April 4, 2016
Navy SEALs to other Navy SEALs: Don’t write books about being Navy SEALs
by Mark Krotov
In the years since Osama bin Laden’s death, Navy SEALs’ public profile has risen considerably. And, as with most things, books are responsible.
Though some books—like Marcus Luttrell’s Lone Survivor—became blockbusters before 2011, the killing of bin Laden by SEAL Team 6 led to a sharp increase in SEAL-themed and -authored literary output.
Chris Kyle’s American Sniper and No Easy Day, by Matt Bissonette (whose pseudonym, Mark Owen, sounds a lot like Mark Bowden) are two of the most successful and well-known SEAL titles in recent years, but there have been many others: business manuals, fatherhood books, inspirational tomes—the list goes on. (As we reported last year, bin Laden himself might very well have been interested in some of these books.)
According to a must-read front-page story in yesterday’s New York Times, “a half-dozen books are scheduled to roll off the presses in coming months, adding to the 100-plus published by former SEALs since 2001.” And also according to that story—by Nicholas Kulish, Christopher Drew, and Sean D. Naylor—not all SEALs are happy about the visibility:
In recent months, the Naval Special Warfare Command in Coronado, Calif., which oversees the elite force, has told its men to lower their profile and tried to rein in public appearances by active-duty members. The Pentagon imposed a rule last September restricting the appearance of service members in video games, movies and television shows. Current and former members have widely circulated a pointed critique—titled “Navy SEALs Gone Wild: Publicity, Fame, and the Loss of the Quiet Professional”—that laments the commercialization and warns that it is doing harm.
That critique, by a SEAL named Forrest S. Crowell, is rather stern in its condemnation of fellow SEALs who have leveraged their military affiliation into “the most tried-and-true method of self-promotion . . . via the publishing industry.”
One of these SEALs is Eric Greitens, a former SEAL and media star (and in-flight entertainer) who is running for governor of Missouri. Greitens was the subject of a damning video, posted in February, which claimed he was unfairly profiting off of—and misrepresenting—his time as a SEAL. And because this is 2016, Greitens responded with a sharp video of his own:
In his thesis, Crowell argues that contemporary SEALS’ pursuit of media stardom is a new phenomenon. Or at least, its intensity is:
[I]n the past . . . SEALS avoided turning their service into a commodified story immediately upon leaving active duty. Former SEALs today apparently see things differently, and have seized on the lucrative opportunity to cash in on their service . . . [T]he question is less about whether they can publish, and more about whether they should publish. The sheer number of SEAL-authored books represents a departure from the pre-9/11 norm, and a general tendency by SEALs to embrace a Market Ethos rather than the SEAL Ethos.
This tendency is so general that as Kulish, Drew, and Naylor point out in their piece, it was parodied a year and a half ago in an article in The Onion titled “Navy Forms Elite New SEAL Team To Write Best-Selling Tell-All Books.” “The battle-hardened soldiers,” the Onion’s anonymous geniuses wrote, “have also been known to quietly secure a $100,000 book deal with Dutton Penguin in as little as 15 minutes, according to sources.”
As the Times article makes clear, the SEALs’ command hasn’t been blameless in the force’s commercialization. Luttrell was given time off to write Lone Survivor (later adapted into a movie starring Mark “I’m not a hero” Wahlberg), and the command was heavily involved in the production of the 2012 movie Act of Valor, which featured performances by active-duty SEALs and was essentially a propaganda film.
This isn’t, then, simply a case of savvy service members exploiting their status and trying to pull one over on the public. Rather, it’s a very modern story of the mutually beneficial relationship between the entertainment industry and one of the military’s most heralded forces.
In other words, as long as the SEALs remain in the public eye, you can count on plenty of new books with the SEAL trident on the cover.
Mark Krotov was a senior editor at Melville House.