American Achilles

In war, truth is the first casualty.

Aeschylus

The Greek warrior Achilles occupies a unique place in legend and lore as one of the first anti-heroes in western literature. The protagonist of Homer’s Iliad, Achilles is invincible in battle, immortalized by his prowess in the profession of arms, and truly heroic not only in the eyes of his compatriots but in his own. Yet there is another narrative here. The Iliad is a story of anger and revenge; of bloodlust and desecration; of envy, pride, and ambition; and of moral wrong in war. This narrative is not that of an immortal hero, but that of a flawed mortal man.

David Phillips’ new book, ALPHA: Eddie Gallagher and the War for the Soul of the Navy SEALS, recounts the competing narratives that swirled around Chief Edward “Eddie” Gallagher, the Navy SEAL charged with war crimes committed during his 2017 combat tour in Iraq. Gallagher would be tried by court-martial in 2019 and acquitted of all charges save one. The case was a topic of national and international news, created a social media firestorm, challenged the top military and civilian leadership of the Navy, and infuriated the President of the United States.

A gifted writer who captures the raw and unfiltered language of the SEALs in his book, Phillips is also a demonstrably dogged researcher who spent two years in his effort “to sift the facts from a pile of confusion, misinformation and intentional lies.” In ALPHA, Phillips pieces together a narrative of SEAL Team 7, Alpha platoon, from thousands of pages of Navy documents and court transcripts, personnel records, videos, and thousands of text messages from Gallagher and the members of Alpha platoon. The author also made attempts to interview Gallagher for the book; all were refused.

But Gallagher was never silent. In public, he denied every accusation. On a website, on social media, and through members of his family, Gallagher told his story. In the recently released AppleTV docuseries, The Line, directed by Doug Schultz and Jeff Zimbalist, Gallagher appears in numerous interviews throughout the four episodes. The Line also captures the raw and unfiltered language of Alpha platoon, not only in sit-down interviews, but in unedited helmet camera combat videos taken during the fierce fight for control of Mosul, Iraq. As companion works on the same subject, the book and the docuseries are insightful, disturbing, provocative, and revelatory.

Making the Myrmidons?

At the time of his 2017 deployment to Iraq, Gallagher was highly trained, well regarded, and exceptionally skilled. He had passed through the crucible of Navy Basic Underwater Demolition/SEALs (BUD/S) training and wore the coveted gold Trident, the special operations warfare pin. He had been designated as a BUD/S instructor, joining a cadre of men of “pure muscle and menace . . . striking down hubris like ancient gods” tearing down SEAL candidates and rebuilding them as the Navy’s most elite warriors. Gallagher was a veteran of eight combat tours, a decorated sailor with two Bronze Stars, and he was advanced under the rigorous scrutiny of competitive boards that ranked him against his peers to become a non-commissioned officer (NCO), Chief Special Warfare Operator.

Assigned to Alpha platoon of Seal Team 7, Gallagher was the senior enlisted leader of the unit and drove that group of eighteen men relentlessly. “Alpha had been known for a number of years as one of the worst platoons . . . But it had quickly become the best. And a big reason for that, they all knew, was Chief Eddie Gallagher.” What Achilles was to the Myrmidons, Gallagher was to Alpha. He was respected and admired by men of the platoon, “he pushed them to focus on the stuff they’d need in combat but didn’t sweat needless stuff . . . He was their leader, their mentor, and their friend.” 

In short, Gallagher appeared to be all that the Navy and the nation expected and demanded of SEALs, and as Phillips explains:

They were the men who in the absence of broad strategic victory could still deliver wins—the guys who shot terrorists in the face and dropped from helicopters onto cargo ships to free hostages, the guys who killed Osama bin Laden. They were evidence that in the face of repeated military failures, America was still great. And the nation loved them for it.

During the run-up to Gallagher’s trial, this was the compelling narrative on social media platforms and in the conservative press that resonated with the American public and proved enduring, even undeniable for many. It was the welcome story of a troublesome young man who finally finds his way, marries his high school sweetheart, builds a successful military career, raises a family, is a mentor to his juniors, is admired by his seniors, and who willingly and courageously fights the nation’s wars.

