The Yemen Raid and the Grievability of Lives Lost

| March 2017
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Regardless of politics, there was not a dry eye following the emotionally moving moment during President Donald J. Trump’s first State of the Union (SOTU) address when he paid tribute to William “Ryan” Owens (the fallen U.S. Navy SEAL) as the cameras focused on his grieving widow, Carryn. After what may be the longest sustained applause during a SOTU address, the national debate once again focused back on the botched raid in the southern province of al-Bayda, Yemen. Framing the debate about the raid around whether Donald J. Trump is to blame misses a few crucial matters that ought to be explored. As Commander in Chief he is ultimately responsible, yet there are larger ethical questions about the burden and responsibility of the office of the President, about whose lives are considered grievable, and about the function of grief in the silencing of critique.

Why Blaming Trump Misses the Point

Where to place blame for the botched Yemen raid? I tend to agree with the argument put forth by Andrew Exum (former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Middle East Policy) concerning the decision-making and how many people and bureaucracies are involved in the process when it comes to raids of this nature.1 All military action is inherently uncertain, and it is easy to say ex post facto that they should have had better intelligence to know that the compound would be so heavily guarded. Nevertheless, as Chris Kolenda, a four-tour combat veteran from Afghanistan noted: “If the commander on the ground believed the intelligence and support were insufficient, he could have aborted the mission.”2 The ultimate point is that difficult decisions have to be made and in terms of counterterrorism operations, the burden of the presidency is balancing security, risk, and uncertainty, where “Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.”3 Thus, even if the raid turned out to have “no actionable intel” as it currently appears, that is the inherent uncertainty present in any military action of this nature.4

The Responsibility of Donald Trump

Whether you find my above argument compelling that perhaps blaming Donald J. Trump for the botched Yemen raid is not efficacious, we should all be troubled (though not surprised) that he does not take responsibility for it. On February 2nd Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer gave a detailed timeline of what occurred in the planning of the raid.5 Spicer emphasized multiple times that much of the planning and recommendations happened “under the previous administration.” Furthermore, the conclusion by Obama and his team was to wait for a “moonless night,” which by calendar would occur under the Trump administration.6 Hence, blame was shifted onto the past administration, when ultimately the decision was Trump’s. Some might argue his overzealous nature or appeals for PR-like “greatness” led to this cavalier mission. This explanation, though appealing on the surface, ignores all the other levelheaded intelligent people who also gave the mission a green light.

In an interview with “Fox and Friends,” President Trump deferred blame for the raid thusly: “Well, this was a mission that was started before I got here. This is something that was, you know, just, they [his generals] wanted to do. They came to see me; they explained what they wanted to do, the generals who are very respected. My generals they’re the most respected that we’ve had in many decades, I would, I believe, and they lost Ryan” (emphasis added).7 Instead of bearing the burden of the presidency, Trump discusses how they (the generals) lost Ryan. Although he was there to meet the casket as Owen’s remains were brought home, the lack of personal responsibility and deferring blame is something that leaves a bad taste and demonstrates that the Presidential burden is indeed a heavy one that he may not yet be ready to bear.

Let us compare President Trump’s remarks following the Yemen raid with President Obama’s discussion of his controversial CIA drone program in Yemen and Pakistan. Speaking at National Defense University in 2013, President Obama discussed the personal toll that civilian casualties take on him, while simultaneously disputing high estimates of civilian casualties from drone strikes: “Nevertheless, it is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in every war. And for the families of those civilians, no words or legal construct can justify their loss. For me, and those in my chain of command, those deaths will haunt us as long as we live, just as we are haunted by the civilian casualties that have occurred throughout conventional fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. But as Commander-in-Chief, I must weigh these heartbreaking tragedies against the alternatives. To do nothing in the face of terrorist networks would invite far more civilian casualties—not just in our cities at home and our facilities abroad, but also in the very places like Sana’a and Kabul and Mogadishu where terrorists seek a foothold.”8

Which Lives are Grievable?

The reference toward “grievable” life is of course a reference to Judith Butler’s book Frames of War: When Life is Grievable, which explores the questions of the framing of warfare and which lives are considered human lives to be mourned and which lives are not recognized as lives at all.

After reporting the death of Owens two days before, CENTCOM acknowledged on February 1st “regrettably that civilian non-combatants were likely killed in the midst of a firefight during a raid in Yemen Jan. 29. Casualties may include children.” This was followed by the statement by Col. John J. Thomas (CENTCOM spokesman): “Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has a horrifying history of hiding women and children within militant operating areas and terrorist camps, and continuously shows a callous disregard for innocent lives. That’s what makes cases like these so especially tragic.”9

What is interesting here is the three ways in which civilian casualties are framed. It appears as though fourteen al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) militants were killed along with twenty-five civilians. Among those civilians, nine children under the age of thirteen were killed (the youngest was three months old) and five additional children were wounded during the raid.10 For President Trump and his team, the loss of civilians in the raid is not grievable—the question of their deaths is ignored in favor of discussing Owen’s ultimate sacrifice. For Col. Thomas, the loss is tragic, but only because AQAP are cowards who hide behind women and children with disregard for innocent lives. Obama (reflecting five years into his secret CIA targeted killing program) views the death of civilians as a tragedy that weighs on him personally, but one that is for the greater utilitarian good, because not acting in the face of terrorist threats would lead to more civilians killed both at home and abroad. These three frames of reference demonstrate the dehumanizing of civilian life in warfare, whether it is to deny their existence, view it as the fault of evildoers, or as tragedy for the greater utilitarian good. In the end, for all three, the only grievable life among the dozens lost is not that of the infant child, but that of the U.S. Navy SEAL who died fighting the unending War on Terror.

