The US Navy SEALs are known as the ‘quiet professionals’, but in recent times they have become the highest-profile of all US special forces. In this episode I examine several films depicting the SEALs, how the Pentagon has shaped their public image through Hollywood, and why they have become so well known that now there is even a TV show named after them. I draw out some of the underlying political messages of these films, which are of critical importance in the era of global warfare.
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The origins of the SEALs go back to WW2, when the US Navy realised that they needed specialist reconnaissance and underwater demolition teams. In order to land large numbers of troops in enemy-held ports and the like, they needed the ability to spy on the landing sites ahead of time and counter the mines, nets and other seaborne obstacles used by their opponents. Just like in the UK, this led to the formation of Naval Special Warfare units.
During the Korean war priorities shifted, as the Pentagon realised they needed specially-trained unconventional warfare and counter-guerrilla units to fight against the Communist and other insurgencies in South-East Asia. Though JFK is sometimes credited with announcing the creation of the SEALs in 1961, in the same speech where he set the target of landing men on the moon, this was merely a public acknowledgement of developments that had been going on for years.
Among the newly-created SEAL units’ first missions were intelligence operations against Castro’s Cuba, as they did recon on beaches as part of plans to invade Cuba after the failure at the Bay of Pigs. They even smuggled a CIA officer onto the island so he could take pictures of Soviet nukes being unloaded at the docks, in the run-up to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
As Vietnam got going SEALs were sent into the country to train the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, and were soon being used by the CIA as part of the Phoenix Program. As the war expanded they also deployed to North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
Following the failure of Operation Eagle Claw – the attempt to release US hostages taken prisoner during the 1979 Iranian Revolution – the Navy decided they needed a full-time dedicated counter-terrorism special ops team and tasked Richard Marcinko – an experienced SEAL who’d been in Vietnam – with creating it. He named the new unit SEAL Team Six, even though the US only had two other SEAL teams at that time. The idea was to trick the Soviets into thinking there were three other SEAL teams that they didn’t know about – even the name of the team was a bit of disinformation.
For a little more on this, here’s an interview with Marcinko done by SOFREP, a Special Operations Forces website.
SEAL Team Six is the most famous of the teams, and is now called DEVGRU – the Naval Special Warfare Development Group – but is still commonly referred to as SEAL Team Six. They were involved in the invasions of Grenada and Panama, indeed it was DEVGRU who found Manuel Noriega. They took part in the operations in Somalia that led to the Black Hawk Down incident and the Battle of Mogadishu. They also played a role in the War in Bosnia, tracking down and capturing suspected war criminals.
Working closely with the CIA, Team Six also spent a lot of time in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region capturing or killing high value targets including members of Al Qaeda. After alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was captured in 2003, SEALs were involved in transporting him to a CIA black site to be tortured. They were also involved in the hunt for Bowe Bergdahl, and in rescuing hostages taken by Taliban and Al Qaeda gangs.
Most famously, it was DEVGRU who carried out the raid on Abbottabad in 2011, a mission for which they were transferred to the CIA who were running the operation. They have also been involved in operations against Al Qaeda in Yemen and against Al Shabaab in East Africa.
Basically, if you go through the history of the War on Terror – even starting years before 9/11 – SEAL Team Six turns up almost constantly.
Navy SEALs (1990)
The first major film depicting the SEALs was the 1989 submarine adventure The Abyss, directed by James Cameron, though it is entirely fictional and involves aliens and conspiracy theories and had no Pentagon support.
The first film to gain at least some Navy assistance was 1990’s Navy SEALs, which is a pretty terrible movie but moderately entertaining in its themes and total lack of realism. The producers approached the Pentagon in late 1988/early 1989 and were told their script was unacceptable, in part because it showed the SEALs ‘on covert operations in the Middle East killing with abandon.’
Even after the script was rewritten – with some improvements, from the DOD’s perspective – they still didn’t like it. Among the general problems were:
The missions presented (there are basically three of them in the movie) are questionable in that there is no attempt at resolution by diplomacy.
