“The Quiet Professionals,” a January 31 60 Minutes profile of Green Berets in Afghanistan, garnered mixed reviews from the polloi. Some observers found the segment to be an unabashed piece of pro-war propaganda. Others thought CBS purposely set out to do a hatchet job on the military in general and Special Forces in particular. Both perspectives have merit. Overall, the piece gave one the distinct impression that neither CBS nor the military’s Strategic Communication Directorate (yes, they really call it that) in Afghanistan knew what they were doing.
Bull of Goods
Some of the harshest criticism of the piece was aimed at 60 Minutes’ decision to assign the piece to British CBS newsmodel Lara Logan. Lara tells us during the intro that 60 Minutes “was given unprecedented access to a team of Green Berets, ‘ODA 7215.’ For two and a half months, our team lived with them, trained with them and went to battle with them.” It was painfully obvious over the course of the story that lovely Lara was not part of “our team.” She flew into Afghanistan for maybe an hour to do interviews, taped the intro and voiceovers back home in the CBS studios, and flitted off to the next glamorous thing she had to do. (That’s how most of the 60 Minutes headliners work; but it was particularly annoying to see cutesy Lara with the sultry accent doing the phantom anchoring on this particular story.)
CBS didn’t get that kind of access without kissing up large to Rear Admiral Gregory Smith, the career public affairs officer who heads the Strategic Communication Directorate. That’s right, the man rose to the two-star level in the military as a full-time bull feather merchant. He’s presently in charge of information operations in the Af-Pak theater which means he’s General Stanley McChrystal’s propaganda chief. Smith didn’t get where he is by being dumb, and he didn’t let 60 Minutes into the hen house without expecting that he could control the message the way he controlled the message when 60 Minutes did the infomercial with McChrystal in September. The McChrystal segment was part of the Pentagon’s successful campaign to box President Obama into going along with yet another surge. This time, Smith got some of what he wanted out of CBS but he mostly didn’t.
The opening was auspicious enough. The Green Berets, Lara told us, are known as the “quiet professionals” who mostly work “unnoticed and unrecognized” and they’re “among the best soldiers America has.” So far, so good, except that the “quiet professionals” sobriquet sounds like something Smith’s ad men cooked up.
Lara’s initial interview is with a good-looking kid named Martin who wears Ray Bans (the identity of every Green Beret shown was hidden) and who tells Lara, “We’re definitely not Rambo, you know? He was a Green Beret. That’s not us at all." Both Martin and 60 Minutes then proceed to show and tell us how Rambo-like Martin is.
A Shot in the Foot
“Martin is 6’1" and 220 pounds,” Lara purrs. “He can bench-press almost twice his body weight.” We see video of Martin in a gym doing preacher curls.
On the nature of his job, Martin tells Lara, “There are miserable times where you kinda look at yourself and you’re like, ‘What?’ You know. ‘Why am I running towards the gunfire?’ But then there are times where I just couldn’t see myself doing anything else," Martin explained.
"Is it who you are?" Lara asks. It goes on like this. We see film of Martin getting shot by one of the Afghan commando he’s supposed to be training. “Two bullets from a machine gun ripped through his legs,” Lara says, a hint of concern in her voice. Martin thought he’d stepped on a mine. He tells Lara that his leg began to spasm and then he felt a burning sensation.
“Is that burning sensation you described commonly known as pain?" Logan asks.
"It’s only pain when you acknowledge it,” Martin says bravely. “There’s work that has to be done. You don’t have the luxury of self pity,” Martin says stoically. Lara then tells us in a voiceover that Martin, who is a medic, refused to take morphine so he could dress his own wounds. At this point I flashed on Bill Murray in Caddy Shack singing Silver wings…upon their chest… We see Martin walking around the next day, his wound dressed with a gauze pad. Things could have been worse for Martin, most observers would reckon.
We meet another Green Beret named Brent, a personable enough guy who becomes the goat of the segment when he stands guard on a road during a daylight raid. A truckload of Afghans come down the road and Brent shoots twice. He later says these were warning shots. When the episode is over, two Afghan boys in the bed of the truck, aged 12 and 13, got hit by those two warning shots. The 12 year old was shot in the leg, a leg that looks a whole lot worse than Martin’s leg did. The 13 year old had to be treated for a sucking chest wound. Brent says the warning shots must have ricocheted off the road.
That these two warning shots, fired from a silenced rifle, could have skipped off the road and hit these two kids challenges credibility. One can’t help think there was a lot more to the scenario than CBS and or the Strategic Communication Directorate allowed us to see and that a lot more people than Martin were involved. Lara didn’t ask Martin if he was blowing smoke up her skirt, and 60 Minutes has yet to explain why it accepted such a lame narrative.
The day after an Afghan commando-under-instruction shoots Martin in the leg, another one shoots himself in the foot. The Green Berets go back to basics, re-teaching the Afghans how to load their weapons and switch the safeties on. The Afghans can’t even do that right. These Afghan commandos are supposed to be the best soldiers in their Army. They had three months of “advanced training” before coming under the tutelage of the Green Berets. Lara doesn’t ask why Afghan militiamen fight so well while Afghan’s best soldiers, trained by America’s best soldiers, are such a pile of Sad Sacks.
Lara asks Martin what he thinks of the Afghan commandos; Martin says they have “a lot of potential,” something that Smith’s henchmen have obviously coached him to say. Lara kids him about it.
Lara gets another coached answer when another Green Beret named Bill feeds her the Ministry of Truth manifesto on Afghanistan: “I absolutely believe we need to stay here and see it through," Bill says.
Lara finally asks a pertinent question: "What does seeing it through mean? I mean, what is the end state?"
Bill does a Jackie Gleason hamana-hamana and blurts out that the end state will involve the Afghans saying, “Okay, thanks. We don’t need you anymore you know.” Like, um, actually, you know, you can totally go home now, dudes. Lamentably, laughably tragically, Bill’s sputtered attempt at describing an end state in Afghanistan sounded as good if not better than anything our four-stars and civilian leaders have come up with.
It was despicable of Smith (and by extension McChrystal) to attempt to use enlisted troops to sell a cockamamie war to the American public, and just as bad for CBS to exploit an opportunity that, frankly, made those enlisted troops look pretty bad. If CBS wanted to hold somebody’s feet to the fire, they should have hammered McChrystal when they had the chance. Troops like these young Green Berets have been impaled on a task they can’t possibly accomplish in a conflict nobody could possibly win. They don’t deserve to be exploited any worse than they’ve already been.