Secrecy’s subjects: special operators in the US Shadow War
Security, we are told, requires secrets. But not necessarily the secrets we are used to hearing about – the clandestine movements of secret agents or the coded messages sent between allies. While those forms of secrets matter, what is needed is a fuller account of how security relies on secrecy, its values, set of practices, and how secrets and secrecy are tied to the ways we perceive ourselves and each other.
On the one hand, secrets and secrecy are often associated with danger, reproducing ideas about ‘dangerous people’ and ‘dangerous knowledge.’ For example, the ways in which security discourses reproduce ideas about ‘weapons of mass destruction’ and the need for secrecy to prevent technology from ‘falling in the wrong hands’. But secrets and secrecy also have ‘an allure’, as sociologist Georg Simmel argued. Entire industries and expertise are built around secrecy from medieval ‘professors of secrets’ skilled in the (deceptive) arts of alchemy to magicians and magic acts, from experts in camouflage and stealth technologists to those specialising in the management of trade secrets, from secret cults and conspiracy theories, to the genre of spy thrillers and ‘spytainement’, as Amy Zegart calls it, and the pervasive advertising promises to ‘reveal’ the secrets of aging, the universe, success. All of this helps to associate secrecy with value. Having access to secrets, becoming a ‘master’ of secrets, being able to keep secrets or even sell them can be highly valued. And this matters for security far more than we have acknowledged to date.
As ‘Secrecy’s Subjects’ contends, beyond thinking about secrecy within security discourses as a ‘balancing act’ to be managed between the public right to know as part of a democratic system on the one hand and national security on the other, understandings of security would benefit from thinking through the multiple ways in which secrecy is practiced and how these practices interlace within a multi-layered ‘composition’ to make secrecy and ‘secrecy subjects’ valued. As argued here, secrecy often involves a composition of secrecy, an arcanum that includes geospatial practices of secrecy, techniques and technologies of secrecy, cultures of secrecy, and spectacles of secrecy. All of these practices produce things – from infrastructures of secrecy to redactions, radio silences and cover-stories – but they also reproduce understandings of actors and the logics they work under, in this case, the justifications used in the conduct of war.
Using the U.S. ‘Shadow War’ as a case study, adding to a growing body of literature that explores the power and politics of a second decade of the Global War on Terrorism (GWoT) (what some refer to as ‘late modern warfare), and in particular conducting a close reading of a set of key memoirs associated with the rising practice of ‘manhunting’ by US special operators, especially US Navy SEALS, in the GWoT, as part of the legitimation and meaning-making practices of secrecy: how do those at the ‘front lines’ of manhunting make sense of the secrecy practices they used and how do these practices construct the subjects within this discourse?
More specifically, these memoirs and the layered composition of secrecy tells a story about four secrecy subjects that US special operators embody and that help to make sense of this war: US special operators are a composition and layering of ‘insider’, ‘stealthy’, ‘quiet’, and ‘alluring’ subjects that are connected to personal, embodied, raced, gendered, and sexed discourses of power. For example, Navy SEALs of ‘Red Platoon’ constitute themselves as masters of the stealthy manhunt through raced and gendered discourses associated with ‘the Tribe.’ Other consider themselves masters of secrecy as they train in making covert (and illegal) surveillance videos of women in New Orleans strip clubs. As a whole, special operators are also part of a collective of ‘quiet professionals’ who nevertheless take pride in people wanting to ‘touch the magic’, i.e. get closer to them. The result of these different layers is the production and centering of several different secrecy subjects that help to make sense of war and that make possible the broader international and transnational dimensions of power.
These secrecy practices, though most often understood as ‘blank spots’, can therefore be understood as part of US (and a longer history of colonial) foreign policy practices that have long invested in spectacle in the effort to influence. In other words, as this work suggests, the spectacle of war as foreign policy – the showcasing of technology, military or otherwise — also takes place through these secrecy practices. Secrecy can therefore serve multiple functions: to reproduce ideas about ‘the savage colonial’ as well as to reproduce ideas about US American rationalism and modernity for ‘others’, and the benefits to ‘others’ of adopting US ways. Secrecy practices therefore can be understood as part of a longer-term and larger set of US foreign policy practices that reproduce ideas about the ‘self’ as well as about ‘others’. Understanding these secrecy practices as producing insider, stealthy, quiet and alluring subjects that help to reproduce the logic of the GWoT security discourse as a multi-layered composition allows an understanding of a fuller account of secrecy’s power.
– Elspeth Van Veeren, University of Bristol.
– Van Veeren’s EJIS article is now available free of charge until the end of April 2020.
– Specialising in the security cultures, politics, and foreign policy of the United States, and in particular on the visual and material dimensions of meaning-making in security discourses, Van Veeren has published work on torture, US detention practices at JTF Guantánamo, and on art and conflict. Her more recent work is an exploration of secrecy cultures, invisibilities and ignorance, and the practices of ‘manhunting’ in the second decade of the Global War on Terror. She is a co-convener of SPIN, the Secrecy, Politics and Ignorance Research Network based in the UK.