Late last month, Vice Adm. Timothy Szymanski, deputy commander of the Special Operations Command and a longtime member of SEAL Team 6, retired from the Navy. At a ceremony in Tampa, Florida, SEALs past and present came to celebrate Szymanski’s four decades of military service. Szymanski retired as SOCOM’s second in command at the apex of the Navy SEALs. By all appearances, his departure marked the end of a storied career as one of the top SEAL officers, having served many of his 36 years with SEAL Team 6 during the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Szymanski in many ways exemplified the SEALs in the age of America’s forever wars, and his legacy extends beyond his battlefield experience: He is an author of the Navy SEAL Ethos, which codifies the elite unit’s aspirational moral code. But his rise speaks as much to the SEALs’ failures as it does to their successes.
Szymanski personified the Navy SEAL’s code of silence and moral drift after 9/11. Over two decades, the Navy kept promoting him despite battlefield decisions in Afghanistan that contributed to the deaths of a member of SEAL Team 6, an Air Force special operator, and five other American service members. The promotions seemingly overlooked Szymanski’s efforts to shield a SEAL Team 6 operator from repercussions for trying to behead a Taliban fighter; his protection and hiring of a senior enlisted SEAL after Team 6 blacklisted the operator for issuing orders to shoot unarmed Afghan men and for telling members of his unit that he wanted a Taliban “head on a platter”; and his aggressive politicking for the same SEAL to receive the nation’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor. Although Szymanski did not respond to my requests for comment, SEAL Team 6 and the larger Naval Special Warfare command defended his record by pointing out that all accusations of misconduct are investigated and that none of the allegations against Szymanski have ever been substantiated in an official, formal investigation.
But it is precisely this culture of impunity that has insulated Szymanski and other senior SEALs from accountability. Beyond all else, Szymanski built a career on loyalty to his fellow SEALs and protecting the military’s most famous brand. But if SEAL officers can cover up war crimes on their way to becoming admirals, why should any enlisted or lower-ranking SEAL officers follow the rules or adhere to the military’s most fundamental demand of its members, that they serve with good order and discipline?
After two decades of war with little accountability, the SEALs’ ship has run aground. War crimes, drug use, sexual assault on deployment, and homicide are just some of the charges against active-duty SEALs in recent years. In a span of two years, two SEAL Team 6 operators killed a Green Beret while deployed to Mali; a group of SEALs turned in their platoon chief, Eddie Gallagher, accusing him of an array of war crimes, including the stabbing death of an unarmed, injured Islamic State fighter; rampant drug use was discovered in an East Coast SEAL unit; and an entire SEAL platoon was sent home from a deployment to Iraq after military leaders learned that they’d been drinking excessively and one of operators was accused of sexual assault.
Gallagher’s case in particular became the public face of an internal culture war raging inside the SEALs. By the time Gallagher’s war crimes court-martial began, Naval Special Warfare Command’s lead officer, then-Rear Adm. Collin Green, wrote to his SEALs admitting that their community had “a problem.” Green left the command in 2020 after his efforts to hold Gallagher accountable were thwarted by former President Donald Trump.
One might argue that Szymanski’s retirement marked the end of a troubled period for the SEALs. His retirement will not, however, fix the problem Green highlighted when he noted: “We must now take a proactive approach to prevent the next breach of ethical and professional behavior in our formations, instead of continuing on our current consequence management approach.”
When Green stepped down as Naval Special Warfare commander, the Navy sought to replace him with an admiral who would clean up the SEAL teams, with a mandate from both the Navy’s civilian leadership and Congress. On September 11, 2020, Rear Adm. Hugh Wyman Howard III was sworn in as the new commanding officer for the 3,000-strong Navy SEALs.
