Thirteen years ago today, right around this time in the evening where we were there in the Middle East, I watched the September 11 attacks unfold live via our hosts’ satellite TV. “Powerful Peace; A Navy SEAL’s Lessons on Peace from a Lifetime at War” was conceived in concept during those hours. I could no longer just stare and shake my head at the insanity of spiraling destruction within the species. In commemoration, I’m posting the first three chapters here, now.
September 11, 2001
The history of violent conflict traces back in many oral traditions to the very first humans. This opening chapter offers a first-hand account of one of the most hate-based and hate-producing events of modern history. Close the book for a moment, and take a second look at the cover. The number in the bottom-right corner of my photo is the original date stamp of that shot, taken while training Arab SEALs at their base in the Middle East. It was exactly seven days before September 11, 2001. And it was exactly seven days after my wife and children flew out of Boston on a flight number that two weeks later would be incinerated and immortalized in fire and blood. Yes, friends…I am familiar with hate.
In hatred as in love, we grow like the thing we brood upon.
What we loathe, we graft into our very soul.
Teammate Shaun Marriott and I perfect the art of force application. (Note brass shell ejecting above scope.)
My American SEAL platoon and our Arab SEAL hosts watched in living color on satellite television as the second plane dissolved into the second of the Twin Towers. It was approaching evening where we were, several months into a deployment to the Persian Gulf. We sat frozen, burning in silent rage, staring as nearly twenty deluded murderers exploited the most advanced technology to carry out the most primitive evil. Having slashed women to death with razor knives, these “men” committed suicide, proving they were brave enough and strong enough to kill thousands of innocents—among them unsuspecting office workers, little old ladies, and infants.
These murderers called themselves “warriors.”
We were all naval commandos in that room, some American, others the “local nationals” we had been sent to train. Ironically painful and poignant, we had been teaching our hosts skills that would make them better at killing terrorists. Yet not one of us could lift a finger to prevent what was happening in the United States.
As we sat together in that remote Middle Eastern barracks, each was very much alone with his thoughts. The Americans thought of loved ones and Teammates a world away. My Arab friends thought of…well, I hope to one day share another cup of tea and ask them. (As you may imagine, things got a little busy during the days that followed. Within weeks, I would be conducting reconnaissance for the invasion of Afghanistan.)
There we all were. Nearly twenty Arabs and Americans, living together in those barracks; nearly twenty Arabs, dying together in dispersed teams of terrorist hijackers. Had those cowardly bastards chosen to face our little international group, man to man, 9/11 would have turned out differently. They wouldn’t have had to work so hard to make their way to hell, for one thing. At our hands, hell would have come up roaring to greet them.
And three thousand gentle, innocent souls would still be alive with their families.
Not one word was spoken for hours during the spectacle. If one of the local SEALs had laughed or expressed any satisfaction in what we were witnessing, I believe I would have killed him on the spot. This is not a boast. It’s a confession, a shameful admission. I’m very ashamed it’s true. These were my friends, but we were so choked with hurt; we were so thirsty for revenge.
Here was a bitterly painful sense of helplessness, for some of the most dangerous men on earth. We were supposed to be the protectors of our countrymen. Each December Seventh at the SEAL Delivery Vehicle (SDV) Team in Hawaii, in fact, we swam the five miles around Pearl Harbor’s Ford Island. Commemorating the original Day of Infamy in 1941, this ceremony sent the message that hostile actors were welcome to attack again if they wished…we would be ready this time.
Instead, in September sixty years later, we were on the wrong side of the planet.
We were supposed to be the ones who would sacrifice all so fellow citizens could sleep safe in their beds at night. Yet we would sleep through that night with troubled dreams, safe in our own beds, while thousands of innocents under our protection suffered and died in a crushing, inescapable nightmare.
