The new movie Lone Survivor retells the true story of a small band of Navy SEALs on a covert mission in Afghanistan who chance upon some Afghan goat-herds, one of whom is a small boy. The SEALs surmise, correctly as it turns out, that if the goat-herds are allowed to proceed on their way unmolested, they will instantly alert a large force of Taliban fighters in the area to their presence. Unless they can re-establish communications with their base, now lost, and call for helicopters to extract them in very short order, the SEALs will almost certainly be killed. Alternatively, they could ignore the rules of engagement along with their civilian sense of decency and morality and kill the Afghans. What should they do? Just for the sake of argument, let’s say that the movie is right, as it might easily be, to present these as the only choices available to the SEALs in the circumstances.
In the debate among themselves as to what course to take, moral considerations are not absent. One of the SEALs even says that killing unarmed civilians is not "who we are." It’s not entirely clear if this moral identity is being claimed on behalf of Navy SEALs or all Americans. I suspect he means the former. But morality pretty clearly takes a backseat to the prudential consideration of what will happen to them if they kill the goat-herds and are found out. Some of their comrades in arms have been court-martialed merely for taking souvenirs. Imagine what will happen to them if CNN headlines: "SEALs Kill Kids." This seems to be the clinching argument in their decision to let the Afghans go. "Hey," says one of our boys to an uncomprehending goat-herd: "You’ve just won the lottery." But of course the goat-herds had no choice in the matter. It was the SEALs who decided to buy, at typically long odds, the lottery ticket for the prize of their lives when they bet big on getting their radio contact back.
It’s not giving away anything — the title tells you what happens — to reveal that they lost their bet. But to me the most remarkable thing about the way the movie has set up their perilous situation is that it becomes an example of men choosing almost certain death before almost certain dishonor. For they are surely right to recognize that the relentless determination of the media to find out wrong-doing by American troops is at least equal to the relentless determination of the Taliban to kill them. The media’s thirst for scandal — the form that dishonor takes in America today — makes them as much the enemy of our men when they find themselves in such desperate circumstances as the Taliban themselves.
I hope it will not be construed as an apologia for war crimes if I ask whether we all ought to be quite comfortable with this state of affairs. After all, the media are themselves more comfortable with some kinds of wrong-doing than others. An interestingly parallel case comes up in some of the commentary about President Obama’s difficulty in deciding what to do about the National Security Agency’s surveillance of phone records in search of leads that will enable it to forestall the next terrorist incident. In an article by Peter Baker in The New York Times, the presidential adviser David Axelrod was quoted as explaining how "Mr. Obama was acutely aware of the risks of being seen as handcuffing the security agencies" by saying that "whatever reforms he makes, you can be sure if there’s another incident — and the odds are there will be in our history — there’ll be someone on CNN within seconds saying if the president hadn’t hamstrung the intelligence community, this wouldn’t have happened."
This very article’s tolerant understanding towards the President’s shifting views on security policy makes Mr Axelrod’s contention doubtful. The media would be much less inclined to treat Mr Obama’s lapse as scandalous than they would that of the Navy SEALs, had they committed it. But let us once again say, for the sake of argument, that Mr Axelrod is right. Should not Mr Obama take the SEALs example and choose the right (or at least the less self-interested) course — by radically cutting back the surveillance state he has hitherto supervised — even if it means, um, some bad publicity for himself? They gave their lives, after all; can he not give up a few points in the polls, the loss of which is much less certain, even when he doesn’t have to run for re-election? Yet the tone of the article suggests that this would be too much for us to expect of him.
But wait! There’s an asymmetry here, since the putative victims of the SEALs’ doing the wrong thing to save their lives are the enemies of this country, while the putative victims of the president’s doing the right thing at sacrifice of his poll ratings are the fellow citizens whom he is sworn to protect and who might have been protected with more surveillance. On the dubious but not outlandish assumption that the media would treat these two choices not taken as being equally scandalous, had they been taken, it would be for exactly opposite reasons. America’s "ideals," to use the President’s term, as he professes to see them would not have been upheld in the case of the SEALs but would have been upheld in that of the undetected terrorists. Doesn’t that reflection tell us something about those ideals’ defining, as Mr Obama also said they do, "who we are"? Maybe "who we are" isn’t the highly principled people he finds it convenient to suppose but a nation of prigs peering from behind our lace curtains in the hope of catching our neighbors out in anything that can be construed as bad behavior. It’s certainly who our media are.