The ethics of the Navy SEALs
“If we do not fix ourselves, who will fix us?”
SPEND ENOUGH TIME AROUND THE MILITARY and you’ll hear warnings about “skylining” yourself.
In combat, it means not walking conspicuously on hilltops and ridges, which can attract enemy attention. The phrase usually implies avoiding unethical, illegal, or immoral acts that will get you on the “skyline” of higher-ups or the press. And the Navy SEAL community—an active-duty force of about 2,500 elite commandos—has often been on the skyline.
“War crimes, drug use, sexual assault on deployment, and homicide are just some of the charges against active-duty SEALs in recent years,” wrote Matthew Cole, journalist and author of Code Over Country: The Tragedy and Corruption of SEAL Team Six, in an article published in February at The Intercept:
“In a span of two years, two SEAL Team 6 operators killed a Green Beret while deployed to Mali; a group of SEALs turned in their platoon chief, Eddie Gallagher, accusing him of an array of war crimes, including the stabbing death of an unarmed, injured Islamic State fighter; rampant drug use was discovered in an East Coast SEAL unit; and an entire SEAL platoon was sent home from a deployment to Iraq after military leaders learned that they’d been drinking excessively and one of the operators was accused of sexual assault.”
More recently, an article in The New York Times exposed a “culture of brutality, cheating and drugs” during initial SEAL training at BUD/S, or Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL. The August exposé came after a candidate died in training; officials uncovered drugs in his car and found about 40 others using drugs to pass the grueling course.
“What am I going to do with guys like that in a place like Afghanistan?” a senior SEAL leader told The Times. “A guy who can do 100 pull-ups but can’t make an ethical decision?”
The case remains under investigation, but the SEALs have been here before: Scandal erupts, officials promise to reform and institute changes, and the world moves on… until the next scandal. Such was the case in late 2004 when incidents of “drug and alcohol abuse, sexual misconduct, domestic violence, and physical altercations caused the removal of 33 SEALs from service” over 15 months, wrote Naval Academy researchers. “It was recognized by many in the community that these losses exceeded those lost in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan and something needed to be done.”
In response, officials gathered dozens of SEALs on San Clemente Island, California, in 2005 to create a new SEAL Ethos, hoping it would remind every SEAL to “lead by example in all situations” and “serve with honor on and off the battlefield.” But a research paper published a decade later by a SEAL officer revealed that it wasn’t the magic bullet officials had hoped.
“Ultimately, we SEALs are both a source of the problem and the solution in this fight for the soul of Naval Special Warfare,” wrote then-Lt. Forrest Crowell of an increasing shift away from the ethos and loss of the “quiet professional” mindset common in special operations units. “If we do not fix ourselves, who will fix us?”
Fast forward to 2019. Officials are again on the defensive in the wake of a scandal. Adm. Colin Green, the top commander of Naval Special Warfare (NSW), submits a memo on ethics in the SEALs to his boss at U.S. Special Operations Command.
In the 22-page document recently obtained by The Ruck through a Freedom of Information Act request, Green outlined the stakes: “While a tactical decision may win or lose a firefight, one ethical breach may provide our enemies with examples to sway an undecided population away from our interests and foster fear and hate to support an insurgency. We have seen this play out in Abu Ghraib in Iraq, the burning of Qur'ans in Afghanistan, and more recently, countless examples of propaganda [by] counter-revisionist states.”
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Green may have been talking about the Middle East, but a SEAL scandal in the Pacific can give propagandists in Beijing and international media plenty to work with. And not only that, SEALs doing drugs or worse can lead to national security leaders and the public questioning their effectiveness on the battlefield.
“We advantage NSW when we acknowledge that the ethical standards of an operator are as valuable to our Force as their tactical performance,” Green wrote. And yet the assessment revealed that the ethos of 2005 was “not universally accepted” and noted that some members thought it hindered their creativity and aggression in combat.
Here’s what else officials found:
“Undefined ethical standards.” Despite clearly defined tactical performance standards, the memo revealed nothing similar for operators on ethics.
“Tribal whitespace” between completion of initial operator training—where SEALs receive constant ethical mentorship—and SEALs’ experience in their assigned team, where they spend about four to eight years with little reinforcement of ethics training. “We assess this as our most critical gap” in an operator’s career, Green’s memo said.
