“SEAL Team 6 was unable to rise above the culture of deceit, personal enrichment, and self-aggrandisement that has corrupted a fighting unit legendary for its discipline and code of honour”
– Matthew Cole, The Intercept
In this Professional Military Education (PME) activity, begin by directing your team to read the 2017 article by investigative journalist Matthew Cole entitled ‘The Crimes of SEAL Team 6’. Amongst other things, this article will encourage junior officers to think more about ethics and morality, social pressure, what makes an appropriate command climate, dealing with the realities of operations, officer/non-commissioned officer (NCO) roles and responsibilities, and leadership. You don’t have to be in a Special Forces unit to face many of the challenges these teams did.
Facilitator's Notes (PDF) for this PME exercise.
- The article says: “Historically, SEAL Team 6 is known as a unit where officers 'rent their lockers', because they typically serve about three years before rotating out, whereas the enlisted operators remain for much of their careers, often for a decade or more. Simply put, the unit is an enlisted mafia, where tactics are driven by the expertise developed by the unit’s enlisted assaulters, whose abilities and experience at making rapid threat decisions make up the command’s core resource.” Elements of this could be true for our conventional military; where enlisted soldiers might remain as the custodians of a sub-unit or unit much longer than officers who will rotate to staff or instructor positions more regularly. These junior and senior NCOs accumulate a wealth of experience which benefits junior officers. However, there is a fine line between respecting this experience and eschewing your command responsibility. What things should a junior officer consider in order to achieve a balance between leaning on the experience of an NCO and becoming a follower?
- Matthew Cole implies that much of the alleged/proven misconduct and criminality of the SEAL teams was a disaster waiting to happen. Do you think it could have been prevented? How?
- How can a platoon address the death of a team member? Was a “reprisal mentality” inevitable after the mutilation and near beheading of Neil ‘Fifi’ Roberts? It was a stressful and emotionally charged situation for the platoon. We all hope we’d have the integrity to hold ourselves and the spiritual leaders in the platoon to a high standard, but if you’d experienced the same trauma as these individuals, perhaps you would respond with very similar feelings. Seeing a friend or subordinate nearly beheaded by the enemy it’s not necessarily clear-cut how’d you’d respond. It is easy to think you’d do the right thing, but given the way Roberts died; is it possible that your perception might become skewed?
- Cole closely examines Hugh Wyman Howard III’s distribution of 14-inch hatchets to the established members of Red Squadron. Given our primary business is warfighting; do we need people in the military with this fighting mentality? How do we promote a warrior ethos whilst ensuring our soldiers continue to uphold our shared values and behaviours?
- One of the significant instances of brutality which Cole examines is Britt Slabinski’s direction to bring him “a head on a platter”. The Intercept withheld the name of the operator who was seen sawing the head off the body of a dead enemy because he “believed he was following an order”. He remains on active duty. Who is responsible for the mutilation of the enemy combatant’s body? Is Slabinski responsible given his careless use of words – “a head on a platter” – or should the operator be held responsible because even if he thought it was an order, it was an unlawful order? Does the Intercept make an excuse for the enlisted operator when Cole says, “he was following an order”? Haven’t we learned that’s never a good enough excuse? Cole is a civilian journalist – as a military professional are you comfortable with the way the Intercept discussed this incident? How do we teach our people to be more accountable for their individual actions? Who do you think is at fault or do you think there is a percentage of blame owing to each party’s actions?
- Apply the Chief of Army’s document Good Soldiering to this article. What behaviours and values is that document trying to embed before the strain of conflict is applied to our Army?
- Why does this keep happening in war? How do militaries maintain ethical standards and adhere to the Laws of Armed Conflict?
Why not leave a comment below to share some of your key takeaways from this PME activity with the rest of the force?
Try The Line (podcast and miniseries on Apple TV+) which examines the case of retired United States Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher. In 2018 he was accused of murdering an unarmed prisoner in Mosul by his platoon. The 7-episode program delves into one of the biggest war crimes trials of this generation and features a shocking interview with Gallagher where he admits to the murder (but is unable to be retried after having already been found innocent). Find it on Spotify and Apple.
WANT EVEN MORE?
Try Black Hearts; One Platoon's Descent into Madness in Iraq's Triangle of Death. From the blurb: “the gripping true story of a platoon from the 502nd Infantry Regiment (known as the Black Heart Brigade) and the widespread breakdown of discipline that resulted in depression, drinking and horrific brutality, culminating in the rape of a fourteen-year-old Iraqi girl and the cold-blooded execution of her family. This is a story about failure in the chain of command, sagging morale, and the consequences of crossing the thin line of morality in war”. Claire Von Wald has designed a ready-made PME resource with discussion and reflection questions related to Black Hearts.
If you enjoyed this activity, why not try the other PMEs available on The Cove?
Want more material for your junior officers? This article collates articles from across The Cove designed for junior officers and Troop/Platoon Commanders.
If you have suggestions for improvements – additional readings, reference material, alternative discussion points or new delivery methods please forward your feedback to The Cove Team firstname.lastname@example.org.