Long after the sun had dipped behind the high peaks of the Hindu Kush, on a moonless night four Navy SEALs fast-roped down from a Chinook helicopter onto an isolated ridge. It was June 27, 2005, and the elite team of American warriors was on a kill or capture mission—code-named Operation Red Wings—in the heart of Taliban country. Their target was a tribal fighter named Ahmad Shah, whose attacks had taken a high toll on U.S. Marines in the area.
The SEAL team moved stealthily through the night across an unforgiving terrain of dense brush and rocks toward their predetermined observation point. But early the next morning they were discovered by a group of local goatherds. Lt. Michael Murphy, the SEALs’ leader, faced a dilemma: let them go and compromise his team’s position or kill them, a potential war crime. With buy-in from his men, Murphy released the Afghans.
Within an hour, the SEALs were ambushed by as many as 40 heavily armed Taliban. An intense firefight erupted. The badly outgunned SEALs were forced to retreat into a ravine for cover. Murphy and his men, suffering grievous wounds, were pinned down against the steep mountainside. Exposing himself to near-certain death, Murphy fought his way back into an open area so he could get enough signal to radio for backup. He immediately took a round in the back and fell to the ground, dropping his phone. He got back up and completed the call, successfully providing his team’s location and requesting support.
When an MH-47 helicopter arrived to try to rescue the SEALs, the Taliban were lying in wait. Struck by a rocket-propelled grenade, the bird went down, killing all on board—eight Navy SEALs and eight Army Night Stalkers. By then, Murphy and two of the three other SEALs from his team were dead. But Petty Officer Marcus Luttrell survived, living off berries, stream water, and his wits for seven days before being found by friendly Afghans and carried to safety. In 2007, Murph, as he was known, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for attempting to save the lives of his brother SEALs at the cost of his own life. He was the first naval officer to win the award since the Vietnam War.
On a balmy day last month, the Navy paid tribute to Murphy’s heroism as only it could. With flags rippling in the breeze, stirring martial music, and the boom of cannons, the Navy commissioned the USS Michael Murphy, a sleek new warship, at a ceremony in New York Harbor. Politicians, friends, and naval officers delivered soaring encomiums to the fallen warrior. But it was Adm. William McRaven, head of U.S. Special Operations Command and himself a SEAL, who distilled in simple language the characteristics that defined Murphy’s heroism. “The greatest compliment one SEAL can bestow on another is to call him a teammate,” McRaven said. “In the sea underwater at night when it is the darkest, it is your teammate who swims beside you, always ready to provide you air if you run out, untangle your line if you’re caught under a ship, or fend off an unwanted visitor. In the air, it is your teammate who checks your parachute before you jump, who ensures you pull at the right altitude, and it is your teammate who lands beside you in enemy territory. On the land, it is your teammate who walks your flank, covering your six; it is your teammate who lays down a base of fire so you can maneuver against the enemy. And sometimes it is your teammate who lays down his life for yours. Lt. Michael Patrick Murphy embodied what it meant to be a teammate.”
In McRaven’s telling, Murphy personified a set of values key to the SEAL identity. He showed a willingness to submerge individual ego for the collective good of the unit, displaying humility, discretion, and selflessness. Together they are the qualities of the “quiet professional,” a warrior archetype that, while aspirational, has long been a guiding beacon for America’s Special Operators. “He checked his ego at the door,” recalls a fellow SEAL and one of Murphy’s closest friends.
But even as Murphy’s heroism was being celebrated, many in the Special Operations community are disquieted by a trend they fear could undermine the values he represented. Ever since the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, the SEALs and, to a lesser extent, their brethren in the Army and Air Force have been under an intense media spotlight. Their ethos of one for all and all for one is being tested by a culture of celebrity, instant book deals, and Hollywood blockbusters. This hero industry is reinforced by a civilian society that has a powerful need to create role models, perhaps out of a sense of guilt after more than a decade in which the burdens of war have been shouldered by less than 1 percent of the population.
