History

America Loves the Navy SEALs. It Hasn’t Been Good for Them.

Since 9/11, the combat experience has piled up. So have the scandals.

Mark Wahlberg and Bradley Cooper are seen dressed as soldiers, to the left of a ship and a collection of guns.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Keith Bernstein/Warner Bros. Entertainment, Columbia Pictures, and Universal Pictures.

Slate has relationships with various online retailers. If you buy something through our links, Slate may earn an affiliate commission. We update links when possible, but note that deals can expire and all prices are subject to change. All prices were up to date at the time of publication.

Watching Taylor Sheridan’s Yellowstone, I sighed out loud when the show introduced Kayce, the youngest brother of the Dutton family, who is a bit of a loose cannon but also a real cutie and, like, good at everything. Guess what Kayce used to be? Like a million other romance heroes who are dark and troubled, or the real-life veterans who write books that get made into movies and then go on the lecture circuit and make a mint, Kayce was a Navy SEAL. No, this well has not run dry, despite the whole Eddie Gallagher thing, the Chris Kyle thing(s), the Eric Greitens thing … the SEALs seem to shed scandal like water.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

“How do we weigh the SEALs’ public image against the corrupt and violent acts carried out—and covered up—by SEAL operators and leaders?” writes Matthew Cole, whose new book, Code Over Country: The Tragedy and Corruption of SEAL Team 6, is a devastating analysis of the impact of the past couple of decades on this elite unit. SEAL Team 6, made up of about 300 SEALs, operates in secrecy and is sometimes called “the President’s Own.” Because of that status, the team has seen a lot of combat in the past couple of decades of forever wars; it’s also publicly beloved and universally celebrated. The combined effect has not been good.

Cole’s recent history is sourced from conversations with many current and former SEALs, and it’s a damning record. His diagnosis is that what he calls the “corruption” that’s emerged from the unit over the past few decades is, to some degree, America’s fault. “There is oversight built into the structure of the special forces—and the military more broadly,” he writes. “The enlisted answer to the officers, the officers answer to civilians, civilians answer to Congress, and Congress answers to American citizens. It is with ordinary American citizens, then, that the responsibility ultimately rests.”

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

I spoke with Cole about the roots of the SEAL mystique, the toll the past few decades have taken on operators, and what can be done in the way of reform. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Rebecca Onion: The brand-building of the SEALs goes back so much farther than I would have thought.

Matthew Cole: During and after World War II, the Navy and the Pentagon put out what you could probably call propaganda about the various special warfare units that became what was known as the UDT—underwater demolition teams—and then later the SEALs. They were called combat swimmers, and frogmen; they developed a myth around them. There was an article in the Saturday Evening Post, at the time one of the most popular magazines in America, that sort of opened the door for American readers to the story of the frogmen that served in World War II. One of the things they called them in that article is “Battling Mermen.”

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Which made me laugh. I wrote that down because it was so funny.

Within a few years of that, there was already a movie [The Frogmen, 1951] telling this story, with elements of truth to it, but basically propaganda and recruitment material. The basic elements were true: These were a group of men who stood out as different—tougher, harder men than the average Navy sailor, physically and mentally tough and basically a little bit crazy. That became the archetype for commodification and branding around this, and after Vietnam, they become a new kind of known name, along with the Green Berets and so on. And after that, SEALs started to write their own stories—some fictionalized, some autobiographical. So there was plenty, later on, for SEAL Team 6 to look back on as a blueprint. Especially after Dick Marcinko.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

This is a fascinating person. Can you say more about the role he played?

He was the founder and creator of SEAL Team 6. He was a high school dropout who joined the Navy and ended up becoming a member of the UDT as an enlisted operator. He was recommended to go to officer school—he must have gone to college at some point—and then became an officer and went to Vietnam. He did several tours there and became known as “Demo Dick” for the amount of explosives he used. He liked to blow things up. He was a roguish officer who was known to flout the rules and say fuck you to admirals and officers above him in rank. He was a heretic in a lot of ways, but he was also considered extremely confident and respected as an operator, a person who was not everybody’s flavor. I think it’s clear that he was also a fabulist and a liar who was very interested in rising, and showing through that rise that his roguish ways would work.

