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Opinion The Navy SEALs, a Christmas story

Navy SEAL candidates participating in "surf immersion" during Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training at the Naval Special Warfare Center in Coronado, Calif., in May 2020. (MC1 Anthony Walker/U.S. Navy via AP)

It might seem like a stretch to view the Navy SEALs, among the most fearsome warriors on the planet, as a Christmas story of humility and renewal, but let me explain.

Two years ago, the SEALs were near rock bottom. Almost two decades of vicious war in Iraq and Afghanistan had exhausted and degraded these elite fighters. SEALs were carrying hatchets into battle. Some bragged of “canoeing” their victims by splitting their heads open with a bullet. Too many were behaving like pirates rather than disciplined warriors.

“We have a problem,” Rear Adm. Collin Green, the SEALs commander, announced in July 2019. The most obvious example was Special Operations Chief Eddie Gallagher, who had been convicted that month by a military court for posing with a trophy photo of a dead Islamic State prisoner in Iraq.

The problem was much deeper than that. Gallagher was a symbol of a force that had become too glamorous for its own good. America wanted heroes after 9/11, and the SEALs fit the bill. Gallagher was a walking poster boy: He was super-fit, fearless, churchgoing, movie-star handsome and ready to do anything and go anywhere to destroy America’s enemies.

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But Gallagher lost his way, senior Navy officers told me. He became a political figure in an organization that required discipline and professionalism. When a Navy review board was considering whether to strip Gallagher of his prized Trident pin after his conviction, President Donald Trump ordered it to stand down. Young SEALs who had reported Gallagher’s improper actions were “ostracized,” commanders told me.

“We were soft on accountability,” a senior Navy commander recalled this week. “Our junior officers were more cheerleaders than naval officers. … I think we needed to look at ourselves.” Green moved on to Special Operations Command (SOCOM), where he is now deputy commander and was promoted last week to vice admiral.

The Gallagher tale is superbly told in the recent book “Alpha: Eddie Gallagher and the War for the Soul of the Navy SEALs,” by New York Times reporter David Philipps. But there’s an epilogue about how the SEALs recovered their balance, as told in interviews this week with top commanders.

The redemption story began two years ago, in the aftermath of the Gallagher fiasco. Army Gen. Richard Clarke, head of SOCOM, ordered a comprehensive review of the “culture and ethics” of all special forces, including the SEALs. Clarke summarized the findings in January 2020: Nearly two decades of war had “imbalanced” the elite combat forces and “set conditions favorable for inappropriate behavior.”

“Trust is our currency,” but recent discipline issues had “jeopardized that trust,” Clarke wrote in a letter to service members.

Then something amazing happened. The SEALs regrouped to begin a process of healing and rebuilding. A new commander, Rear Adm. H. Wyman Howard III, opted for “a complete restart,” he told me. He cut the operational side of the organization nearly in half, from 72 platoons to 48. He changed recruitment, training, assessment and promotion procedures. He actually borrowed some ideas from the Army and Marines!

Howard chose as his closest aide Lt. Cmdr. Forrest Crowell, a SEAL who had been warning that something was wrong. Back in 2015, Crowell had written a thesis for the Naval Postgraduate School titled “SEALs Gone Wild: Publicity, Fame and the Loss of the Quiet Professional.” Howard began to rebuild a force that, as he put it to me, “had over-rotated to counterterrorism” and “got too famous.”

As the SEALs reinvented themselves, they focused on new missions for a world where counterterrorism is no longer the overriding priority. Facing peer competitors such as China and Russia, the SEALs now conduct intelligence-gathering and other secret missions that are, if anything, more dangerous than sniping at Islamic State fighters, as Gallagher’s generation did.

To remind today’s SEALs about the essence of their mission, Howard gives them a copy of the Constitution and a letter he wrote with Force Master Chief Bill King, his top enlisted man. The letter is worth a careful read in this season of reflection.

The SEAL commander reminds his warriors that they are “a team humble in triumph and fully accountable in failure. Our pride is a quiet one — firmly anchored in humility, a humility sharpened through combat losses, mission failures, and imperfection. … We must all guard against activities that provide opportunities to politicize Naval Special Warfare.”

Clarke told me this week that intense combat such as the kind his Special Forces experienced over the past 20 years brings two kinds of dangers: The first, obviously, is being killed or wounded by the enemy. But the second is internal: “the risk of moral injury in going outside the rules of conduct.”

The rebirth of the SEALs carries an important message for the United States in this testing time for our national institutions: The efforts by Gallagher and Trump to write their own rules failed. Good leaders did the right things. Real toughness, the kind that wins battles but never boasts, ended up winning. As the SEAL motto puts it: “The deed is all — not the glory.”