A nation that draws too broad a difference between its scholars and its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools.
—THUCYDIDES (460–400 BC)
Ancient Greece had nothing on modern America.
As I look around our nation today, the words of Thucydides keep bouncing inside my head. I see divisions at least as troubling as the ones the Greek general and historian warned about nearly twenty-five hundred years ago. On the civilian side, there’s a disturbing disconnect from the military. It’s not just that fewer Americans serve now. It’s that many people don’t even know anyone who does. On the military side, there’s a deepening mistrust of civilian leadership and an increasing frustration at being misunderstood. American soldiers and American civilians still pledge allegiance to the same stars and stripes. But how can we ever hope to understand each other if we live like two separate tribes?
The civilians say, “You take care of all the messy stuff.” The soldiers say, “Then let us do our jobs.”
But I am a thinker and a fighter. I am an engaged U.S. citizen and a fiercely loyal U.S. Navy SEAL. A bridge builder by temperament and a warrior by trade, I believe that despite our many differences, most Americans really are on the same side. We love our country. We want what’s best for it. We have strong feelings about what that might entail, even when we keep those feelings to ourselves or share them only with a few like-minded relatives and friends. Until recently, people in our country weren’t content to leave the politics to the politicians, the professing to the professors, or the soldiering to the men and women in uniform. Why start now?
One of the most powerful forces our Founding Fathers set loose nearly two and a half centuries ago was the idea of everyday citizens energetically engaged in defining a future that belonged to everyone and then helping to make it real. We need to ignite that spirit of patriotic service again. With this book, I hope to light that fuse.
I have been training for this duty as long as I can recall. A lifelong patriot, a Division I athlete, a voracious reader, a multidisciplinary scholar, a veteran officer in a premier U.S. special-operations fighting force. I had thirteen years of very active SEAL duty: deployed to Central and South America, East and West Africa, Afghanistan and Iraq. Leading two hundred successful combat missions. Helping to create Iraq’s Sunni awakening in 2006. Running every phase of SEAL training, from day-one induction to Hell Week to our advanced finishing schools. Advising a senior SEAL admiral on a wide range of issues from deck-plate discipline to matters of deep national concern. Briefing congressional committees on special-operations readiness. On Navy orders, I represented the SEAL brotherhood by taking a leading role in the real-life action-adventure film Act of Valor. We made sure our story was told authentically and compellingly enough to create a number one Hollywood blockbuster that the teams could also feel was speaking for them. My first book, Damn Few, was a multiweek New York Times best seller that explained how the SEALs are creating a new generation of warriors uniquely suited for the asymmetrical threats America faces today. Now I’m a successful public speaker and leadership consultant, advising top companies on teamwork, motivation, and high-performance techniques. Helping people work together is what I have always done, in military and civilian life.
As a Navy SEAL officer at war, a key part of my duty was to create common ground among a team of talented but headstrong individuals. At the start of any new mission, I liked to pull fifteen to twenty adrenaline-fueled special operators into a room—snipers, breachers, communicators, translators, and the rest. All of them would be itching for action, coiled and ready to strike. They all had strong notions about how to accomplish the next assault. I would arrive with a clear plan in my own mind. But however many guys there were in the briefing room, that’s how many opinions we had. I’d listen carefully to my men. I’d give everyone a chance to contribute and be heard. I’d encourage them to weigh one another’s ideas. With all of their input and my own insights, I’d forge a battle plan that everyone would be expected to get behind. That was my job—to build that plan and to rally those troops. Then we’d go out and get lethal, assaulting a target or barreling around the IEDs on a pockmarked highway or walking a foot patrol through an urban-enemy sniper nest, risking our lives together as a well-oiled, singularly focused, action-ready team. It’s a fascinating process—bringing that team together—and a beautiful thing to behold.
Contrast that with the way America now confronts its largest issues. Pundits are shouting. Washington is paralyzed. Prejudices are festering. Motives are questioned. Blue states are certain that red states are heartless. Red states are certain that blue states are clueless. There’s little core agreement on what makes America great. And the world gets dicier every day. With each new issue that comes spinning around, too many people pick a side, hold on tight, and choose not to be bothered with other points of view. This may sound hopeless, but it doesn’t have to be. SEALs always have a plan.
