Navy SEAL fatigue is a real thing. I am not talking about the physiological effects of the grueling training, nor about the fatigue imposed on the individual SEAL’s body while engaged in a combat scenario. No, this particular fatigue has set in like a dense fog over the popular culture. Everywhere you look these days, there are former SEALs writing books, running for political office, involved in legal controversies, doing their own podcasts, commentating on TV, or writing pieces like this one, for a general audience via a website gracious enough to publish said former Navy SEAL.
Yes, this author is a very minor contributor to the SEAL cultural saturation. Stipulated. I plead guilty to writing and talking about things that I have done, and about which people seem to want to hear more.
If you dig a little deeper, though, you can discern some distinct cultural subsets into which not only the public former SEALs themselves fall, but also those who are reading, viewing, and/or listening to those public former SEALs.
First, let’s look at the public former SEALs. One subset includes those who have written a book about their careers or wartime experiences since 9/11/2001. Let’s call them “the authors.” Some examples of the authors include Rob O’Neill, Marcus Luttrell, Howard Wasdin, and Kevin Lacz, among many others. This excludes all those who wrote SEAL books in the 1980s and 1990s, when arguably the fatigue had yet to set in. The authors tend to want to create a record of their service or experiences, for the most part. It is what people have done throughout history, and the books sell. Some are even great.
The next subset includes those running for political office or providing political commentary on television, within the last decade or so. We shall call them “the politicos.” They include Dan Crenshaw, Eric Greitens, Scott Taylor, and Ryan Zinke, among a few others. This subset notably excludes those who were already in the public sphere in politics before 9/11/2001, and thus have not contributed to the current SEAL cultural fatigue (Bob Kerry and Jesse Ventura, for example). This group is comprised of those who have transitioned from their service to the world of politics. And they thought Hell Week was bad…
The third subset is those former SEALs who offer lifestyle and/or motivational advice via either podcast, article, book, or whichever media. We shall call them “the lifestyle SEALs.” These are the former SEALs who talk about the mental attitude, the fortitude, the never-quit mentality, and all of that. I am a fan of this subset as I truly do think people want to learn to harness or develop that mental resilience, and kudos to the former SEALs for providing the guidance. The lifestyle SEALs include Bill McRaven, Jocko Willink, David Goggins, Mark Devine, Jason Redman, and others.
Finally, we arrive at my last cultural subset of public former SEALs. These are the ones involved in some sort of controversy, legal or otherwise. We shall call them “the lightning rods.” Not surprisingly, some of the above have also found themselves thrust into this subset at one time or another. Included in this list are all of those SEALs who have been put on trial for committing crimes inside or out of war zones, those engaged in some sort of public scandal, or those who just make public asses of themselves for one reason or another. No need to provide a list here.
However, I will address the case of former Navy SEAL Chief Eddie Gallagher. He definitely falls into this latter category, as he was tried for (and found not guilty of) war crimes by the U.S. military for his alleged actions in Iraq in 2017. I am not going to go into all of the details of the case here, as it is well documented. Suffice it to say that what precipitated the charges and trial was the witness testimony of some of Gallagher’s fellow SEAL Team 7 platoon mates, who reported his actions in Iraq to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) in 2018. To me, that was always the detail of the episode that stood out, that his own men (Gallagher was the senior enlisted man in the platoon) felt that his behavior required them to report him up the chain of command.
The Gallagher case brings us to a new ingredient being tossed into the popular culture SEAL stew: “The Line,” a combination podcast-TV original, on Apple TV+. The podcast portion of “The Line” is a six-part Apple original podcast produced by Jigsaw Productions, the first two episodes of which went live on April 6th, 2021. The podcast’s host and executive producer is Dan Taberski, who previously hosted investigative journalism podcasts “Missing Richard Simmons” and “Running From Cops.”
The producers conducted interviews with over 50 special operations personnel (it is unclear if all were SEALs, after just two episodes), and the podcast goes beyond the usual–what makes SEALs different? What does it take to make it through BUD/s? How does one become a Navy SEAL?–surface-deep examinations, and goes deeper into the psychological and emotional characteristics that appear to be found in varying degrees in the majority of men who have become SEALs (at least since 9/11/2001).
Full disclosure: this author was also interviewed by one of the producers in the creation of the podcast.
