Opinion guest column

War criminals fit right in at MIT

McRaven as commencement speaker continues decades-long military connection

As if to underscore the current dystopian moment, this year’s graduating class will receive their degrees remotely with parting words from a professional assassin, four-star Navy admiral William McRaven. The announcement of McRaven as commencement speaker was praised by university leaders. President Reif, who has worked with McRaven through the Council on Foreign Relations, noted his “integrity, intellectual curiosity, decency, humility, and self-discipline,” and assured that he will “fit right in at MIT.” MIT News mentioned his “passionate advocacy for freedom of the press” and his role in several high-profile special operations missions, which have contributed to McRaven’s mythic reputation. 

An exception to this admiration came from UA President Mahi Elango, who expressed concern over MIT’s longstanding ties to the military-industrial complex and McRaven’s prominent role in it. Indeed, McRaven has functioned as a commander and architect of the so-called War on Terror, whose central features include kidnapping, torture, and extrajudicial assassination. McRaven symbolizes this expansive, endless war that blurs distinctions between warzones and sovereign nations, between enemy combatants and civilians, and devastates families and nations. For MIT to give McRaven an honorary speaking opportunity is to whitewash his crimes and the unjust wars he represents. 

A Navy SEAL by training, McRaven’s ascension — as part of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), an ultra-elite special operations unit — coincided with the neoconservative shift in U.S. foreign policy under the George W. Bush administration. Following the September 11 attacks, capitalizing on national anxiety and pro-war hysteria, administration officials like Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld sought to forcefully reassert U.S. hegemony and increase the president’s ability to wage war with impunity, positioning U.S. special operations forces at the vanguard. Under the new regime, JSOC effectively served as the paramilitary arm of the White House, largely unaccountable to Congress and the traditional Pentagon hierarchy.

Far from being a pawn in Cheney and Rumsfeld’s game, McRaven helped to construct the military strategy and ideological lens of the War on Terror, a framework that has gained bipartisan acceptance and persists today. (In fact, McRaven’s master’s thesis from the Naval Postgraduate School, “The Theory of Special Operations,” would later become the standard textbook on the topic.) Key features include the use of special operations forces and drones to capture or kill targets. Further, the War’s expansive definition of “the enemy” means that individuals are targeted simply for suspicious behavior or beliefs, amounting to the prosecution of “thoughtcrime” without due process; even U.S. citizens are not immune

In an attempt to pursue an amorphous and decentralized enemy across the globe, the War on Terror has now expanded far beyond Afghanistan and Iraq to nearly 80 countries, spurred on by figures like McRaven. In the words of Rumsfeld, the entire world is the battlespace. The full extent of civilian casualties is unknown due to a White House policy of classifying drone strike victims as Enemies Killed In Action (EKIA), unless proven otherwise. In fact, an analysis of leaked internal documents found that, in one five-month campaign in 2012, nearly 90% of those killed by drone strikes were not the intended target. 

Throughout his career, McRaven has been a vocal and effective advocate for increasing the reach and scope of U.S. special operations. Former Army Ranger, JSOC member, and Middle East analyst Andrew Exum credits McRaven, along with Generals Stanley McChrystal and Michael Flynn, as a key figure who fundamentally shaped the evolution of U.S. special operations since 2001. Under Bush, McRaven served as director of Strategic Planning in the National Security Council’s (NSC) Office of Combating Terrorism and was the principal author of the administration’s “National Strategy for Combating Terrorism,” a landmark policy document in the War on Terror. In addition to promoting a propagandistic narrative of Afghan and Iraqi liberation and the spread of democracy by force, the report called for the “application of all instruments of national power and influence to kill or capture the terrorist,” pointing to recent domestic surveillance “successes” such as the Patriot Act, and calling for “significantly expanding Special Operations Forces… and initiating the largest rearrangement of its global force posture since the end of World War II.” Additionally, as the principal JSOC member of the NSC, McRaven vetted and assembled the Bush administration’s kill lists of so-called “High Value Targets.” According to investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, McRaven was “one of the key players in militarizing U.S. counterterror policy and building up the infrastructure for the creation of kill lists.” 

Following his time in the Bush White House, McRaven commanded Task Force 121, the JSOC unit assigned to Iraq and Afghanistan. During this time, Task Force 121 engaged in regular “kill/capture” operations and torture. For example, torture at Camp NAMA in Baghdad, which included beatings, electric shocks, sleep deprivation, and confinement in dog kennels, was widely accepted practice, as evidenced by the camp’s motto “No Blood, No Foul.” According to Air Force interrogator Steven Kleinman, who visited the prison in 2003, the interrogation tactics used there were “direct violations of the Geneva Conventions and could constitute a war crime.” According to a 2004 Red Cross report detailing the mass detention and abuse of Iraqis at the time, an estimated 70–90% of detainees were arrested in error.

Following the celebrated 2009 Maersk Alabama hostage rescue, McRaven’s star rose, and he eventually became a trusted advisor in the Obama White House. There he reportedly served as a bridge between the battlefield and the halls of power, as the administration codified and streamlined Bush’s policy of assassination. McRaven worked closely with General McChrystal, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, to design the administration's counter-insurgency policy in Afghanistan, and successfully pushed for the expansion of U.S. drone and special force operations into Yemen and Pakistan

In 2008, McRaven was appointed JSOC commander. Under his leadership, JSOC not only routinely detained and tortured, but also killed innocent civilians. In December 2009, McRaven successfully pushed top national security officials for rapid authorization of a strike on suspected Al Qaeda targets in al-Majalah, Yemen. Missing the intended targets, the cruise missiles hit one of the poorest tribes in southern Yemen, killing 55 people, including 14 women and 21 children. Upon learning the details, Pentagon general counsel Jeh Johnson reportedly remarked, “If I were Catholic, I’d have to go to confession.”

Several months later, JSOC conducted a night raid on a house in Gardez, an Afghan village. The inhabitants, gathered to celebrate the naming of a newborn child, were in fact Taliban opponents and had even collaborated with NATO forces in the past. Nevertheless, claiming they were Taliban forces, JSOC soldiers slaughtered seven, including two pregnant women. Additionally, the survivors were shackled, hooded, and suffered “cruel and inhuman” treatment in a JSOC prison, according to a UN report. Despite a cover-up attempt, which reportedly included JSOC soldiers using knives to dig bullets from the bodies of the female victims and NATO declaring their deaths the result of an honor killing committed by the family, the truth eventually surfaced and McRaven was forced to visit Gardez and offer a ritually slaughtered goat in reparations.

At a time when MIT is reevaluating problematic engagements, inviting a commencement speaker with a human rights record as deplorable as McRaven’s may seem inconsistent with recent moralizing about MIT values. However, this would neglect the fact that obeisance to the military is part of the fabric of a university that was largely built and shaped by World War II and Cold War defense contracts, earning it the moniker “The Pentagon on the Charles.” MIT has not been shy about giving war criminals a warm reception on campus: recent distinguished guests include Mohammad bin Salman and Henry Kissinger. At a university that invites trusted partners such as Lockheed Martin and Raytheon to Career Fair in order to direct students deeper into the U.S. war machine, it is perhaps fitting that MIT graduates will be sent off into the world with warm anecdotes and hardy life lessons from SEAL training. Indeed, Admiral McRaven will fit right in.

Patrick Moran is a graduate student at MIT and a member of MIT Students Against War.