A group of men in military uniforms

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Far left, Britt Slabinski [Source: navy.mil]; 2nd from left, Eddie Penney [Source: reddit.com]; 2nd from right, Eddie Gallagher [Source: navysealsfund.org]; far right, Justin Sheffield [Source: reddit.com];

And even more disturbingly, why are the men who commit these crimes revered in American popular culture?

“The thrill of killing [is] like a drug; the greatest feeling I’ve ever experienced in my life.” – Eddie Penney, Navy SEAL Team 6.[1]

In January 2012, Chris Kyle’s book American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History became an instant best seller, selling more than two million copies and spending fourteen consecutive weeks on The New York Times bestseller list.

A 2014 film version directed by Clint Eastwood grossed more than $547 million and earned six Academy Award nominations, including for Best Picture and Actor (Bradley Cooper who played Kyle).

The book and film provided a heroic portrait of Kyle, who emerged as a poster boy for the Navy SEAL Team 6 which, in May 2011, led the mission that killed Osama bin Laden.

A professional cowboy who grew up on a Texas ranch and earned a Bronze Star in combat in Iraq, Kyle suggested that all the people he had killed in his career were “savage” and “despicably evil,” and that he only “wished he had killed more, not for bragging rights but because [he] believe[d] the world is a better place without savages out there taking American lives.”

Chris Kyle: American Sniper - VA News
[Source: news.va.gov]

Kyle’s story in his memoir and film was, according to The Intercept reporter, Matthew Cole, filled with embellishment and distortion.

A senior SEAL leader told Cole that Kyle lied about the number of people he had killed and, at least twice, Kyle was accused of shooting at unarmed civilians.[2]

Code Over Country

A picture containing text

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[Source: specialforces78.com]

Cole’s new book Code Over Country: The Tragedy and Corruption of SEAL TEAM SIX (New York: Bold Type Books, 2022) describes how Kyle’s self-aggrandizement and violence and deceit fits with a wider pattern.

While the Navy SEALs are celebrated as noble heroes of democracy in popular culture, Cole pictures them as pathologically sadistic assassins who operate outside the law and without fear of consequences for their actions.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, Navy SEALs were known for exposing the brain matter of people they killed by splitting open their skulls by a rifle or pistol round at the upper forehead in a process called canoeing and would use special knives to conduct “skinnings.”[3]

Capt. Peter Vasely with members of Blue Squadron in Afghanistan
Captain Peter Vasely, now a Rear Admiral and the top U.S. commander in Kabul during the August 2021 U.S. troops evacuation, with members of Blue Squadron in Afghanistan. [Source: dailymail.co.uk]

One commander, Hugh W. Howard III, who retired in 2022 as a Rear Admiral, handed out Native American-style hatchets to members of his SEAL team, which would use them to “hack” the bodies of jihadists that were either mortally wounded or had died.[4]

Devil's Guard: The Real Story : Meyer, Eric: Amazon.com.au: Books
[Source: amazon.com]

After they returned from deployment, SEALs would watch “bleed-out” videos—essentially war porn—at Bagram Air Base as part of what Cole termed a “sadist culture.”

According to Cole, many SEALs modeled their behavior after SS Gestapo officers who joined the French foreign legion during the Vietnam War and whose exploits were memorialized in a 1971 book called Devil’s Guard.[5]

In 2008, SEAL Team 6 upset even the CIA when they killed Taliban militants in a compound in Jalalabad while they were sleeping and then posed gleefully with the mutilated bodies.

The CIA had wanted to interrogate the suspects who were allegedly running an insurgent cell near the CIA’s base.

A picture containing text, queen, fabric

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SEAL Team 6 patches. [Source: theintercept.com]

“Savages, Sociopaths and Serial Killers”

SEAL Eddie Penney, who served five tours of duty in Afghanistan, characteristically had his entire left calf tattooed with 87 skulls—the number of kills his unit made. He described the thrill of killing as being “like a drug; the greatest feeling I’ve ever experienced in my life.”[6]

DEVGRU Gold Squadron Operator Eddie Penney. : r/SpecOpsArchive
Eddie Penney [Source: reddit.com]

When SEAL commander Britt Slabinski told his operators in SEAL Team 6 that he “wanted a head on a platter,” one of his men severed a man’s neck. Slabinski shot another Afghan 20 times in the legs just to see his body twitch. “It was like a game,” he said, “really good therapy for everyone who was there.”

