Are the Navy SEALs really so special?

August 4, 2017

Dear Cecil:

Why are Navy SEALs currently the “it” special forces? Why was SEAL Team Six called upon to assault the Bin Laden house, and not another SEAL team, or the Rangers or Green Berets?

Cecil replies:

Well, if there’s some quarter in which SEAL Team Six isn’t perceived as the “it” special-ops team, it’s not for lack of trying on their part. I draw your attention to a 2011 Washington Post piece in which an anonymous member of ST6 describes his cadre as follows: “We’re the dark matter. We’re the force that orders the universe but can’t be seen.”

Nothing alarming about that, of course, nor the fact that our faceless frogman is characterized in this article only as “strapping.” Whatever aura currently surrounds the SEALs, I’d suggest, can be traced to the kind of identity cultivation on display here, this macho-mystique thing that American audiences seem to love reading about and reporters seem to love perpetuating.

And for a group of closed-mouthed toughs, ST6 members can display an impressive capacity for self-promotion. One former SEAL who wrote a book about the bin Laden raid, for instance, wound up having to forfeit $6.8 million in royalties and appearance fees because he forgot to ask his supervisors for prepublication approval.

The story the Post was reporting, meanwhile, is the bigger deal here: how special-operations forces like the SEALs are increasingly relied on to fight America’s wars. In places like Iraq and Afghanistan, after all, what we’re up against aren’t traditional armies but extremist ideologies, represented by decentralized bands of non-state actors who, by the way, aren’t exactly wild about the Geneva Agreements. A lot of the work special-ops teams do is kept under wraps, not least because of their own potentially tricky relationship to Geneva; the New York Times, for its part, called ST6 “one of the nation’s most mythologized, most secretive and least scrutinized military organizations.”

Though Team Six may get the marquee coverage, there are in fact, as you suggest, a bunch of special-ops forces in the field today, from all branches of the military — the Army’s Special Forces regiment, aka the Green Berets, helped Afghans topple the Taliban, for instance.

Special-ops forces gained a foothold in the U.S. military in the mid-20th century, as leaders realized that increasingly unconventional wars — think Korea and Vietnam — would require unconventional techniques, not standard armies-on-a-battlefield stuff. The Berets were organized in 1952; the SEALs — named and trained for effectiveness on sea, air, and land — were established in ’62. Special-ops assignments fall into two main categories: direct action, including behind-the-lines combat, manhunts, hostage rescues, etc.; and indirect action, which covers (e.g.) coaching foreign forces on fighting their own wars. And through the 70s, the various units carrying these assignments out constituted a sort of loosely organized mosaic, each accountable to its own chain of command.

Two events help explain what’s changed since then. First was the failed attempt to rescue the U.S. embassy hostages in Tehran, during the Carter administration — for the military, an unthinkable black eye. Its response was to gather all the special forces under one operational umbrella, the U.S. Special Operations Command, or SOCOM, to better coordinate complex jobs like the one bollixed in the Iranian desert. And under that umbrella you’ll find the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC — these guys love their acronyms — which includes elite groups like SEAL Team Six, its Army counterpart Delta Force, and the Air Force’s 24th Special Tactics Squadron.

The second event was, perhaps needless to say, 9/11, and the military’s reorientation toward terrorism that followed. The budget for special-ops forces has quintupled since 2001, and the troop count at JSOC’s disposal has ballooned from around 1,800 to more than 25,000. As we got into Afghanistan, Donald Rumsfeld basically gave JSOC carte blanche, pre-approving them for a laundry list of operations in 15 countries. Barack Obama relied heavily on special forces; like drone assassinations, they jibed with his preference for keeping military action small and containable. (And free from meaningful oversight, not to mention legally questionable and morally troublesome — however one may miss the guy, his record here is no snap to defend).

We note, however, that the intellectual seeds of this shift were planted back in the Clinton administration. At some point following the U.S. embassy bombings of 1998 the president was heard (as later documented by the 9/11 Commission) to speculate, “You know, it would scare the shit out of al-Qaeda if suddenly a bunch of black ninjas rappelled out of helicopters into the middle of their camp.”

Cue the SEALs. Created after the 1980 hostage debacle, Team Six wasn't in fact the sixth SEAL outfit to suit up, just the third; the nickname was chosen to psych the Soviets into thinking we had more specialized forces than we really did. The team was conceived as an agile, fast-moving counterterrorism unit — ninjas who rappelled out of helicopters, basically, and with the war on terror their moment had clearly arrived. That moment hasn’t been without some complication; various news accounts have raised alarm over alleged extrajudicial killings, unaccountability, abuse of authority, etc. But the omelette-egg ratio, apparently, is one the U.S. government can live with.

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