Advertisement
Advertisement

And then in 1979, he was Pentagon staff and was assigned to part of the planning for the hostage rescue plan for the Americans being held in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, after the Islamic Revolution in Iran. He had a front-row seat but was not involved operationally; there were no SEALs involved, but rather operators from Delta Force, which was a Tier 1 counterterrorism unit and had been created about a year earlier, before the kidnapping. And so they were more prepared than the SEALs for the job.

Advertisement

But the mission was a failure; it ended up a major disaster, several U.S. servicemen died when a helicopter hit a plane and it blew up, and the whole mission was aborted. That failure led to new military thinking about establishing a new organization that would handle counterterrorism and hop on hostage rescues, and that organization became known as the Joint Special Operations Command: JSOC. And as one of the components, Marcinko worked on creating this specialized Navy SEAL unit, which would be a stand-alone unit led by a lieutenant commander, which is what his rank was at that time.

Advertisement

He was able to put himself in as the person who should run the unit, and got himself assigned and the unit created: SEAL Team 6. There were only two SEAL teams at the time, but we wanted the Russians, who we assumed were paying attention, to think we had more, so we called it 6. That became its classified name.

The unit was about 100 men strong. [Marcinko] created the unit in his own image: men, most of whom had served in Vietnam like he did, who had experience in war, and who could handle heavy amounts of drinking with him. That was one of the standards he applied. In our interview, I asked him about the psychological profiling and assessment that the unit did, and he basically said, We had none, which wasn’t exactly true—they took the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory—but basically, the screening was whether he liked you, whether you could drink, and whether you could shoot.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

He put those who had the most operational experience in charge under him, which turned the caste system on its head. But the enlisted men don’t have the responsibility of maintaining good order and discipline in the Navy or in a military unit. And so when things go wrong, they’re not the ones who get blamed; the officers do, who are responsible. But unofficially, in his unit, Marcinko got rid of this system. And so what you really had after about two or three years of Dick Marcinko, you had a unit who really looks like Dick Marcinko and had his worldview.

Even after he leaves the unit and it evolves, that rogue element remains central to their identity. They operated on an edge, two sides of the same coin: discipline and roguishness. There were elements of that roguishness in the ’80s and the ’90s, but after 9/11, the unit’s size and its operational tempo just exploded exponentially, and just the same, its problems exploded exponentially.

Advertisement

And it seems important that Marcinko wrote books—just like all the former SEALs we’re familiar with from the 2000s and 2010s.

Yes, first he went to prison—he was convicted as part of a fraudulent procurement scheme and had huge legal bills. He decided the best way to pay them off was to write a memoir, and that became Rogue Warrior, which came out in 1992 and became a huge bestseller. The memoir was a mix: some truth, some bullshit, some exaggeration, some lies. That was another archetype for what happened after 9/11, with SEAL Team 6 books, which had some truth, but some self-serving mistruths and misstatements, exaggerations, omissions … and they were (and are!) all met with no shortage of appetite from the American public, which has an endless desire to read, watch, and listen to stories about the SEALs. Marcinko created a business model for SEALs to tap into that.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

An important effect of your book is to lay out all of the post-9/11 SEALs culture Americans have created and consumed, and to take a second look at it. I was unsettled to realize just how many individual SEALs I know by name, and how many SEAL-related stories had become movies—Captain Phillips, Lone Survivor, American Sniper—and how, as you demonstrate, each one of these movies was based on core material that was at least in part an untruth. Is there any way a book like yours, or like Dave Philipps’ book from last year about Eddie Gallagher, can tear down any of this cultural monolith of SEAL love? And, is that what you are trying to do? Or are you not thinking about it that way?

Advertisement

As a journalist, personally, the journalism I’ve always been drawn to is counternarrative. In the realm of national security, intelligence, and the military, as a rule, the U.S. government lies to the American people. Most lies are by omission rather than straight falsehoods, but it’s a consistent theme, and since the government can withhold things in the name of secrecy and security, doing the kind of journalism that gets at the truth is really difficult. I think I’ve tried to make, as best I can, a career out of trying to unearth and expose those omissions and lies.

