Friday, July 2, 2010

Navy SEAL class 228 has a lot of gadgets. They have scuba gear, diving equipment, oceanographic surveying equipment, NODs, high-tech wetsuits, and a cadre of well-trained support staff, including medical techs, dive instructors, and teachers.

The soldiers slogging across Normandy don't have fancy gear. Some of the soldiers bivouaced in the snow don't have winter boots or adequate uniforms. Or hot water. Or enough fuel. Or a clear communication line, or a tank that can actually maneuver in the mud, or enough medics, or enough medical supplies, or topographic intelligence, because of they did, they would have gotten some warning that, hey, those famed hedgerows of Normandy are actually impenetrable walls of foliage that a tank can't get through and this is going to be more like a fatal chess game than a ground battle.

But some of the trainees in Navy SEAL class 228 kept moving forward, and so did most of the soldiers who slogged around for months and months in the frozen mud, and that is why there are Navy SEALs and I am not writing this post in German.

Dick Couch, author of Warrior Elite, is a former Navy SEAL. He was given unprecedented access to the training of Class 228, and Warrior Elite follows the men of Class 228 as they progress through, or fail, or quit, the Navy SEAL training program. Couch's book gives the reader a methodical overview of the training program, and explains why each torturous trial was developed and what it is supposed to test. It also reveals the sometimes surprising reasoning behind what it takes to be a SEAL - not the fastest, not the strongest, but the most determined.

What is most interesting about Couch's book is the personal progression of the SEAL trainees, as some of the strongest candidates break down and elect to leave the program. Warrior Elite is surprisingly heartbreaking, particularly when trainees are forced to leave the program because of injuries. One of the strongest trainees, nicknamed Otter because of his prowess in the water, finishes Hell Week and exceed all expectations, only to be dropped because of a sinus infection that leaves him unable to finish the dive testing. Terse, spare, and to the point, Warrior Elite ultimately proves to be a very touching book.

Stephen Ambrose is probably one of the most accomplished military historians and authors today. I think a large part of his success is not only that his books are eminently readable and impeccably researched, but that he wisely steps back and, whenever possible, lets the words of those who fought remain the focus.

Citizen Soldiers collects interviews with the soldiers, officers, and medical personnel. Ambrose's arrangement of the information is masterful; instead of dividing up the history by battle, he chooses to devote chapters to different parts of the American forces, from the Air Force, doctors, medics, and nurses, and prisoners of war. This gives Citizen Soldiers a startling complexity and provides a multiplicity of viewpoints, including from German soldiers and European civilians.

Citizen Soldiers has moments of equally astonishing brutality and mercy; from soldiers who executed unarmed enemy combatants to soldiers (sometimes the same soldiers) who showed humanity to prisoners and enemies alike under the worst of conditions. Ambrose also shows how miraculous the victory in Normandy actually was.

Reading these two works side by side raises an interesting point - the Class 228 trainees are there because they volunteered, and even being placed in a BUD/S class is an accomplishment. Many of the soldiers in Normandy were draftees. The debate over the relative merits of an all-volunteer army continues to rage (see, Jacob Weisberg's 2006 Slate article, and The New York Review of Books by Michael Massing, "Who Fights and Why?".)

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