The trial, which took place in 2019, is more of a set piece: the dogged N.C.I.S. agent who assembles the evidence, the sinister consigliere whom Gallagher uses to get witnesses to pull back their story, the obnoxious but brilliant defense lawyer, the stumbling prosecutors, the jury, exclusively male, primarily enlisted, including one SEAL who Philipps asserts lied about having no prior relationship with Gallagher.
The trial is followed by a further set piece, in which Donald Trump leans on the Navy high command to inflict no penalties whatsoever on Gallagher, including reduction in rank and the removal of the prized SEAL Trident pin. Fox News personalities brayed in his defense, and the secretary of the Navy who tried to steer a middle course was eventually dismissed; he was caught between the demands of the service and the rage of a president who knew that his people loved the Gallagher type, and who rather liked murderous thugs who supported him.
But the most interesting part of this remarkable and engrossing book examines the SEALs as an institution and as a subculture within the military. The Special Operations community in the United States military consists of many subgroups — Delta, the Army’s elite, which is not the same thing as Special Forces (the Green Berets), as well as Air Force and Marine special units. The SEALs are different in several respects. They grew out of the underwater demolition teams of World War II, a roughneck outfit at odds with Navy culture from the outset. They operate chiefly on land (although they swim in and out if there is an opportunity to do so), and they have long had a reputation for pushing the limits of legality and indeed military ethics.
One of the more famous SEALs, Richard Marcinko, founded SEAL Team 6, an elite within an elite. He titled his memoir “Rogue Warrior,” and that’s what he was, which may explain why he was eventually convicted and jailed for conspiracy to defraud the government. But he merely embodied a culture that Philipps describes as piratical, and that went back at least to Vietnam, when the SEALs — far from anything like a regular chain of command — fought their own war as they wished, with little oversight and less concern for the rules. That included, at times, the rules that say you don’t kill prisoners and you don’t intentionally kill civilians.
Special Operations units must consist (and do) of individuals who push perseverance, courage and combat skills to the limit. They attract either some of the most eminently sane and honorable people one will ever meet, or the other kind — and Eddie Gallagher was most definitely of the other kind, though he was not alone. Yet both types remain human, and the misjudgments, betrayals and misconduct that Philipps documents bring that home. James Thurber’s Walter Mitty fantasized about heroic adventures: The kinds of people who join the SEALs get to live them, and while most remain thoroughly grounded in reality some end up in the grip of fantasies, including dark and hideous dreams that they turn into reality.