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By Eliot A. Cohen
Eddie Gallagher and the War for the Soul of the Navy SEALs
By David Philipps
This is a book about a man, two events and an institution. The man is Eddie Gallagher, the Navy special operator accused of murdering an Iraqi prisoner of war in Mosul in 2017; the events are the killing itself and the subsequent military trial at which he was acquitted, while attracting the enthusiastic support of President Donald Trump; the institution is the Navy SEALs, the elite special operators of the United States Navy.
Gallagher is, curiously, not that interesting save as a study in the definition of sociopathy. In Philipps’s meticulously assembled and brilliantly written account, he is not a warrior driven mad by the stress of combat, a good guy gone rogue or a victim of a brutalizing culture. Rather, he is a lousy shot (by SEAL standards, that is), a poor planner, a glory hound, a petty thief, a popper of tramadol and other opioids when he can get them and a cunningly effective manipulator of those around him. Philipps leaves little reason to doubt his conclusion that Gallagher really did plunge that special knife of his twice into the ISIS prisoner’s neck. But he also reveals that the killing was only the culmination of years of indiscipline, recklessness, tactical incompetence and bragging about, among other things, shooting a girl in order to get a terrorist.
There are other distinctly drawn characters too, including two who deserve calling out by name: Lt. Jacob Portier and Lt. Cmdr. Robert Breisch, superiors who were too intimidated or seduced by Gallagher, or too in awe of the reputation he had cultivated to take seriously accusations raised by his subordinates in Platoon Alpha of SEAL Team 7. In some ways, they are the more disturbing figures here, officers who shirked their duty to maintain good order and discipline.
The killing itself is recounted in the context of the bloody, destructive reconquest of Mosul from the Islamic State organization that had seized it from a crumbling Iraqi Army. The Iraqis were to take the city back supported by Special Forces units from the United States and allied countries. In theory, the special operators were to stay a kilometer back from the front lines. In practice, Gallagher ordered his men to turn off the tracking devices that would have allowed his superiors to see that he was taking them to the front and beyond. The fighting was brutal but, in the case of Alpha at least, not about close combat. Instead, it was a matter of bombing, booby traps, sniping and grenade barrages as well as drone attacks (from both sides — ISIS had successfully weaponized their own hobbyist quadcopters). The culminating event was the knifing of the prisoner in the presence of Iraqi troops (who did not much care) and Gallagher’s own hardened but horrified subordinates, who had long before concluded that he was dangerous, incompetent and out of control.
The trial, which took place in 2019, is more of a set piece: the dogged N.C.I.S. agent who assembles the evidence, the sinister consigliere whom Gallagher uses to get witnesses to pull back their story, the obnoxious but brilliant defense lawyer, the stumbling prosecutors, the jury, exclusively male, primarily enlisted, including one SEAL who Philipps asserts lied about having no prior relationship with Gallagher.
The trial is followed by a further set piece, in which Donald Trump leans on the Navy high command to inflict no penalties whatsoever on Gallagher, including reduction in rank and the removal of the prized SEAL Trident pin. Fox News personalities brayed in his defense, and the secretary of the Navy who tried to steer a middle course was eventually dismissed; he was caught between the demands of the service and the rage of a president who knew that his people loved the Gallagher type, and who rather liked murderous thugs who supported him.
But the most interesting part of this remarkable and engrossing book examines the SEALs as an institution and as a subculture within the military. The Special Operations community in the United States military consists of many subgroups — Delta, the Army’s elite, which is not the same thing as Special Forces (the Green Berets), as well as Air Force and Marine special units. The SEALs are different in several respects. They grew out of the underwater demolition teams of World War II, a roughneck outfit at odds with Navy culture from the outset. They operate chiefly on land (although they swim in and out if there is an opportunity to do so), and they have long had a reputation for pushing the limits of legality and indeed military ethics.
One of the more famous SEALs, Richard Marcinko, founded SEAL Team 6, an elite within an elite. He titled his memoir “Rogue Warrior,” and that’s what he was, which may explain why he was eventually convicted and jailed for conspiracy to defraud the government. But he merely embodied a culture that Philipps describes as piratical, and that went back at least to Vietnam, when the SEALs — far from anything like a regular chain of command — fought their own war as they wished, with little oversight and less concern for the rules. That included, at times, the rules that say you don’t kill prisoners and you don’t intentionally kill civilians.
Special Operations units must consist (and do) of individuals who push perseverance, courage and combat skills to the limit. They attract either some of the most eminently sane and honorable people one will ever meet, or the other kind — and Eddie Gallagher was most definitely of the other kind, though he was not alone. Yet both types remain human, and the misjudgments, betrayals and misconduct that Philipps documents bring that home. James Thurber’s Walter Mitty fantasized about heroic adventures: The kinds of people who join the SEALs get to live them, and while most remain thoroughly grounded in reality some end up in the grip of fantasies, including dark and hideous dreams that they turn into reality.
And Special Operations units have this characteristic too: They are small, insular and often loosely supervised by the far more disciplined and rules-based hierarchies that characterize the armed forces — which is why conventional officers are often appropriately wary of them. The result in the SEALs in particular was an institutional culture of omertà. The most dispiriting thing about this book is the way it shows just how deep that code of loyalty and silence, even about crimes, can run. In this reality of an opaque institution’s insularity shaped by a unique and difficult mission, the special operators are not so special. Think of pedophile priests protected by the Roman Catholic Church.
And yet even though he believes that Gallagher and his immediate superiors escaped justice, Philipps comes to a surprisingly upbeat conclusion. The Navy senior brass are shown as trying to do the right thing while being caught between their duty and the demands of a commander in chief oblivious to military values. One senior officer, Capt. Matt Rosenbloom, is downright heroic. Gallagher and his negligent superior Portier left the Navy shortly after the trial. While some members of Alpha did as well, others, including some of those most vocal about the rogue chief, remained. The eminently sane SEAL leaders — typified by Adm. William McRaven, architect of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden — are still in control. The pirates, in other words, lost, despite the cheering of the Fox News anchors and Mar-a-Lago acolytes who, one may safely assume, have never seen a knife sink into human flesh. If this is the military side of the deep state at work, long may it live.
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