In addition, within our platoon I had the unique awareness that only two Tuesdays earlier, my wife and children had flown from Boston to California, just as a plane I had watched disintegrate had been scheduled to do. Later, my wife would tell me a strange detail. During the early part of their flight on August 28th, a man of apparent Middle Eastern descent had been roaming the cabin and studying the passenger seating, crew stations, wings and more. He had been carrying an Arabic language newspaper. She wrote it off as unreasonable suspicion on her part, but remained troubled by his intense focus on surveying the airplane…especially the wings. Of course, this may have all been coincidence.
It is no coincidence, however, that I have a personal understanding of hatred. That’s the first thing I want you to understand.
Unlike my loved ones sobbing through a tortured morning rush hour in the United States, I sat among Arab friends and allies in the Middle East and watched 9/11 unfold. Some in my mixed group of highly trained commandos may have empathized with the grievances of the al Qaeda (AQ) terrorists piloting those improvised cruise missiles.
If that last statement strains your comfort level, I’m satisfied. Peacemaking is not the fluffy stuff of rainbows and unicorns. It is not exclusive to well-intentioned activists shouting “Ban War!” Peacemaking is the right—and the burden—of all of us, and it sometimes includes the use of force. Without just war, Hitler’s quest would have destroyed millions more. Genuine conflict reduction requires the capacity and willingness to strike, combined with a determined restraint and the guts to stare straight into the face of hate…and then choose a reasoned response.
Yes, some of my friends did (and do) empathize with the grievances AQ uses to justify hijacking airplanes. Note the careful use of this phrase “empathize with the grievances.” I know none of our Arab partners in that host platoon were radicalized terrorists. If one had been, he would have exploited our trust and killed us while we slept. The symbolic value of slaughtering a few American SEALs would have been irresistible. As demonstrated by the 9/11 hijackers, even sacrificing his own life to accomplish this would have been acceptable to an extremist with an opportunity.
This may be difficult to reconcile according to our ordinary sense of reality, but we are in extraordinary times. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary effort. If we have the courage to consider the Other’s reality, empathy with grievances is possible and productive.
Here’s one poorly hidden elephant in the room: Unresolved grievances and the anxieties they compel keep solutions at arm’s length. In many of the countries I’ve visited around the Middle East, the horror of Palestinian children killed in Israeli attacks is advertised widely and discussed passionately. For Israelis, on the other hand, the constant threat of devastating Palestinian rocket and suicide bomber attacks is a deep and chronic pain that can make reasoned negotiation seem unreasonable. Neither side will ever run out of iron-clad reasons to avenge the pain it has suffered; nor will either side ever accept its own marginalization or elimination, so all the struggle and rhetoric in pursuit of dominance for either extreme can only serve to prolong the suffering of innocents within both populations.
Many participants can sense this. Isn’t it time many more admitted it? Isn’t it time both parties, with their thoughts on their children, stared straight into the face of hate and said “Enough?”
As mentioned earlier, actor/director Don Cheadle and humanitarian John Prendergast have done exactly that in another abscess of raging human conflict in another part of the world. You’ll read about their “Enough Project” and book, The Enough Moment, in chapter 25 on Commonality.
Only the absolute cessation of violence allows space to work through underlying issues and pursue stability and reconciliation to benefit both parties. Yet all too often, hatred is so intense that a participant will choose personal suffering over personal peace as the price required to cause his adversary pain.
Until squabbling siblings, barroom brawlers or aggressing armies establish at least a cold truce, until the participants can “cause a pause,” the cycle of retaliatory violence continues to escalate and solutions fly ever further from reality…and more innocents suffer for our folly. At the most basic level there is no such thing as a corporation, an army, a nation, or even the book club where you may be reading this—each of these entities is nothing more than a collection of individual human beings in willing cooperation, backed up in some cases by lists which are also nothing more than shared understandings between individuals.