Keep these two comments in mind for later, I will come back to this. They also didn’t like the personalities of the main characters, played by Michael Biehn, Charlie Sheen and Bill Paxton. One memo says:
The SEALS are portrayed as mavericks who question authority and argue with their superiors (officer and enlisted), run from the police, and behave rudely and boorishly. The basics of leadership – obedience, confidence and respect – are lacking totally.
Another problem is that the film focused almost entirely on counter-terrorism missions, which is only part of what the SEALs do. It seems the screenwriters had heard about SEAL Team Six and made a film about their missions and exploits, but the DOD didn’t like that and felt if they were representing the SEALs in general – as the title suggests – that a broader portrayal was necessary.
However, they found out that the producers were prepared for a rejection and had already spoken to the Spanish government about getting Navy assistance from them, so the memo concludes that they should consider offering limited support in exchange for script changes, saying this was an opportunity for ‘damage control’.
And this is exactly what happened – they provided extensive script notes to the producers, who made quite a number of ‘positive changes’, so despite some objections they did let the film-makers do some brief exterior filming at a naval base, with ships in the background. So what were these script changes?
The film opens with a cargo ship calling in a mayday saying they’ve been attacked and are on fire and adrift. A Navy helicopter that is sent to help is shot down by a gunboat and its crew are captured, so the SEALs are sent in to rescue them. Shades of Captain Phillips, which we’ll look at later in this episode. The DOD insisted that the helicopter pilot says to the gunboat that they are in international waters, which ‘makes this an act of piracy of the most egregious sort’. The dialogue was changed to reflect this. They also removed dialogue saying that MK-84 bomb was dumped in a Sandinista harbour.
Naturally, the terrorists who kidnapped the helicopter crew are some nameless Middle Eastern group so the SEAL raid to rescue them also foreshadows real operations in Iraq and Afghanistan over a decade later. The SEALs bust in and shoot all the terrorists, leading to a number of objections from the DOD. They ask ‘what happened to diplomacy?’, wondering why there was no attempt to negotiate the hostages’ release prior to the gunfight. They didn’t like the line where Charlie Sheen says ‘Grease im’ so that was removed.
The DOD also objected to the SEALs firing ‘make sure rounds’ into the bodies of incapacitated terrorists, saying ‘that is murder’. Which is true – an enemy who is lying wounded on the ground cannot be killed unless they try to keep fighting, otherwise it is murder and a war crime. While this action was removed from the film, it’s interesting to note that in almost all versions of the Abbottabad raid the SEALs are described doing exactly this to both Bin Laden and his relatives. Even after Bin Laden had apparently been shot in the face and had fallen to the ground – dead or dying – the other SEALs behind the shooter rushed into the room and fired a few more shots into his body.
My favourite comment in the script notes is:
Thermal devices do not go through walls (unless Robocop is using them!).
This is presumably a reference to the fact that it was Orion Pictures – the makers of Robocop – who were producing Navy SEALs. But it is kind of ironic because Robocop was rejected by the DOD due to being excessively violent.
Another note says:
The US has never acknowledged that it sends subs to the Northern Arabian Sea. Now is not the time to do so.
In the finished film there is no reference to this. Bear in mind, this is even before Operation Desert Shield and the US stationing troops in Saudi Arabia – one of Al Qaeda’s main objections to US foreign policy. These troops were removed in 2003 but the US has recently started sending them back in due to the war in Yemen and the increased tensions with Iran. So it’s interesting that even in the late 80s they recognised the political objections to this sort of action and removed such action from this film.
Other issues included the portrayal of SEALs as ‘hard drinking Rambos’, a scene where Charlie Sheen’s character runs away from the police, and them reading a captured terrorist their Miranda rights. They also didn’t like a scene where navy officers talk the White House into letting them kidnap a terrorist mastermind, saying this was a foreign policy matter and not for the military to decide.
