The Dawn of the Commandos
Meet Ben Milligan, Former Navy SEAL and Author
I love a good origin story. Typically, this focuses on an individual and how they got their start in a particular field of work. Today, I’m presenting the origin story of a unique—and high-achieving—group of individuals: US Navy SEALS.
Over a month ago, I read a new book called BY WATER BENEATH THE WALLS by first-time author Ben Milligan. Here’s a quick-hit summation from the jacket: “How did the US Navy—the branch of the US military tasked with patrolling the oceans—ever manage to produce a unit of raiders trained to operate on land? And how, against all odds, did that unit become one of the world’s most elite commando forces, routinely striking thousands of miles from the water on the battlefields of Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Central Africa? Written with the insight that can only come from a combat veteran and a member of the book’s tribe, BY WATER BENEATH THE WALLS is an essential new history of the SEAL teams, a crackling account of desperate last stands and unforgettable characters accomplishing the impossible—and a riveting epic of the dawn of American special operations.”
It is the task of any good jacket copy to sell a book. Sometimes, the promise is met. Other times, not. In this case, Milligan delivers in spades, and I recommend his history to any and all. Ben became a SEAL in 2001 and served on its teams for almost a decade. A recipient of the Bronze Star, among other awards, he knows his subject matter—and is a damn nice guy to boot.
Over the Thanksgiving weekend, we had a long conversation not only about the origin story of the SEALS, but about his research and writing of the book itself, an effort eight years in the making. In a second installment down the line, I’ll interview Ben about his involvement in this elite fighting force, including what drove him to join as well as his experiences in training and war. First, enjoy Part I below!
Want to learn about a UPS driver, ER doc, ornithologist, or other fascinating WorkCraft lives, get in your inbox!
What was the inspiration behind writing BY WATER BENEATH THE WALLS?
In 2010, I left the SEAL teams and went to work for a textile manufacturer. Like a lot of guys, I was a little lost, and I didn’t know what to do after leaving my dream job. But I always thought in the back of my mind that I wanted to write a book. I’d always been a disciplined reader. My initial idea was about WWI. I’m going to try to be the next Barbara Tuchman or whatever. Then the Extortion 17 tragedy happened, where a helicopter went down in Afghanistan, and it was the largest loss of life for coalition forces in the war there [including 17 Navy SEALS]. This was three months after the Bin Laden raid. I went to a series of funerals. They were pretty overwhelming, particularly one in Rockford, Iowa for probably my closest friend on that helicopter. It was kind of the first time I realized that two of the biggest events in the War on Terror had involved SEALS and both happened more than 600 miles away from the closest saltwater. The question in my mind then arose: How did the SEALS become this institution that often operates so far inland? Suddenly I had an idea that I wanted to explore.
What gave rise to your interest in military history—and this thought of becoming a writer?
My grandfather was a Marine in WWII and he volunteered for the Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT) in the Pacific. We were very close, and he wasn’t the kind of guy that kept any of that close to his chest. He told me about it. Then, when I was in junior high, he started taking me every year on a different trip to a Civil War battlefield. It just became a tradition. In college and later, we shared books and corresponded with each other about them. It was our little two-person book club. He ended up passing before the book was finished. But he made it to 102 years old.
How did your experience as a Navy SEAL inform your writing?
Any layperson could have written this book. You didn’t need to be a SEAL to do it. But one advantage that I did have was that I knew from my own personal service what the center of gravity of the SEAL teams is. I knew their priorities, what traits they value and what they don’t. I know their biases and all the rest. So I had 90% of that iceberg. I've also experienced good leadership and bad leadership. The other thing is I’ve been in combat. I know what it’s like to be shot at. I know what it sounds like. I know that every time I’ve been shot at my left leg cramps up for whatever reason for a split second. I know that everybody has these little idiosyncratic responses to those things. I know what explosions sound like. I know what bullets do when they hit the water.
Let’s launch into the book. At the end of the day, this is an origin story of the Navy SEALS, specifically the unlikely tale of how a blue-water workforce become boots-on-the-ground, inland commandos. You really begin this in WWII, but before that, can you speak to commando-type raids that stand as the inspirational hallmarks or signposts in prior wars, American or otherwise?
You’re right. I sort of make an assumption that my reader comes to this book with a certain amount of background knowledge. Not in-depth knowledge at all. But at least a vague sense that there was a world of raids and raiders that preceded the era that I cover, which is roughly the period from World War II to the War in Vietnam. Making that assumption I think allows you to sort of link arms with your reader a little. Like you’re in this thing together. So yes, I do often refer to some of these American and colonial raiders from pre-World War II history. Like, Benjamin Church from the King Philip’s War. Robert Rogers from the French and Indian War. Then guys like Stephen Decatur from the war against the Tripolitan Pirates and then the hosts of famous raiders from the American Civil War. I suppose I did that because I wanted to knock some of the mystique off of what a commando is. It’s just a behind-the-lines raider. Which we’ve had from the very beginning of American history. In fact, it was the first sort of warfare that Americans practiced. A couple of the books that opened my eyes to this were Philbrick’s Mayflower and then Boot’s Savage Wars of Peace.