Advertisement
Advertisement

We live in a world where, if the narrative is established, it becomes almost impossible to counteract it. When you have a big book, then a Hollywood movie, the account becomes almost set in stone. I wrote a story in 2016 about Chris Kyle’s record—the medals he had earned—and where he had lied about it. And the hate mail I got from readers at the time included one from a person who was upset that I had besmirched the good name of Bradley Cooper! The writer of the email, it was clear, had gotten their history from the American Sniper movie, and in a slip of the tongue had thought of the actor as the operator.

Advertisement
Advertisement

And that to me was very illuminating. That’s how a lot of people get their basic narrative, from the movies and from bestselling books by the very people who have every reason to tell stories that reflect well on them. I don’t think that what I do is going to undo everything, but my hope is that if you put it out into the world and expose the truth, ultimately people find it, and that’s about the best I can do.

Advertisement

I think the fantasy of the SEALs is also so strong because it fits into a gender story we like: America has these very strong, very-good-at-everything men who are going to do what’s right, every time. It’s deeply ingrained.

Advertisement

Yes, the hero myth is a part of the national identity, and it’s true in every war. There are myths put out that the public wants and the military wants because they’re recruitment tools. The problem is in the toll and aftermath on those who served, those who were part of a particular lie. The toll is heavy. And so one of the things that I’m trying to do is not have this book be a pro- or anti-SEAL book. It’s not either-or. One of the things I was trying to accomplish with the tone is trying to empathize, in particular, with the enlisted SEALs of SEAL Team 6, who have accrued an unprecedented amount of exposure to extreme violence in the years since 9/11. Of course, that was their choice, they willingly did it, it’s part of their makeup to do it, but it has serious secondary and tertiary effects. Part of the thing is, this unit is secret, elite, and so that part has been hidden.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

One of the things I was honestly most moved by, in the years I was reporting, were the SEALs from SEAL Team 6, both officers and enlisted, almost all of whom served at least two decades in the field, some of whom had two decades with SEAL Team 6. A theme among these interviews was how much they were thinking about the younger SEALs who were involved in these incidents, and thinking about how they were going to suffer in their future lives and how their officers and leaders had failed to protect them. They saw their job as leaders to say, look, we get it. War can be really awful, emotional, and heavy. But the lesson we need to come back with is crystal clear: This is not OK. You can’t chop someone’s head off, you can’t desecrate bodies, you can’t demonize the enemy the way you’re doing, because it’ll creep and stain you, individually, and us as a unit. And these people I interviewed were saying, they were not protected, not trained in how to handle these parts of this very, very violent job.

Advertisement

It really felt like Donald Trump coming out to defend Eddie Gallagher in 2019 solidified this idea in the culture that the SEALs can do no wrong, due to being SEALs, and also made it a partisan issue—if you’re on the right, you are not going to hear anything bad about the SEALs. Am I reading too much into that?

What Donald Trump did was unprecedented, in terms of his meddling in the court of public opinion around this case. But he had the right to do what he did, as the commander in chief. It was lawful—not necessary, not appropriate, but lawful.

But I think the bigger point is what happened with the Eddie Gallagher case, which echoes what the SEALs I’ve been interviewing and talking to for a decade have been saying, which is that the Navy SEAL community is full of dozens of Eddie Gallaghers. The only thing unique about that case was that some younger kids actually defied the culture and the code of silence to rat him out. They lit themselves on fire. And that is an indictment of everything that culminated in this case.

To be clear, Gallagher was not in SEAL Team 6, but this started in SEAL Team 6, and it started after 9/11. The reason why I have him in the book is that it’s cause and effect, right? You let the most elite members of your community get away with carrying hatchets and using them to desecrate bodies. Developing a brand of being the coolest guys who are untouchable and above the law. This will filter down to a platoon chief, 15 years later, at the back end of the war, when no one’s really paying attention, and he has no battlefield oversight.

The scandal about Gallagher is not what he did, though what was alleged and what people testified to was horrific enough. What’s terrifying is that Eddie, who (prosecutors said) was on a whole system of drugs—steroids, uppers, downers, pills—was basically completely autonomous in a foreign war zone. Where were the adults? As far the Navy SEALs were concerned, Eddie Gallagher was the adult. And that’s an indictment of the whole system.

Advertisement