Special operators in elite military units are the tip of the spear of US counterinsurgency campaigns around the globe. Their exploits in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other fronts in the global “war on terror” have become fodder for scores of action films like American Sniper, fanboy books by journalists covering the military, and tell-all memoirs by SEAL Team 6 members involved in the rubout of Osama bin Laden and other targets.
In the not always secretive world of special operations, few post-9/11 warriors have become better known than Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, a chief petty officer much beloved by former president Donald Trump. When Gallagher faced a 2019 court-martial for allegedly killing a wounded ISIS prisoner in Iraq and committing other war crimes, Trump assured his supporters that he would “always stick up for our great fighters.” True to his word, after Gallagher was acquitted of all but a lesser charge (taking a trophy shot of the dead Iraqi teenager), Trump blocked a navy attempt to demote him and take away his trident pin, the coveted symbol of SEAL Team membership.
Among those joining the “Free Eddie” campaign was former marine Duncan Hunter, a Republican congressman from San Diego who stole $200,000 in campaign funds and avoided jail only thanks to a Trump pardon. As Hunter argued on Fox News, Gallagher “is the kind of guy we want out there killing for us, killing bad guys. He shouldn’t be going to court at all for doing his job.”
Also active in Gallagher’s defense was Pete Hegseth, an alumni of the Koch-financed Concerned Veterans for America, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. After Trump’s election, Hegseth became a key White House advisor on veterans’ affairs and then a Fox News commentator. In that latter role, he regularly denounced “overzealous prosecutors who were not giving the benefit of the doubt to the trigger pullers.”
Now retired after eight combat deployments and twenty years in the military, Gallagher is the subject of two new books, one by a writer he is suing (along with the navy) for defamation. His own autobiography is The Man in the Arena: From Fighting ISIS to Fighting for My Freedom, coauthored with his wife, Andrea. The other account of his case, by New York Times correspondent David Philipps, is called Alpha: Eddie Gallagher and the War for The Soul of the Navy SEALs. Pending litigation against Philipps notwithstanding, Alpha is being heavily promoted via full-page ads in the Times.
Read together, Alpha and Man in the Arena constitute quite an indictment — in ways not always intended by either author — of a military subculture with an ugly past but a very busy future, regardless of who occupies the White House.
An Indiscriminate Murder Program
As Philipps recounts, the Navy SEALs are a direct descendent of the frogmen, who helped clear the way for beach landings in World War II as part of the Underwater Demolition Teams. Their modern-day organizational ethos and mission was forged, under less valorous circumstances, in Vietnam, where they “stopped being combat swimmers and became jungle fighters.”
Assigned to work with the Central Intelligence Agency on its notorious Phoenix Program, SEALs helped capture and kill civilian supporters of the National Liberation Front in peasant villages. As one army intelligence analyst testified at a later congressional hearing, Phoenix became “an indiscriminate murder program.” In Philipps words, it firmly established the SEALs as a commando group “created to go beyond what was officially sanctioned” and “do the nation’s dirty work.”
As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan got “dirtier,” Philipps explains, SEALs like Eddie Gallagher “got pulled into the muck.” Nicknamed “Blade,” Eddie was a troubled teenager, raised in a devout Irish Catholic military family. He joined the navy in 1999, became a SEAL in 2004, and over the next decade “built a reputation as a seasoned badass.” In the entirely male and overwhelmingly white SEAL Teams, “Donald Trump was a hero,” Philipps reports, because of his 2016 campaign pledge to “knock the hell” out of ISIS after lifting any real or imagined Obama-era restraints on special operations.
Gallagher’s last tour of duty, a year later, became a nightmare for his subordinates. The assigned role of SEAL Team 7 Alpha Platoon was to support Iraqi forces during their liberation of Mosul while remaining a specified distance from the actual front lines. This mission was carried out amid a larger horror show featuring suicidal ISIS resistance, heavy US bombardment, many civilian casualties, and widespread urban destruction.
Already much decorated for his past bravery, Gallagher insisted on joining the fray more directly, regardless of orders from above. As Philipps later learned from the navy’s own investigative reports, “Gallagher had come unglued . . . had put men in danger to build up his own glory, shot at women and children and crowds of civilians, and murdered a prisoner in cold blood.” An Alpha medic described his former platoon leader as “perfectly OK with killing anybody that was moving.” According to a fellow sniper, Gallagher was a “toxic” influence; another Alpha member believed that his chief petty officer was just “freaking evil” — characteristics and behavior Philipps attributes, in part, to the combined influence of “steroids, stimulants, and opioids.”
A Few Good Men
Gallagher’s 2018 trial had more plot twists and surprises than the most popular movie ever made about a military court-martial. As scripted by Aaron Sorkin, A Few Good Men at least had a happy ending in the form of a uniformed murderer (played by Jack Nicholson) being brought to justice for the needless death of a young soldier under his command. Unfortunately, the navy personnel prosecuting Gallagher for firing at unarmed civilians and killing an enemy prisoner did not have as much courtroom luck as the marine lawyer played by Tom Cruise.
Granted full immunity, a prosecution witness changed his story on the stand and took credit for what he regarded as a mercy killing of the injured ISIS recruit, thereby absolving the “Blade” of dispatching him. The SEAL Team 7 veterans who risked the wrath of other SEALs for testifying against their former leader did not succeed in convincing a jury of Gallagher’s combat veteran peers that he had done much wrong. Nor was any higher-ranking SEAL, in charge of supervising Gallagher, held accountable in any other disciplinary proceeding.