But in the pages of ALPHA, Phillips tells another story, a narrative just as compelling but one without the shadows that cloaked the truth. Barely able to make it through high school, Gallagher struggled in the Navy. A drunken fistfight with an officer stained his record as did his poor scores on standard military aptitude tests. He failed to advance. His repeated applications to join the SEAL community were denied until the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drained the ranks that recruiters were pressed to fill. Gallagher failed his first try at the SEALs combat medical course despite his prior training as a corpsman. He was separated from his SEAL platoon in Afghanistan in 2009 for reasons that remain unclear. He assaulted a student when he was a BUD/S instructor but was then quietly reassigned. Gallagher also struggled with drug use. Gallagher was one of numberless SEALs who was addicted to the opiate Tramadol, kept it a closely guarded secret, and then enabled one another to illicitly secure the drug once it became a controlled substance. He was also dosing with the stimulant Provigil and injecting himself with testosterone.

Phillips’ portrait of Gallagher also paints him tellingly as a “darker, meaner human being,” and the dark side of the SEAL community appealed to Gallagher. Ever since the Vietnam War—and the SEALs’ participation in the notorious PHOENIX Program of CIA-orchestrated ambushes, kidnappings, torture, and murder—the community had struggled to find its identity as a warfighting community. The war divided the SEALs into two camps. The men in one camp saw themselves as a select brotherhood of warriors, loyal to country, committed to mission, and strengthened with a clear code of conduct. These men were sometimes “derisively called ‘boy scouts,’ who saw law and order as vital to both the mission and the brotherhood’s soul.” Then there were so-called “pirates.” Phillips describes these men as fiercely loyal to one another, wedded to violence, committed to secrecy, and who viewed the rule of law and good order and discipline as robbing them of freedom of action, the ability to make decisions in the moment, and as hopelessly naïve:

To them that law and order stuff was a useful beard for visiting dignitaries, but not how things really worked. The purpose of the SEALS was to do the nation’s covert dirty work. Commando groups like theirs were created specifically to go beyond what was officially sanctioned—and to do it quietly and deniably . . . The pirates didn’t see themselves as parasites in the SEAL Teams, they saw themselves as the true SEAL Teams, the real brotherhood.

This then is the backstory of APLHA and of The Line, the story of a test that pushed some men to “the dark side of loyalty” and drove others to report the criminal conduct of one of their brothers in arms. It was, in the subtitle of ALPHA, “a war for the soul of the Navy SEALs,” and about crossing the line that separates moral conduct in war, jus in bello, from war crimes and atrocities. It is also the story of a failure of command leadership at the platoon and unit level and of wholly misguided attempts to protect a rogue warrior and the reputation of the SEAL community.

This remains a story of Homeric proportions—the story of a warrior, a deeply flawed man, brought down not by an enemy, but by his own hand.

Desecration of the Dead

In September 2018, more than a year after Alpha returned from Iraq, Gallagher was arrested and charged under the Uniform Code of Military Justice with 10 offenses—including pre-meditated murder, murder, and obstruction of justice—and 14 lesser charges. The charge of obstruction of justice was based on Gallagher’s alleged attempts to intimidate and threaten witnesses when he was awaiting trial. After months of failed efforts to get action on the reports they made up their chain of command, Alpha platoon eyewitnesses finally got to meet with Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) investigators. During interviews for ALPHA and The Line, these men described their confusion and frustration with the apparent cover-up. Inexplicably, none of the men had ever thought to report directly to the SEAL Group One commodore, the Naval Inspector General, or to use the NCIS hotline. Those options never even made it to the level of discussion in hundreds of text messages they exchanged or in the meetings they convened to decide whether and how to report what they had seen in Iraq.

The charges brought against Gallagher and his confinement sent a shockwave through the SEAL community and galvanized his friends, his family, and his wife, Andrea. Interviewed for The Line, Andrea Gallagher described how she decided to use her marketing skills to come to the aid of her husband.  Phillips makes no secret of his antipathy for Andrea and her role in the case. He stands on the left side of the divide in American culture and politics—the yawning chasm that separates conservatives and liberal progressives—and his writing reflects biases that taint what otherwise is consistently solid reporting. Phillips, for example, describes Andrea as wearing “body-hugging dresses” and as having “conventional Fox News good looks, a conservative Christian heartland worldview . . . loyalty to her husband, and a killer instinct.”

Andrea is indeed telegenic, well-spoken and outspoken, and very successfully built the narrative that Phillips loathes as a “story that checked all the boxes” for “a conservative media world that often peddled racially charged grievance news to a mostly white, mostly male, mostly old audience.” But her website “JusticeforEddie” soon attracted thousands of followers across the country and online t-shirt sales, auctions, and appeals for donations brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for expert legal counsel. While Andrea worked social media, Gallagher’s brother Sean—formerly a Congressional aid—worked the halls of Congress. Andrea and Sean would appear on Fox News programs more than a dozen times. Their campaign reached not just millions of Americans across the political spectrum, but also members of Congress and later caught the attention of President Donald Trump.