• • •
America asks a lot of its warriors, expecting us to carry the weight of the nation solidly on our shoulders. The SEALs ask even more. Every day, we are expected to “earn the Trident”—that’s the expression we use. The Trident is our warfare insignia. On the rare occasions a SEAL wears his uniform, you’ll see a golden Trident pin above the other medals and decorations on the left side of his chest. Look closely. There’s a lot of meaning in that symbol. The spear is a nod to Poseidon and our maritime heritage. The old flintlock pistol is cocked and ready like SEALs are expected to be. The American eagle has its head bowed, reminding us to remain humble at all times. Every branch of the service has its own symbolic guideposts. The Trident is ours. But all of us in uniform, regardless of where we serve, advance hugely complex interests in horribly confusing parts of the world. We are sent into battle with inadequate numbers on missions frequently ill-defined. The allies are iffy. The cultures are damn near impenetrable. The enemies are deeply entrenched. And we keep performing brilliantly. When the mission takes too long or spills too much blood, the public quickly turns impatient. The veterans are welcomed home with slapdash support and a few kind words. “Thank you for your service,” though appreciated, goes only so far.
Upon our return, hardly anyone asks us what we have learned or how we might contribute, least of all the leaders who sent us off to war. What have we discovered about our enemies? Where are the fault lines in this clash of cultures? Which wars can be brought to satisfying conclusions and which ones cannot? What do our troops need most as they get on with their lives? Warriors know things that politicians don’t have a clue about. These warriors have to be pulled into the national dialogue.
The pundits have spoken. The policy makers have too. So have the politicians and interest groups. Warriors are rarely the first to the microphone or the keyboard. We usually deliver our messages by other, more violent means. But fifteen years into our latest conflicts, it’s long past time for a fresh, terror-age take on what it is we are fighting and sometimes dying for and what lessons we have learned along the way.
As a special-operations military professional, I refuse to be a captive of any particular political ideology or social outlook. In my experience, they all have severe limitations—though also make some valuable contributions. The best people in uniform are experts at achieving impossible tasks in highly challenging environments—keeping the goal clearly in mind, whatever the threats and limitations may be. SEALs are better at this than anyone else. We’ve been out there, doing the nation’s business. We and America’s other thoughtful warriors should be heard.
• • •
Like many thinking warriors, I take guidance from important strategists and leaders who have come before me. Thucydides isn’t the only one. There’s Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, Lincoln, Churchill—I can’t begin to imagine how much poorer my thinking would be if it weren’t for their fertile minds.
As I wrestle with these issues, it is Marcus Aurelius who provided the structure of how to proceed. The Roman emperor from AD 161 to 180 left a collection of private notes to himself, twelve books in all, that together are known as his Meditations. He did not intend for them to be published. They were for his own self-improvement. Together, they provide a unique and candid view of a great leader’s thinking as he plans a series of bold military campaigns. His writing style is unpretentious. He has a stoic attitude and a strong ethical sense. Even two thousand years later, you get a vivid sense of a brilliant mind at work.
“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be,” he writes. “Be one.”
“Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.”
“Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.”
“If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.”
It is stunning to know that he wrote all of this two millennia ago.
I take his words not only as inspiration but also as a challenge. Our experiences at war, his and mine, were very different but also parallel in many ways. His station in life was far more elevated than mine will ever be, but he sets an excellent standard of inquiry.
In the pages to come, I will apply my officer’s insights and battlefield experience—my own unique SEAL-sense—to ten pressing issues raised by America’s new era at war. What makes a hero. How to be brave. The right and the wrong ways to kill. How we can better align military and civilian America. What we really owe our returning veterans. There will be a lot of talk about service, which is where everything else begins. My aim here isn’t to cover every aspect of being a warrior for America or a nation semipermanently at war. Instead, I will focus on a handful of key topics and lay down some broader principles. I want to help create a common language for a smarter public conversation, despite our dumbed-down politics and a gaping military-civilian divide.
Let’s reconnect our soldiers and our scholars and everyday Americans too. Everyone needs to be in this fight. We can’t afford to leave the country we love in the dangerous hands of cowards and fools.
A Navy Seal’s Call to a Nation
Worth Dying For
A Navy Seal’s Call to a Nation
Heroes are not always the guys who jump on grenades. Sometimes, they are the snipers who decide to hold their fire, the wounded operators who find fresh ways to contribute, or the wives who keep the families together back home. Even a SEAL commander—especially a SEAL commander—knows that. But what’s a hero, really? What do we have a right to expect from our heroes? How should we hold them accountable? Amid all the loose talk of heroes, these questions are seldom asked.
As a SEAL commander, Rorke Denver is uniquely qualified to answer questions about what makes a hero or a leader, why men kill, how best to serve your country, how battlefield experiences can elevate us, and most importantly, why we fight and what it does for and to us. In Worth Dying For, Denver tackles many of these issues by sharing his personal experiences from the forefront of war today.
Denver applies some of his SEAL-sense to nine big-picture, news-driven questions of war and peace, in a way that appeals to all sides of the public conversation. By broadening the issues, sharing his insights, and achieving what civilian political leaders have been utterly unable to, Denver eloquently shares answers to America’s most burning questions about war, heroism, and what it all means for America’s future.
- Howard Books |
- 240 pages |
- ISBN 9781501124112 |
- April 2016