“Cultural alignment and misguided loyalty.”
“A few members of the unit may have a negative impact on an otherwise positive unit culture. If these negative culture influencers have tactical credibility from their experiences on the battlefield, newer members of the unit may develop negative habits as they are drawn away from the ethical foundation that was laid during formal codified schoolhouse training.”
The memo recommended several changes, including discussing ethical events proactively, implementing new training requirements, and expanding 360-degree peer evaluations across the force. NSW officials ignored my queries on what progress has been made. Still, a military unit's ethical success or failure depends on supervision, and as one SEAL told CBS two years after the memo was delivered, “our lack of order and discipline comes from weak leadership and not enforcing the standards.”
"It's gonna take good guys in the teams staying there, fighting the good fight, calling them out. And then some outside entity coming in and doing a full review of everything," said retired SEAL Eric Deming. "It's gotta come from outside, and there's gotta be somebody that's got some integrity."
🚨 The Rundown
President Biden met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Bali on Monday.
“The two leaders spoke candidly about their respective priorities and intentions across a range of issues,” according to the White House readout of the meeting. “President Biden explained that the United States will continue to compete vigorously with the PRC, including by investing in sources of strength at home and aligning efforts with allies and partners around the world. He reiterated that this competition should not veer into conflict and underscored that the United States and China must manage the competition responsibly and maintain open lines of communication.”
“President Biden and President Xi reiterated their agreement that a nuclear war should never be fought and can never be won and underscored their opposition to the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine.”
After the meeting, Biden said, “we're going to compete vigorously. But I'm not looking for conflict, I'm looking to manage this competition responsibly.”
"I do not think there's any imminent attempt on the part of China to invade Taiwan," he told reporters.
Just in time, the 2022 Annual Report to Congress from the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission just dropped. There’s a lot in this 785-page (!) report, which I’m still digging into. But there’s also this 40-page executive summary as an easier read.
Here’s the Taiwan chapter of the report.
On Tuesday, an Iranian-made Shahed “suicide drone” attacked a Liberian-flagged oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman. “This unmanned aerial vehicle attack against a civilian vessel in this critical maritime strait demonstrates, once again, the destabilizing nature of Iranian malign activity in the region,” said Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, commander of U.S. Central Command.
The Department of Defense has experienced “over 12,000 cyber incidents since 2015,” says a new GAO report. While hackers continue targeting the military and defense industrial base, the watchdog found that the DoD leadership doesn’t have an “accurate picture” of the problem and hasn’t “fully implemented” processes for managing incidents.
Here’s an interesting video: Ukrainians using an automatic grenade launcher as an indirect fire weapon, correcting after impact using a DJI drone. It takes them about 90 seconds to get the gun up and fire then leave the area before the Russians can respond.
“This is your modern robotics battlefield,” says Marine Lt. Col. Travis Hord. “Ignore it at your own peril.”
A missile strike on a Polish border town sparked fears the War in Ukraine was expanding. Russia denied the strike, and it’s looking more likely that the missile may have been fired by Ukrainians defending their cities from a Russian missile barrage.
“We have no evidence at the moment that it was a rocket launched by Russian forces,” said Polish President Andrzej Duda. “However, there are many indications that it was a missile that was used by Ukraine’s antimissile defense.”
The Ukrainian General Staff says Russian forces launched over 90 cruise missiles and nearly a dozen drones on Tuesday against critical infrastructure in several cities, according to the latest battlefield assessment from the Institute for the Study of War.
“Ukrainian Air Force Command reported that Ukrainian air defense and ground forces shot down 75 missiles and 10 Shahed-136 drones,” the assessment said. “US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin noted on November 16 that the US-provided National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System (NASAMS) had a 100% success rate in intercepting Russian missiles. As ISW previously reported, Russian forces likely used a substantial portion of their high-precision weapon systems in the November 15 attack.”
“This is not Ukraine’s fault. Russia bears ultimate responsibility,” said NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.
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The SEALS can also boast having Ryan Zinke as a former member. That alone is enough to leave a bad taste in my mouth.
Hey Paul! New sub here; you have great content! I'll keep you on my radar.
I learned about The Ruck from your collaboration with Jordan Klepper from The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. =)