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Are the Navy SEALs actually awful at their jobs?

Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher was a “narcissistic sociopath” who fired on civilians in Iraq, David Philipps writes. He was tried in 2019 on charges of murder and other war crimes, but was acquitted.
Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher was a “narcissistic sociopath” who fired on civilians in Iraq, David Philipps writes. He was tried in 2019 on charges of murder and other war crimes, but was acquitted. (Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

The SEALs may be the only pop-culture heroes to emerge from the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They’re the guys who killed Osama bin Laden. In blockbuster movies and best-selling books, such as “American Sniper” and “Lone Survivor,” they battle not only a ruthless enemy but also risk-averse generals, incompetent politicians and an indifferent citizenry. America might have lost its post-9/11 wars, but the SEALs won theirs — at least in their memoirs and at the movies.

More quietly, the conventional Army and Marine Corps units in Afghanistan and Iraq often told a different story of the SEALs’ exploits. In their version, the shadowy special operators swooped into villages at night with little warning, knocking down doors, killing civilians and creating new enemies who mounted even more furious attacks on the U.S. troops left behind to clean up their mess.

David Philipps’s “Alpha: Eddie Gallagher and the War for the Soul of the Navy SEALs” draws a bit from both of these narrative traditions. The core of Philipps’s book is Special Operations Chief Eddie Gallagher, a senior enlisted SEAL and antihero who is portrayed as possessing almost superhuman powers. In Philipps’s telling, Gallagher is a “narcissistic sociopath” with “ice-blue eyes” who opens fire on old men and little girls. The Navy’s failed attempt to convict him of murdering a badly wounded Islamic State war prisoner during the 2017 battle for Mosul — a crime that Gallagher seemed to brag about in text messages — results in not only his acquittal but also the forced resignation of the secretary of the Navy.

A dogged researcher and gifted writer, Philipps turns the story of Gallagher’s rise, his alleged war crimes and the botched Navy prosecution into an infuriating, fast-paced thriller. In addition to that tale, Philipps tells the story that’s captured in his book’s subtitle: “the war for the soul of the Navy SEALs.” U.S. presidents as disparate as Barack Obama and Donald Trump have turned repeatedly to the SEALs to hunt down America’s most notorious enemies, free hostages and liberate cities.

But Philipps’s book raises an uncomfortable question: What if the SEALs are terrible at their jobs?

SEAL leaders chose Gallagher’s Alpha platoon for the mission to liberate Mosul from the Islamic State because they believed that the unit, and Gallagher, were among the Navy’s best. But in combat, Gallagher and Alpha platoon were a disaster. Rather than focusing on the enemy, Gallagher’s men felt obligated to fire warning shots at women and children in an attempt to keep them away from their chief, who they said tried to kill just about every civilian who wandered into his rifle sight. Philipps describes the pressure that weighed on Special Operator 1st Class Dylan Dille as he sought to protect Iraqis from his boss: “It was exhausting. The tension of being forced to fire at people to make them flee in terror without accidentally killing them left him covered in sweat.”

Gallagher also orders his men to shoot grenades into a crowded Mosul neighborhood for no discernible reason. Initially Special Operator Josh Vriens, a SEAL sniper, thought the display of firepower “looked cool,” Philipps writes, “but as they continued to launch grenades over the river it dawned on him that it was also incredibly stupid.” As Philipps puts it: “Vriens had joined the Navy to help the helpless . . . now here he was, in the thick of it, launching hundreds of grenades blindly into the city. He wondered how it had gotten to that point.”

A better question would have been: How did Vriens get to that point? It’s a question I wish the book had spent more time trying to answer. In Philipps’s telling, Gallagher is a soulless master manipulator who goads his men into committing war crimes in a devious effort to prevent them from turning on him. But in portraying Gallagher as a super-criminal Svengali, Philipps risks letting the Navy SEALs and their leadership off the hook.

Philipps, a Pulitzer Prize-winning military reporter for the New York Times, devotes a chapter to a history of the SEALs’ “pirate” culture, which produced and promoted Gallagher. Philipps’s book asks the right questions. So too do some of the Alpha platoon SEALs, such as Vriens, who turned in Gallagher at considerable risk to their careers. Despite misgivings, almost all had followed at least some of his illegal orders.

“He didn’t know if it was just Eddie that was all messed up, or if it went further,” Philipps writes of Vriens, one of many SEALs in the platoon who sought to expose Gallagher’s alleged crimes and testified against him. “Was it just one platoon or platoons all over the Teams?” Later, at Gallagher’s murder trial, a Marine combat veteran on the jury asks a similar question: “How could these screwballs have risen up through the ranks to leadership positions?”

As a reporter who spent nearly two decades covering the military in Iraq and Afghanistan, I couldn’t help but wonder: Are the SEALs really this incompetent and morally compromised?

Early in the fight for Mosul, SEAL Master Chief Brian Alazzawi watches Gallagher fire so wildly that he accidentally hits the wall of his own sniper hide, sending up a shower of concrete shards and dust. “It should have been a red flag but Alazzawi had bigger things to worry about,” Philipps writes. “He was overseeing three platoons in Iraq, and the other two teams of so-called elite commandos were barely functioning.” Unfortunately, we don’t hear much about these other platoons.

U.S. presidents, reluctant to deploy big conventional ground forces, are likely to rely even more on the SEALs in future years. These troops will need to have “a killer instinct” as well as “empathy, restraint, and the ability to stay on course in the stormy morality of combat,” Philipps writes. The inescapable conclusion from reading Philipps’s book is that the SEALs lack these critical attributes and that the blame for those shortcomings extends far beyond the moral failings of Eddie Gallagher.


Eddie Gallagher and the War for the Soul of the Navy SEALs

By David Philipps

Crown. 443 pp. $28.99