The whole film is curiously predictive of much of what would unfold over the coming years. A new Middle Eastern terrorist group who objects to US troops being stationed in Islamic holy sites. Their leader is interviewed by an American journalist. They have a stockpile of Stinger missiles, presumably left over from the Soviet-Afghan war. The CIA spent millions in the 1990s trying to buy back hundreds of Stingers they’d sent to Afghanistan as part of Charlie Wilson’s War. They spent millions more in Libya following the war of 2011, indeed this is partly what the CIA station in Benghazi was doing when it was attacked.
Obviously, a terrorist leader being interviewed by an American journalist is very similar to what Bin Laden did in the 1990s, years after this film came out. But it gets better than that.
As the SEALs struggle to find the missing Stingers the team leader suggests capturing one of the terrorist gang and trying to turn him into an informant, to find out more. The CIA reveals that the guy had been one of their assets in the past, so was a good bet for turning into an informant. So the SEALs deploy and capture him. From a walled compound in an unnamed Middle Eastern city.
Yes, this film is pretty much a predictive biopic of Osama Bin Laden.
Following The Abyss and Navy SEALs, Hollywood went through its first obsession with Naval Special Warfare. In 1991 we got The Finest Hour, about two men going through Navy SEAL training and becoming good friends. In 1992 we got Under Siege, where Steven Seagal plays a former SEAL. Then in 1996 we got The Rock, where some SEALs try to re-capture the island of Alcatraz after a rogue group of Marines take control of it so they can bomb San Francisco with a nerve agent.
None of these films had DOD support, though The Rock did hire Richard Marcinko as a consultant. Another film that hired Marcinko – and nearly qualified for DOD assistance – was GI Jane, the film that ruined Demi Moore’s career. It tells a fictional story of the first woman to undergo Navy SEAL training. A female senator makes an issue out of the military not being gender-neutral, and as a PR exercise gets them to agree that if women can get through specialist training in a series of test cases that they will be fully integrated into the whole of the Navy. They select an intelligence officer, Jordan O’Neill (played by Demi Moore) because she is prettier and more feminine than the other candidates.
Though the film was a moderate commercial success it was pilloried by critics and in the wake of Striptease the year before was the nail in the coffin of Moore’s career as a leading lady. I think this is unfair, because while Striptease is cheesy and stupid it’s also one of my favourite films, and not for the reasons you might be thinking. I also don’t think GI Jane is as bad as a lot of people think it is.
In the DOD file on the film there are a set of script notes that were sent to director Ridley Scott, as well as his hand-written comments on each note. So what were the Pentagon’s objections? They didn’t have any issue with the basic plot of a woman going through special forces training, but they did have a problem with almost everything else. One problem was that they didn’t want the training identified as being for the Navy SEALs, but wanted Scott to invent some fictional special unit that O’Neill was trying to get into.
A scene where a SEAL urinates in a foxhole in front of O’Neill had the DOD conceding that it addressed ‘issues related to the presence of women in front line combat roles’ but ‘carries no benefit to the US Navy’. They also didn’t like the sequence depicting SERE (survival, evasion, resistance and escape) training, which sees the Master Chief imprisoning, waterboarding and beating up the trainees, including O’Neill.
Ridley Scott agreed to almost all the changes requested but even after submitting a heavily-altered script the DOD said no. This led to an amusing, but not unprecedented, incident where Demi Moore called up the White House and asked to talk to President Clinton, to try to get the decision overturned. The DOD file on GI Jane includes several press cuttings about this, all of which make sexy jokes. One begins ‘Don’t tell Hillary Clinton but…’ and another finishes by saying Clinton would be upset the call wasn’t put through to him, ‘particularly when he hears that she was in a diving uniform’.
In any case, this failed and the film was made without DOD support. It seems they were happy to help make a film about women in the military, as long as they didn’t include any of the problems faced by women in the military. So no inappropriate behaviour, no sexual harassment, no taking a piss in front of a woman (even one who has been trained to kill and probably isn’t going to be put off by the sight of someone taking a leak) and no women with their heads shaved.
