Fallen Heroes: What the SEALS Taught Us Last Weekend
by DR. ROBIN MCFEE
August 12, 2011
“But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
Abraham Lincoln – Gettysburg Address
This weekend saw the deaths of heroic men in the service of their nation as the helicopter flying Navy SEALS and pilots was shot down by enemy forces. They and their families deserve our prayers, gratitude and time to reflect upon the great sacrifice they, and their fallen comrades before them, have made.
We also owe them the opportunity to teach us. While it has often been said that we prepare today for the war we fought yesterday, that mindset is changing among our adversaries, who have demonstrated a remarkable ability to adapt and challenge our efforts.
As students of terrorism, it was interesting to watch the response. Many in leadership positions were shocked. Those of us who have worked in the security arena and the Middle East, were more surprised at the shock this event generated by folks who previously dismissed Taliban ability to bring down a helicopter (further revealing that our adversaries understand us far better than the collective understanding of our adversaries) and that tragic events like this haven’t happened sooner and more often as our adversaries close the technology gap.
Nevertheless, several issues come to mind and are worth revisiting so that, God willing, such tragedies can be avoided in the future.
What the West needs to grasp ASAP is the cold, hard reality that those who seek to do us harm, here and abroad are far better armed today than in the past, and have far greater access to advanced weapons than ever before; a harsh lesson that Israel learned in 2006 war against Lebanon (i.e. Hezbollah) and continues to face. Our ports and borders are still porous. The weapons trade is global and there are more than enough legitimate, as well as black market merchants to provide for the needs of the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, and so many other unsavory groups worldwide.
Closing the weapons gap
Afghanistan is no longer the land where Enfield Rifles are the only option for tribes, Taliban and Al Qaeda. Some pretty slick devices are being used over there – from EFP (explosive formed projectiles) to RPGs, high powered rifles, rockets and other toys. Net result? Our super tanks can be damaged, our transport vehicles destroyed.
From the days of Major Uziel the father of the Israeli automatic weapon “Uzi” so named for him, and designed to provide enough firepower to counter the Arab advantage of lots of folks – technology has been a key solution for the underdog and outmatched. From time immemorial every combatant – from caveman, Roman soldier to sovereign nation – has tried to tilt the balance of power in its favor. Consider the infant nation Israel during the 1940’s and 1950’s – surrounded and vastly outnumbered, one of the key strategies was to overcome the numeric disadvantage using tactics, strategy and technology. And until recently, they have thwarted their Arab adversaries quite well. That is until folks like Hamas and Hezbollah started enjoying their own technology evolution thanks in no small part to Iran and their weapons catalog.
The US is also basing many of its military procurements if not outright strategies and tactics on the technology advantage. Often this works. But we can fall into what I like to think of as ‘the Goliath Trap’ – and forget that low tech options by committed combatants often can overcome technology. Consider Vietnam – between the tunnels and the use of low tech but ruthless strategies, their guerilla approach fatigued us to withdraw, much like we did with the British in the 18th century to obtain our own sovereignty. Painful when we ignore the lessons of the past. The Afghans and Iraqis know that guerilla tactics coupled with a wide range of weapons – improvised to high tech – can be utilized to make it very painful for occupiers to remain. This weekend was another demonstration how effective such tactics can be, especially when we don’t have the home court advantage.
But let’s not forget technology is not the only approach. Sheer numbers, strategy, political and soft power are also valid approaches to defeating a stronger adversary.
Iran - the weapons-supplying, Hamas/Hezbollah-supporting, anti-West provocateur - is more than happy to provide the means to tip the balance. To think Iran is neutral in the geoglobal fight against radical Islam, or terrorism and folks trying their best at undermining the West, is infantile thinking. On the contrary! Iran is vying to become the central figure, dare I suggest capitol of radical Islam. Once Cairo could lay claim to being the central city of Arabs; that fell during the Arab Winter of 2011, leaving opportunities for Saudi Arabia which controls the holiest of Islamic religious sites – Mecca and Medina, and Iran. Iran’s efforts in Bahrain, Gaza, Lebanon and elsewhere should demonstrate their resolve to challenge the Saudis AND the West.
And where does Iran get many of its weapons? The Beatles gave the answer as old lyrics …”Back in the USSR.” OK I took some license, but the song doesn’t work using “Russia.” But you get the idea.
The AK 47 is one of the staples of battlefield weapons for pretty much everyone except the West. Tried and true, easy to operate (a 12 year old can learn to clean, load and fire one in short order) and available – it is the ultimate logo-wear of Russian arms traders. To be sure there are Czech, Chinese and other manufacturers. Then there is the Vampir, and a list of multi-generation RPGs which have effectively changed the landscape of modern warfare, as well as other weapons that have killed thousands of US servicemen and women. They are not sold at Tupperware parties, by NATO or ‘Made in the USA’ retail outlets. Russia is friend, weapons supplier, financial partner to Iran. Both are major arms dealers in many unstable regions; and when they are not directly selling, they are middle-men, facilitators, and/or protectors to those who do the direct sales. In fact, IEDs and RPGs have killed more of our people than other weapons.