“America is looking for heroes, and right now the Navy SEALs are the flavor of the day,” says Bob Schoultz, a retired SEAL captain who was the director of Leader and Character Development at the U.S. Naval Academy. “This is a huge leadership challenge for the people leading these guys.”
The publication this past summer of No Easy Day, Matt Bissonnette’s first-person account of the killing of Osama bin Laden, has spurred much of the soul-searching. Former SEALs had, of course, written personal memoirs before, but Bissonnette’s book came out so soon after the raid and was penned by someone so intimately involved (Bissonnette says he fired the shots that ended bin Laden’s life) that many in the Special Ops community considered it a breach of their tribal bond.
“I think we’re fraying around the edges with all these guys talking and writing books,” says Dick Couch, a former Navy SEAL who writes about the training and cultural traits of Special Operations Forces, also known as SOF. Grizzled Special Ops veterans warn of increasing hubris. “Hollywood, money, and politics were never part of the success of SOF,” says Joe Maguire, a retired vice admiral who led the SEALs until 2007 and attended the commissioning of the USS Murphy, “but they very well could be part of its demise.”
The ideal of the selfless and noble warrior is as old as the Greeks, who also understood the dangers of excessive pride. Homer captured the tension between hubris and humility in the conflict between Achilles and Hector, his two warrior-heroes who fought to the death. Today’s Special Operators see themselves as modern-day Spartan warriors. Lt. Murphy’s favorite book, a motivational tome for many Special Ops forces, was Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire, a historical novel about the Battle of Thermopylae in which a small force of Spartan warriors fought a heroic last stand against the Persian Army. “When a warrior fights not for himself but for his brothers,” begins one passage often recited by SEALs, “when his most passionately sought goal is neither glory nor his own life’s preservation, but to spend his substance for them, his comrades, not to abandon them, not to prove unworthy of them, then his heart truly has achieved contempt for death, and with that he transcends himself, and his actions touch the sublime.”
All elite teams have their codes. For the SEALs, it is simply “the ethos,” which states, in part: “My loyalty to Country and Team is beyond reproach. I humbly serve as a guardian to my fellow Americans… I do not advertise the nature of my work nor seek recognition for my actions.”
The ethos is developed in the brutal gauntlet of SEAL training—known as BUD/S, for Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL. “The training is totally team-centric,” says Couch. “I’m toast if these guys don’t help me.” The goal is to form unbreakable bonds so that when they deploy as a platoon they have each other’s backs. “You crawl through an ambush to rescue a friend because he’s a friend,” says Frank Kearney, a retired lieutenant general and Ranger commander. “It’s not for valor or because you’re thinking of the Medal of Honor.”
There is also a rigorous screening process that weeds out about 75 percent of candidates. It includes psychological assessments to determine whether the young men exhibit signs of narcissism. One recent device described to Newsweek by a SEAL trainer came after a grueling day of exercise, including many hours in frigid ocean water, and almost no food. Out of the group of about a dozen SEAL candidates, the instructor asked for four volunteers to eat their Meals Ready to Eat in chest-high ocean water, while the others were able to stay dry and warm while they ate. What was being tested was less their toughness than their character: were they prepared to sacrifice on behalf of their teammates?
A willingness to sacrifice does not mean being egoless, of course. Twenty-something men who want to be America’s most highly trained killers have more than enough self-regard, not to mention testosterone-fueled drive. Michael Monsoor, for instance, was the kind of person who ran headlong into danger. He passed BUD/S school with flying colors in 2004. Two years later he found himself on the outcropping of a roof in Ramadi, Iraq. He was providing cover for his fellow SEALs who were engaged in a firefight with insurgents when a grenade came hurtling through the window. It bounced off his chest and landed in front of him. Without hesitating, Monsoor threw himself on the grenade and absorbed the force of the blast. Thirty minutes later, he was dead. His two teammates, fellow SEALs, survived. Monsoor was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously in 2008.