Interestingly, while Scott put some of these scenes and dialogue back in after the DOD’s rejection, some of them do not appear in the film. Even when the DOD rejects a movie’s request for support they can still leverage some changes in the negotiation period that influence the finished product.
While I don’t think the film is particularly good, and it is certainly quite clumsy in places, I have seen worse films, including Navy SEALs. At least GI Jane doesn’t depict SEALs running around on missions without any kind of body armour or helmets or protective gear of any kind.
The best part of the film, for me, is when O’Neill does so well during training that it becomes a problem for the senator, who covertly arranges for O’Neill to be photographed fraternising with other women. The pictures are then leaked, along with rumours that O’Neill is a lesbian. This leads to the Navy investigating O’Neill’s sexuality, along with other allegations, and she is forced to drop out of training, so she goes to see the senator.
I like this scene because it portrays a conflict between genuine feminism – women being able to make their own choices – and tokenistic feminism, which had been quite prominent in recent DOD-supported, especially Navy-supported, films and TV shows. While the US military have made progress in terms of integrating women, the movies always portray it as much better than it really is.
For example, the Production Assistance Agreement for the recent submarine film Hunter-Killer says one of the reasons they supported the film was to ‘highlight female crew member integration’, even though the female crew do nothing of any significance in the entire film. The romance sub-plot in Pitch Perfect 3 – which the DOD went to some lengths to shape in just the way they wanted it – encourages women to sign up to the military, but largely so they can meet a nice young man to fall in love with. The reality – that women in the military are at considerably higher risk of being sexually harassed and assaulted – is studiously avoided in these productions.
Act of Valor
The 2000s saw only one major film depicting the Navy SEALs – Tears of the Sun. The DOD’s database says they made changes ‘to prevent the depictions of the US govt as complicit in nasty conspiracies overseas’. Exactly what these changes were, I don’t know, but it likely involved removing the implication that the US government helped the interests of oil companies in Nigeria, the setting for the movie. The oil issue is mentioned only once in the finished film, in a montage of news clips that open the movie, and the idea that this is the result of US government policy is ignored entirely.
There were a few lower-budget films, all of which were sequels to Behind Enemy Lines, a jingoistic and utterly one-sided movie about the war in Bosnia. I’ve never seen the sequels, but they look kinda terrible and I don’t think they had any DOD support.
Which brings us to Act of Valor – the first and only film to star real-life Navy SEALs in the major roles. Act of Valor is fucking terrible. There’s no other way to describe it – it’s just an abysmal, boring, stupid movie that never should have been made. Even as someone who is fascinated by military propaganda, I found it dull, mildly depressing and just a weak piece of entertainment.
The story behind it is much more interesting. A bunch of documents obtained by Michael Morisy of MuckRock reveal that the project originated as an idea for a documentary about the SEALs to try to boost recruitment. In 2005 the DOD told its various branches that they needed to recruit several thousand extra SOF operators, with the Navy told it needed an extra 500 SEALs. A memo notes that the SEALs had never had a full training class at any point in their history, that the basic pass rate was just 24% and that the average net growth in personnel was just five SEALs per year, way short of the 100 per year the new directive required.
So they established the Naval Special Warfare Recruiting directorate and started producing videos for recruitment purposes. They developed an idea for a documentary, which evolved into a feature film idea titled I Am That Man. They invited several production companies in to pitch for the job, and their panel unanimously voted for the Bandito Bros., who were best known for making sports documentaries. Apparently the panel liked that.
The financing mostly came from Legendary Pictures, and the memo cites their success at making films for males aged 14-28 (the target market for SEAL recruitment) including 300 and The Hangover. While, they note, Legendary has never made a DOD-supported film, Bandito Bros had made 9 films for the different military branches. From what I can gather these were all documentary shorts for recruitment purposes – Bandito’s feature film work prior to Act of Valor was non-existent.