In the years since he’d led SEAL Team 6 as a captain, Howard had served in the Pentagon, Joint Special Operations Command, and then a tour as the commanding officer of the Special Operations Command Central, which organizes special operations in the Middle East for the military’s Central Command. But as a Team 6 commander, Howard had a more dubious claim to fame: He had procured for his SEALs custom-made tomahawks, which some used to mutilate and desecrate enemy fighters killed on the battlefield. The two-star admiral — who had once shown off a bloodied hatchet after an operation and whose loyalty to the SEAL teams above all else had once led him to advise a peer to “protect the brand” at all costs — was given the task of holding the SEALs accountable. For SEALs old enough to have served during the height of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, Howard’s promotion to lead the elite unit was a clear case of the fox guarding the henhouse. His promotion, like those of Szymanski and Gallagher, suggested that the bad guys had already won the SEALs’ internal culture war.
The public has been given a different account of SEAL Team 6 and the larger Navy SEAL community. During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last year, Howard testified that he had created an instruction program focused on preventing war crimes, an implicit acknowledgment of the SEALs’ troubling history. “It is a defining characteristic of our community that we value ownership and accountability for our actions,” Howard told senators. “We will be strong in character, strong in accountability, strong in moral and ethical foundations, and strong in leadership.” Howard’s efforts to fix the SEAL community’s problems also involved drastically reducing the size of the force and limiting the number of SEALs who serve overseas. The SEALs are “a team humble in triumph and fully accountable in failure,” Howard wrote to his command and then provided to a Washington Post columnist for a glowing paean to his leadership.
There is no moment more solemn in the life of a SEAL than when he receives his Trident. The American eagle pin, with its tripartite symbol, which combines an anchor, flintlock pistol, and trident, is affixed to the chest of each graduate of Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL school, known as BUD/S. It is worn only by those who have demonstrated the capacity to survive their training and operate at the highest level amid the most arduous conditions. Few designations are more coveted within the U.S. military. And few, if any, command as much respect.
For all the bravery of the Navy SEALs, they have shown a consistent lack of moral courage when it comes to facing the truth.
But the Trident embodies a contradiction central to the SEALs: We ask these men to do terrible things and to do so with the utmost honor. Like so many tasks assigned to the SEALs, this may seem impossible. But it is not. It requires exceptional men capable of exceptional courage — both physical and moral. Many of the SEALs I’ve spoken to in my decade reporting on the unit have demonstrated that. Unfortunately, the teams haven’t fulfilled this ideal. Instead, too many SEALs have taken an easier path, navigating this contradiction through lies, cover-ups, and silence. The Naval Special Warfare Command and SEAL Team 6 have enabled this — through willful blindness to misdeeds and the use of promotions and medals as a distraction, even for those whose conduct has been questioned by many of their peers.
The SEALs are not alone in this state of denial. The American public launders this uncomfortable truth through the hero myth of the SEAL. This mythology is perpetuated — and commodified — by the media, publishing, and Hollywood. We celebrate the SEALs’ acts of bravery and bask in their victories, but we fail to show the courage to confront the truth — and what it means for our nation each time the Trident is awarded to a new SEAL.
For all the bravery of the Navy SEALs, they have shown a consistent lack of moral courage when it comes to facing the truth. In the days and weeks after 9/11, the George W. Bush administration wrote a blank check for a military action that continues two decades later. In August 2021, President Joe Biden withdrew the last U.S. troops from Afghanistan, formally ending the war there 20 years after it began. But withdrawing the troops did not end American conflict abroad. Even as the Biden administration withdrew forces from Afghanistan, it made clear that it would shift some of those same resources to nearby countries so that the U.S. military could conduct “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism operations. “Our troops are not coming home,” Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., said at a congressional hearing shortly after the Afghanistan withdrawal. “We need to be honest about that. They are merely moving to other bases in the same region to conduct the same counterterrorism missions, including Afghanistan.”
The Afghanistan War represents only part of the endless war on terror. The political decision by the Bush administration to invade Iraq, topple Saddam Hussein’s regime, and occupy the country, for example, may represent America’s single worst foreign policy decision in its history. Each conflict generates the next. American forces will remain in Syria, Somalia, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Yemen, and the Philippines, where they will potentially be used to conduct lethal operations. The collective toll is not over. And for almost as long as these conflicts have been going on, we have been paying their price.
How do we weigh the SEALs’ mythic status against the corrupt and violent acts carried out — and covered up — by SEAL operators and leaders?