The U.S. as source – yes that’s right, us! First by way of commerce – the United States is a major weapons exporting nation. To think there aren’t off-the-truck sales or sales to seemingly clean buyers who then resell to less than savory folks , is wishful thinking, export laws and other safeguards notwithstanding. Then the weapons to allies policy – let’s not forget we helped arm the very people who now are trying to kill us. Afghanistan – that vortex of death and quagmire entrapping world powers for going on three centuries starting with the British during the 19th century, the Soviets in the 1980’s and the US in the 21st century…and all those weapons get left behind, stolen, sold a la black market or outright given through cut outs or directly, as done when we aided the mujahideen…. The same folks who know want us out of their country.
The US isn’t the only place to get man portable weapons, such as shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles, such as the Stinger. There are lots of advanced weapons on the market; and many merchants of death all too willing to traffic in them. Not surprisingly, the Russian RPG remains a leading platform of death worldwide. Weapons are big business, which is why nations are so aggressive at positioning their manufacturers into optimal sales opportunities. Consider France, the UK, the US, Russia, China, Iran, Germany – weapons are not insignificant contributors to their respective bottom line.
And to think we are the only ones that could provide night vision goggles to the Taliban is ludicrous. Go onto the website Spy Store or other sites for James Bond wannabees to get all sorts of toys. Perhaps not NATO grade, but then again, a handful of guys brought down airplanes using box cutters on 9 11, so one doesn’t really need the most novel weapon to defeat us.
But Afghanistan isn’t the only place we need be concerned about the weapons gap closing – several sources have confirmed there are numerous radical training camps within the United States, from Western Massachusetts to the West Coast that have some pretty high powered weapons – far and away more advanced than anything local law enforcement has.
“Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster.”
Sun Tzu – The Art of War
It was predictable. Contrary to DC politicos in the administration and the media pundits who echo the chorus and drink the Kool Aid ® the death of Bin Laden was not the crippling death-blow to Al Qaeda or a demoralizer to insurgents in Afghanistan, Iraq or Mars for that matter. That was wishful even fairy tale thinking. As I’ve written in prior articles, Al Qaeda has learned to adapt. One could argue far better than we or our leaders have. It has morphed into a very effective geoglobal enterprise with many franchises that have sprung forth from their model. And Al Qaeda has made many alliances and tapped into a variety of criminal cartels that may or may not share a similar ideology or religious tradition but clearly share an antipathy for the US and the West. These include weapons dealers to drug and human traffickers to arms length state sponsors, tribal war lords and military/government players. One could also argue our adversaries understand us far better than we do. Our “victory” against Bin Laden in many ways was more important to us than to them. Some of our leaders and pundits yammered about how Al Qaeda was destabilized, leaderless, gone underground, or had become irrelevant. The world is not safer because Bin Laden is dead. I wish that was not the case. But in the ten years since 911 our adversaries have added a few pages to their play book. They are not the same folks who attacked us in 2001. Technology – communications, financial, weapons – have become powerful tools in their arsenal to undermine us. Cyber Jihad is a reality. The Twitter Revolution and Flash Mobs are new approaches to destabilize their opposition. The number of places where terrorists lurk is growing. Their sources of revenue is growing. Organizations that historically were not aligned with Al Qaeda and similar, are now forging alliances – either in the narco trade or human trafficking or other financial, weapons or political arena.
Adversaries that know how to adapt
Let’s not get so hung up on technology and advanced weapons, or what brought the Chinook down, that we forget about the very people, our adversaries, who are determined to succeed and survive. They are not leaderless, without financial resources, or without allies. They understand our technology, and often overreliance upon it. Throughout history, the most committed usually win.
Then there is our own through the looking glass approach. For reasons that escape me, our leaders tend to think of throughout the world everyone is interchangeable, homogenous, like minded, like experienced. Or that all people share a common value base and set of objectives, including world peace. Which probably explains why we are empowering and arming the Taliban and bringing them into the political fold as if they will be agents for peace in Afghanistan. Someone in the strategy department must have looked at old World War II archives and thought, “hmmm, if the defeated Nazis can be co-opted to keep the trains running, the streets safe and the bureaucracy in check, then clearly the Taliban can be trusted to do the same thing.” While politics makes for strange bedfellows, did we learn nothing from our last experience with Afghanistan? Did we learn nothing from the British or Russian experience? Afghanis want to be left alone. That they and part of Pakistan harbor folks who want to harm the West, does not change the fact that Afghanistan is a rock quarry, a tribal society that is based upon a decidedly male dominant infrastructure, where power is respected, where old loyalties and enemies persist for generations, where life is hard and opium is a cash crop, and where women are largely baby bearing, child rearing, beasts of burden with few exceptions. Western influences change the dynamic and power structure. That alone makes us unpopular. That we are occupying their country – deserved or not – doesn’t enhance our status. To expect rivals not to band together against the one thing they can agree upon – getting the US OUT, is naïve.
