In recent years we’ve had a raft load of fanboy books by and about Navy SEALs and other special operators at war. But in Alpha, David Philipps, a reporter for The New York Times, has produced a serious study of a SEAL unit in crisis as it fought ISIS in Mosul, Iraq, in 2017. By Philipps’s credible account, the unit’s leader, Eddie Gallagher, was a one-man wrecking crew for ethical behavior. He murdered a teenage captive by plunging a knife into the helpless prisoner’s neck. He entertained himself by repeatedly firing his sniper rifle at people who clearly were civilians, such as old men, schoolgirls, and people doing their laundry in the Tigris River. He frequently disobeyed orders from his superiors and hid information about his unit’s whereabouts on the battlefield. He had a drug abuse problem.
The story gets worse. Gallagher’s immediate superior, a Navy SEAL lieutenant, was intimidated by him and went along with his misdeeds. The chain of command above that officer was aware of Gallagher’s behavior but did nothing to constrain him. Indeed, when the commander of SEAL Team 7, Robert Breisch, was told of possible war crimes violations by members of Gallagher’s team, instead of pursuing their allegations, as was his clear and legally required duty, he told them to report the violations themselves. But Gallagher’s immediate subordinate worried that if he vocally asked for an inquiry into the murder of the prisoner, Gallagher would find a way to kill him—which would be easy enough in a combat zone.
But Philipps’s book isn’t just about Gallagher. It’s about a system that enables evil because it doesn’t want to look bad. After the Mosul deployment, Gallagher was assigned to teach special operations urban warfare in the United States, and the compliant lieutenant was promoted to teach the art of command in such fights. Despite his justified fears of death, Gallagher’s concerned deputy went on to report the murder three times—only to have the Navy fail to act on each occasion. The institutional Navy’s response was to figure out a way to handle the situation quietly. When that failed and Gallagher’s story became major news, the Navy was still unable to discipline him, and the SEAL was embraced by high-level political figures, including then President Donald Trump.
Gallagher’s military and political trajectory is shocking, but it isn’t necessarily surprising. American leaders have a two-decade history of mishandling our wars in the Middle East, and officials have authorized needless violence against our enemies, real and perceived. Gallagher may or may not have been inspired by the dishonesty and brutality that underscored our actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. But his story is certainly a parable for what we did wrong.
In the spring of 2018, several members of Gallagher’s platoon lost patience with their leader’s misdeeds and essentially demanded an investigation. Gallagher responded by seeking to intimidate witnesses. Among other things, he gave the names of his accusers to an old SEAL buddy, who responded in a text message, “some day we will just kill them.” This book brims with such striking quotations, mainly because Philipps was able to read a trove of some 6,000 texts written by Gallagher and 2,300 others sent by members of his platoon.
The investigation proceeded. It turned out that Gallagher had a past: He had never trained as a sniper and indeed wasn’t a very good shot. On an earlier deployment to Afghanistan, he had dropped in on an Army Special Forces unit and began firing at Afghans. When he shot an unarmed man walking in a field, Army soldiers who witnessed the incident reported him to their commander. But the Navy decided not to delve further into this particular crime.
When they finally decided to prosecute him for his other crimes, including killing the teenage prisoner, Gallagher found fast outside backing. The Fox News contributor Pete Hegseth conducted a campaign on the soldier’s behalf. He featured Andrea Gallagher, Eddie’s wife, in television interviews. She alleged that her husband was an innocent and noble victim of an ungrateful government. “These are atrocities being committed against our military service members, my family, my husband,” she claimed. She asserted that people who had never been in the fight were judging her husband, when in fact his accusers were members of her husband’s own team, who believed he had recklessly endangered them while undercutting the war effort by alienating Iraqis. Benefiting from Fox’s backing, Andrea Gallagher was able to raise roughly $500,000 for her husband’s legal defense fund.
More importantly, Hegseth’s efforts attracted the attention of Donald Trump and his sons. The president called Richard Spencer, the Navy secretary, to chew him out over the service’s handling of Gallagher—and then told Spencer to call Hegseth, the Fox News contributor.
Even as it acted, the Navy continued to stumble. Irked by leaks, it sought to find out who was releasing information by having the lead prosecutor send an email with a tracking device to defense attorneys. That ill-advised stunt got the lawyer kicked off the case by the judge. He was then replaced by a junior Navy officer who had never tried a murder before. The Navy’s lawyers also gave blanket immunity to a member of the SEAL team who then proceeded to testify, under that de facto pardon, that he had killed Gallagher’s prisoner himself.
The SEAL culture of placing loyalty before integrity even seeped into the jury room. Philipps reports that one of the jurors previously had visited Gallagher’s house five times for Bible study, and had told comrades that he had donated $1,000 to Gallagher’s defense fund. But when asked in the courtroom about his connections to Gallagher, the juror responded that they barely knew one another.
Gallagher’s lead lawyer in the trial was Timothy Parlatore, who had represented New York mafiosi and later represented Fox’s Hegseth, whose second wife divorced him after he impregnated a Fox News producer. Parlatore chewed up the prosecution’s witnesses. The case fell apart, and Gallagher was found guilty on only one minor count. He went free. Trump congratulated Gallagher and his wife, tweeting, “Glad I could help!” When the remorseful Navy chain of command sought to strip Gallagher of his SEAL emblem, Trump fired Spencer, the Navy secretary.
Unfortunately, Eddie Gallagher’s story may be emblematic of the post-9/11 era. Our leaders panicked after the attacks of that day, and the American people followed them. We invaded Afghanistan—I think correctly—but then mishandled the war. Then we invaded Iraq on false premises. We made torture of prisoners American policy. And we let sadists like Gallagher loose on the world.
But much of the American public doesn’t want to know or understand that we inflicted such harm. How many Americans can tell you the number of foreigners we have killed in our response to September 11? Very few know or seem to care. Those hijackings were a remarkable moment in American history, spurring widespread unity and an outpouring of patriotic support. But in the following two decades, we devolved into harsh divisions and fierce political infighting, thanks in part to the escalating lies that began in the wake of the attacks. It makes me think of something a Middle Easterner said after the 2001 hijackings: “You Americans think you are going to change my region, but I think we will wind up changing you.”
With both of those wars now almost behind us, it’s time for the military to take stock of everything that went wrong. That should include making Alpha—one of the most important books to come out of the Iraq War
(as I wrote in a blurb for it)—required reading in every service academy.