Book Review - Alpha
Alpha - Eddie Gallagher and The War for the Soul of the Navy SEALS, David Philipps
This is an excellent book that is sure to stir up passionate, and at times, angry debate. It covers the case of SEAL Chief Eddie Gallagher, his handling of his SEAL platoon in Iraq, the charges of murder levied against him, the trial, and the aftermath. The book is wonderfully written, keeping my interest through its entirety. I read it in two days. It is a "can't put down" book. Even in areas where I thought I would glaze over (like during the coverage of the trial-I hate detailed trial reporting), Philipps not only kept my interest, but the author actually made it exciting. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the SEALS, Iraq, our various long wars in the Middle East, and ethical issues.
For those who do not know, Gallagher was charged with murder after he was turned in by members of his platoon. The charges claimed that Gallagher, during the battle for Mosul, had stabbed an ISIS prisoner and killed him, as well as having taken sniper shots at civilian Iraqis who were not combatants. Gallagher claimed his innocence, saying that members of his platoon were cowards who disliked his tough command style and were plotting to get rid of him. In the end, Gallagher was acquitted of the charges.
Philipps makes a strong case for Gallagher's guilt of the murder and his guilt in exhibiting poor leadership and command abilities. The "truth" will depend on the reader's point of view. Those who view the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as immoral actions will agree with the view that Gallagher was guilty. Those who take the position that ISIS is evil, war is brutal, and a dirtbag was killed, good riddance will see justice in Gallagher's acquittal. I leave it to the reader to make his or her determination as to whom to believe and what position to take.
There are some points that come out in the book that go beyond a straightforward murder case. As the subtitle points out, this was a battle for the soul of the SEALS. According to the author, there is an informal subgroup of SEALS called the Pirates. They originated during the Vietnam War. As I noted, this is an informal group, mostly of a like mind. That is, those who believe the SEALS do not answer to any real chain of command. They are given a mission and carry it out how they believe best and do not have to answer to any authority. Mission first. This group was sprinkled throughout the SEALS and some have come into positions of command where they influence other SEALS and turn out a new generation of Pirates. Philipps argues that Gallagher was one such Pirate.
The key point of the trial, other than straightforward holding someone accountable for murder, was to demonstrate to the SEALS that the Pirates did not represent the SEAL warrior ethos.
Another point I took away was the dysfunctional command situation in Alpha platoon, the origin of the title of the book. Whether you believe Gallagher innocent or guilty, the fact that at least half the platoon turned against Gallagher as a result of his erratic behavior, and that the platoon—for all intents and purpose—became combat ineffective not through casualties but through morale and leadership issues, points to Gallagher being a poor platoon leader. Part of the blame also goes to the Lieutenant theoretically in charge.
One of the more frightening aspects of the story was how quickly the entire situation became politicized. Gallagher, his wife, and Fox News took up the cry to defend Chief Gallagher. The media blitz they conducted was designed to catch the attention and support of President Trump in the hopes that he would intervene on the side of Gallagher. They succeeded. I will leave the details for you to read, but the result was that Gallagher became untouchable, and even those associated with the trial who had lied or were clearly guilty of dereliction of duty could not be held accountable. The Navy command had lost control of one small element of its forces. Some will argue that this was only justice, correcting an egregious miscarriage committed by Navy leadership, but that is a slippery slope.
Finally, there were those who argued that we had to be more terrible than ISIS if we were to defeat them, including the then President. The problem with this mindset is that in counterinsurgency, the goal is to deny the enemy the support of the population and instead win their support to your side. Being really terrible leads to opposite results. The population starts to hate your side. Given a choice between a terrible foreign force and a terrible local force that at least shares similar cultural and religious values, the people will opt for the latter.
In closing, this is not only an excellent read but a very important book. It is not only about the battle for the soul of the Navy SEALS, but also a battle for the soul of America. Who do we want to be?