I think this is partly why the Navy went for them – by dealing with a small studio desperate to break into mainstream feature films the Navy could boss them around and get them to do whatever they wanted. Since Act of Valor Bandito have only made two big films – an adaptation of the video game Need for Speed and a film about a guy who dies for 90 minutes and comes back to life claiming to have been to heaven, which has a 4.7 out of 10 score on IMDB.
While there are no script notes in the released documents, it’s clear that the Navy basically co-wrote the film. They list key messages that were written into the film at their behest, including how ethnically diverse the SEALs are, and how they did their usual rough cut viewing and asked for changes to polish the presentation to their liking.
As I say, half a dozen real-life SEALs starred in the movie, and almost all the action was shot during real Naval Special Warfare training exercises, which is one reason it cost only $12 million dollars to make. They also used footage from SEAL training and other stock footage provided by the Navy – basically everything in the film was provided or co-produced by the Navy.
Ironically, given their problems with Navy SEALs back in the late 80s, the result is a story of them running around the world killing people with abandon. There is no sign of diplomacy, it’s pretty much an action reel from start to finish, and hence an extremely boring movie to watch. The lack of plot, characterisation, drama, emotion and humour are exceptional, even for a bad Hollywood movie. Likewise, given the problems the DOD had with Navy SEALs focusing on the counter-terrorism activities of SEAL Team Six, and not the SEALs more generally, it’s ironic they helped make Act of Valor, which is solely about counter-terrorism. So all the things they generally objected to about Navy SEALs are mainstays of Act of Valor. They basically reversed their entire approach.
I’m not going to play you a clip from Act of Valor because, to be honest, there isn’t an interesting enough clip to play. It’s such an awful, tedious, dumb film that I don’t want to waste your time.
But I should say that the movie failed. It made around $80 million so it turned a good profit on its small budget, but it is widely recognised as the boring waste of time that it is. I haven’t seen any evidence that it helped recruitment, and much of the media coverage on Act of Valor is more about the Navy’s absurdly deep role in its production than in the film itself as a piece of cinema. Bandito did announce a sequel, but there’s no sign it is actually being made, and when a producer pitched Phil Strub about a TV series based on the film he was told it was a non-starter. It appears the Navy recognised that having that much control over the product tainted the brand – propaganda doesn’t work as well if people recognise it as propaganda.
I am going to skip over Zero Dark Thirty because the SEALs play a fairly small role at the end of the story, it is mostly about the CIA and we covered it in some depth on The CIA and Hollywood. Ditto Lone Survivor, which I wrote about in National Security Cinema and explained in depth on a subscriber podcast. It is interesting that at the same time the Navy were making Act of Valor, Hollywood jumped on the bandwagon and started making other SEAL-themed movies. The 2010s saw the second period of Hollywood’s SEAL obsession.
One thing I will note is that in the emails about Lone Survivor that were released by the Navy, a product placement company wrote to them asking if they wanted help getting their brand out there. The company was representing a gun manufacturer on the project (which is why Mark Wahlberg’s character is holding the wrong sort of handgun in Lone Survivor) and when they heard it was Navy-supported they offered their services. The Navy didn’t want anything to do with them, but it’s still an interesting little insight into how Hollywood works.
Which brings us to Captain Phillips in 2013, another dreadful movie that somehow got nominated for several Academy Awards. It was directed by Paul Greengrass and includes lots of his signature closeup-wobblecam, an obnoxious cinematic technique that’s become much in vogue in the last 20 years. The idea is to make it seem like you’re in the midst of the action, which draws you in and makes it more engaging.
But for me it has the opposite effect. Because I can’t see what’s going on half the time it constantly reminds me I’m watching a film. It’s supposed to replicate the slightly jumpy way that real vision works, especially when you’re glancing around, but because your eyes are still and focused on the screen in front of you, the wobblecam is really noticeable. The whole point of cinematic framing is to dissolve the barrier between the audience and the thing they’re watching, not to constantly remind them of it.
