Welcome to The Reading List, where we’ll be reviewing military fiction and non-fiction books about once a week.
Don Mann, former Seal Team 6 member and adventure race organizer, deserves a better book. Inside Seal Team Six, written by Don Mann and ghostwriter Ralph Pezzullo (who also helped write the far superior Jawbreaker), is at its best when describing SEAL corpsman Mann’s incredible lifesaving techniques, but comes up short on stories to tell and is grossly over-redacted on the stories it does tell.
All of that is unfortunate, because Don Mann’s life story is a hell of a tale. Mann spent 17 years in the teams (8 of them on ST-6), and has an inspiring personal story about overcoming peer pressure amid the mid-seventies culture of crime, drugs, and alcohol to become a globally-competitive endurance athlete in addition to being a member of one of the United State’s most elite units. I’ve long been a fan of adventure-racing competitions (although Mann claims to have been screwed out of a TV deal by the producer of my old favorite racing program, Mark Burnett’s “Eco-Challenge”) and was looking forward to an insider’s perspective of not only running such a competition, but Mann’s perspectives on organizing his “Beast” series of races.
Unfortunately, the book is light on all kinds of details, and talks way too much about the Bin Laden raid, which Mann had nothing to do with outside of having worked with some of the SEALs on the raid. Discussion of Mann’s time on ST-6 is pretty light at approximately 50 thoroughly-redacted pages, especially given 1) the title of the book and 2) the fact that the majority of Mann’s operations took place 20-30 years ago.
I understand the idea of OPSEC, but some of the redactions in the book are absurd. Active verbs are apparently very dangerous to our national security, in such instances as this sarcastic passage: “Next time we need to ____ foreigners to fry airline passengers, we know who to send.” How many verbs could that be? “Send?” “Train?” How dangerous is that verb? Another instance: “…we fast-roped down, wearing gas masks, camo, and all our ___.” Gear? Weapons? Explosives? How top-secret can that one single word be? Judging by size and context, I don’t think they were wearing “Area 51 extra-terrestrials,” so I’d think any singular, non-descript noun that ST-6 carried into battle 20-30 years ago would be pretty safe. Even the code-phrase that heralded the death of Osama Bin Laden, “Geronimo E-KIA,” is redacted. Whole pages of this book are redacted. In a book that’s already light on details, having what essentially constitutes the subject of your book largely redacted is counter-intuitive at best.
The book comes off feeling like a cash-grab, a feeling that’s only re-enforced in the acknowledgments section, when Pezzullo thanks his family for “long absences during the summer,” implying that this book was rushed out the door after the Bin Laden raid. That does a disservice not only to the reader, but to Mann himself. If this book had been marketed as a normal SEAL memoir with some ST6 elements, then the redacted sections might feel a little different, a glimpse into a clandestine world whose secrets are still too fresh to share; instead, this feels like a bait-and-switch. Part of the problem is also the time in which Mann served, just after Vietnam but before any of the larger conflicts like Desert Storm (if you want to call that a “larger conflict”), so brief interludes in Grenada and Panama serve as the most action-packed sections of the memoir, with an admittedly memorable and well-written passage about Mann saving a soldier’s life after accidentally setting off a UXO. If the entire book, from triathlons to ST-6 time, had been written with the same care and attention to detail as that passage, Inside Seal Team Six would be a military non-fiction classic. Instead, a true American warrior gets under-served by his own memoir.