Donald Trump is in the process of learning why every Commander-in-Chief before him has left the office of President with way more gray hair than normal. I think we should cut him some slack on this one.
On 29 January, a daring Navy SEAL raid infiltrated a Yemeni village with the intent of capturing or killing a top al-Qaeda commander and seizing a large amount of digital intelligence. The operation succeeded in securing a treasure trove of data, but not without cost – a V-22 Osprey aircraft was destroyed, thirty civilians died, and Chief Petty Officer William Owens was killed in action. Last Wednesday, his remains were brought to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware where the President and his daughter stood to receive them.
I don’t claim to have much of a clue as to what goes on in Donald Trump’s head, but I’m willing to hazard a guess that his visit to Dover was probably a somber conclusion to one of the darkest moments of his Presidency. I can only imagine how he must have felt.
There are a lot of questions about the planning and approval for this raid, many of them involving the manner in which the raid was green-lighted. I’m not going to talk about them now, because these details are disputed between the White House, the Pentagon, former White House/DoD officials, and multiple media outlets. They are serious questions regarding the readiness of our military and Trump’s preparedness to be the C-in-C, but I am not equipped to comment on them at this time.
I’m here to say that raids aren’t always perfect operational successes. In fact, it’s pretty common for operations to go wrong, even if all the planning was done flawlessly. In this case, things did go wrong – a SEAL lost his life, USS Makin Island was unable to provide sufficient medevac support, an Osprey went down, and a number of civilians lost their lives. The reality is that this sort of thing happens all the time, regardless of whether or not the President is particularly well-equipped to handle this situation.
I don’t like basing articles off of anecdotes where I cannot point to, or do not wish to point to, specific evidence, but this is an exception because I have been hearing a lot of criticism thrown towards the conduct of this raid, as if Trump himself were responsible for the casualties of the operation. While he obviously is responsible for the operation itself, it’s unreasonable to suggest that he is responsible for the loss of life and the failure to meet all of the raid’s goals, especially because we do not yet know the full extent of what happened that night (for instance, some of the civilian casualties could have been from an explosive detonated by the occupants of the stronghold or stray bullets from those same terrorists). Had this been President Obama or either President Bush at the helm, this operation still could have gone south, and it wouldn’t necessarily have been their fault.
The historic raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound was a massive success – no SEALs were killed and the operatives were able to kill bin Laden and retrieve an ungodly amount of data. However, it came dangerously close to failure on at least one occasion, even though the generals and admirals in charge of the plan had gone through nearly every contingency. At the beginning of the raid, two stealth Black Hawk helicopters made their way to the compound and descended into its courtyard – one Black Hawk stalled out and plummeted several stories to the ground, crashing with its tail propped up against the wall of the compound. The SEALs escaped the wrecked chopper and continued with their mission, but it’s entirely possible that helicopter crash could have killed a number of operatives and forced the team to abandon the operation altogether. While this was going down, the President, Vice President, and Secretary of State/woman-who-should-have-been-President (grumble grumble) were all watching in anxious anticipation at the White House Situation Room, not knowing if they had just witnessed a catastrophic failure or a daring save.
You’ve probably seen this picture a hundred times. According to photographer Pete Souza and President Obama, this shot was taken just as news was coming in of the Black Hawk crash. The President and Secretaries Gates and Clinton all said that the 38-minute raid represented the longest minutes of their lives.
As we all know by now, the operation was a success and Osama bin Laden was neutralized along with a number of his loyalists, but the mission easily could have been a disaster for the Obama Administration and for the United States. Still, this was the best opportunity the White House had to stop bin Laden, and they gambled and won.
Anyways, getting back on point, I don’t know the full story about the raid in Yemen, other than the fact that there were some heavy losses despite an overall success – like I said, there are obviously a lot of questions that need to be answered over the next few weeks. I just want to provide some perspective here, showing that things can, and often do, go horribly wrong. Often, the President cannot control or divine how successful an op can be. Don’t be too hasty to dismiss the raid’s casualties as a result of Trump’s inexperience, because this sort of thing happens. We like to think of SEALs as invincible god-like troopers, parachuting onto destroyers to save Tom Hanks from pirates, sniping insurgents from mountains, and ending the reign of terror of the most wanted man alive, but they put their lives at risk every day. Raids like this happen all the time, and we can’t always expect them to go 100% smoothly. Maybe this was a factor of bad planning, maybe it was just a few unlucky shots.
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