The human is the lowest common denominator, from the smallest to the greatest social organization we have ever established. This universal individuality, to be revisited later on in the sections on Heart and Soul, is the reason peace cannot spread except by individual choices and actions…like yours. Understanding and peace don’t come about by some mysterious accident while we squabble over crumbs. Boardroom, bedroom and battlefield are universally populated only by individual human beings, and only those who consciously choose and act can improve conditions for all of us.
The solution lies not at but between the extremes. Only here can balance—and peace for those under your care—be found.
(If you want to read the entire book, here’s the link)
Blowing up baby
The cycle of hate naturally results in a desire to harm. Sometimes children and other vulnerable members of a population are deliberately targeted. More often, they are harmed (emotionally and physically) because they were in the wrong place at the right time during an attack against some “legitimate” target, ranging from an estranged spouse to an enemy soldier. There have been casualties of war for as long as there have been wars—but once we acknowledge that some fights are not worth fighting, we find ourselves accountable to prevent as many as possible.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
These beautiful children were severely injured by an al Qaeda car bombing near their school. Their friends died.
I happened upon a photo of two little girls who had been blown up by al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) at their school in Kirkuk on April 2, 2007. It’s my favorite picture; I keep it as a screen saver to remind me of who I serve and to put my own troubles in context.
I work for them and others like them. They don’t pay me for my work, but those who do pay me understand that, ultimately, I work for those little girls.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. The pain, terror and anguish of the precious children in this silent image speak deafeningly.
These small girls, probably about four and eight years of age, sit on a hospital table with their faces twisted in pain. Both are having a very bad hair day—exploding cars will do that to a person. The younger has thick, curly locks and, except for being covered in her own blood, could be a little Arab Shirley Temple.
Although most of the blood soaking her white T-shirt and pants is probably from a minor but fast-flowing scalp wound, you can just make out that her delicate right hand is damaged, too. She’s favoring it to keep it from touching anything. She needs desperately to be held, and seems to be reaching for someone off camera…with little gold bracelets dripping blood, she’s feeling a million miles away from the security, love and peace she so deserves. It is a peace she will never again fully know.
“Hard power” (the capacity to use violence or some other coercive force) will always be a necessary element in the real world. You’ll read more about it in chapter 4. There will always be people who will not pause long enough to be reached by any other means. For them, we bring the force fulcrum all the way to the harshest end of the scale. This was the self-selected fate of Osama bin Laden. And though you will read much more in Powerful Peace about additional alternatives, sometimes violence is the only appropriate course of action. My uniformed brothers continue that mission, even as I press on with my new calling in front of a keyboard.
God, how I long to suit up and rejoin the mission! I want to pay back, to the monsters that did this, everything they deserve—with interest. If you came to this table for a Kumbaya solution, you’ll be disappointed. I don’t denounce violence; I embrace it. I keep violence as close as my hands and my heart. Because I do, I am more often spared from having to use it. My heart doesn’t ache for these children. It explodes. Forcing out burning tears, my heart explodes like the car bomb that tore them and their playmates apart.
Yet despite a boiling rage, I remind myself—we must not abandon balance. We have to respond, not react. In the next chapter, we’ll look more at the Why Not of lashing out, but for now let me say, to be more effective we have to learn to engage among and across relationships, households, and societies—most especially into concentrations where the hatred is most firmly rooted. Destroying alone leads to more destroying. This is the terrible paradox. It’s almost impossible to imagine breaking the cycle of harm when you feel so hurt and hateful, but there is no other hope for these girls and millions like them.
If we don’t reduce harm on the wider scale through improved interpersonal and international relations, this will happen again, and again, and again…and again.
(If you want to read the entire book, here’s the link)
The cycle of harm, by its very intention, results in loss for one or more parties. During one assignment with the U.S. Special Forces in Iraq, I attended the funeral of a brother soldier killed in the line of duty. This loss was a somber occasion that inspired me to recall and blend stories of loss from all perspectives. The experience painted a systemic image of the interdependent, connective tissue of self-perpetuating violence which sometimes feels so natural as to seem inescapable. Courageous men and women have to reject the lethal spiral. Courageous men and women are the last hope when fires of hatred threaten to consume us all.