While discussing the facts of the Gallagher case, including audio clips of the various witness testimonies, as well as interviews with Gallagher and his wife, the podcast also delves into the legendary selection process through which all SEALs pass: Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training, and the psychological make-up of the men who succeed there.
Not only does the podcast describe the mental toughness and tenacity required, but the underlying psychological attributes of those who do make it through. Yes, they are mentally resilient and tenacious, but they also come with other attributes that can at times lead to behavior in the cauldron of combat that can be described as savage, extreme, and even in some cases, possibly outside of the laws of war.
The podcast adroitly and effectively straddles the line between avoiding apologia for such behavior, and outright condemning it. Instead, it attempts in the first two episodes to examine it and illuminate it. That is frankly what makes it stand apart from the usual SEAL-centered content in the public realm. It is neither hagiographic nor condemnatory. It is an intellectually honest attempt to explain how someone can go from the battlefield serving honorably in an elite special operations unit to sitting in a courtroom accused of war crimes. It is an examination, in other words, of the effects of a “forever war” on those who have fought it as part of an elite unit, who were already “extreme” in some of their behaviors before being sent off to fight an unconventional war for years at a time.
Now, the first two episodes might distress one subset of the audience for public SEAL content: “the true believers.” Just as there are subsets of former SEALs out there producing the content, there are those in the audience who fall into different categories as well. The true believers tend to place special operations forces (SOF) units and those who comprise them, writ large, on a pedestal, as elite and uber-patriotic “sheep dogs” who always shoot true, perform heroic acts, and who are pure of heart and fierce of temperament. They are the best of us, in every way, goes this school of thought.
The opposite end of that spectrum is those who either despise the Navy SEALs in particular, because they are overexposed glory-hounds who operate cavalierly outside of legal and moral norms, or those who see all SOF personnel as ego-centric “wannabe” super-soldiers who embody all that is wrong with American popular culture’s fascination with violence and guns. These are “the haters.”
Obviously, there is a subset that falls between these two extremes, those who understand that a lot of mythology is involved in the SOF story, that these units are comprised of extra-motivated human beings asked to do a difficult job, and who take the popular culture content as a byproduct of the former SOF members’ need and desire to either make money, or process their experiences, and tell their stories. These are “the casual consumers” of this SEAL content.
All three of these subsets would benefit from watching “The Line.” It is balanced and thorough in its examination of these particular SEALs, and by extension (the producers might claim), the community as a whole. While it might over-generalize based on the limited dataset of interviewees, as well as by viewing the community through the lens of this one particularly disturbing episode in the history of the SEAL Teams, it nevertheless sheds new light on some of the driving forces that are at work in the SEAL psyche.
That examination should open the eyes of the true believers to the fact that SOF members are just people, with all of the emotional and psychological limitations and flaws that that entails. It should also give the haters either more material to justify their disdain, or (hopefully) provide insight into these people who have taken up the burden of the “forever war” for almost two decades. For the casual consumers of the SEAL content, it provides a more comprehensive examination of just what these men have endured over the last 20 years, what motivates them to shoulder that burden, and how that burden has affected them since 9/11/2001.
That is a story we should all want to hear, and it is one that executive producer and host of “The Line,” Dan Taberski, felt compelled to tell as he began researching the subject, and interviewing SOF operators for the podcast.
In an interview for this article, Taberski told this author: “Before this, I had legitimately never really heard much about the SEALs at all unless in the context of something heroic that the Pentagon was actively publicizing.”
While that seems surprising to this author, it also illustrates the point that the average civilian in America might not be as inundated with former SEAL content as some of us imagine.
Taberski noted that while pre-podcast, he had the sense that SEALs were “almost bulletproof.” After digging into the subject, and talking to a number of SEALs, he instead came away with the realization that SEALs are just “people — people that are part of a larger system of war.” From there, he said, things just got more and more interesting.
For what it is worth, Taberski also noted that “it took a lot [his emphasis] of work to get SEALs to talk to us,” and described the community as “tight-lipped.” However, once the ball got rolling, Taberski noted that it was “just so interesting, and a total education.” From this author’s perspective, that is the real value provided by the podcast: it strips away the heroics and the war stories, and goes into the psychology of the modern SEAL, and how that psychology at least, in part, contributed to a dark day in the history of the SEAL Teams, and the U.S. military.
Do yourself a favor, overcome the fatigue, and give “The Line” a listen. You might just learn something new.