Their own families may not know.
And if they do, it's against the law for them to tell anybody.
Twelve members of the Navy SEAL's Team 6 unit supposedly killed Osama bin Laden this past Sunday in Pakistan. I say "supposedly" because officially, Team 6 doesn't exist.
You think you have secrets? You've never worked for the United States military!
Of Frogmen and Seals
Ever since Sunday night's surprise announcement of bin Laden's death, the American public has been infatuated with the details surrounding this stunning event. Yet of all that we've learned about it, we'll never know the names of the guys who actually dropped into bin Laden's Abbottabad compound and did the deed. We'll probably all be dead and buried before our government removes the top-secret clearance on this operation and allows these men to be publicly awarded some medals for heroism. Posthumously, of course.
About all we'll know is their gender - the SEALs don't accept women.
Obviously, there are national security reasons for why the SEAL's Team 6 program remains shrouded in mystery. We do know that qualifying for acceptance is so rigorous, nearly 80% of its already-accomplished candidates drop out half-way through. Indeed, even saying you had to drop out of Team 6 qualifiers can earn you bragging rights.
Those men who do complete the program spend the rest of their career training for operations like the one to capture bin Laden. And experts tell us that after the special operations agents were de-briefed back in Washington, they have most likely been sent back out into the field by now, training for their next assignment. Or maybe they've already completed their next assignment already, unbeknownst to us. Their world is that secret.
Training the Humanity Out of Them
What isn't secret is how comprehensive the training is that these elite frogmen undergo, and what's expected of them. Both physically, and mentally.
Repeatedly, we hear that SEALs are expected to exceed even the heroic demands of extraordinary military might. They're trained to prepare for an exceptionally challenging mission, execute it, and then move on to the next exceptionally challenging mission. Normal physical and mental instincts are drilled, drowned, scared, frozen, and stretched out of them in training. Exceeding physical and mental limits is the only way to succeed. They'll get no grand accolades when they triumph, and they'll get no soft shoulder to cry on if they fail. They focus on the mechanics of their mission, and like a finely-tuned engine, without emotion or conscience, they get turned on and off depending on where their superiors tell them to go and what they tell them to do.
Which is all well and good, when you're talking in generalities about rescuing hostages, like SEALs did recently aboard a captured vessel near Somalia. Or helping find caches of weaponry, like they've been doing in Afghanistan and Iraq. And even when they're finding and killing somebody as universally notorious as bin Laden.
But is stripping so much humanity out of a soldier really ethical?
Nobody is forced into becoming a SEAL. Indeed, all the experts say it's impossible to complete its fantastically rigorous demands if you don't have a burning desire to. Even though we don't know details about specific operations, we all know what's expected, including recruits. So it's not like the government is coercing any SEAL candidate to do something against his will.
(I've gotta interject - it feels quite odd being able to use only male pronouns in this essay!)
We also need to recognize that in times of officially-sanctioned war, the taking of human life happens. It's impossible to argue from a Biblical standpoint that war, in and of itself, is sinful. Our conventional soldiers are taught how to deploy various types of weaponry with the expectation that human beings will be killed as a result. And in bin Laden's case, multiple world governments have certifiable proof that he is a mass murderer, so his assassination would have been justified had it taken place soon after 9/11, or this past weekend.
But what are the mechanics of ethics which allow the training of human beings to kill like autotrons? The immediate - albeit inaccurate - correlation is Mafia hit men, who are trained to go out and knock off somebody for the good of the family. There's usually little remorse or much contemplation about mortality. It's a job that's gotta be done; badda bing, badda boom. Is it similar with SEALs?
One expert on the radio this morning, a retired SEAL, scoffed when an anchorwoman asked him what kind of counseling the Team 6 members would have received after successfully completing their mission this past Sunday. Basically, he snorted, "you don't give counseling to SEALs."
They're trained to treat death and killing as part of the job. Period. Part of the punchlist. A line item on the scope-of-work spreadsheet. Something that needs to take place for the benefit of civilization. I guess kinda like the guys who used to operate guillotines, or decapitate criminals in the village square. But at least those guys didn't have their own humanity rigorously disemboweled like SEALs have.
No Ill Will to Kill?
Couldn't we have simply cluster-bombed this compound in Abbottabad on Sunday, since nobody really expected bin Laden to surrender? After all, the taking of bin Laden's life, and the lives of whomever else was in the compound with him, isn't what I'm questioning. Is democracy really riding on the life-defying prowess of the 2,500 super-warriors we call SEALs? What might God be thinking about our ability to defy the natural limits He's set for our bodies, and our minds?
I've tried to think about how different Bible passages might be applicable to the question of whether we're going too far in stripping select human beings of the very characteristics which make them human. After all, these guys spend over 300 days a year on assignment, away from whatever family they may have. They're trained to suppress all of the natural instincts and innate defense mechanisms we're born with. And life - and that which sustains it - becomes more of a nuisance than something to be cherished.
Granted, people of faith should "die to self" during the process of sanctification, but that process involves our refusal to give in to our sin nature. We're to give up our emotional and physical attachments to family, possessions, and status if we're going to follow Christ. And in the case of martyrdom, believers have actually endured tremendous torture and death for the sake of the Gospel.
But nowhere in scripture does God expect His people to deny their humanity. Christ Himself acknowledges that we maintain a link of responsibility, compassion, and accountability to people and things entrusted into our care. And we are to mourn with those who mourn, laugh with those who laugh, and weep with those who weep. Sounds pretty emotional and sympathetic to me.
Sure, our special operations force was able to take out bin Laden for us. But are elite killers the best way to accomplish such perilous actions?
Might we be losing a bit of our own humanity by asking our secret warriors to relinquish theirs for us?