Let’s put it another way. Hiring the Taliban to be our friends, and trusting them is, well…CRAZY! Blood is thicker than water. So are territorial imperatives. Anyone ever read about the Trojan horse? Or consider the enemy within?
“Confront them with annihilation, and they will then survive; plunge them into a deadly situation, and they will then live. When people fall into danger, they are then able to strive for victory.”
Sun Tzu – The Art of War
For all our technology – drones, satellites, laser guided weapons, electronics, infra-red, sound/motion, scent, even nano-detection, and lots of other nifty gifts from physics and chemistry – the Taliban, Afghan narco-tribal leaders and war lords, Al Qaeda and other splinter guerilla groups all enjoy a home field advantage. Underscore the word “home.” People defending their home are a powerful force with which to reckon. They have dealt with invaders for hundreds of years and devised trails, caves, tunnels and other means to evade, surreptitiously attack, hide, outlast and survive their enemies. Afghanistan is one of the least hospitable places on the planet. The folks who grew up there are used to deprivation, hardship, danger. It is not by technology with which they survived over the years. But they have adapted.
And therein rests another caveat – do not underestimate your adversary. They have demonstrated an ability to change tactics, to adapt to ours and counter them. Our troops are still dying. Move… countermove. The Taliban et al are not stupid people – to suggest otherwise gives them an advantage.
Moreover, when the SEALS killed Bin Laden, they put an even bigger target on their backs than the generic ones that all US and NATO forces wear. In essence the SEALS became prime targets. Hindsight is twenty- twenty but in this arena, our adversaries are no different than we are – we focus in on who hurt us. Why would we not expect this? Why would we be shocked if Al Qaeda decided to exact a price for killing their leader, even if it was always an exigency that they likely expected if not planned for, as I’ve written.
To be discussed in a future article, the US is perilously close to falling into the trap again…Libya. Our allies and adversaries are watching very closely how the US, NATO and the West play this. There are few win-win scenarios. Do we really know who we are supporting against Gaddafi? Will the weapons used against him and his forces today be put aside tomorrow, or put in storage until the rebels decide to attack Western targets? Is Al Qaeda in the Magreb NOT involved in Libya? Radical Islamists not joining the fight? This is all about democracy, right? Seriously? Would we be shocked if Gaddafi attacks a Western target, should he survive the rebels?
Mourning the lost
Lincoln’s exhortation over 100 years ago should be on the front page of every US newspaper, whenever any US service man or woman is killed in the performance of their duty:
“..that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain”
Perhaps the best way to honor the brave men who gave their lives is follow the suggestions of Sun Tzu – understand who and what you are up against before putting folks in harm’s way. To be sure, decisions made in real time are rarely perfect. But we were slow on the uptake in considering Iraq and Afghanistan would succumb to guerilla style, insurgent or adaptive warfare. We must redouble our efforts to protect our troops in hostile lands, to rethink our approach when dealing with cultures and adversaries with traditions, expectations, strategies and objectives foreign to our own, to accept the fact that our enemies are smart, adaptive and committed, to dedicate as much effort to understanding our adversaries as we do on our technology, and to recognize the changing landscape and threats we face geoglobally.
Each day our military face difficult tasks – fighting a determined adversary only too willing to kill, spending long periods of time away from home/family/friends, financial challenges, the uncertainty of adequate medical, rehabilitative, psychiatric or monetary resources when returning, especially if injured. It is a long list of sacrifices that our VOLUNTEER military willingly face for our country. Let’s not add ingratitude, indifference or incompetence to the list of challenges that they face.
Last weekend we lost a helicopter full of troops. A painful reminder that the security of a nation often rests upon the shoulders of our young. Let’s learn from this awful event and implement strategies against the next attack. There will be more.
“And he will raise you up on eagle's wings, bear you on the breath of dawn, make you to shine like the sun, and hold you in the palm of his hand.”
Michael Joncas – On Eagle’s Wings
Rest in peace gentle warriors.
FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor Dr. Robin McFee is a physician and medical toxicologist. A nationally recognized expert in WMD preparedness, she is a consultant to government agencies, corporations and the media. Dr. McFee is the former director and cofounder of the Center for Bioterrorism Preparedness (CB PREP) and was bioweapons - WMD adviser to the Regional Domestic Security Task Force Region 7 after 911, as well as advisor on avian and swine flu preparedness to numerous agencies and organizations. Dr. McFee is a member of the Global Terrorism, Political Instability and International Crime Council of ASIS International, and member of the US Counterterrorism Advisory Team. She has delivered over 400 invited lectures since 9-11, authored more than 100 articles on terrorism, health care and preparedness, and coauthored two books: Toxico-Terrorism by McGraw Hill and The Handbook of Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Agents, published by Informa/CRC Press.