The Spectacle of Grief

From focusing the camera on the grieving widow to Sean Spicer’s rant about the “success” of the mission, both function to silence criticism of the efficacy of our counterterrorism strategy. Spicer stated, “Anyone who would suggest it’s not a success does disservice to the life of Chief Ryan Owens…anybody who would suggest otherwise doesn’t fully appreciate how successful that mission was, what the information that they were able to retrieve was, and how that will help prevent future terrorist attacks.”11 Although any loss of life, civilian or soldier, is indeed a tragedy, using the spectacle of grieving widows or maimed soldiers to silence criticism is constitutive of war itself and is no different under Trump than past presidents.12

I believe Peter Lucier (former Marine infantry rifleman) put it best: “Confronting our own complicity in the deaths of heroes is difficult. But failing to look deeply into the causes, failing to question whether they died for a good reason, doesn’t do a disservice to those who died. Their bravery and heroism stays with us, and is not diminished by the success or failure of their mission.”13

Ultimately, what is perhaps most ironic about the well-deserved emotional applause for Carryn Owens during the SOTU was that, “it was the longest period of time that Congress has (even indirectly) spent acknowledging America’s role in Yemen.”14 With over 157 drone strikes since 2002, U.S. weapons and logistic support for an inhumane Saudi campaign, and roughly 30 U.S. drone/air strikes in Yemen in 2017 alone, this round of applause was our first Congressional acknowledgment of our involvement there after fifteen years at war. War did not exist and loss of life was not a tragedy until we lost one of our own; yet, Yemeni civilian deaths remain ungrievable.

  1. Exum, Andrew. “The Right – and Wrong – Lessons of Trump’s Yemen Raid.” Defense One. February 4, 2017.
  2. Lemmen, Gayle Tzemach. “Don’t Blame Trump for the Yemen Raid’s Outcome” Defense One. Fabruary 2, 2017. Available at:
  3. For a greater discussion of balancing security, risk, and uncertainty in counterterrorism see my forthcoming chapter: Emery, John R. “Balancing Security, Risk, and Uncertainty in a World of Contested and Fragmented Sovereignty” In Daniel Brunstetter and Jean-Vincent Holeindre (Eds.), The Ethics of War and Peace in an Era of Contested and Fragmented Sovereignty. Washington DC: Georgetown University Press; Quote from: Lucier, Peter and Thomas E. Ricks. “After Action: Some Thoughts About Friends Inspired in Part by the Yemen Raid and the Reactions to it in Political Washington.” Foreign Policy. February 10, 2017. Available at:
  4. McFadden, Cynthia, William M. Arkin, and Ken Dilanian. “Officials: Still No Actionable Intel From Yemen SEAL Raid” NBC. March 1, 2017. Available at:
  5. “Press Briefing By Press Secretary Sean Spicer, 2/2/2017 #7.” White House. February 2, 2017. Available at:
  6. “Press Briefing By Press Secretary Sean Spicer, 2/2/2017 #7.” White House. February 2, 2017. Available at:
  7. “‘Mission Started Before I Got Here:’ Trump Asked About Criticism Over Yemen Raid”. Fox News Insider. February 28, 2017. Available at:
  8. “Remarks by the President at National Defense University.” The White House. May 23, 2013. Available at:
  9. “U.S. Central Command Comment on Yemen Raid.” CENTCOM. February 1, 2017. Available at:
  10. Shabibi, Namir and Nasser al Sane. “Nine Young Children Killed: The Full Details of the Botched US Raid in Yemen.” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. February 9, 2017. Available at:
  11. “Press Briefing By Press Secretary Sean Spicer, 2/8/2017 #10.” White House. February 8, 2017. Available at: “
  12. Greenwald, Glenn. “Trump’s Use of Navy SEAL’s Wife Highlights All the Key Ingredients of U.S. War Propaganda.” The Intercept. March 1, 2017. Available at:
  13. Lucier, Peter and Thomas E. Ricks. “After Action: Some Thoughts About Friends Inspired in Part by the Yemen Raid and the Reactions to it in Political Washington.” Foreign Policy. February 10, 2017. Available at:
  14. Zenko, Micah. “A Day in the Life of a Disgraceful Commander in Chief.” Foreign Policy. March 1, 2017. Available at:
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