There’s no current shortage of these sorts of stories of valor and heroism. Yet there is also evidence—albeit anecdotal and scattered—that the ethos is being tested. Lately some officers have been grousing sarcastically about so-called one-platoon wonders, SEALs who return from their first deployment convinced they are invincible, battle-hardened heroes. “You get these 24-year-old kids who think they know more than they do because they’ve read all the propaganda about how awesome they are,” says Schoultz. “It’s part of the downside of all of the positive publicity,” he adds, though he notes that the majority of SEALs stay true to their ethos.
One reason the SEALs have remained uncomfortably in the limelight is politics. The bin Laden raid, which was ordered by President Obama, took place just as the country was pivoting toward a presidential campaign. The daring mission, which filled Americans with pride, was too irresistible a success for the White House not to trumpet. As cinematic details poured out in the days after the news (some of which turned out to be inaccurate), the unintended message to the Special Ops community was that it’s OK to talk about secret missions. Moreover, the perception that the Obama White House may have been exploiting the SEALs’ heroism caused a backlash that, if anything, made the situation worse. When a group of retired Special Operators lashed out at Obama for alleged leaks and political grandstanding, it further compromised the SEALs’ reputation as quiet professionals.
But the bigger problem may be American culture. The worry is that as the hero-industrial complex continues to crank up, and the movies and memoirs keep coming (there are as many as 10 films about Navy SEALs either in theaters or in production, including Zero Dark Thirty about the bin Laden raid), it will only become harder for the SEALs to maintain their selfless ethos.
The military, many acknowledge, even bears some responsibility. To the consternation of some in the Special Forces community, the SEALs cooperated with the making of Act of Valor, a Hollywood extravaganza that depicts a SEAL team flying around the world saving the day on pretty much every continent. It was seen as a good recruiting opportunity, something the military needs more of to replenish its burnt-out force after a decade of wars. But the Navy foolishly allowed active-duty SEALs to star in the movie, undercutting their carefully cultivated reputation for discretion. “Not too bright,” says one former commander who remains close to the Special Ops leadership.
It’s a mistake that’s not likely to happen again any time soon. There are signs that the SEALs and other elite teams are going to use the Bissonnette book and Act of Valor as teaching moments—an opportunity to slip back into the shadows and return to first principles. “We need to get out of the media, stop cooperating so much with Hollywood, crack down on people who write these damn ‘I’m so hot’ books, and get better at pulling out these narcissists earlier in the pipeline,” says one SEAL instructor who asked not to be named.
Admiral McRaven, who joined the SEALs after seeing the 1968 John Wayne film The Green Berets, understands as well as anyone the culture’s fetishization of Special Operations and the risk it could pose to his forces. “I sent an email to the force that emphasized my concern about current and former members of the Special Operations community using their ‘celebrity’ status to advance their personal or professional agendas,” he tells Newsweek via email. “The sacrifices of our men and women down range have earned us great respect from the American people. It is our responsibility not to abuse that respect by using our service in Special Operations as a road to wealth.”
Still, he believes the core values of Special Operators remain resilient. “Our men and women are the most mature, combat-tested force I have ever seen,” he says. “The attention on the SEALs will pass. What will stand is our ethos of professionalism, humility, and teamwork.”
Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down and a longtime observer of American warrior culture, makes a similar point. He argues that the recent wave of publicity stemming from the bin Laden operation was a once-in-a-lifetime, madefor-Hollywood moment. “This was an extraordinarily high-profile mission that would dangle the most extreme temptation,” Bowden says of the Matt Bissonnette tell-all. “I don’t think it heralds a stampede.” Moreover, Bowden—whose new book, The Finish, chronicles the Abbottabad raid—says Special Ops teams have built-in incentives to protect the culture. “In the military, secrecy is status,” he says. “It’s an awfully powerful cultural pull.”
Perhaps this will continue to be the case. But there are other powerful siren calls in today’s America. Hollywood’s version of Operation Red Wings is currently in production. Taylor Kitsch—who played Tim Riggins in Friday Night Lights—will be starring in the role of Lt. Michael Murphy.