Let’s then move forward quickly to WWII, where this concept of special operations in the US military comes to the fore. Would you consider Marine Raiders as the ones who started the ball rolling? Describe their initial movements in this area—and what successes/failures they encountered and how/why ultimately the Marines did not concrete themselves as the leaders in this arena.
This is a great question and is actually the one that convinced me to write this history the way that I did. Why didn’t the Marines sustain a unit that could have satisfied the Navy’s needs for a commando force? After all the Marine Corps is a department of the Navy; before World War 2 it was routinely referred to as the Navy’s Army – a sort of diminutive title but one that actually helps explain why the Marine Corps’s planners didn’t want that sort of future for it. After their performance in the First World War, they saw their service as every bit as competent as the US Army and felt like the Corps could stand on its own. So I’m not sure I would go so far as to say the Marines got the ball rolling on commandos. Rather, I think I’d more likely say it was two Marines in particular. The President’s son, Jimmy Roosevelt, and his mentor, Evans Carlson, who from this relationship was granted undue influence with the Marine Corps’s planners who were far more preoccupied with creating the kind of force that could crush the Japanese in head-to-head combat than they were in satisfying the President’s and later the Navy’s desires for a behind-the-lines commando unit. So, even though the Marine Corps Raiders had some impressive successes in fighting on and around Guadalcanal, they mostly failed in the role their name implied – almost catastrophically on Makin Atoll – which cooled the Navy’s enthusiasm for those sorts of raids which was all the Marine Corps’s planners needed to hear.
I’ve read a fair number of books on the D-Day landings, but somehow the Navy’s role in demolitions, bomb disposal, and scouting in advance parties gets short shrift. In a way, this became the Navy’s entry point into an evolution that would one day generate the SEALS. How critical were they to D-Day, and what were the key lessons and organizational DNA that was sewn in the landings on Omaha Beach?
I thought about this a lot: why was D-Day so consequential in the development of Naval Special Warfare (NSW). I think the reason can be found in the Navy planner’s reaction to the Naval Combat Demolition Unit’s (NCDU) performance on Omaha Beach. Essentially, what they accomplished in the face of such devastating casualties. That in turn convinced the Navy’s planners that the NCDU course and curriculum should be preserved as it was created. And if that is the case, then D-Day is consequential to the development of the Navy SEALS because it validated the NCDU training’s difficulty. In other words, it validated Hell Week, which in turn continued to create a type of sailor that essentially thought he could accomplish any assignment that was put in front of him.
During WWII, the Navy really put their feet/fins forward in China and the Pacific region in terms of commando operations. Especially Underwater Demolition Teams. To me, it seems one of the most significant aspects of this development was the professionalization of training—and its rigor—that has many echoes today with HELL Week. Speak to who led the charge on this and your feelings about its importance.
So much of the training during this period was almost an accident, but you’re right, its establishment and its validation was probably the most important aspect in ensuring the UDT’s operational success and then their post-war survival.
Hell Week itself was created because Draper Kauffman had been given a short fuse assignment to create a unit that could blow up the obstacles that would block the invasion in Normandy. The invasion was only a few months away but – as he knew from his past combat experiences as an ambulance driver in the French Army and a bomb disposal officer in the British Navy – would be an exceptionally dangerous assignment. So he needed to be able to screen volunteers quickly, and turn them into teams capable of accomplishing very difficult assignments in a maritime environment, but he had almost no time to do it. His solution was a single week of conditioning. For this, he took the 8-week long conditioning course developed by the Navy’s Scouts & Raiders (most of whom had been former NFL football stars) and compressed it into 5 and a half days with no sleep. Then – in part, because he knew how controversial such a course would be — he put himself through it.
As far as its importance goes, I think most folks that actually assess this training find that it doesn’t simply succeed in finding the sailors that can endure it but it also makes them better sailors. And probably most important, it binds them to the other sailors that have gone through it, which to this day makes the SEAL teams an incredibly tight-knit community. For better or worse. In other words, change the training, and you’ll change the SEAL teams.
Peace after WWII saw the decimation of special operational ranks. The Korean War saw its reinvigoration, most notably in the taking of Inchon, which one can argue reversed the direction of the war. How/why did the Navy come to lead this effort and maybe give us a window into the operations/commandos who helped take Inchon?
I think the answer to this has a lot to do with geography. The shape of the Korean Peninsula. It’s surrounded by water and its interior is mountainous, which pushes most of its lines of communication to its edges – well within reach of commandos launched from the sea or at least supported from it (as we saw in the Army Ranger-led Virginia I mission).
But there’s a structural factor too that helps explain this. In the history of the Army, the chain of command has never been more than one horseback ride away. In the Navy, the chain of command could be an ocean away. Naturally, the institutions evolved in such a way to give commanders different levels of authority and thus different abilities to exercise initiative. And that certainly was evident in Korea. Even before some ship skippers had the benefit of Recon Marines, UDTs, or British Commandos, they were sending regular sailors ashore to blow up rail lines.
