Last summer, my wife and I fell into casual conversation with a young man in a London restaurant, who within minutes proceeded to tell us wildly improbable tales of his purported adventures while serving with Britain's elite Special Air Services Regiment. This pathetic fantasist did not even know that members of the SAS are under orders never to publicly reveal they are even members of the regiment, much less ever reveal details of operations in which they took part. His ignorant naivete is typical of these individuals who in their own rational minds surely must know that their stories will inevitably be disbelieved or challenged, but something in their psyches compels them to continue living their imaginary martial lies.
What kind of psychological make-up causes some individuals to claim to be what they never were? It is all the more puzzling when most of these men are highly respectable in their fields of endeavour. For example, I read of two regular US Navy lieutenants who falsely (and stupidly) wore the SEAL badge in the company of genuine SEAL officers. Similarly, a naval reserve captain, who was successful in civilian life and who commanded a large reserve unit in California, was caught wearing unauthorized SEAL insignia, when challenged, averred that he was entitled to wear it. Only when confronted by his commanding admiral did he finally remove the device.
Such individuals surely must know that their stories will inevitably be challenged, but something in their psyches compels them to continue living their lies. What kind of psychological make-up causes some individuals to claim to be heroic or members of elite units? It is all the more puzzling when most of these men are quite respectable in their real-life fields of endeavour. For example, two regular US Navy lieutenants were exposed as frauds when they stupidly (and falsely) wore the SEAL badge in the company of genuine SEAL officers. Similarly, a naval reserve captain, who was highly successful in civilian life and who commanded a large reserve unit in California, was caught wearing the same badge of the elite to which he was not entitled, and, when challenged, claimed that he was entitled to wear it. Only when confronted by his commanding admiral did he finally remove the insignia. The most tragic example is that of US Navy Admiral Boorda, who foolishly and improperly wore the “V” for Valour badge on his Vietnam Service ribbon. He was inevitably exposed, causing this otherwise splendid officer so much shame that he took his own life.
In my attempt to understand the psychological functioning of individuals who impersonate SEALs or similar special warriors, I read about a clinical psychologist in Maryland who reviewed the psychological and psychiatric literature on the impostor phenomenon. The doctor considered that individuals who impersonate heroic or admirable others can be found suffering from many forms of mental illness. The most disturbed of these are suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, and they have a fixed belief that they are somehow someone else greater than themselves.
There are also those who have “bipolar disorder,” a condition in which the individual develops a grandiose sense of self. I also learned that sufferers of narcissistic personality disorders take on the roles of idealized persons to further their sense of superiority. All too often, this occurs in the cases of qualified SpecOps personnel who grossly exaggerate their combat prowess, just to satisfy some deep-rooted longing for recognition.
The doctor also discussed individuals who have personality dysfunction, the most damaging of which is anti-social personality disorder Anyone suffering from this disorder assumes the role of some heroic figure for reasons of personal gain or to exploit somebody for financial or emotional gain. These individuals are the most reprehensible of the phonies.
I learned that a very common theme among impostors is low self-esteem. This disturbance in their sense of self leads them to create ever-more-intricate webs of lies and fantasies in order to make themselves feel more important. This is a condition known as pseudologia fantastica. When the individual takes this web of lies and begins mixing it into reality, e.g., dressing as a Green Beret, Paratrooper wings, or wearing a SEAL badge, it is referred to as the "impostor phenomenon."
Often, especially when it relates to impersonating members of Special Operations Forces, the individual is engaging in a so-called “masculine compensatory fantasy. All SEALs, Special Forces soldiers, Rangers, Commandos, Marines, and similar renowned combat units represent the very epitome of masculinity. This is why SpecOps personnel are the frequent objects of impersonation. For many, these perceived-to-be-elite personnel are the fantasized optimal persons that an impostor wishes to be.
Posturing by false warriors has become so prevalent, it has become the focus of clinical study, revealing how such impersonators tend to feel grossly inadequate. Individuals with very low self-esteem and a lack of sense of identity could easily seduce themselves step-by-step over the course of time into a belief that they are the fantasized superior warriors of our era. Those with low self-esteem, who genuinely need our compassion, are a far cry from those deceitful anti-social individuals who prey on trusting and unsuspecting individuals for the purpose of exploiting them financially and/or emotionally. It is these anti-social personalities who impersonate members of the SpecOps community who do the greatest damage to the trust America and Britain place in that brotherhood.