Navy SEALs have been fighting the nation’s enemies for a long time. Most famously, they killed Osama bin Laden in 2011. But the war against Islamist terrorism, now in its 18th year, has taken a heavy toll. SEALs have gotten very good at war… perhaps too good. Maybe too comfortable. Ours is a dirty business, but even war has rules. Some of us seem to think those rules don’t apply to special operations forces.
There are two personalities in the SEAL community, constantly fighting for dominance: the Jedi Knight and the Pirate. We all want to be Jedi Knights, but the dark side beckons. The pirate lurks within. SEALs are not trained killers (as President Trump appears to think); we are trained fighters. There is a difference between fighting and killing. We fight those who fight against us; when we attack the helpless (even our enemies), we are killing. How do we stay on the right side of that line? What stands between the Jedi and the pirate? Quiet professionalism—what we call the ‘SEAL Ethos’—a code of conduct that channels us into behaviors that American citizens can be proud of.
Chief Petty Officer Eddie Gallagher went to the dark side of the force in combat. His own teammates turned him in, and he stood trial for war crimes. The terrorists won that battle; now they can claim that we are just like them (of course, that is part of their narrative). Gallagher let the pirate out of its cage then sought public attention. The SEAL community is paying the price. Most of us now understand the Roman maxim, “All glory is fleeting.” Clever lawyers can get Chief Gallagher off on a technicality (and the President can force the Navy to let him keep his trident pin), but no SEAL commander or teammate could ever trust him again. As General James Mattis has written, “Operations are executed at the speed of trust.”
I have used my novel Jungle Rules to showcase this issue. My lead characters are four former SEALs who conduct risky operations for the CIA in the jungles of South America. They operate at the edge of morality, trying to stay on the right side of that line. “Carlos”, their leader, is starting to feel more like a killer than a fighter. “Tinker”, the youngest of Carlos’s men, enjoys killing and says so openly. Carlos is a Jedi; Tinker is a pirate. They are all living the dream, killing those who fight against them. Then Carlos meets Gabriele. He tastes the “ordinary life” and he likes it. Now he has to tell his men the party’s over. Before he can do that, though, the team is called to the jungle again, this time to rescue an American ambassador kidnapped by the cartel. Once in the bush, they discover that—in addition to drug traffickers and guerrillas—their own government is trying to kill them. In order to survive, they will have to kill their way out. Everyone… except (maybe) the American hostage.
Carlos has fought for the American government his whole adult life, first as a naval officer and now as a “contractor.” But now he feels like a mercenary. Jungle Rules is a story about what happens when honorable men fight for a dishonorable government. This is a tale of leadership, loyalty, and love. But ultimately, it is about corruption. Betraying Americans who risk their lives to save other Americans is beyond corruption.
It is murder.