How Trump Is Failing to Honor Fallen Navy SEAL Ryan Owens

The White House should stop taking credit for the raid as a success while passing the buck for its failures.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

President Trump’s invocation of fallen Navy SEAL Ryan Owens was one of the most polarizing moments in his address to Congress. Those who praised the moment are correct that men and women who risk their lives on America’s behalf, discharging missions not of their choosing, deserve public recognition of their burdens and valor. It is heartening that military families saw their sacrifices praised.

Trump critics are equally correct that a succession of presidents have engineered similar moments to exploit goodwill toward warriors for political purposes, at times even to bolster ill-conceived missions that disrespect or decimate the warrior class.

It is difficult to parse the motives behind these moments.

For that reason, responsible citizens must try to gauge whether or not the president is acting as responsibly as possible in his capacity as a steward of the young lives he commands.

Trump is failing that test.

Ryan Owens died in a “boots-on-the-ground” raid in Yemen that the president approved shortly after taking office. The circumstances of that approval remain murky.

What followed was a tragedy:

  • The SEAL team’s cover was reportedly blown and its contingency plans failed.
  • The reported target, a senior al-Qaeda leader, was neither captured nor killed.
  • According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, nine children under he age of 13 were killed and at least five more were wounded in a fierce firefight.
  • While the overall cost of the raid is not known, a $70 million V-22 Osprey aircraft had to be destroyed.
  • Owens was killed and several of his comrades were wounded.
  • It is unclear if the raid yielded significant intelligence.

It is proper to commemorate the fallen, just as it was appropriate for the Bush administration to note the sacrifices of Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman. But in their cases, as in the case of Owens, honoring the injured or dead must include an honest inquiry and a forthright account of what went wrong and what was learned as a result.

Instead, Americans are being fed propaganda.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer called the raid a “successful operation by all standards.”

Meanwhile, a commander in chief who campaigned on the proposition that he is uniquely able to help America win against terrorists failed to take any responsibility for the costs of the raid, telling Fox News that the military is to blame. “This was something that was, you know, just they wanted to do,” he said, as if that is reason enough for a president to sign off. “And they came to see me and they explained what they wanted to do, the generals, who are very respected. My generals are the most respected that we've had in many decades, I believe. And they lost Ryan.”

That’s an evasion of responsibility worthy of James Taggart.

The message to the American military: the buck stops elsewhere. The Trump administration will take credit for military successes and blame the military for any failures.

Trump is likely to keep bumbling in this realm partly because the nature of military sacrifice seems to elude his understanding. During the 2016 campaign, he infamously declared that Senator John McCain’s status as a war hero was undeserved because he was captured in Vietnam. In Tuesday’s speech, the president took care to assert the spectacular success of the raid where Owens died, declaring that  “I just spoke to General Mattis, who reconfirmed that, and I quote, ‘Ryan was a part of a highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemies.’"

The veracity of that assessment is questionable. Senior government officials told NBC that the raid yielded no significant intelligence. Another source said Trump was goaded into approving the mission by advisers who told him that President Obama would not have been bold enough to approve it. Congress should probe the truth. In any case, Trump is wrong to imply that the intelligence yield bears on whether Owen is a hero. The sacrifice of troops ordered into an ill-conceived mission is no less profound; the Americans on whose behalf they fight owe them as much gratitude.

It is nevertheless politically convenient for Trump to conflate the success of the raid with esteem for Owens. Doing so makes it much less likely that the public will dare reach the conclusion that would most damage the president—that a raid he ordered cost a Navy SEAL his life, cost taxpayers tens of millions, killed multiple young children, and yielded neither significant intelligence nor any terrorist leaders.

That sounds an awful lot like a loss for America.

And it is hard to believe a president who touts it as a win even as he criticizes all the blood and treasure his predecessors spent in the Middle East as a wasteful drain.

Couldn’t you find a better use for $70 million plus than that Yemen raid?

As Owens’ widow was preparing to brave a public appearance to honor her late husband, the fallen Navy SEAL’s father, Bill Owens, told the Miami Herald, “For two years prior, there were no boots on the ground in Yemen—everything was missiles and drones—because there was not a target worth one American life. Now, all of a sudden we had to make this grand display?’’ Criticizing the Trump administration’s response to his son’s death, he added, “Don’t hide behind my son’s death to prevent an investigation … The government owes my son an investigation.” By undertaking it, Congress can properly honor Ryan Owens and better safeguard all troops that may be deployed on raids in the future.

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