For anyone who doesn’t know this story, Captain Phillips is based on the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama cargo ship off the coast of Somalia – the first successful pirate seizure of a US ship since the early 19th century. Four Somali pirates boarded the ship, capturing Captain Richard Phillips and other crewmembers. But while trying to take over the rest of the ship the remaining crew captured the ringleader of the pirates and tried to exchange him for Captain Phillips. This exchange went wrong and the four pirates, along with Phillips as a hostage, escaped using a lifeboat.
The US Navy got involved, eventually persuading the ringleader to board one of their ships to negotiate Phillips’ release. While he was on board, Navy SEAL snipers shot and killed the three other pirates and freed Phillips. Phillips later wrote a book, which was immediately optioned by Sony Pictures and in 2013 the film came out.
Honestly, the film was very boring to me and I found myself rooting for the pirates most of the time. I was quite impressed by the fact that four essentially untrained Somalis – one of whom didn’t even have shoes – managed to chase down and get aboard a giant cargo ship. Leaving aside the legal ramifications, that’s quite an impressive feat.
The film goes out of its way to avoid explaining much background to why the pirates seized the ship. Much of their dialogue isn’t translated by the subtitles, and on numerous occasions when they’re talking the subtitles just say ‘Pirates chattering in Somali’ or ‘Pirates shouting in Somali’. Even what they were saying to one another wasn’t considered important enough to explain to the audience, all we are supposed to think is that they are four evil black men who got what they deserved.
Indeed, while the moment that three of them are shot in the head by SEAL snipers is supposed to be triumphant, or at least a release of tension, I was left thinking it was nothing short of murder. While they did, on the face of it, attempt to negotiate with the pirates, that negotiation comes across as little more than an excuse for ramping up the response and just killing three young men without any kind of trial or legal process.
So while the DOD had an issue with the portrait of Navy SEALs ‘killing with abandon’ in the 1990 film, by the time of Captain Phillips this had become a heroic moment of supreme skill. Admittedly, it must be pretty difficult to fire from the rear deck of a US warship, through the windows of a small lifeboat, when both craft are bobbing in the ocean.
As for insisting on accuracy – the Navy’s entertainment liaison office appeared to have no problem with the film thoroughly heroising Captain Phillips, played by Tom Hanks. He is the only character who is given a backstory or any substantive dialogue. The rest of the crew of the cargo ship are almost entirely incidental, relegated to the sidelines in favour of our eponymous hero.
In reality, Phillips wasn’t a hero. It was partly his fault that the ship got hijacked, as he ignored warnings about piracy and refused to sail the recommend 600 miles off shore to try to avoid the pirates known to be operating in the area. When the ship was boarded by the pirates it was around half that distance from the coast. He also failed to tell anyone else on board about the warning. Likewise, he didn’t offer his own life to protect his crew, whereas the film shows him doing this repeatedly.
Such was Phillips incompetence (he didn’t even lock the doors to the bridge once the pirates boarded) that a number of the crew brought a lawsuit against the shipping company, specifically citing Phillips’ various failings. While some of them participated in making the film, they were paid paltry sums of money and had to sign non-disclosure agreements so they couldn’t subsequently explain how badly the movie butchered the real story. Other crewmembers weren’t involved in the film at all, because they didn’t agree with the story the film-makers wanted to tell.
The film ignored all of this, though just before the credits they do mention that the one surviving pirate was taken to the US, put on trial and sentenced to 33 years in prison, which seems excessive to me. He hadn’t killed anyone or even badly injured anyone. There are rapists and murderers who haven’t received such long sentences. During his time in prison over the last 10 years he has reportedly tried to kill himself on several occasions.
