They are undoubtedly America's favorite, most lauded shock troops. More, even, than the Marines or the Army's Green Berets and Rangers, Navy SEALs have captured America's (and, certainly, Hollywood's) attention. Despite their small ranks, they are nothing less than the face of the post-9/11 U.S. "war on terror." It was the Seals, after all, who killed Osama bin Laden, prompting spontaneous, nationwide chants of "USA! USA!" Sure, the Army and Marines do most of the fighting and dying, but there is something romantic in the collective American mind about those Seals.
Yet currently, in the wake of a couple of major scandals and seemingly credible allegations of serious war crimes, it's as though the entire organization is on trial. Maybe that's for the best.
What unfolded in the increasingly absurd and always disturbing trial of Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher was nothing less than a war for the soul of the whole special operations community. Still, the minutiae and singularity of the individual case masked the larger questions and conclusions worth drawing from the entire spectacle: Why is the US fighting abroad? Who, exactly, is doing that fighting? What happens when aggressive, highly trained commandos are repeatedly shipped abroad and given immense leeway and power over foreign lives and deaths?
These, to name only a few, are key queries to consider regarding the Gallagher case and a separate scandal in which another SEAL recently pleaded guilty to a 2017 hazing attack in Mali that resulted in the strangulation death of an Army Green Beret. In the second case, why were these special operators in remote West Africa in the first place? The answer is relevant to the tragic incident itself.
As for Gallagher, he was accused and acquitted of shooting an elderly civilian and a young girl without cause, and of killing a teenage Islamic State prisoner with his knife, then convicted of posing with the captive's body as a trophy before texting out boastful photos. His war crimes trial increased in absurdity as Gallagher's SEAL team divided into two camps (for and against the chief) and testified against each other. This marked a rare breach of a kind of special operations team code of silence, one that bears remarkable similarity to the domestic police "blue wall" of silence. That Gallagher was ultimately turned in by fellow Seals, who proceeded to publicly testify against him, is telling, and uncommon, lending, I felt, weight to the prosecution's case.
Look, I was a military man – though not a part of special operations tribe – and worked closely with both Green Berets and Seals, particularly while undertaking village stability operations (forming government-friendly village militias, essentially) in Kandahar, Afghanistan. As such, I was perhaps less surprised when the testimony of the Seals and some Marines in the Gallagher trial not only seemed to implicate the chief in war crimes but inadvertently exposed a prevailing culture of poor discipline and indecency among the team – particularly a widespread proclivity to take "cool guy" photos with enemy or civilian corpses. The practice is gruesome, disturbing and highly common – and, though I never partook in that particular morbidity, I'm certain most Iraq and Afghan war combat vets would agree with me regarding its banality.