In contrast to the well-plotted campaign rolled out by the Gallagher family, ALPHA and The Line describe a Navy effort that was a media and public relations disaster—dogged by miscues, missteps, and mistakes. Then, just days before trial, the Navy judge in the case removed the lead prosecutor, Commander Chris Czaplak for professional misconduct. Interviewed for The Line months later, Czaplak still seemed bewildered but chastened by the turn of events. This is one of the great strengths of the docuseries: participants tell the story in their own words with little or no commentary save that needed to provide context for the on-screen interviews.

Phillips also recounts the evidentiary challenges Navy prosecutors faced in the Gallagher case. Initially, prosecutors had little more than what they believed to be credible eyewitness accounts to the murder of civilians and a captive. There was no body to examine, no forensic evidence, no murder weapon. Helmet cam videos were missing and many deployment photos on the platoon’s laptop had been wiped clean. But the search of Gallagher’s military base home unearthed the cell phone he had used on deployment and a trove of text messages and photographs. The most damning evidence was a “deer trophy” photo of ten members of Alpha lined behind a kneeling Gallagher and the corpse of an ISIS captive. Gallagher has his fingers twined in the dead man’s hair and is holding a hunting knife. A caption attached to the photo that was sent to a friend read: “Good story behind this, got him with my hunting knife.” The photo appears several times in episodes of The Line as does video footage of the captive from Iraqi television.

The Line brings viewers right into the courtroom for Gallagher’s trial. Artfully done, the producers recreated courtroom scenes by using stand-ins for the participants and positioning the camera to capture only what a courtroom spectator would see from a gallery seat. Audio of the trial was tracked over courtroom scenes filmed with soft focus and closed captioning was added; days of testimony were edited down to key moments and pivotal points of the trial. Brilliantly executed, this episode of the series captures the tension of the trial itself and is interwoven with interviews that also capture the thinking of the participants. These interviews add insightful explanations of defense tactics. The interviews with prosecution witnesses reveal their anxieties. They also reveal how they were shocked by a combative defense lawyer who launched devastating cross-examinations.

The most explosive testimony of the trial, however, seems almost obscured in The Line. Under oath and testifying under both a prosecutorial and Department of Justice grant of immunity, Petty Officer First Class Corey Scott, platoon medic, said he suffocated the prisoner and killed him. The prosecution’s key witness—who earlier claimed that he was kneeling by the wounded man to monitor his vital signs and saw Gallagher stab the captive—upended the trial. Phillips, who covered the trial for the New York Times, pens a critically incisive account of Scott’s testimony. In arguably the best-crafted analysis and opinion in the book, Phillips makes the devastating argument that defense lawyers suborned Scott’s perjurious testimony. In the chapter, “Woodshed,” the author of ALPHA dissects the complex stratagem he argues defense lawyers developed to exonerate Gallagher and protect Scott. Lawyers sometimes call the practice “woodshedding,” that is, taking a witness to the woodshed to rehearse false testimony.

Hearing Scott’s testimony, prosecutors were stunned; they were also defeated. The trial was over at that point, but the prosecutors continued to press the case calling additional witnesses only to open them to more withering cross-examination. Two days later the jury announced a verdict that acquitted Gallagher of all charges but one—the undeniable offense of posing for a photo with a dead enemy: desecration of the dead. Achilles took as his trophy the body of Hector and desecrated the corpse by dragging it through the dust beneath the walls of Troy. Gallagher took his trophy photo with the body of the ISIS fighter sprawled in the dust of a courtyard in Mosul. 

Taken together, ALPHA and The Line appear to exhaust nearly all the narratives that ebbed and flowed around Alpha platoon and Gallagher. These are works that are wholly well-crafted, researched in depth, insightful, and revealing. But the whole story has not yet been told. It may be that the deep divide among the Navy’s most elite warriors remains; some may keep blind loyalty as a touchstone while others may have been steeled in their moral resolve. To a man, the members of Alpha platoon who reported the crimes and testified said they would do it again.  Even so, this remains a story of Homeric proportions—the story of a warrior, a deeply flawed man, brought down not by an enemy, but by his own hand.

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