So rather than a story about a brave, noble ship captain who protected his crew against the menace of four untrained, poorly-armed Somali pirates, I think this is a story about how poverty forced four men to commit a property crime, three of them were murdered by the US military and the fourth was thrown in prison for half of his life. But since we don’t even know what the Somalis were saying for half of the film, we’re not in any way encouraged to empathise with them.
When it comes to the papertrail MuckRock did manage to obtain some documents from the Navy about their support for Captain Phillips, but some of them are completely redacted. It isn’t clear what, if any, input they had on the script but obviously they didn’t care about accuracy and authenticity.
There is another point about Captain Phillips that interests me – that the ship was in the middle of a fire drill when the first hijacking attempt happened.
Apparently this is broadly true, but again the film messes up the details. It portrays the exercise as a security drill when it was actually the annual fire drill, and shows Captain Phillips only becoming aware of the approaching pirates halfway through the exercise. In reality he saw them on the radar about 7 miles away, and then decided to order the fire drill.
I bring this up partly because a similar thing happens in GI Jane. After O’Neill completes the training her and the rest of the team are out in a submarine doing a training exercise when they are interrupted by a real-life emergency. It’s curious to see that meme appear yet again, though if anyone tries to sell me a conspiratorial interpretation of all this and claims the Somalis were secretly agents of Israel then they’ll be getting a pretty stern response.
That being said, I do have some questions and suspicions about the real life events behind Captain Phillips. The US Navy sent three ships and a team of SEALs to take on four untrained pirates with one hostage. Does this not seem like overkill? Why did they take the failed hijacking of a privately-owned ship and the kidnapping of one man so seriously? Why did they resort to lethal force at the first available opportunity? Do they not have higher priorities? I’m certainly not saying this was a set-up, but I am somewhat baffled by why this went down the way that it did.
The Cinema of the Navy SEALs
So what can we conclude from all this? First, that the public image of the Navy SEALs has changed drastically over the last 30 years or so. Many of the things the DOD found objectionable in the late 80s during the making of Navy SEALs were perfectly acceptable in more recent films. Nonetheless, the more recent films still portray the SEALs as much more moral and professional unit than they really are.
For example, a Marine Raider and a Navy SEAL are currently facing charges of beating a Green Beret unconscious and sexually assaulting him on camera, in order to humiliate him. The Green Beret died as a result of this attack, and another Raider and SEAL have pleaded guilty to charges stemming from this crime.
Similarly, an entire SEAL platoon was recently kicked out of Iraq due to a heavy drinking culture (you’re not allowed to drink while deployed) and one of them was accused of rape by a female service member.
Cocaine also seems to be a problem, because since 2017 there have been fairly consistent reports of SEALs flaunting drugs tests and openly bragging about taking the drug. There are fairly frequent stories about men getting kicked out of the SEALs after being caught taking drugs, most commonly cocaine and methamphetamine. One SEAL working counter-narcotics even got caught smuggling 10 kilos of cocaine into Miami, in what is surely not a lone or freak occurrence.
In the wake of all this SOCOM – the US Special Operations Command – has embarked on a full ethics and culture review of US special forces, to try to find out why this behaviour persists and if they can stop it.
However, the truth is much worse. I don’t have a problem with people taking cocaine and drinking alcohol, though I do think that people responsible for the use of lethal force shouldn’t be doing that. But it pales in comparison to some of the crimes perpetrated by Navy SEALs, especially SEAL Team Six. An article by The Intercept based on a two year investigation found numerous examples of them killing civilians, carrying out revenge killings, mutilating corpses and other actions that suggest there are some textbook psychopaths among the SEALs.
In particular – and this is substantiated by photographs and witness accounts – there is a practice known as ‘canoeing’, where dead and dying enemy combatants were shot in the upper forehead, splitting their skulls open and exposing their brains. This is considered a kind of sport, and when confronted about it SEALs simply made jokes about being really good shots.
