“In times of war or uncertainty there is a special breed of warrior ready to answer our Nation’s call; a common man with an uncommon desire to succeed. Forged by adversity, he stands alongside America’s finest special operations forces to serve his country and the American people, and to protect their way of life. I am that man.” US Navy Seal Code
Since the frogmen of World War II first swam ashore ahead of the coming D-Day invasion and those dauntless swimmers evolved into the Navy SEALs in 1962, America has been blessed by the protection of elite special operations forces (SOF). And until rather recently, knowledge of these silent warriors was minimal at best, with the general public not understanding the difference between a Navy SEAL and a semi-aquatic marine mammal. But as things are wont to do, times change, and perhaps the dramatic reveal of these men was unavoidable; or was it?
We are suddenly inundated with books and movies about SEALs and other SOF. You can’t walk into a bookstore without walking into a rack of books penned by someone who either is, or claims to be, SOF. There are SEAL workout videos, diet plans, and video game endorsements. You can’t scroll through Netflix or view coming attractions without a slew of similar movies filling your screen. And, as a woman, you can’t walk into a bar, a coffee shop, or even an average supermarket, without being approached by a man with a swagger and an “I’m a SEAL, you know…” pickup line (Warning, ladies, they’re not really SEALs). And although the culture of hero worship and open adoration of SOF is not only understandable but warranted, one cannot help but wonder whatever became of the warrior ethos of silence – or the SEALs own 440-word code of secrecy, adopted a few years ago.
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
Perhaps one of the most exemplary examples of a SEAL memoir is Marcus Luttrell’s. In fact, Luttrell’s telling of the events of Operation Red Wings came from higher up the Navy food chain; he did not come off that mountain looking to write a book. He has made it clear military brass approached him while he was undergoing physical therapy and expressed their desire for a book, a request the head shed made partly to help dispel half-truths and outright lies going around regarding what happened to his teammates 9 years ago. Willing to tell the story – even though it would involve painfully reliving moments that haunt his waking and sleeping hours – Luttrell went to work with the Navy to get the real story out.
Working on the book was an exhausting process, not only due to the vivid recollections, but also due to the schedule. Weekdays, Luttrell was still on active duty, training with his platoon. But on the weekends, he was flown to author Patrick Robinson’s home in Cape Cod, where the two men would push to get as much down on paper as possible in a short time. The rigorous schedule was maintained until the book was complete, and the actual publication took place just two short weeks after Luttrell was medically discharged from the Navy. The result of the collaboration between the Navy itself, who provided the necessary lawyers, found the gifted ghost writer, and managed myriad details, and Luttrell? Lone Survivor, which immediately hit Number 1 on the NY Times Best Seller list and found its way to Hollywood-movie stardom in 2013.
Marcus Luttrell’s memoirs were fantastically written, carefully executed, and, importantly, both encouraged and okayed by his superiors. Other examples of nicely-done books include Jason Redman’s The Trident and Chris Kyle’s American Sniper; these are the men you want your children to emulate and honor. They showcase teammates’ efforts and raise funds to support service members’ needs. These men are The One, the warriors who fight to bring others home, and do not seek publication simply to make themselves look good.
The Bad (or at least not-so-good)
“As far as I’m concerned, I prefer silent vice to ostentatious virtue.” Albert Einstein
In 2012, former SEAL Matt Bissonnette came out with No Easy Day, using the pen name Mark Owen. According to some who served with him, he was treated poorly and left the service bitter and seeking both a payday and, perhaps, a little payback. Rear Admiral Sean Pybus released a statement immediately prior to the book’s release, saying “We do NOT advertise the nature of our work, NOR do we seek recognition for our actions” (emphasis his). And, in a case of clever timing, SOFREP (Special Operations Forces Situation Report), a group of former operators listed on their site as “news and analysis from military and Spec Ops veterans” put out an ebook titled No Easy Op one day prior to No Easy Day’s release. SOFREP has a well-deserved stellar reputation in the military community. No Easy Op covers Bissonnette’s motivation and the fact the Pentagon had already begun threatening legal action because the former SEAL failed to put the manuscript through the required pre-publication approval process.
