How Secret Becomes Special

The Joint Special Operations Command, known by the acronym JSOC, pronounced jay-sock by members of the US armed forces, carries with it a mystique.  The press, JSOC’s promoters and its critics, as well as the entertainment media, have all contributed to its mystique; and that mystique is promoted my the military because it functions as a kind of deterrent.

One of the advantages of offical secrecy is its contribution to this mystique – writ large for secretive units, but this mystique-maintenance is also useful throughout the military.  Hollywood, pulp fiction, television drama, infotainment “news,” and military-veteran boosterism all contribute to the vast ignorance of military matters, by overdramatizing military life and military operations, and by idealizing it.

Film and popular literature are packed with protagonists whose past or present CV includes membership in some elite and highly secret combat unit, where individuals are seven-language linguists, flawless marksmen with every firearm ever manufactured, field surgeons, helicopter pilots, chess masters, and gymnasts.

The arms race among entertainment moguls to one-up each other’s fantasies has only accelerated this stupidity; and the thirst among (primarily male) consumers for this drivel has corresponding and escalating ratio of profit to humbug.

Hannah Arendt once noted:

The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.

Obviously, I insert this quote with the subject of evil in mind, and in the context of a discussion of this mystique-laden military institution, JSOC.  Because that is what they actually do, evil, and not some salvific secret missions that keep us unkowingly safe abed at night.  Moreover, they are not the idealized archetypes, but simply a bunch of men who are conjoined primarily by their overarching commitment to US nationalism, their belief that ends justify means, and their personal pursuit of probative masculinity.

Few are multi-lingual, most are only marginally in better physical condition than the average civilian gym rat, many are stupid – moreso than you want to know – and all are committed, when under orders, to bully and kill helpless people. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

They are far more banal than anyone would like to believe; and the culture is closer than anything else to a boys locker room.  They like sports, pornography, gun culture, video games, alcohol, and misogynist humor.  Gunslinging is dick-swinging – the dare-ya atmosphere we males know well, what I call probative masculinity.  That’s as stupid and banal as it gets. Our entire culture has become stupid, banal, macho, and adolescent – decadent beyond reckoning.  The grotesque reality of the militarized imperial core of 21st Century rentier capitalism.

A little background.

For the record, I was a member of a constituent organization in JSOC for a few years in the 80’s while JSOC was forming as a coordinating command in the wake of the 1979 hostage rescue debacle in Iran.  Like all these coordinating elements that recieve truckloads of money, it grew into a kind of bureaucratic empire that was planted in some upscale digs on the boundary between Fort Bragg, NC, and the adjacent Pope Air Force Base. This is a process I call institutional dog-waggery… when the coordinaton and support apparatus becomes the tail that ends up wagging the dog.

Included in JSOC, then, were special counter-terrorism units from the Army and Navy, with special aircraft and air coordination asssets from the Army and Air Force.  God only knows what tack-ons have happened since then, especially since Donald Rumsfeld privileged the role of so-called special operations as part of his doctrinal rewrite for the entire Department of Defense.

Money has flowed like water into special operations; and this is the institutional equivalent of pouring buckets of ox blood into the Atlantic Ocean at the mouth of the Chagres River.  Along with the boys who want to kill to prove themselves have come opportunists and mountebanks of every stripe, not unlike the intellectual swindlers who sold Rumsfeld on his doctrine in the first place.  Well, to be honest, Rumsfeld himself was one of the chief con artists, but that’s another story.

In time, the very precise and limited skill sets that had been developed by the early counter-terrorist units – mostly geared to hostage-barricade resolution – had diffused out of the CT units, via retirees and ex-members, as well as training agreements with other agencies, until anyone who wants to observe what used to be called close-quarter battle (CQB) can see it reenacted with a fair amount of verisimiltude on prime time tv… SWAT tactics to the layperson.

The original Delta Force commander, Charlie Beckwith, RIP, who wanted to ensure that these skills remained close-hold, used to tell subordinates that “the only way to keep a secret is don’t tell anybody.”  He was prescient, as it turns out, and the CT units had – within a decade – worked themselves out of their dangerous and exclusive job.

