On Tuesday, the Intercept’s Matthew Cole published a long and damning account of one of the U.S. military’s most lauded units: SEAL Team 6.
The report, citing numerous sources on background because of the clandestine nature of the team, describes the unit’s leaders fostering an environment since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in which mutilating the bodies of enemy fighters became acceptable. Some of Cole’s anecdotes were discussed in an earlier New York Times report.
Perhaps the strangest revelation in the Intercept story involves the squadron’s fascination with George Robert Elford’s 1971 novel “Devil’s Guard” during operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007. Cole describes “Devil’s Guard” as a novel that highlights “counterinsurgency tactics such as mass slaughter and desecration and other forms of wanton violence as a means of waging psychological warfare.” The members of SEAL Team 6’s Blue Squadron apparently used the novel as inspiration — at one point using knives to skin dead enemies under the guise of collecting DNA samples.
Members of the squadron “read the book … and believed it,” according to one of the former SEAL Team 6 leaders quoted by Cole, who investigated Blue Squadron. “It’s a work of fiction billed as the Bible, as the truth. … But we all see what we want to see.”
The book follows a Nazi SS officer named Hans Josef Wagemueller who manages to fight his way out of Czechoslovakia in the waning days of World War II, only to flee Germany and join the French Foreign Legion. Once inside the legion, Wagemueller and his fellow SS compatriots form a unit led by Nazi officers that eventually is deployed to Vietnam, part of what was then known as French Indochina, to quell the growing insurgency there in the 1950s. The tale, while penned under Elford’s name, is supposedly written by Wagemueller, and was relayed to Elford when he met the former Nazi officer during his travels, according to the book’s introduction. The book is the first of three in a series, in the final installment, titled “Devil’s Guard III: Unconditional Warfare,” Wagemueller is fighting for the Americans in Vietnam. It is unclear whether Wagemueller ever existed.
During the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the novel became something of a cult hit among deployed troops. A 2006 analysis from AbeBooks, a website that was then sending new and used reading material to deployed troops, showed that “Devil’s Guard” was among the top 10 novels supplied to U.S. troops in Iraq, according to the Telegraph. Others included “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” by J.K. Rowling, “Lonesome Dove,” by Larry McMurtry, and “Mostly Harmless,” by Douglas Adams, according to the report.
The book, though billed as a historical account, has been derided by historians as mostly untrue and overly sympathetic to the Nazis, especially the SS. In an early section of the book, Wagemueller spares a group of Americans and casts his fellow SS soldiers’ war crimes in the Battle of the Bulge as being no worse than organized crime in the United States or similar actions by U.S. troops. The book is correct that soldiers on both sides were responsible for brutality during the war. But units in the SS, especially the SS Einsatzgruppen, were responsible for the mass murder of tens of thousands of civilians in Eastern Europe and Russia as part of Adolf Hitler’s final solution.
In an early chapter of the book, Wagemueller’s unit rounds up the family members of supposed Viet-Minh guerrillas to use as human shields so that their convoy won’t be attacked as they proceed through a contested area.
“I was resolved to show the enemy that terror, brutality, and cold-blooded murder were not their monopoly, a Communist privilege, and that at least my battalion was ready to pay them tit for tat. They understood no other language,” Wagemueller says.
In a way, it’s not surprising that the “Devil’s Guard” became a favorite book among members of the most famed Special Operations unit in modern U.S. history while its members fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. The country’s military leaders were pushing a doctrine that focused on winning “hearts and minds,” but troops on the ground were frustrated by an enemy that used unconventional tactics such as roadside bombs to attack Americans. The book became a way for troops to fantasize about ignoring rules of engagement.
When asked for comment about the book’s notoriety and its propensity to encourage war crimes as a viable tactic, Navy Capt. Jason Salata, a spokesman for Naval Special Warfare Command said in an email that, “all members of Naval Special Warfare are required to comply with the Laws of Armed Conflict in the conduct of military operations.”