Two aged men, that had been foes for life,
Met by a grave, and wept – and in those tears
They washed away the memory of their strife;
Then wept again the loss of all those years.
Our chaplain prays over the dogtags of the man in this story
We honor a fallen comrade. Hundreds of strangers converge from all corners of our little camp in Iraq. America the Beautiful plays quietly, reverently, as members from all services, agencies, and companies walk up, one by one, filing into clean ranks.
Our chaplain takes the podium, in his uniform and matching camouflage-patterned military stole, bringing our attention to God’s sovereignty over this solemn event. He speaks of a family’s loss and a hero’s honor.
In the adjacent Iraqi town outside the base, a mother and father clutch at each other and weep desperately. They cannot know yet whether their four-year-old daughter will survive the shrapnel wounds torn deep into her abdomen, thigh, and scalp. They know they are fortunate just to have a doctor’s attention; that he lacks anesthesia is a cost of being born here.
Our commander steps to the microphone. He praises the selflessness of this man who had gone forward time and again into harm’s way. The commander has lost many brothers, in many battles. He bears the pain with practiced stoicism. He praises the courage of a good man whose child will never again fall asleep under Daddy’s comforting smile; whose wife will never again melt into those strong arms.
The man’s wife and child have been notified of their devastating loss. An irreplaceable piece of their own souls died on the side of the road, with their man, on that day.
The mother and father now sit numb. Their hearts died the instant the doctor failed to save their little girl. They stare vacantly through red and swollen eyes as his staff cares for the small, torn daughters of other families.
Six thousand miles away in the United States, a nation snarls and chews at itself. Citizens complain that elections are only a choice for the lesser of evils. National unity fades to a distant memory, mere flickers of the brotherhood that shone after those horrific terrorist attacks during one breakfast in the new millennium.
The media stoke the flames of dissatisfaction, telling pieces of truth to uphold the assumptions of their owners. Ratings rise. Competing outlets create divergent realities. “News” programs become thinly-veiled political support machines. Sales of advertised products soar as each camp more zealously devours its own “news.” The very real enemies of freedom and democracy around the world cackle with glee at a spectacle of national disharmony driven by selfish, divisive gain.
The dead girl’s fourteen-year-old brother had been a gentle boy, destined for musical greatness that might have lifted the hearts of millions. Now, his own heart destroyed by hate, he vows to join the resistance against the insurgency and kill as many as possible. Within the month, he will destroy three other families’ sons…before being shot to death.
Elsewhere in town, an armed group converges on a lightly-occupied mosque during prayers and takes seven worshipers away. These men are the wrong “type” of Muslim, and the subsequent brutality of their deaths will horrify and pacify the neighbors of seven abruptly fatherless families. It is possible to be tortured to death.
Seven more mothers and wives are utterly shattered. Each will suffer terribly at the loss of her husband; learning that he himself suffered terribly in a slow death will be far worse. Worst of all will be the desperate years of begging or whoring to feed hungry children.
My thoughts return to our ceremony beneath a blazing sun. The heat is oppressive. There is so much loss.
I ache, deeply, for my own. Before he was killed, this was my brother in this world. It is my loss that this good man is dead.
I have lost this little girl, my precious sister in this world.
I have lost the rational, respectful discourse with my countrymen that determines who will lead one great and undivided nation.
I have lost the kind and gentle boy who would heal souls with his music.
I have lost the seven husbands and fathers and sons.
We have lost when reconciliation is less important than revenge.
We have lost when hate-filled parties thirst for the blood of the Other.
We will lose, again and again, each time we choose not to confront this tortuous cycle—the cycle which itself is the ultimate enemy.
We have known loss, today.
(If you want to read the entire book, here’s the link)