This applied to JSOC, which also included infantry support units, <i>i.e.</i>, Ranger Battalions, like the one Pat Tillman worked for when he was killed by his own comrades in Paktia Province Afghanistan in 2004.  That was a JSOC operation; and it was not helpful in the maintenance of the enemy-deterring mystique.  Three or so Taliban irregulars with an RPG and a couple of AKs, shooting ineffectively from half a mile away, created a public relations crisis that contributed to the disappearance of the Secretary of Defense, killing two people in the process.

[Here are links to the three-part series published at CounterPunch:

The debacle in Somalia in 1993?  JSOC.

Part of the old special ops boilerplate was “special operations in politically sensitive environments.”  Right.

Failure is a politically sensitive environment.

Given the proven ability of special operations to fail, and given the diffusionary loss of its original focus, the only asset that remained for JSOC to do things that are “special” was its high level of secrecy.  Many alumni are now performing special duties at six-figure salaries as mercenary contractors… still paid by the Department of Defense – that is, with your taxes – only without that pesky potential Congresdsdional overisght.  I say potential, because Congress has no stomach to oversee anything military.  The idealization of the military has ensured that.

Which brings me to the sycophancy of elected officials in the face of military commanders, and that includes Barack Obama.

Elected officials are forced to factor the mystique into anything and everything they say about anyone and everyone military.  A sizeable fraction of the voting public believes that cops are like the interesting, intelligent people they see on endless Law and Order reruns, and they believe that military people are like the equally complex and ethical characters played by their favorite actors in idealized representations by the media.  Or they are related to military members, an equally biasing condition.

Consequently, many of us have been forced to repress our gag reflex every time one of these Generals comes before a Congress that lines up to see who can fawn most effusively before the silver stars.

Barack Obama is terrified of the military-security nexus within his own government, because they are uniquely positioned, by this special status, to bring him down… his legal status as Commander-in-Chief notwithstanding.  That is why he has dragged his feet on don’t-ask-don’t-tell – which he could suspend by fiat now until law is repealed; and that is why Obama didn’t sack Stanley McChrystal – a la Truman-McArthur – when McChrystal, now the military viceroy of Afghanistan, leaked a report last year to back McChrystal’s own play to increase troop strength in Afghanistan by 45,000.

Instead, Obama gave him 30,000 – enough less to save a little face, and enough more to dig the Obama administration deeper into the hole that the Afghanistan-Pakistan-Yemen war has become.  “Conttractors” have made up the difference.

General Stanley McChrystal, by the way, is the former commander of JSOC; and he was the JSOC commander who alerted then Commander-in-Chief George W. Bush to drop references to Pat Tillman in a speech, when it became apparent that the original cover-up of Pat Tillman’s death by fratricide was going to unravel around a fraudulent award that couldn’t be retrieved.  McChrystal was in charge of the operation, in the loop on the cover-up, and helped Bush dodge the PR bullet on it.

In the military, we used to say, “No fuck-up shall go unrewarded,” and McChrystal is living proof.  But that doesn’t tell us what else McChrystal and JSOC have been doing with themselves, aside from hiding.  What other kinds of things does this secrecy permit?

Well, for one, McChrystal ran Task Force 6-26, which became temporarily famous after the killing of Abu Masab al-Zarqawi, a boogyman figure cultivated by the military-media complex. What made TF 6-26 infamous was their activity in Camp Nama, Iraq: torture. Massive, systematic, sustained torture, by JSOC operators, under the supervision of Stanley McChrystal, this deceptively soft-spoken officer.

The camp in Baghdad was used almost exclusively for the torture of detainees. The torture went on before, during, and after the scandal at Abu Ghraib. Detainees were killed by their torturers, members of the most elite units in the US armed forces. Almost in celebration of the activity of the camp, placards were hung that said, “No Blood, No Foul,” meaning if you don’t make them bleed, you can’t be charged with the crimes you are committing.

Impunity. That’s what secrecy buys.  JSOC’s new “special” is impunity.

In an article in Harpers this month, Scott Horton, a fomer classmate of now-JSOC commander Admiral “Billy” McRaven, published a stunning expose of this impunity at Guantanamo Bay’s still-open prison camp.  Apparently, within Guantanamo Bay, there is a “special” prison within a prison, quite likely run by JSOC, called “Camp No” by the soldiers now speaking out, meaning, no, it doesn’t exist.  It was in this camp that three prisoners, held in Guantanamo for years now without any charges, allegedly commited suicide.