The article goes on to outline how Team Six’s habit of killing anyone they encountered who was designated an enemy got them into conflict with the CIA. The CIA wanted to capture and interrogate people, to gather intelligence, but the SEALs were more concerned with shooting them on sight. One CIA paramilitary officer, Richard Smethers, threatened to expose what they were doing. Smethers was a former SEAL himself, so his word would be taken seriously.
A fight broke out between the CIA and the SEALs, which was resolved when they struck a deal. Team Six’s Gold Squadron were shipped back to the US, and the SEALs promised to reign in their operations. In return, Smethers was also recalled to Langley.
I’ve been reading various articles about these issues recently and several explanations have been offered for why these crimes happened, and why this culture developed. One explanation is that the adrenaline of warfare fades over time, so on a fourth or fifth deployment you have to push harder, do more extreme things, to feel that rush. Another is that SEALs don’t rat on their fellow SEALs, so a lot of these crimes went unreported, further emboldening the people committing them.
Likewise, when they are reported they are dealt with internally, often with fairly minimal punishments. This encourages would-be rapists, murderers and mutilators to feel like they can get away with it, and give in to their worst instincts and desires.
I think these are all factors in this story, but something that is overlooked is the cinema of the Navy SEALs and how that plays a role in enabling the psychopaths within their ranks. Obviously, not all SEALs are like this, some are genuinely elite fighters who follow orders and do their best to obey the laws of war. But I can’t help but think that for those who do these things, the cinema not only helps cover it up, it actively encourages them.
Both news and entertainment media coverage of SEALs thoroughly glamourises them, particularly SEAL Team Six. They shown to be the best of the best, virtually superheroes who can do no wrong. Imagine you worked for such an organisation, where for a long time the only media coverage (and hence other people’s perceptions of what you do) are glowingly positive and heroic. It would encourage you to feel morally invincible, like no matter what you do you are on the right side.
In the 2010s this went into overdrive with this second batch of films about the SEALs, and with the emergence of several best-selling high-profile books about what life is like in the SEALs. While a lot of people in the military think Rob O’Neill – the self-confessed killer of Bin Laden – is a jerk for talking about secret operations and the like, he did get an extraordinary amount of attention. He did all the talk shows, he was treated with the utmost respect and deference, heralded as a true American hero, yadda yadda.
This all feeds into the mentality of being part of an elite, and therefore untouchable and/or in the right, regardless of what you actually do. While I am not blaming Hollywood for the crimes of SEAL Team Six, I do believe they helped foster this culture within Special Forces that is now seen as so problematic.
To illustrate this, and to help close out this exploration, I’m going to play you a clip from Fox News. When Lone Survivor was released one columnist for the Atlantic wrote a review denouncing it as ludicrous military propaganda – which of course, it was. This is how Fox News responded to that point of view.
This is one of the most misleading and manipulative pieces of news coverage I’ve ever seen. First, they wheel out the bereaved mother of one of the men who died in the real operation portrayed in Lone Survivor. This is pure manipulation, tugging at your heartstrings so you confuse sympathy with a bereaved parent with an assessment of whether the film is propaganda. The host then tells you that the interview is very moving – telling you how to emotionally respond to the mother’s words.
Then they wheel out Fox’s media commentator who waffles on, never really making any counter-argument to what the columnist said but constantly emphasising how this is a real-life story, as though that somehow means it cannot be propaganda. They reference other productions like Zero Dark Thirty and Homeland, but never mention how all three were supported by the government – a key fact when assessing whether something is state propaganda.
The host even cites the author of the book on which Lone Survivor is based, and how he claims it is as accurate as it possibly could be. This is simply not true, the film contradicts Luttrell’s book in several major ways, in part because it was rewritten by the DOD in exchange for their support. Luttrell must know this, so he is simply lying about the film’s accuracy.
All of which makes this news segment a piece of trash, covering up for military propaganda with more military propaganda. In such a context, where the news and entertainment media are bending over backwards to skew facts, rewrite history and propagate the superhero image of special forces, is it any surprise that some SEALs feel they can get away with murder?