troops, and the resulting battle destroyed most of a village. American forces killed more than a dozen militants and seized intelligence, but an American soldier died and multiple civilians were caught in the crossfire.
At first blush, the story is relatively unremarkable — hardly the kind of incident that dominates the news. Americans have become inured to the steady casualties of war, and firefights happen all the time. Indeed, just days before the 2016 election, a similar incident broke out in Afghanistan, except on a larger scale. A joint U.S.-Afghan mission targeting Taliban leaders in Kunduz turned into a raging gun battle that left two American soldiers dead and killed 25 Taliban fighters and at least 30 civilians. In other words, just two months before the Yemen raid, the Obama administration fought a bloodier battle in Afghanistan, one that cost more American lives and likely killed more civilians than the Trump administration’s raid in Yemen.
Yet the Yemen raid is the subject of raging controversy (now involving a series of tweets from the president himself), while only the smallest number of Americans are aware that the Afghanistan raid happened. Why the difference?
The answer lies in the news cycles that are fast becoming routine in Donald Trump’s Washington. First, a news report makes an explosive claim against Trump. The claim is then debunked or modified by detailed additional reporting. That supplemental reporting doesn’t stop (or even slow) the administration and its enemies from becoming locked into a battle of mutually assured hyperbole, a war of words full of unsupportable and overbroad assertions. Lost is the actual substance of the debate, including the vital question of the success or failure of the mission, along with its impact on American enemies and allies.
Let’s break the controversy down step by step, beginning after the shooting stopped.
Step one: Reuters makes an explosive and contentious claim. In its news story following the raid, Reuters quoted anonymous military sources who placed the blame for any losses or failures squarely on Donald Trump:
U.S. military officials told Reuters that Trump approved his first covert counterterrorism operation without sufficient intelligence, ground support or adequate backup preparations.
As a result, three officials said, the attacking SEAL team found itself dropping onto a reinforced al Qaeda base defended by landmines, snipers, and a larger than expected contingent of heavily armed Islamist extremists.
Rather than being treated with due skepticism (after all, the Pentagon is hardly in the practice of sending half-baked plans to POTUS), the claim rocketed around political Twitter. The more temperate voices highlighted the claims as cause for concern and investigation, while the less temperate added their helpful “Wow” or “OMG.” Here was the first military scandal of an administration they hate.
The claim gained traction because it fit a narrative. An amateurish, thuggish White House’s first military operation was poorly planned and, yes, thuggish. Look at all the civilian casualties. Look at the diplomatic fallout. A dangerous man is at the reins, and this was already proof.
Or was it?
Step two: The New York Times complicates the debate. At the same time that the Reuters report was careening around the web, the Times published its own in-depth story, and it painted a considerably different picture. The Yemen raid was not some sort of fly-by-night operation but rather one that had been planned for “months” under Barack Obama. Moreover, the Obama administration hadn’t rejected the raid. It had pushed it over to the Trump administration for operational reasons:
President Barack Obama’s national security aides had reviewed the plans for a risky attack on a small, heavily guarded brick home of a senior Qaeda collaborator in a mountainous village in a remote part of central Yemen. But Mr. Obama did not act because the Pentagon wanted to launch the attack on a moonless night and the next one would come after his term had ended.
According to the Times, the attack wasn’t a story of Trump’s going rogue. Instead it was a story of his approving a pre-planned raid that was vetted by Pentagon lawyers and recommended to him by his secretary of defense, one of America’s most respected and experienced warriors. The attack was more difficult than anticipated (apparently, the sound of low-flying drones cost the element of surprise), but American forces pressed through, killed an al-Qaeda leader, and obtained enemy intelligence. That’s hardly the stuff of outrage and controversy.
Step three: Silliness. In a functional political culture, administration critics and skeptics would call for an investigation, the military would launch its own inquiries, and the administration would push back against the wildest claims by pointing to, for example, the Times’s more sober and credible reporting. That’s been the pattern of most of the last 15 years of war, and it should be the pattern now. It’s not.