The suicide story was given to an uncritical press in June 2006, right after all three prisoners died, with the bizarre statement by Camp Commander Rear Admiral Harry Harris that the suicides were act of war against the US.

The U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service (yes, the NCIS of the popular tv program… “Characters Welcome”) conducted an investigation of the suicide story, declared the official story valid, then classified the investigative report and placed it off limits to the public… until a Freedom of Information Act request forced the Navy to cough up a highly redacted copy.

In Horton’s article, he explains:

According to the NCIS documents, each prisoner had fashioned a noose from torn sheets and T-shirts and tied it to the top of his cell’s eight-foot-high steel-mesh wall. Each prisoner was able somehow to bind his own hands, and, in at least one case, his own feet, then stuff more rags deep down into his own throat. We are then asked to believe that each prisoner, even as he was choking on those rags, climbed up on his washbasin, slipped his head through the noose, tightened it, and leapt from the washbasin to hang until he asphyxiated. The NCIS report also proposes that the three prisoners, who were held in non-adjoining cells, carried out each of these actions almost simultaneously.

Four soldiers from the 629th Military Intelligence Battalion who were at Guantanamo Bay (now named Camp America) have now come forward with a different story, a story about Camp No.

Salah Ahmed Al-Salami, Mani Shaman Al-Utaybi, and Yasser Talal Al-Zahrani did not simultaneously commit suicide in their separate cells as an act of asymmetric spite against the United States of America.  They died at Camp No, in an extraordinary circumstance that the Harpers story outlines very well.

Given that these men appeared likely to have proven their innocence if granted a hearing in accordance with the most minimal standards of jurisprudence, the question arises, why were they killed?

I’ll make a suggestion, not an accusation, since I have no direct knowledge of this incident.  Proving innocence can be very damaging, especially if release brings revelations of more torture, rape, and murder… all of which happened, involving special operations, at various times in the conduct of the now expanding war.  These are felonies; and they can send people to prison.

Felony commission is a “politically sensitive environment.”

Anyone who hoped the Obama administration would investigate these kinds of activities during the Bush era has been disappointed.  On the contrary, Obama has expanded the war into new countries, expanded the participation of the CIA and JSOC, left Guantanamo intact, refused to initiate independent investigations of military actions, and promoted the former JSOC commander – tainted by cover-ups and torture – to become the most well-funded and resourced warlord in Afghanistan.

Now the Obama administration’s Justice Department is declining to investigate Guantanamo and the NCIS.

Meanwhile, JSOC flourishes, cloaked in secrecy with just the mystique peeking out.  But there was no leaping over tall buildings in a single bound, no warrior-poets protecting us from the manifold dangers lurking outside our borders.  There’s just garden variety machismo, men who beat, torture, and kill unarmed detainees… men who have learned to relish violence, because it raises their esteem in the eyes of other men the terrrible escalations of probative masculinity that continue to underwrite the wars of capital and nationalism like no other phenomenon.

Masked by mystique, cloaked in official secrecy, and in our name.

What Simone Weil said remains unfortunately true:

As soon as men know that they can kill without fear of punishment or blame, they kill; or at least they encourage killers with approving smiles.

STAN GOFF is the author of “Hideous Dream: A Soldier’s Memoir of the US Invasion of Haiti” (Soft Skull Press, 2000), “Full Spectrum Disorder” (Soft Skull Press, 2003 He is a Methodist and an organic gardener. He has written about the military and militarism, and about masculinity-constructed-as-conquest. He can be reached at:



Stan Goff retired from the US Army in February 1996. He is a veteran of the US occupation of Vietnam, and seven other conflict areas. His books include Hideous Dream: A Soldier’s Memoir of the US Invasion of Haiti (Soft Skull Press), Full Spectrum Disorder: The Military in the New American Century (Soft Skull Books), Borderline: Reflections on War, Sex, and Church (Cascade Books), Mammon’s Ecology: Metaphysic of the Empty Sign (Cascade Books), Tough Gynes: Violent Women in Film as Honorary Men (Cascade Books), and Smitten Gate (a novel about Afghanistan, from Club Orlov Press).