The American government has portrayed the SEALs as our mightiest warriors. The public has come to view them as the most heroic and brave among us. But the SEALs themselves, who have been marketed as the best of what the American military has to offer, know that they too are casualties of these conflicts. Some of their wounds occurred when bullets and bombs hit their bodies on battlefields. Many more lay deeper, developing night after night, deployment after deployment, year after year, when they were sent to kill those deemed America’s enemies. The psychological and physical tolls are significant. Nearly every operator who served in these wars exits the military with varying levels of measurable disability: hearing loss, brain injuries, scars, arthritis in their knees, back, and joints. Many more carry a kind of collective moral injury, a burden that all Americans must share.
Even those who have exploited their service for wealth and celebrity are conscious of these moral injuries. In 2014, after former SEAL Team 6 operator Robert O’Neill — who according to several former SEAL Team 6 members, including a former teammate on the raid, had publicly misrepresented himself as the man who killed Osama bin Laden — separated from the Navy and began a new public speaking career, he expressed concern for how his men would fare after finishing their service. “All of these guys have killed more people than any criminal in American history,” O’Neill once told me. “I worry about how they are going to handle getting out.”
No American service members have ever conducted as much war, in such a personal way, as those from SEAL Team 6 and the rest of the forces that make up special operations. There is no precedent in our history, and so we are collectively embarking on a journey whose destination is not clear. The indications so far are not promising.
For the better part of the past five years, as a cascade of SEAL scandals became public, the refrain from the Naval Special Warfare community was that each case was isolated and didn’t reflect a trend or larger cultural problem. After SEAL Team 6 killed bin Laden in 2011, two of the SEALs on the mission, O’Neill and Matt Bissonnette, wrote books and did interviews in which both have been accused of misstating parts of the story to burnish their own images and increase the value of their accounts. The official Naval Special Warfare response was a stern letter to active-duty SEALs that implicitly chided post-service profiteering but did nothing to rebut the false claims. When the late SEAL Chris Kyle published “American Sniper,” presenting misleading and outright false accounts of his career and service, the response was the same. Even when SEALs violated their own “quiet professional” ethos, the mafia-like culture in the teams that SEAL Cmdr. Richard Marcinko exploited in establishing Team 6 only exacerbated a growing difficulty. And as in any war, providing oversight, not to mention criticism, of an elite band of warriors — national heroes — is not only unpopular but also political suicide.
How, then, do we weigh the SEALs’ mythic status against the corrupt and violent acts carried out — and covered up — by SEAL operators and leaders? There is oversight built into the structure of the Naval special forces and the military more broadly. The enlisted answer to officers; the officers answer to civilians; civilians answer to Congress; and Congress answers to American citizens. It is with ordinary American citizens, then, that the responsibility to hold the SEALs accountable ultimately rests.
There have been very few, if any, reform efforts, and the ones that may have happened have not been made public, a surprising outcome given all the books about leadership and character written by SEALs themselves. My reporting on SEALs has shown me just how entrenched the problems are, but I also know that change is possible, and what it might look like. The culture and code of silence and deceit can be eradicated, but it requires, ultimately, that the SEALs face what they already know to be true about what has occurred in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, and beyond, and those responsible admit that they betrayed their duty to their country.
One place to look for an accountability blueprint for addressing the SEALs’ transgressive code is in Australia. In November 2020, the Australian Defense Force released an inspector general’s report on alleged war crimes committed by Australia’s special forces in Afghanistan over 11 years, ending in 2016. The report detailed allegations of 39 unlawful killings as well as incidents of prisoner abuse. In most of the unjustified killings, the Afghan victim was unarmed, and most of the victims were in Australian custody when they were executed.
Nineteen Australian commandos were identified as being directly involved or complicit in war crimes. The report traced a culture of impunity, violations of the laws of war, and cover-ups. All the incidents involved the Special Air Service Regiment, the Australian equivalent of SEAL Team 6, or a sister special operations unit. The author, Maj. Gen. Paul Brereton, described one alleged war crime, which was redacted in the public version, as “possibly the most disgraceful episode in Australia’s military history.” The report was thorough and largely accepted as accurate by military brass and the public.
