Esquire Editors: If You Complain About Our Botched Bin Laden Shooter Story, You Hate the Troops

Having bungled one of the two central premises of their story about the Navy SEAL who is supposed to have killed Osama bin Laden, the editors of Esquire are now arguing that they were secretly right all along. Yes, Phil Bronstein's piece did say that "the Shooter," as the story calls the SEAL, gets "no health care" after leaving the service, when in fact—as Stars and Stripes pointed out—he is covered by the Department of Veterans Affairs. But according to the editors, that's a distraction from the real point:

[T]he piece argues that ultimately, because of the services rendered to the country and the sacrifices demanded of them, the Tier One special operators such as the Shooter and his colleagues should be considered and treated separate and apart from all other veterans once they come home. Bronstein: "The American way of war has changed radically in the past decade, so that in the future, "boots on the ground" will more and more mean special operators. Which means that there will be increasing numbers of vets in the Shooter's circumstance: abandoned, with limited choices."

The original piece makes no such argument. It could have made that argument, but it did not, because it was badly edited. Esquire chose to publish a sweeping, overwrought account of how this hapless SEAL was "screwed" by the system—utterly abandoned—rather than presenting the case that the current system is inadequate and frustrating and difficult to navigate. That would have been a good case to make, but the story did not make it, and now the editors are trying to backfill the work they didn't do in the first place.

This passage from the original story, Esquire says, is the crux of the matter:

But the Shooter will discover soon enough that when he leaves after sixteen years in the Navy, his body filled with scar tissue, arthritis, tendonitis, eye damage, and blown disks, here is what he gets from his employer and a grateful nation: Nothing. No pension, no health care, and no protection for himself or his family.

The word "discover" is where both the original piece and Esquire's defense of it go off the rails. As the story eventually mentions, Navy personnel get a pension after 20 years of service. The Shooter left after 16 years, so he didn't qualify. It is beyond belief that anyone in the armed forces could have been surprised by this basic fact. He didn't "discover" that he was ineligible for a pension; he chose to forsake his pension.

(Also, while we're re-editing the piece, the preferred spelling is "tendinitis.")

Now it does seem stupid and indefensible that this is our national policy—that after years and years in the most dangerous combat zones, constantly risking physical and mental health, a SEAL should have to clock his full 20, same as a deskbound clerk. NFL players, who train for a narrow profession and sacrifice their bodies to it, get a pension once they've burned through their brief useful careers. Common sense might say that elite commandos deserve no less consideration. But Esquire didn't say it.

Instead, the magazine chose to condescend toward the Shooter, presenting him as a passive (or confused) naif, rather than a man who made a difficult decision between bad choices. So the Navy can simply note that he did opt out of his pension, and the Department of Veterans Affairs can say that his health coverage does in fact exist, and they've successfully refuted Esquire without addressing any hard systemic questions.

(This approach also doesn't do much to bolster Bronstein's Esquire-friendly thesis that the SEALs should be outplaced to top executive suites, on the grounds that SEALs and finance bros basically have the same skill set. Finance bros don't particularly need courage or tactical savvy, but they do need to be able to count to 20.)

There were lots of other ways the magazine could have written the story. If you want to pound the big unsettling chords, there's the fact that it depicts the man who personally stood face-to-face (or face-to-goggles in the dark) with Osama bin Laden and shot him dead as being still overwhelmed by the fear of terrorism, teaching his family to hide in the bathtub and keep a go bag at the ready. What were the policy goals of the War on Terror, again, anyway?

But Bronstein doesn't go into that territory, or even explain how plausible the Shooter's concerns about a revenge attack in Virginia might be. It's enough simply to add it to the list of important stuff the government doesn't care about, man, like the health coverage and the pension.

And so Esquire deals with its own failings by flapping its arms and piling on the accusatory self-righteousness:

So if there are people out there, journalists included, who think that the status quo is hunky dory, the government's approach to these extraordinary veterans is just right or even adequate, and who are too quick to incorrectly call another journalist's work "wrong" rather than doing their own work on the profound problems of returning veterans, then, as the cover of the magazine says, the man who killed Osama bin Laden truly is screwed.

This is outright Nixonian. If you notice that Esquire's description of the status quo is factually wrong, that's because you support the status quo. If you really care about veterans, why aren't you advocating for the veterans? Why are you paying so much attention to Esquire, instead of doing your own work?

Fine. Step one: Stop paying attention to Esquire.