Yes, there was an element of sober debate, but it soon went off the rails. After offering a serious and credible defense of the raid, Sean Spicer, the president’s press secretary, went on to claim that anyone who questioned its success was somehow dishonoring the sacrifice of the SEAL who died. No, really:
“It’s absolutely a success, and I think anyone who would suggest it’s not a success does disservice to the life of Chief Ryan Owens,” Spicer said at Wednesday’s daily briefing. “He fought knowing what was at stake in that mission. And anybody who would suggest otherwise doesn’t fully appreciate how successful that mission was.”
Spicer was overreacting to criticism from John McCain, criticism that was soberly delivered but established its own puzzling, ahistorical standard for military success or failure. Spicer claimed that questioning the success of a mission “does disservice” to the lives of the fallen. McCain, for his part, said that he could “not describe any operation that results in the loss of American life as a success.” (Ironically enough, he was echoing Spicer, who only days before said, “I think it’s hard to ever say something was successful when you lose a life.”)
But this is a plainly false standard, and McCain knows it. Many of America’s greatest military successes have been accompanied not just by loss of life but by loss on a staggering scale. Think of Gettysburg, or Omaha Beach, or the battle for Iwo Jima. The Surge, an enormous military success in Iraq, cost significant casualties. The question in military operations isn’t whether lives were lost but whether the objective was worth the cost. Soldiers understand this reality. So does McCain.
Rather than respond with reason and logic, however, Trump did what Trump does — tweeted personal insults. Off he went:
Sen. McCain should not be talking about the success or failure of a mission to the media. Only emboldens the enemy! He's been losing so….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 9, 2017
…long he doesn't know how to win anymore, just look at the mess our country is in – bogged down in conflict all over the place. Our hero..
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 9, 2017
..Ryan died on a winning mission ( according to General Mattis), not a "failure." Time for the U.S. to get smart and start winning again!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 9, 2017
Where does this “debate” leave us? No more informed, but yet somehow angrier, than we were before.
Here are the bottom lines. First, we civilians don’t truly know whether the mission was a success, failure, or something in between. We simply don’t have access to the classified briefings that will shed meaningful light on the raid and what truly went wrong. There are reports that we killed an al-Qaeda leader and that we seized intelligence. We don’t know the quality of that intelligence, and it may well be that even the Pentagon doesn’t yet know and won’t know until it further evaluates what it seized and chases down any leads.
Second, reports of diplomatic damage in the relationship are likely exaggerated. In fact, Yemen has already backtracked on suspending American special-forces raids and instead asked merely for “closer coordination” in future missions. This is a familiar pattern. After reports of civilian casualties in American raids, allied governments will often very publicly beat their chests, condemning the action and threatening a punitive response, only to quietly continue military cooperation.
Third, the raid should serve as a reminder (as if we needed one) that war can never be so precisely planned and executed as to eliminate either the margin for human error or the capacity of the enemy to inflict harm. If the media and the public hold the Trump administration to a standard of zero casualties and zero defects, then they are asking the Trump administration not to fight. While that may be the aim of some radicals, it’s not a sensible position for a nation locked in a struggle with a deadly foe.
Fourth, the raid should also serve as a reminder that we fight an evil and cowardly enemy. Using women and children as human shields violates the laws of war and any moral measure of courage and decency. When the enemy uses human shields (as when when it tries to blend in with the civilian population), the resulting civilian casualties are al-Qaeda’s moral and legal responsibility. The blood of the innocents is on jihadist hands, not American.
So long as the enemy still has the will to fight, there will be more raids, more American casualties, and more civilian deaths. In their eagerness to #resist Trump, critics should take care not to impose impossible standards of success on our troops. Zero casualties (civilian or military) is not an attainable goal, and even the quest for zero casualties can do more harm than good.
At the same time, the Trump administration can’t use the sad fact of military sacrifice to shield itself from scrutiny and criticism. Our military has become the world’s most lethal and professional fighting force in part because it continually asks itself, “What went wrong?” The press and the public have the right to ask that same question, and a vindictive, defensive response only feeds the atmosphere of paranoia and hostility. Fight the press with facts, not fury — especially when American lives are on the line.