On the flip side, when most Army commanders received their Ranger companies, they mostly used them no differently than their other infantry companies.
In the case of Inchon, Navy commanders assigned one of its most important recon missions to a former yeoman but with a set of orders that gave him the Navy’s usual high degree of latitude. So in the end, it was a recon that required a lot of in-field adaptation. Partnering with locals, raiding. Incidentally one of the most remarkable stories of the war.
Talk to me about presidential leadership, who believed and supported small-unit operations and this idea of do-more-with-less. Starting with Roosevelt, perhaps with Army Rangers, to Kennedy and his view of the operational use of fighting brushfires to prevent them from becoming conflagrations.
Right, even today special operations units receive a disproportionate degree of presidential attention. And as you say, a lot of this I think comes from a belief that special operations units can do more with less. This is particularly appealing to those presidents who want to promote American power but not spend as much to do it. This wasn’t exactly FDR’s preoccupation. Like Churchill after Dunkirk, he was looking for morale-boosting headlines; raiders were a good way to do it. But this was most definitely the case with JFK. When he encountered the Army’s Special Forces he saw an answer to all of his problems in the third world. Soldiers that could train near state-less peoples to repel the communists and just as importantly, deny them to the communists. To prevent the communists from even gaining a foothold.
The result of this presidential attention was almost a blank check for the Green Berets, which led to a rise in responsibility, then prestige, then entitlement. Because presidential expectations were so high, however, this ultimately led to a decrease in training standards but not a corresponding decrease in responsibilities, prestige, or entitlement. This brought the Green Berets to the edge of disbandment. I don’t think we’re making the same mistake today, but we are making new mistakes, and some of those are related to presidential expectations.
Vietnam was a major turning point in forging our concept of the Navy SEALS, from coastal raiders to a force whose center of gravity is capture/kill? How did this evolve and speak to how the proof-in-the-pudding came from the men on the ground rather than the highest echelons of leadership, whether the president or Chief of Naval Operations?
I think there are two stories about how this happened. There’s the high-level story. The story about the naval commanders who provided the latitude for a unit like the SEALs to adapt. That’s a story about flag officers. Phil Bucklew, Norvell Ward, Elmo Zumwalt. Then there’s the low-level story. And that’s a story about E-6s and Chief Petty Officers. Bob Wagner. Bob Gallagher. Guys that responded to the lack of traditional raiding targets with a new way of viewing their roles. But I hope it comes through in the book that this was not an evolution that one person was responsible for. One platoon would discover a new way of doing things and then pass that on to the platoon that relieved them and so on. One overwhelmingly significant advantage that the SEALs had in Vietnam over the Green Berets and their peers in long-range reconnaissance patrols was their training and deployment standards. The Army and Marine Corps – in an effort to save money – had adopted a policy of individual rotation. Guys would roll in for their tour of duty and do their 365 days then go home – backfilled by a replacement. You didn’t train with the guys you deployed with. The SEALs on the other hand trained for at least 6 months with the guys they would deploy with. This promoted a level of professionalism and trust whose result was adaptation. Adaptation that other units simply weren’t capable of.
If you could identify two individuals who had the most to do with the creation of the SEALS, who would they be—and why do they command so much importance? Probably an impossible question, what with “success having many fathers” but give it a go!
You know I’ve gotten asked that question a lot and I don’t have a great answer. There was certainly no one person that developed the concept of the modern SEAL teams. Certainly, it wouldn’t have happened without Arleigh Burke. He’s easily the most indispensable person in the establishment of the SEAL teams as an institution. But he did nothing at all in shaping what the SEAL teams ultimately became. A lot of the credit for that is surely due to Phil Bucklew. He wrote the report that ultimately convinced the Navy’s planners to fight an inland war – a report which was absolutely the result of his personal history as a Scout and Raider then a member of the Navy’s inland mission to China in World War II. Without his influence, there’s a good chance that the SEALs would have been held in reserve as a blue-water coastal raiding force. Not only that but when Navy planners wanted to kick the first batch of SEALs out of Vietnam, Bucklew was there to intervene. But there’s also a big case to be made for Draper Kauffman. He’s not the “father of the frogmen” like some have called him or even the “first frogman” and he left the UDTs long before the SEALs were created. However, he did have the biggest influence on the creation of Hell Week. Which seems to me to be one of the keystones of the entire institution. So much of the attitude and adaptability comes from that. Even today.
Hope you enjoyed! Please consider picking up BY WATER BENEATH THE WALLS at your local bookstore for the holidays. It’d make a great gift for the history lover in your family.
We’ll talk again in a week. As always. Same time, same band, same place.
Fascinating interview. While I was born in America, both my parents are English and grew up in London during the war. Most of my uncles fought in the war and my aunties were all part of Home Front resistance. Reading this, I realized how deeply entrenched my war stories are in the English perspective! Interesting to hear another. And to learn more about more recent wars. Thanks!
Thanks for this interview--now I know what to add under the tree for my husband, who served in the Navy during the Gulf War. He’s going to love this!