Nineteen Australian commandos were identified as being directly involved or complicit in war crimes.
The inquiry originated from a study conducted by a civilian sociologist, Dr. Samantha Crompvoets, who surveyed the Australian special forces community for the head of the command, Maj. Gen. Jeff Sengelman. Crompvoets looked at the sociology and cultural traits of special forces, conducting dozens of interviews with current and retired soldiers. In her study, the soldiers began to casually disclose witnessing or participating in war crimes, including murder and torture of detainees. After completing and submitting her report, Crompvoets shared what she’d heard in interviews with Sengelman, who was by then serving as the Australian army chief of staff. She understood that what she heard likely reflected just a small fraction of a larger problem. The inspector general’s report released in 2020 was the result of Crompvoets’s recommendation.
The Australian report placed responsibility for war crimes mainly with the enlisted soldiers at the tactical and battlefield level in the 2nd Commando Regiment, a special operations unit. But it also recognized that officers in Australia’s premier commando unit are too well trained not to understand how the unit’s ethos could end up creating a culture that enabled war crimes. The officers, the report said, “bear significant responsibility for contributing to the environment in which war crimes were committed, most notably those who embraced or fostered the ‘warrior culture’ and empowered, or did not restrain, the clique of noncommissioned officers who propagated it. That responsibility is to some extent shared by those who, in misconceived loyalty to their Regiment, or their mates, have not been prepared to ‘call out’ criminal conduct or, even to this day, decline to accept that it occurred in the face of incontrovertible evidence, or seek to offer obscure and unconvincing justifications and mitigations for it.”
The report recommended that the 19 commandos identified in the investigation, all of whom appeared to be enlisted, be referred for possible criminal prosecution for murder. In the fallout, 13 of the soldiers were issued notices that they were likely to be discharged. The report also recommended that the military revoke meritorious service awards that had been given at the conclusion of several of the deployments.
The report — and the fact that it was made public — were significant. News stories about some of the alleged war crimes also helped the public understand how broken their elite military commandos’ moral compasses had become. One video of an operation in Afghanistan showed an Australian soldier executing an unarmed and compliant Afghan man for no other reason than to kill. As shown in the video taken by a teammate on the mission, the shooting was an unambiguous murder.
There were few in Australia who defended the incident, but that didn’t equate to widespread support for the inspector general’s accountability recommendations. One of those recommendations was that unit be stripped of any collective military awards they’d received from any deployment during which war crimes were committed. The report did not suggest that most of the commandos, who had not behaved illegally or dishonorably, deserved to be punished along with those who did, but rather that the military could not in good conscience issue a unit an award for meritorious conduct when members of the unit had committed war crimes. Don’t punish the group for a few bad apples, the military and its public supporters argued in response. And in 2021, the Australian Defense Force rejected the recommendation.
Without Congress’s involvement, there is no chance of reform.
If replicated by the U.S. Department of Defense, a similar process would mean an independent investigation into Naval Special Warfare and SEAL Team 6, perhaps reporting the findings to congressional committees that oversee the military. Investigators would likely have to offer immunity to induce SEAL cooperation, and the investigation could serve as an informal truth-and-reconciliation commission for SEAL crimes. A final report would need to make substantial recommendations to both the Pentagon and Congress about potential consequences of the findings as well as reforms. What is certain is that without Congress’s involvement, either through oversight or administering the investigation itself, there is no chance of reform.
To date, the U.S. military has not chosen to follow the Australian example. In the fallout from the SEAL scandals, which were frequently and widely covered by the U.S. media, Congress required the Special Operations Command to conduct ethics training, accountability, and culture reviews in 2018 and 2019. In 2020, SOCOM determined that the recommendations from the previous studies had not been incorporated. That report, too, found that ethics were no problem in their units, including the Navy SEALs.
Days after Biden’s inauguration, the Defense Department’s inspector general announced in an internal department memo that the office would conduct a review of how the Special Operations Command had implemented the department’s Laws of War regulations and whether possible war crimes had been reported or investigated as required. The independent review covered special operations forces, such as the Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets, as well as the geographic command that oversees the areas where most special operations forces have fought since 9/11. Like the Obama administration when it dismantled the CIA’s torture program, the inspector general’s review sought to look forward rather than back. As a result, nothing changed.