The bottom line concerning No Easy Day was the nature of its content: Pentagon officials stated it contains classified material, although what specifically is classified has not been disclosed. Of course, as members of the SOF community have pointed out, if the book held truly inflammatory or dangerous information, the Justice Department would have shut it down without a moment’s hesitation. So perhaps the real issue is Bissonnette’s blatant disregard for the NDA he signed as a SEAL, displayed by ignoring the pre-publication review process with the Defense Department and CIA.
Of course, reality here is our current administration already broke protocol on May 3, 2011, just one day after the bin Laden raid. On that day, VP Joe Biden blew the SEALs’ cover regarding the raid in a televised speech. Within 24 hours, active-duty SEALs were letting family members know to exercise caution, in some cases even advising them to remove any and all mention of the Teams from social media. And then, President Barack Obama gave the name of a SEAL commander to a Hollywood director; the administration was looking to have a bin Laden movie made without delay. The target had been effectively painted on the SEALs’ backs long before Bissonnette’s book ever hit the stands.
“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” Abraham Lincoln
One year after No Easy Day’s hotly-contested release, an SFC Dillard Johnson published his own memoirs through HarperCollins. The publishing powerhouse has been churning out best sellers for nearly 100 years now, and understandably believed they had military gold in their hands in the form of Johnson’s manuscript. Claiming to be a sniper, Johnson listed 2,746 enemy combatants killed at his own hands along with his purported 121 sniper kills. Perhaps one of this writer’s favorite claims was when Johnson said he fired 7,000 depleted uranium rounds during the Iraq invasion and the subtitle of “one of the deadliest American soldiers of all time.”
It wasn’t long before men who served with Johnson came forward, saying they did not want to take away credit where it was due – because he did, indeed, perform admirably in combat – but they had to let it be known the book was chock full of lies. As a former SSG said, their platoon lost some quality NCO’s in combat, and the men “don’t want to become a laughingstock, we want to be remembered for what we did, and move on.”
Johnson backpedaled, but not before carrying out interviews lauding his made-up “confirmed kills” and basically saying everything he would later claim was either misunderstood or the result of interview jitters. His book, Carnivore, continues to be sold, despite it coming out he was never a sniper at all (he says he used the term to make it easier for civilians to understand) and does not have anywhere near the confirmed kills originally claimed. One man who served with him in Baghdad and wished to remain anonymous said the book is “nothing but self-glorifying trash.” At least if your “non-fiction” memoir is actually a work of apparent fiction, there’s no need to muddle through those pesky pre-publication reviews.
“Let us be silent, that we may hear the whispers of the gods.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Less than 1% of active Navy personnel today are SEALs.”
Less than 1% of active Navy personnel today are SEALs. Even so, that means there are approximately 2,500 men walking among us – on active duty – and thousands more former SEALs who choose to remain silent. And then there are the Rangers, Green Berets, Delta Force, and other SOF, who are also quiet. Although the bookstore shelves seem to be bulging with SOF memoirs and Hollywood produced Act of Valor using real operators – men put in that position by the US Navy itself, by the way – the majority of our elite warriors do maintain the code of silence. The Navy went out of its way to raise SEAL awareness, partly to raise their numbers, using the media and Hollywood as the purveyors of its message, and then got angry when a select few of its own operators followed suit. Double standard, anyone?
This is reality: the man teaching your friend’s daughter improved marksmanship or taking farrier classes (that’s shoeing horses) or sitting at your local coffee shop – drinking straight black coffee, of course – he’s a Navy SEAL, and you don’t know. He’s a fellow parent, an athlete, a firearms instructor, and the guy you’d most like to have a few beers with; he’s a Navy SEAL, and you don’t know. Real heroes walk among us, and, most of the time, we are unaware of their presence. Most of them maintain silence, holding court with only the rare few privileged to know their other life, and braggadocio and media contact are not only avoided but denied. There are SEALs, PJ’s, and Delta Force operators walking through the outskirts or, yes, directly through, your daily life, and you don’t know. The warrior ethos of silence remains unbroken by the majority; silence remains golden, the same color as the SEAL trident. You just don’t know.
“Uncompromising integrity is my standard. My character and honor are steadfast. My word is my bond.” US Navy SEAL Code
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