Admiral McRaven: Taxpayers Should Learn about Special Operations from Hollywood Movies


Most of the coverage of Admiral William McRaven’s letter to the special operations community telling them to shut up has focused on McRaven’s insinuation that the recent flurry of activity stems entirely from a desire for personal or political gain. But I find McRaven’s comments about what forms of publicity about special ops are appropriate just as interesting (thanks to Josh Rogin for linking a copy).

McRaven notes the importance of books on special operations as a learning tool.

Few senior SOF officers have benefited more from reading about the exploits of our legendary heroes than I. My thesis at the Naval Postgraduate School was based on a rigorous examination of the available literature, without which I could never have written my book on “The Theory of Special Operations.”

Most of these books were wonderful accounts of courage, leadership, tough decision making, and martial skill all of which benefited me as I tried to understand of our past and how it could affect missions in the future.

And he suggests that movies “provide public insights into life in special operations … that can’t be garnered anywhere else.”

Movies that portray the heroics of service members are also well worth watching and often provide the public insights into life in special operations or the service that can’t be garnered anywhere else.

Personally, I was motivated to join special operations after watching the movie, “The Green Berets”, starring John Wayne. To this day my Army brethren still wonder where I went wrong…

Countless stories have been told through the medium of film that needed to be told and I am thankful that they were.

Now, I’m grateful that McRaven has criticized OPSEC’s attempt to politicize the Osama bin Laden raid (though it does suggest a double standard). But these comments are rather troubling.

First, note that McRaven’s thesis depends on at least two first person narratives of special ops soldiers–those of Otto Skorzeny and Jonathan Netanyahu (though Netanyahu’s consists of his letters published after his death). So McRaven’s citation of his thesis hardly discredits Matt Bissonnette’s decision to publish his own first person account of his SEAL exploits.

I’m even more troubled by McRaven’s suggestion that we should turn to Hollywood to learn of stories “that need[] to be told.”

One reason he may do so is to legitimize the Administration’s cooperation with the Zero Dark Thirty team. If the Commander of SOCOM suggests Hollywood is the proper venue for special ops stories, it serves to distinguish the Administration’s push for publicity for the Osama bin Laden raid from that of the SEALs. (Though since Bissonnette’s already  shopping his book, I expect McRaven’s position on movies may soon change.)

Of course, in doing so McRaven also suggests that fictional stories are all taxpayers should learn about these “stories that need to be told.” Not just fictional ones, either, but sensational ones. The better to inspire a future head of SOCOM to join the military, just like John Wayne did for McRaven!

Of course, that says taxpayers should only have a false understanding of the wars being fought in their names, which is a profoundly contemptuous view. I have no idea whether Bissonnette’s narrative will be accurate (the Pentagon has gotten a copy and is reading it now, so they may seize it before we get to see). But if it is accurate, why should a Hollywood movie be a more valid telling of the OBL story than the kind of firsthand account McRaven himself has relied upon?

Plus, by endorsing sensational Hollywood narratives, McRaven effectively endorses the kind of special ops hero that would, himself, seek publicity. You can’t have Hollywood serve as the legitimate venue for discussing special operations without feeding the system that would lead a SEAL to want to write his own book and sell the rights to Steven Spielberg. Hollywood created the market for such books; you can’t expect veterans not to feed it.

If the Commander of SOCOM believes the stories of special ops need to be told, then he should declassify them so they can be told in a format that is factual, sober, and complete. This endorsement of Hollywood flicks–while it may serve the Administration’s immediate interests–makes the Administration’s abuse of information asymmetry even worse. It defends not only the Administration getting exclusive control over how to the tell the stories, but suggests it should do so using fictional and sensational means.

16 replies
  1. Frank33 says:

    “The Green Berets”, pure propaganda and possibly the worst war movie ever made. The plot is about how the USA is winning the VietNam War. The subplot is how stupid and disgusting those anti-war hippies are.

    But the propaganda and COINTELPRO today is far advanced compared to the sixties.

  2. tinao says:

    When I said repuks don’t read, I wasn’t talking about our forces…I believe this tell tale piece shows just how defensive our defense has become, and again stinks to high heaven. Wow, but a creepy bunch run the show with our folks at their mercy.

  3. Frank33 says:

    The General should read a new book by an unembedded War Correspondent. Henry Rollins, Punk Rock Reporter, has written, “Occupants”. It is an antiwar, antiglobalist book, that General McRaven needs to read.

