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The Unknown Unknowns of War American-Style

In “Getting bin Laden,” Nicholas Schmidle’s New Yorker report on the assault on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, here’s the money sentence, according to Noah Shachtman of Wired Magazine’s Danger Room blog: “The Abbottabad raid was not DEVGRU’s maiden venture into Pakistan, either. The team had surreptitiously entered the country on ten to twelve previous occasions, according to a special-operations officer who is deeply familiar with the bin Laden raid.”  DEVGRU is the acronym for the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, better known as SEAL Team Six (think “SEAL-mania”), the elite special operations outfit that killed bin Laden.

His assassination -- and Schmidle’s piece makes clear that his capture was never an objective -- brought on a blitz of media coverage.  But without reading that single, half-buried sentence, who knew that the same SEAL team had been dropped into Pakistan to do who knows what 10 to 12 times before the bin Laden mission happened?   Not most Pakistanis, nor 99.99% of Americans, myself included.  Keep in mind that this was only a team of 23 elite troops (plus a translator and a dog).  But there are now about 20,000 full-time special operations types, at least 13,000 of them deployed somewhere abroad at this moment.  In other words, we simply don’t know the half of it.  We probably don’t know the tenth of it -- neither the breadth or number of their missions, nor the range of their targets.  According to Schmidle again, on the day of the bin Laden raid, special operations forces in nearby Afghanistan conducted 12 other “night raids.” Almost 2,000 of them have been carried out in the last couple of years.

These are staggering figures.  And since we didn’t know that U.S. special operations forces were secretly conducting Pakistan missions in such numbers, it might be worth asking what else we don’t know.  Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, speaking to the press in 2002 about the lack of evidence linking Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to the 9/11 attacks, made a famous (or infamous) distinction among “known knowns,” (things we know we know), “known unknowns” (things we know we don’t know), and “unknown unknowns” (things we don’t know we don’t know).  How apt those “unknown unknowns” turn out to be when it comes to the ever-expanding special operations forces inside the U.S. military.

Think of them, in fact, as the unknown unknowns of twenty-first century American warfare.  Fortunately, thanks to Nick Turse’s new piece “A Secret War in 120 Countries,” we now have a far better idea of the size and scope of the global war being carried out in our name by tens of thousands of secret warriors fighting “in the shadows.” 

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