Saturday, May 16, 2015

Book Reviews: Damn Few: Making the Modern SEAL warrior

Damn Few: Making the Modern Seal Warrior
by Rorke Denver w/ Ellis Henican
When is the last time you really challenged yourself? It doesn't necessarily have to be a physical feat like weight loss or exercise. How often do you learn a new language, close an important deal at work, continue professional education, volunteer for a difficult assignment, write a novel, start a blog, change careers, or otherwise leave your comfort zone to improve yourself?  You can improve your knowledge and become a better human being by stretching yourself beyond your boundaries. By definition, most of us fall within the normal distributions of human accomplishment. Some people have the drive and discipline to improve and test themselves continually. They are working their plan, not someone else's. And a small percentage of people decide for whatever reason to join the Navy and become SEALs. It's the story of those men that Rorke Denver, a Navy SEAL, combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan,  Bronze Star recipient, SEAL training director and Commander in the SEAL reserves tells in Damn Few. The very first thing that you notice in this book is that unlike some other central figures in military stories, Denver comes across as humble. He's not looking to prove anything to the reader or to anyone else. I think that's in part because of his makeup and also because he's already proven himself to his wife, family, fellow military teammates and most importantly, to himself. So even when he's discussing things that are very difficult or seemingly superhuman he maintains a matter of fact and occasionally self-deprecating tone. So this was a very easy book to read. I doubt that Denver is telling us everything that he knows about being a SEAL or everything he's done in the military but he does provide a very interesting look inside the Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL school or BUD/S, and the many other schools and classes which prospective SEALs must pass before receiving their trident and becoming a SEAL. There are (or were when Denver wrote the book) roughly around 2500-3000 active duty SEALs at any given time. It's an elite organization. 

Denver talks about how pre 9-11 there wasn't as much for SEALs to do. Few people outside military circles knew of SEALs. After 9-11 everything changed. SEALs were on the front lines, but were also taking on some very critical secret missions. Denver finds good and bad in this raised profile. Civilian leadership and military brass were impressed with SEAL capabilities. They wanted more SEALs. The lower ranking SEALs and training instructors enjoyed the acclaim but didn't want to lower standards to make more SEALs. Denver mentions that he wouldn't be too eager to lead a platoon of men who needed more than a few chances to pass various physical or mental tests. Mistakes and lack of attention to detail get people killed.

Denver writes of serious conflicts between superior officers from "Big Navy" as he calls them, who tell SEALs that the request to increase headcount wasn't really a suggestion but an order, and those stubborn lower level instructors who, when pressured to alter standards or do outreach, make the training even more difficult. The SEALs are not necessarily scalable.
Denver explains that although the training is and will remain extremely challenging, it's not actually designed to physically break men but to reveal what's inside them, strengthen them and make them rely on each other. He shares his experiences as a SEAL candidate, (he was initially rejected) combat veteran and training leader to illustrate the SEAL values. I learned a lot from this book. I did not know, for example, that the infamous Hell Week, in which the men only get 4 hours of sleep the entire week and are doing physical exercise or labor of some sort for about 20 hours each day, is not the final point of BUD/S but merely the end of an early phase. Most men who pass Hell Week become SEALs but completing Hell Week does not make you a SEAL. Hell Week has a high drop out rate. It's not always the biggest or physically toughest guys who succeed. Intelligence, teamwork, stubbornness, and a competitive nature are just as important. Denver does not shy away from the training's ultimate purpose. Killing. He doesn't glorify killing or revel in gruesome details. But he's not ashamed of it either. Denver shares a story about a putative SEAL, who when faced with very realistic looking targets, decided to drop out.  The man was distressed to face the reality that he would be killing someone's brother, son, or father. Denver respected that decision. Everyone must find their own path. 

Denver's path saw him leading hundreds of missions as a SEAL officer. He saw action from Colombia to Afghanistan, Liberia to Iraq and elsewhere. If you are curious about what motivates someone like Denver and how a self-described member of the warrior caste deals with the morality of his actions, or if you just want to read about people operating at the very limits of physical human capacity, Damn Few is a good book to read.  You will have a better idea of what it's like to swim in near freezing water, do 4 mile sprints in combat boots, jump from a plane at 25,000 feet or higher, eat 7000 calories a day and still lose weight, swim underwater with your legs and arms tied or perform three hours of punishment exercises because you failed a room inspection. Even if you are resolutely opposed to war or dislike hagiographical biographies of military personnel (which this book isn't btw) Damn Few is an excellent reminder that whatever unfair external forces impact you, what you get out of life is very much related to what you put into it. As Denver writes that's the case regardless of what your chosen profession may be.

The vast majority of this book is not about combat. It's about the internal struggle Denver undertakes to become a better SEAL, a better team member, a better officer, a better husband and better father. Denver is keen to point out that SEALs are not Supermen. Nothing they do could be done without the support of the larger military and society. Denver also starred in the film Act of Valor, a fictionalized account of some SEAL missions. The film was notable for having real SEALs.
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