SEALs behaving badly is nothing new. Only in the past several years, however, has the general public been made aware of what the Navy are now calling incidents which are “ethically misaligned with our Culture [sic]”. The fact that SEALs are now routinely considering themselves above Navy and military law with their adherence of loyalty to “the Teams” above all else is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The SEALs are (or were) the darlings of Navy public relations, touted as the most elite the United States could offer. This theme was mirrored by Hollywood with a spate of celluloid tributes to the ‘frogs’.
From the abominable 1990 Navy SEALs to today’s CBS drama series SEAL Team, the unit has rarely escaped the Hollywood spotlight. The problem begins with the real-life SEALS believing the Navy’s (and Hollywood’s) PR. Again during the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, SEALs were consistently feted by the media with former SEALs soon signing up for a raft of ‘tell-all’ memoirs with Lone Survivor beginning the trend and reaching its zenith with American Sniper. SEAL adulation was near fever-pitch.
Now that shine is beginning to dull for all apart from the SEALs’ most ardent supporters. Claims ranging from murder to theft to sexual assault to rampant drug use have garnered headlines over the last few years. So what’s gone wrong with the former poster boys of the US Navy?
Some argue that a relentless operational tempo has eroded traditional values but critics point to the lack of a similar scale of offences conducted by other special operations forces (SOF) like the Army Rangers and Special Forces who have endured an even more punishing ‘dwell ratio’ (the ratio between Stateside and deployed), and even more casualties.
Others see a direct correlation with the alleged excesses of Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU), the fabled SEAL Team 6. Just as young Rangers look up to their “big brothers” in Delta Force, so too do the ‘vanilla’ SEAL Teams with the storied DEVGRU. Army critics point also to the ‘shake and bake’ recruitment of sailors to SEALs as compared to the typical ‘Infantry, Airborne, Ranger, Special Forces’ route of their Army brethren.
Finally, many argue that the SEALs have simply believed their own hype for far too long and the fall from grace was inevitable. An entitled culture, reinforced by Hollywood, the media, and the Navy, has allowed the SEALs to operate outside of military norms. Now, the pendulum has swung back as the Navy are forced to take action, treating the elite force to traditional Navy discipline and “intrusive leadership and oversight”.
‘Afghan beards’ will be shaved and gone will be the Punisher skulls and similar unofficial patches with weekly uniform inspections to become the norm. Will this be enough to save the SEALs? Only time will tell but many suggest these “corrective actions” are too little, too late.