According to Philipps, the Gallagher case revealed how the band of brothers, who started out as “green-faced frogmen” in World War II, developed new protective covering, including a code of silence, during their many post-9/11 deployments. “Sheltered by secrecy, armored by public adoration, they built a tradition that celebrated brotherhood, rule-breaking, and blood. It morphed into a pirate culture . . . where men were more loyal to the tribe than the nation they served. The culture hid under the halo of goodwill the SEALs created.”
In an internal review leaked last year, even the Special Operations Command itself found such trends to be detrimental to “leadership, discipline, and accountability.”
Addicted to Killing?
In Gallagher’s depiction of life and work in what he calls the SEAL community, there are no rogue operators engaged in barbaric behavior — only men like himself who derive “a sense of satisfaction from killing someone who is trying to kill you and your brothers.” As he explains:
For some, killing becomes an addiction, but I consider it a good addiction needed to win wars. . . . We aren’t charity workers. Despite what the Pentagon upper brass says, our job isn’t to win hearts and minds. SEALs are warfighters, trained to — and very good at — killing the enemy. Our country’s wars are fought by one percent of one percent, and even a smaller percentage of those do the killing.
During the Obama administration, Gallagher detected an alarming “new emphasis on diversity and progressiveness” instead of a focus on winning wars and maintaining high SEAL Team recruitment standards. With the navy “no longer recruiting those who wanted to go to war,” its top brass “rendered the warfighter, the knuckle-draggers I came up with, obsolete; at worst labelling us nuisances, casting us aside.”
Among those guilty of ganging up on Gallagher were members of “a new softer and kinder generation of SEALs.” Man in the Arena claims that the “little bitches” in his own platoon, who reported him to navy investigators, were trying to divert attention from their own active-duty failings: “bad actors in leadership positions” actively supported this “millennial mutiny,” which made Eddie a sacrificial lamb on the altar of a newly woke military.
After his triumphant acquittal, won by high-priced civilian defense lawyers, Gallagher sued the navy and Philipps personally. He accuses his former employer of leaking confidential documents about the case to the Times reporter, who then proceeded to “fabricate details” and “make false or misleading statements.” The lawsuit describes the Pulitzer Prize–winning Philipps as a “marginal journalist” who reinforced “negative and bigoted stereotypes” about combat veterans by depicting them as “damaged and violent.”
On the issue of how much service-related damage some special operators have suffered themselves, SEAL Team 6 alumni James Hatch, now studying at Yale, would disagree. In his revealing 2018 memoir, Touching the Dragon: And Other Techniques for Surviving Life’s Wars, Hatch recounts the devastating injuries that ended his career. Hatch survived 150 direct action missions in Bosnia, Africa, Iraq, and Afghanistan before becoming both physically and mentally disabled.
Among fellow “war-fighters” who experienced a similar “volume of fighting,” he witnessed “a serious volume of aftermath. Marriages falling apart. Alcoholism. Guys getting kicked out of their houses. Guys drowning in opioids. The real recoil hasn’t even hit yet.”
Now forty-two, Eddie Gallagher appears to have landed on his feet, despite what he describes as “twenty years of beating the shit out of my body,” which left him with two bulging discs, serious neck and shoulder pain, painkiller dependence, and traumatic brain injuries. As Philipps reports, Gallagher is now “modeling his own lifestyle clothing brand, endorsing nutritional supplements, and positioning himself as a conservative influencer.” In collaboration with veteran-run companies like Nine Line Apparel and Black Rifle Coffee, he’s peddling T-shirts, hoodies, and drinkware marketed as “Salty Frog Gear.”
Gallagher’s Instagram account has 181,000 followers, he’s been a Trump guest at Mar-a-Lago, and his book is selling well. To help other soldiers or local law enforcement officers accused of wrongdoing, Gallagher and his wife launched the Pipe Hitter Foundation. (Its name comes from military slang for special-operations personnel.)
One of the first beneficiaries of this philanthropy was marine lieutenant colonel Stuart Scheller, a seventeen-year infantry officer who Gallagher claimed was facing “a military justice system corrupted by political correctness.” Scheller was court-martialed for publicly criticizing senior leaders for their handling of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. His case quickly became a Fox News cause célèbre, championed by Republican representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene and Louie Gohmert, a former JAG Corps attorney in the army. More than two dozen members of Congress protested Scheller’s nine days of pretrial confinement. According to the Washington Examiner, Gallagher’s Pipe Hitter Foundation quickly raised more than $2.5 million for the defendant and his family.
In light of Scheller’s otherwise “outstanding record,” a military judge earlier this month gave him what the Examiner called “a slap on the wrist.” The Marine forfeited $5,000 in pay and got a written reprimand after pleading guilty to “willfully disobeying a superior commissioned officer, dereliction in the performance of duties, and conduct unbecoming of an officer and gentleman.” Per his plea agreement, Scheller will likely receive either an honorable discharge or a general discharge under honorable conditions. At that point, he’ll be free to join his better-known Pipe Hitter pal on the right-wing celebrity circuit, where special operators and critics of a woke military are always guaranteed a hero’s welcome.