How the celebrated unit went from being a ragtag band of outlaws to America's go-to guys
This week, SEAL Team Six once again finds itself in the sunlight as Mark Bowden, the celebrated journalist behind Black Hawk Down, applies his talents to the Abbottabad raid that ended with the death of Osama bin Laden. The novel Tier One Wild by Dalton Fury, a former Delta Force commander, further widens the aperture. These books come only a month after the publication of No Easy Day by Mark Bissonnette, the former SEAL Team Six member who actually put bullets in bin Laden's still-twitching body.
A third book hitting Kindles this week has a slightly lower profile, but a warmer welcome in many circles of the special operations community. Chris Martin, who previously covered Delta Force to great acclaim, has turned his sights to the SEALs with Beyond Neptune Spear: The (Open) Secret History of SEAL Team Six, Post-9/11. Martin has written perhaps the most thorough history of the unit in print to date.
(For the record, there is technically no such unit as SEAL Team Six. Not anymore, anyway. It's been 25 years since the Naval Special Warfare Development Group was officially known as SEAL Team Six, and yet the moniker has reached such heights in popular culture that the unit will probably never leave the name behind entirely.)
But name-related semantics aside: As far as unacknowledged units go, SEAL Team Six is a pretty lousy secret, especially when compared to such special mission units as the Intelligence Support Activity, or such covert organizations as the National Underwater Reconnaissance Office. But the acute interest in the SEALs is a result of their own high-profile successes and rigid professionalism. It wasn't always that way, however.
Cloaked in secrecy and with a lightly defined mission, it didn't take long for the unit to break practically every rule it could find.
Richard Marcinko built SEAL Team Six in a very short amount of time, and the unit proved highly effective even from the earliest days. But cloaked in secrecy and with a lightly defined mission, it didn't take long for the unit to break practically every rule it could find and spend money freely and questionably. As Chris Martin details, when Marcinko (reluctantly) handed over command of his "personal fiefdom" to Robert Gormly, the new commander was warned about "the unit's actual state of readiness, which had been hidden behind a cloak of bluster and secrecy. Six's [executive officer] informed him the team lacked discipline and that its training had been substandard; under Marcinko's watch exercises were rarely completed because 'as soon as things got tough, Dick would step in, abort the exercise, and take the troops drinking.' Another former [SEAL Team Six] officer told similar tales of dysfunction, damning the unit in the early days as 'all show, no go.'" (Marcinko, a combat hero and special operations commander with almost unrivaled prescience, would later go to federal prison for defrauding the government.)
I asked Martin how the unit went from being a band of outlaws to America's go-to guys. "It was a long, hard road that took decades to accomplish," he said. "It required strong leaders who pointed the operators in the right direction, and instilled the realization and acceptance that the unit hadn't always lived up to its hype and the required adjustments to correct that." Post-9/11 budgetary expansions helped, as did the exponential increase of operations experience that followed. How important was that experience? Consider that before al Qaeda attacked the United States on September 11, 2001, neither SEAL Team Six nor Delta Force had ever actually pursued a terrorist cell (as we define them today).
Martin continued: "SEAL Team Six as it exists now is a long way from the early 'outlaw' days but there's still an edge to the unit. There's still some cowboy DNA in there." As for how it got the Osama bin Laden raid over Delta Force, which many feel was the more obvious choice for the mission, "You can certainly make the argument that they were in the right place at the right time to get Osama bin Laden because they had been forced to play second fiddle to Delta Force throughout much of the war on terror. It's not quite as black and white as that, but essentially SEAL Team Six got 'stuck' with Afghanistan because Delta wanted Iraq, which was where the really serious action was for years. And to its credit, SEAL Team Six made the most of that opportunity, and was well poised to capitalize when focus shifted back to Afghanistan."
While Neptune Spear has cemented the unit's esteemed place in American military lore, the mission only scarcely touches on SEAL Team Six's extraordinary skill set. I asked Martin about notable missions we might not know about, and he mentioned Octave Fusion, in which SEALs rescued two aid workers that had been kidnapped in the horn of Africa. "You had a team from SEAL Team Six parachute into what's a hostile land but not an acknowledged war zone in Somalia. They then silently trekked for a couple miles before neutralizing an entire camp of pirates who didn't know what hit them. The black helicopters came in and they disappeared back into the night, both hostages safely in tow. Operations don't get much more textbook than that."
Has all this attention hurt the unit? According to Martin, "There has been some talk that SEAL Team Six could be sidelined to some degree as a result. If you can't trust a unit to keep quiet about a clandestine operation, you send one you can, especially when it's JSOC we're talking about and there are other options every bit as capable. That said, I imagine before long, any changes going forward regarding SEAL Team Six's operational tempo will be decided more by what's going on around the globe than in the newspapers. But it goes both ways. Despite the outcry, there are benefits for the SEALs to be had too. The interest fuels budgets and recruitment."
One reason that members of the special operations community have embraced Martin's work is that he sidesteps operations security issues by carefully drawing his research from open source material, with occasional guidance from operators to confirm certain suspicions. This respect for OPSEC is perhaps in part because of his lineage — his father is a former member of Special Forces and was a MACV-SOG commando in Vietnam. Martin's reporting is unflinching, though it is clear he holds the operators of the Joint Special Operations Command in high regard. "It's pretty remarkable — these are people who train harder and are as skilled at what they do as anyone is at any profession. And what they do is more dangerous than most of us can comprehend. It's also inherently glamorous — or would be anyway; it's the type of stuff movie stars get paid fortunes to pretend they do and what millions of people shell out their hard-earned dollars to simulate in video games. And yet Delta and SEAL Team Six operators sign up for the job not only accepting that most of what they do will never been celebrated (or even acknowledged), but embracing that fact."
Other stories from this topic:
- The List: No Easy Day: 5 revelations from a Navy SEAL's bin Laden book
- Instant Guide: The many threats facing the Navy SEALs' tell-all author: A guide
- Opinion Brief: Did Obama overshare with Hollywood about the bin Laden raid?