“We sleep peaceably in our beds at night only because rough men stand ready to violence on our behalf.”
That quote has been applicable since almost the beginning of time; certainly since the formation of nation states. The most well-known example of modern times will celebrate its anniversary this month, five years after assaulters from SEAL Team 6 conducted a daring mission that killed Osama Bin Laden.
It was a moonless night on May 2, 2011 when the squadron of SEALs infiltrated Pakistani air space in two stealth Blackhawks and took out the terrorist with a double tap to the head. What’s unique in this case is that we know those specifics, and even some of the names and faces of the men behind the op.
We know the night was moonless from former SEAL Team 6 operator Matt Bissonnette’s book “No Easy Day,” where he described the mission in detail. We know it was a bullet to the head from his SEAL teammate Rob O’Neil, who revealed on 60 Minutes that he was the one to fire those first deadly shots. We know that the Blackhawks were stealth after one of the choppers used in the raid crashed and our administration had to scramble to recover the top-secret technology. We even know that it was SEAL Team 6 because the president, to that group’s dismay, publicly admitted it, even releasing official White House photographs of President Obama and then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in the Situation Room as they spoke with Admiral (SEAL) William McRaven during the mission.
In fact, we know more about Operation Neptune Spear than we probably ever thought we would, and some would argue, should.
Navy SEAL Lt. Forrest Crowell recently had his master thesis, entitled “Navy SEALs Gone Wild: Publicity, Fame and the Loss of the Quiet Professional” publicly dissected on SOFREP.com, a popular website run by former SpecOps forces about the Special Operations community. If it isn’t clear from the title of his paper, the still active duty SEAL is of firm belief that when SEALs reveal the nature of their work, they make the Teams less effective and weaken their brand. They are, after all, supposed to be “the silent professionals.” He went so far as to criticize by name several former SEALs who have recently published books, including Chris Heben. Lt. Crowell’s opinion is not uncommon within the Naval Special Warfare community. In fact, Bissonnette’s former Team 6 commander told him to “delete him” and put up a mock gravestone in effigy in the Team 6 headquarters after the publication of “No Easy Day.”
But wanted or not, in the five years since that raid, the public’s fascination with Navy SEALs has multiplied exponentially. Hundreds of books, films, documentaries, TV shows, and articles have highlighted everything from their missions to their workout routines. There even is a huge market for fictional SEAL romance novels.
There are SEALs who say that that type of coverage is what draws top-level candidates to the elite fighting force. Chris Osman, who served in the Teams from 1997 to 2004 and co-wrote the book “SEALs: The US Navy’s Elite Fighting Force,” explains that “There is not a SEAL serving today or in the last 3 decades that learned about the SEAL Teams by happenstance or word of mouth. Every one of us has read a book, watched movies, recruiting films, documentaries, YouTube videos, or read articles in the local papers about the SEAL Teams. As much as NSW would like to put a cork back in the bottle, it’s far too late for that. We live in the Information Age not the Stone Age.”
Like Mr. Osman, there are plenty of SEALs who think that as long as they are not revealing operational secrets, their work does no harm to the community or nation.
Mr. Heben, the former SEAL, author and public speaker argues, “Who better to tell tales of bravery and valor, than those who have been at the forefront of our nation’s longstanding history of fighting for life, liberty and happiness and the pursuit of all who threaten it?”
Mr. Osman thinks the Naval Special Warfare command has a double standard when passing judgement on those publicizing SEAL exploits.
“NSW is as much to blame as any one individual,” he says. “Since the 1960’s the Navy and the SEAL Teams have authorized films, movies and interviews. When you, as a command, allow Hollywood stars to take tours of the compound, to make workout videos on the BUD/S grinder, to tell men under your command to be on camera for interviews, you inevitably are saying this type of behavior is warranted.”
To be sure, Naval Special Warfare officials have been finicky about what they condone and do not. The 2012 film “Act of Valor” not only used active-duty SEALs, but was promoted by the Navy and filmed with their explicit assistance in what they described as a recruitment tool. They have vetted and approved dozens of books written by their former operators, while black-listing the authors of others. In a 2014 letter to the entire Navy SEAL community, Admiral Brian Losey threatened “judicial consequence” for those who publicize their exploits, saying that the critical tenant of the SEAL ethos is “I do not advertise the nature of my work, nor seek recognition for my actions.”
But Heben says there is often a hypocrisy to that philosophy of silence. “The bonds of the fabled SEAL and SpecOps brotherhood only extend so far as those who are content not to break from the herd and establish a name for themselves in an effort to seek fame and fortune. When the latter happens, the ‘crab concept’ is alive and well, even in these tight-knit and secretive communities.”
It would appear that in some sense, the SEALs are a victim of their own success. With so many high profile, successful missions, they have spent more time in the spotlight than other SpecOps groups. As they say in the Teams, “loved or hated, but never ignored.”
Read Next: Lessons from the Bin Laden Raid: Don’t Forget the Tape Measure
No matter your opinion, the information is out there, and for those interested in learning all about SEALs, Delta Force, Special Forces, Rangers, and other SpecOps groups, all you need is Amazon Prime.
Mr. Symonds is an award-winning journalist and the son of a 33-year Navy veteran. He’s the author of “My Father’s Son,” a novel about the son of a Navy SEAL who struggles to grow up in the shadow of a war hero after his father is killed in Afghanistan.
Mr. Heben is the Amazon #1 Best-selling author of “Undaunted.” He served for 10 years in the SEAL Teams before joining Blackwater as a clandestine operator, conducting missions for the U.S. Government all over the world. He now writes, develops television shows, sings, speaks publicly, and together with his wife, runs the 501c3, non-profit organization “Suiting Warriors.”
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