    Jason Leopold for Truthout: “Occupants” is an incredibly powerful book. The photographs you shot represent a reality we have not seen since the start of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, which made it very difficult for people to understand or connect with the conflicts.

    But I am worried about Henry Rollins, now that he is going to be famous. He may be targeted by Vickie Nuland of the State Dept. Vickie has already targeted journalist, Julian Assange.

  4. der says:

    A recent Hollywood narrative:

    – The Oscar winning director, the studio and screenwriter Mark Boal say the First Amendment protects them in use of elements of Jeffrey Sarver’s life in The Hurt Locker. “By any reasonable measure, the film must be considered a ‘transformative’ work of artistic expression that is protected by the First Amendment,” they said in an 87-page brief (read it here) submitted earlier this week to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The brief goes on to say that there are only “generic similarities” between Sarver and the William James character played by Jeremy Renner in the 2008 film.

    – The movie and Sarver do have a real history besides these lawsuits. As a writer for Playboy, Boal was embedded with Sarver’s company in Baghdad for two weeks in late 2004. The writer featured both Sarver’s professional and personal life prominently in the subsequent 2005 article. That article became the basis for The Hurt Locker movie. Boal, who won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for The Hurt Locker, worked with Bigelow again on Zero Dark Thirty, her upcoming film on the hunt and killing of Osama Bin Laden.

    “If the Commander of SOCOM believes the stories of special ops need to be told, then he should declassify them so they can be told in a format that is factual, sober, and complete.”

    Agree, but then “the enemy” might find out Jason Bourne is really Lee Majors, father of Jack Bauer. Can’t have that now, NationalSecurity-StateSecrets and all.

  5. earlofhuntingdon says:

    And what an unbiased, disinterested, full and complete sense of history Hollywood possesses, not least since it dispossessed the Hollywood Ten of their jobs. It’s more than a replete source of knowledge for the citizen yearning to be free. From McRaven’s comments, one would never know that domestic propaganda efforts by the government were illegal.

  6. OrionATL says:

    while at first disturbed, i am now much relieved having reflected on how little financial or ideological interest the disney conglomerate, for example, and it’s news puppet, abc, have shown in supporting any part of the right-wing agenda.

    of course that goes double for the general electric conglomerate and its news puppet, nbc.

    who have i missed?

    fox entertainment? what’s to worry about movies from that conglomerate?

  7. Peterr says:


    Countless stories have been told through the medium of film that needed to be told and I am thankful that they were.

    Me too. Stories like Dr. Strangelove, Catch-22, M*A*S*H, and All Quiet on the Western Front stand out for me.

    More from McRaven:

    [Movies] provide public insights into life in special operations … that can’t be garnered anywhere else.

    When it comes specifically to special ops war movies, it’s hard to beat Operation Petticoat. It is filled with insights into life, such as this one from Lt. Holden (Tony Curtis) who utters these words of profound wisdom:

    When I was a kid, I was the victim of the most vicious propaganda. People told me that money wasn’t everything and I believed it. Then I found out that the people that were telling me that money wasn’t everything were the people who had a lot of money. Now there are two ways you can get money. You can steal it, or you can marry it.

    By the way, how’s Mitt Romney doing these days?

  8. kathleen says:

    Kind of surprised that this Special operations seal went this way. Guess $ can often win out.

    raging grannies message to Rep Akin. Tacky but funny

    On a serious note. Some must reads:

    Breaking the Silence report details soldiers humiliating and torturing Palestinian children and using them as human shields

    The Report

    Israeli Settler: ‘If I see her coming, no matter what age she is 3, 4, 7, I’ll f*ck her over’. Israeli Soldier: ‘No problem’

    Plot to Provoke war with Iran thwarted by Navy analyst

    Posted on 08/26/2012 by Juan

    Why was a Navy adviser stripped of her career?

    Matthew Abbott/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST – Gwenyth Todd, a former American political adviser, now lives in Australia.

  9. OrionATL says:

    on a separate tact, one could argue that mcraven’s comments serve to legitimize/defuse criticism of a certain trailer about a certain movie.

  10. Kathleen says:


    Marched against the invasion of Iraq in D.C. with some of those old gals. Classic

    Have you read that article in the Wapo about the navy analyst that allegedly exposed the planned Iran attack. Linked above. Prof Cole had it up at his website Informed Comment. That Break the Silence Report is another example that some Israeli Defense Soldiers actually have a conscience. The details are sickening.

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