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The Warrior Elite
The tip of America's spear
By Steven Martinovich
Who the world's best soldiers are has long been a matter for debate. Britain's Special Air Service, Russia's Spetnaz, the Gurkhas and Taiwan's LARC can legitimately claim that they are among the world's finest soldiers. The best, however, may be the US Navy SEALs, a formidable fighting force that proudly lists as an achievement never having left a man behind. Descendants of the frogman who during World War II suffered heavy casualties when they cleared beaches of obstacles so troop transports could land, the SEALs are today active in every part of the world and undertaking some of the most dangerous missions.
SEAL is an acronym for SEa, Air and Land, the environments that SEALs operate in. Their training gives them proficiency in diving, parachuting, combat swimming, navigation, demolitions, weapons and a laundry list of other skills necessary to complete their missions. In addition to water, where SEALs feel most at home, they are also trained to operate in the desert, the jungle, in cold weather and in urban settings.
It is their training that Dick Couch, SEAL Class 45 and former CIA officer, documents in The Warrior Elite: The Forging of SEAL Class 228. Allowed to follow a class of 98 men beginning in October 1997, Couch details the 27 week Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) course, a brutal process which takes some of America's finest soldiers and eliminates those without the desire or ability to become the nation's sharpest sword. In the process of following Class 228, one that through the book suffers the steady attrition of men the SEALs are exclusively an all male fraternity who simply quit or are unable to continue for mental or physical reasons, Couch attempts to answer the question of what would make a man volunteer for a brutal lifestyle that forces him to stay awake days at a time and requires that he perform the necessary skills perfectly every time.
BUD/S training is divided into three distinct phases: conditioning, diving and weapons and tactics. Trainees, not surprisingly perhaps, usually identify Phase 1 as the most difficult. There the men go through "calculated mayhem, designed to force each man in the class to reassess his personal commitment" to become a SEAL. For four weeks, their ranks are winnowed each day by what seems to be endless physical training. The first phase is capped off by the ultimate Darwinian test: Hell Week. For five days, the remaining trainees participate in what is essentially around the clock training with only five scheduled hours of sleep. To survive the experience, each man must learn that they simply have to take the physical punishment and not anticipate that which is yet to come.
Phase 2 sees the physical requirements for the survivors toughened once again as they learn the skills needed in the water. Once again, a physically battering training regimen emphasizes long distance underwater dives with the goal of training students to become basic combat divers, using swimming and diving techniques as a means of transportation from their launch point to their combat objective. Couch makes it fairly clear that the nine weeks of Phase 3 may be the most difficult. Again, the physical training is ratcheted upwards as the students learn navigation, small unit tactics how the SEALs operate, patrolling and demolitions with the final four weeks are spent employing all of their skills.
BUD/S training takes a terrible toll on the men of Class 228. Couch's look at their training also functions like constantly diminishing total of men. At the the end of Hell Week, only 19 original members of the incoming class are left standing. Replenished by a constant stream of medical rollbacks and the return of men forced to postpone their training in other classes, Class 228 nevertheless ends its 27th week with only 20 men who will go on to more advanced training. All told, only one man in five was left standing at the end of what is essentially basic training for SEALs.
So what is it that drove the successful men of Class 228? Why would the best of America's sons volunteer for the torture that it takes to become a Navy SEAL? Unfortunately there isn't any one answer, as Couch points out. Some men are driven by their need to prove that they can stand with the best while others simply refuse to quit. Whatever that intangible quality is, America is the better for it. From their predecessors the frogman to the SEALs who struck the Vietcong and NVA in their strongholds to the handful of SEALs who fooled Iraq into thinking that the Gulf War would begin with an amphibious assault and froze elements of two divisions, they have consistently proven that they are the best of the best.
And they are likely proving it right now. Written before the September 11 terrorist attacks, Couch is eerily prescient when he writes that, "The Middle East, with its unique blend of religious fundamentalism, despotism, and petroleum-driven wealth, could quickly draw us into another regional war." It's a safe bet that the tip of the spear is already there, preparing the way for the greater war against terrorism. Whatever powered the men of Class 228 to suffer through the ordeal that creates a SEAL, we can be sure the Taliban and its allies will likely experience it firsthand.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.
Buy Dick Couch's The Warrior Elite: The Forging of SEAL Class 228 from Amazon.com for only $16.80 (30% off).
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