In his first seven months as SEAL commander, Howard cut the number of SEAL platoons while expanding the number of men in each unit. The administrative move was meant to reduce the overall number of Navy SEALs in the hopes that by reducing quantity, the command could increase the quality of SEALs in the service. Howard does have his supporters. The military’s civilian leadership frequently praises him as a savvy, capable commanding officer. One former senior Pentagon official who worked with Howard described him as highly intelligent and hardworking, judgments that even his detractors share. “I don’t think there was anyone else in the SEAL officer corps who was better equipped to lead [Naval Special Warfare],” a former SEAL Team 6 officer told me.
All the same, it is unclear how committed Howard will be to reforming the force’s culture. A few months after he took over, after Biden won the 2020 presidential election, Howard set his sights on a different job. During the transition, Michèle Flournoy, the former under secretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration, became Biden’s leading candidate for defense secretary. Flournoy agreed to make Howard her military assistant, a position that would ensure him a third star. The move evaporated when Biden nominated Gen. Lloyd Austin instead. Howard has previously refused to respond to detailed questions about his career and conduct. Through an aide, he declined to speak to me for this article.
Howard’s ambition is legion in the teams. Last year, I interviewed a former special operator who served under Howard on more than one battlefield. The special operator told a story that one of Howard’s former peers had described years prior: Early in the war in Afghanistan, Howard led a successful assault mission, with the SEALs suffering no casualties and killing their targets. Afterward, while Howard briefed the operation, he got into a strenuous argument with an Air Force combat controller over who had killed one of the Afghan enemy fighters.
Not long afterward, as Howard began his rise within SEAL Team 6 as leader of Red Squadron and started giving out the $600 tomahawks to his SEAL operators, he and his fellow officers bragged about how their assault squadron, known internally as the “Redmen,” were such great leaders on the battlefield that they would also make great leaders of the country. After they finished their military service, Howard and his colleagues argued, Red Squadron officers should become senators and presidents. If they could lead elite SEALs into battle, they reasoned, then they could serve as the nation’s leaders. This fever dream became a “running joke” at the command, one of Howard’s former peers told me. It resurfaced more than a decade later when Howard, then a one-star, told some of his staff that SEAL Team 6 had a plan to cultivate and support one of their former officers to run for president.
Their choice, according to Howard: Howard himself. He has told as many as will listen that he intends to be the first Navy SEAL president.
Given the promotions and career achievements of SEAL leaders like Howard who have failed to check the force’s excessive violence, there is reason to doubt that anything will change in the teams without significant pressure from Congress.
There is reason to be hopeful, however, about bringing an end to the SEAL code of silence and corruption. One distinctive Team 6 characteristic is that SEALs withhold virtually nothing among themselves. Their team room is their ultimate safe space, a place where honesty is not only consistent but also prevalent. It is from these SEALs that I gathered accounts of some of their teammates’ most damning crimes. These SEALs spoke because they were frustrated, disheartened, and disillusioned with Naval Special Warfare. They described the reality of what they did, saw, and knew while dedicating themselves to uphold American values and protect the Constitution. They represent the most patriotic among their peers precisely because they seek accountability and reform in their community.
Some will decry public accountability as a form of second-guessing our warriors, but nothing could be further from the truth. Democracy and freedom are founded on an informed public, vigorous public debate, and the accountability of our government institutions, which serve the nation. This is true whether it is the president who lies for political gain or an enlisted SEAL who lies for financial profit. If the American public truly cares about the fate of the men who have shouldered too much of our national burden — knowing what they did, what they went through, and how they continue to pay for their service — then it is critical that citizens demand accountability. Americans who celebrate the heroics of SEAL Team 6 must also understand the cost of their exploits.
This article was adapted from “Code Over Country: The Tragedy and Corruption of SEAL Team Six” by Matthew Cole, which will be published on February 22, 2022, by Bold Type Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc. Copyright © 2022 by Matthew Cole. All rights reserved.