Center for Strategic Communication

A screenshot of Medal of Honor: Warfighter. Courtesy: Electronic Arts

In February, movie audiences thrilled to Act of Valor, a big-budget Hollywood film starring actual Navy SEALs. Next month comes Zero Dark Thirty, a major recreation of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, directed by an Oscar winner. Both films carry the blessing of U.S. military leaders, who clearly aren’t shy about marketing their elite troops to curry public favor. Yet those same leaders may have just ended the careers of seven Navy SEALs, some of whom participated in the bin Laden raid, for consulting on a videogame.

Letters of reprimand have gone to seven SEALs who helped Electronic Arts out on Medal of Honor: Warfighter, a recently released game that boasts of “connect[ing] dotted lines to real global terror events.” The scenarios in the game involve “Tier One Operators,” the elitest of elite commandos, chasing down pirates and terrorists across the world. (GameLife editor Chris Kohler wasn’t hot on it.) CBS reports that the military has determined the game reveals unspecified classified information, and has put the SEALs on notice that they’ve gone too far to make the first-person shooter realistic.

The disciplinary action could spell an ignominious and unexpected end to the seven SEALs’ tenure in the elite service, potentially “kill[ing] their chances for promotion,” CBS reports. The rebuke “essentially makes it hard for them to continue as SEALs,” an anonymous defense official told the Los Angeles Times. Worst comes to worst, they may have to leave the military altogether, which is a mind-boggling way for people who pulled off one of the greatest feats in U.S. military history to go out — especially given how much work the military has done to pimp out the SEALs.

The rebuke reflects a schizophrenic attitude inside the military to how public the secretive SEALs should be. In February, Act of Valor showed real SEALs, on camera, during training missions that the producers massaged into a fictional narrative. The Navy worked with its producers for years — precisely so the film could be a good recruiting tool.

And just in time for the holidays, Zero Dark Thirty, a major film about the bin Laden raid directed by Academy Award winner Kathryn Bigelow, will arrive in theaters, thanks to help from the White House, CIA and Department of Defense (if not the Joint Special Operations Command). One of the guys from Parks and Recreation plays a SEAL in the raid. James Gandolfini of Sopranos fame plays then-CIA Director Leon Panetta.

Now the military is having second thoughts. This fall, a SEAL who claims to have actually fired the shots that killed bin Laden, Matt Bissonnette, published No Easy Day, a memoir of the raid that the Pentagon says revealed official secrets. Bissonnette may face legal action for violating a non-disclosure agreement he signed as a SEAL; and it’s possible that Bissonnette was one of the consultants on Medal of Honor: Warfighter.

Yet this is hardly the first time special operations forces have helped gamers. The first Medal of Honor in 2010 (which my colleague Kohler dismissed as a Call of Duty ripoff) had help from a Delta Force squadron leader nicknamed “Arrow” and a SEAL nicknamed “Punch.” Marc Ambinder reported at the time that the consultants had “at least the tacit permission from their direct commanders to cooperate,” although the details in the game made some of their colleagues uncomfortable.

All these movies, books and videogames have spurred recriminations within the special-ops community. A thoughtful Daily Beast story this week explored the dissonance that all this publicity has caused within the closed world of special operations. “This is a huge leadership chal­lenge for the people leading these guys,” a retired SEAL told journalist Daniel Klaidman.

And yet their leader, Adm. William McRaven, the U.S. Special Operations Command chief, is fond of recounting how a John Wayne movie inspired him to become a SEAL. The video game shelves and movie theaters line up with valorizations of martial success, and the military openly admits that’s good not only for recruiting, but for maintaining a bond with an American public that largely doesn’t know what military life actually is.

At last year’s big special-ops expo in Tampa, a vendor displayed a virtual training scenario for SEALs that modeled the bin Laden compound using publicly available information. That vendor was Motion Reality, which creates motion-capture graphics for big-budget videogames and movies. Uniformed personnel from across the special operations community gathered around its quasi-studio to gawk as actors wearing sensors fired at digital terrorists, their movements mapped on flatscreens flanking the demo. Should the SEALs actually lose their careers because of Medal of Honor: Warfighter, they probably have a bright future making the shooting games that the military loves to see kids play.