Washington Post Ninja Warriors

William M. Arkin

Monday, June 5, 2000

“We should be proud of the men and women of our armed forces who stopped the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, enabling a million people to return to their homes,” President Clinton said in his State of the Union address in January. The president then proceeded to place Capt. John Cherrey’s life in danger.

Cherrey flew the airplane involved in the rescue of a downed F-16 inside Yugoslavia in April 1999 and was invited by the White House to sit in the Capitol balcony during the president’s annual speech. Introduced by Clinton, he stood up for all the world to see.

Clinton got his Reagan-like moment of fake intimacy with a member of the armed services, but security types in the Pentagon fret that because of access to information on the Internet, service men and women are uniquely threatened by this very type of exposure. Thus they have successfully argued that the names of military people involved in combat overseas should not be revealed to thwart terrorists or just hostile individuals who could hunt down and harass military people and their families. The Pentagon says such incidents have already happened.

No Names Please

Seventy-eight days of bombing and Capt. Cherrey is the exception rather than the rule. One can count on two hands the number of pilots and aircrew who have been mentioned by name in the media during and after the war. The no-names policy was dictated by Gen. Wesley Clark, the NATO European and American commander, and supported by the White House.

But senior officers worry that because “no names” is increasingly applied to all air operations worldwide these days, the military is becoming a faceless Ninja force. They believe the anonymity harms morale and recruiting, and potentially severs the most important link between a volunteer military and the American people. The human link.

“I don’t think we want to perpetuate or foment the notion of us as disassociated anonymous mercenary warriors,” a senior public affairs officer says.

Without names, how is it that anyone can be proud of the men and women in the armed forces, as President Clinton asks? And more important, how can the public consent to the use of force when secrecy denies even the most basic information about U.S. military activities?

Fly Havoc

On the first night of Operation Allied Force, USA Today Pentagon correspondent Steven Komarow scored a journalistic coup as the first reporter to ride along in a B-52 bomber as it fired cruise missiles at Yugoslav targets. To security types, he also opened the Pandora’s box.

In Komarow’s gripping story, five of the Air Force crew members aboard Havoc 12, the 39-year-old bomber, were mentioned by name. The Air Force now says that after the story, the crew members’ families received threatening phone calls and e-mails, leading the military to decide that no more names would be used in stories about the war.

No one particularly blames Komarow, and he makes the argument as to why the military should allow names to be used. “We in the media get criticized enough for having anonymous sources,” Komarow said in December in a presentation at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois.

“We’re talking about real Americans with real hometowns with real families, real kids,” he said. “If you have no names, then we have an anonymous military.”

Anonymous and Invisible

An anonymous military, of course, goes along with anonymous military power. Warfare via cruise missile and air power is inherently remote and faceless, and that is the reason that it is also an all too frequent and standard tool for use by the government. For the White House and Defense Department leadership, secrecy is a convenient way of avoiding public debate and of perpetuating a web of covert entanglements overseas.

For the military, nevertheless, operational secrecy taken to the extreme doesn’t just protect airmen, soldiers and sailors. Excessive secrecy on top of a shrinking volunteer military guarantees that the public is denied any connection to its armed forces. An absence of human faces and stories in overseas operations, and particularly in combat, suggests not only insensitivity on the part of the bombers but also that the military has something to hide.

Without a human element, without a compelling air war story in the case of Yugoslavia last year, the Pentagon readily admits that it was always on the defensive. The United States and NATO ultimately had to cede the telling of the story on the ground to Yugoslav propagandists.

Who Was That Masked Man?

These days, since the public is buffeted by a frantic dose of new threats – human rights enforcement, terrorism, biological weapons, cyber-warfare – it is no wonder it is also constantly being told that the Pentagon is suffering recruitment and retention problems and that U.S. forces are stretched too thin. Given the supposed threats, it isn’t a surprise that we are witnessing a particularly strong season of fundraising appeals for higher military pay and a larger military share of the federal budget.

I, for one, am not sympathetic to the “hollow” military arguments. The true problem is not pay or overall spending. It is that invisible warriors are permanently imprisoned in a long list of equally nameless countries at nameless locations that for political reasons can’t even be called overseas bases anymore.

In the Middle East alone, according to a Central Command briefing, the United States maintains 439 separate “combatant” sites in seven countries from Egypt to Oman. Huge non-bases have been continuously occupied in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait for a decade, yet because of host nation “sensitivities,” we can’t officially know, and certainly can’t debate, what’s going on there.

Thus we have an anonymous and dehumanized U.S. military present at all corners of the globe. This, and an aura of military impunity, is the very genesis of the hatred and frustration that might drive someone to want to target members of the legion. Maybe in “Zorro” when people asked, “Who was that masked man?” the connotation was that good was being done. But with an invisible military, the suggestion is that something is being hidden.


One response to “

  1. Bill, I know that this is trivia, but people asked “Who was that masked man” about the Lone Ranger (as he galloped away on his trusty horse Silver, accompanied by Tonto), not Zorro. I guess you have to be old enough to remember that one, as I am, having enjoyed it even on the radio! Stan

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