After an investigator asked some of Slabinski’s men why they felt the need to mutilate dead bodies, they responded “well, they’re savages. They don’t play by the rules, so why should we?”[7]

Britt Slabinski—a man straight out of a Joseph Conrad novel. [Source: navy.mil]

Justin Sheffield, who served in Slabinski’s unit, wrote in his memoirs: “We’ve been called everything, savages, sociopaths, serial killers, whatever. In a way, it’s all a little bit true. What we are not is the guy who is gonna hand out a soccer ball to the kids and make sure everyone’s got medical attention in the village and shit like that. We were the guys who were gonna go and kill people. Period. In fact we killed more bad guys during [Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan] and [Operation Iraqi Freedom] than all other groups combined.”[8]

Anyone read the book MOB VI by Justin Sheffield? : r/JSOCarchive
Justin Sheffield [Source: reddit.com]

A Man Gone Way Upriver

Besides Kyle, another poster boy of the SEALs’ depravity is Eddie Gallagher, who slit the throat of a 17-year-old Iraqi prisoner in Mosul in May 2017 in front of his platoon-mates.

New York Times journalist David Philipps wrote that the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) report into Gallagher’s conduct “read like something out of Apocalypse Now. Chief Gallagher appeared to have gone way upriver, shooting children and old men, firing rockets and machine guns into neighborhoods, doing drugs, [and] stabbing a wounded prisoner of war to death.”[9]

And yet Gallagher emerged as a conservative hero, with Donald Trump writing a celebratory tweet after Gallagher was acquitted in a Navy court because a witness lied on the stand.

U.S. Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher charged with war crimes in Iraq reunited  with his wife | Daily Mail Online
Eddie Gallagher [Source: covertactionmagazine.com]

Death Defying He-Men…Who Kill for Money and Fun

The Navy SEALs originated out of specialized naval warfare units that were developed in the Pacific War, which carried out underwater operations.

Underwater demolition team in the Asia Pacific during World War II. [Source: sandboxx.us]

An article in The Saturday Evening Post described them as the “Navy’s human secret weapon;” “heathen idols” and “Battling Mermen” who moved in the water “like a porpoise.”[10]

The naval units that served as precursors to the SEALs were depicted in the 1951 Hollywood film The Frogmen, starring Richard Widmark, Dana Andrews, and Gary Merrill, as “fearless, death defying He-men.”[11]

The Frogmen (1951) - IMDb
[Source: imdb.com]

The Navy SEALS were formally created in 1962 as part of the Kennedy administration’s buildup of Special Forces and support for counter-guerrilla warfare and counterinsurgency.

Adept at using helicopters, they began jumping off small boats as they were inserted into the deltas, marshes and jungles of South Vietnam.[12]

JFK during visit with newly inaugurated NAVY SEALs in Norfolk Virginia. [Source: pilotonline.com]

When Captain William H. Hamilton, Jr., a frogman from the Pacific War, was tasked with creating a new Naval special operations unit that came to be known by the name SEALs, he sent his men to prisons to learn from criminals—thieves in particular—how to break into safes, pick locks and hot-wire cars.[13]

Under the Phoenix Program, SEALs teamed up with the CIA to kidnap and assassinate civilian officials linked to the “Vietcong” [euphemism for Vietnamese communists]. The SEALs led Provincial Reconnaissance Units (PRUs) composed of irregular Vietnamese forces to gather intelligence and hunt the enemy hidden within the civilian population.[14]

They carried silenced weapons and collected knife kills—sneaking into the homes of intended targets at night, after swimming up the Mekong River, and walking through jungle barefoot and in camouflage.

Navy SEALs in Vietnam [Source: sandboxx.us]

One SEAL, Fred Keener, bragged that he had killed more people than Jesse James—before his 21st birthday.[15]

The SEALs’ lust for killing was exemplified by a sign that they hung at one of their bases in the Mekong Delta that read: “People who kill for money are professionals. People who kill for fun are sadists. People who kill for money and fun are SEALs.”[16]

A Rogue Warrior

After Operation Eagle Claw, a hostage rescue operation following the 1979 Iranian Revolution that toppled the Shah, a decorated Vietnam veteran named Richard “Dick” Marcinko created a new unit called SEAL Team 6 dedicated to counter-terrorism and hostage rescue.

Bill Hamilton described Marcinko as being “rough at the edges,” with a “vocabulary liberally sprinkled with ‘fucks’ and ‘assholes.’” He was the kind of man “you wanted with you in a barroom brawl.”[17]

Richard Marcinko obituary | Register | The Times
Richard Marcinko [Source: thetimes.co.uk]

Marcinko wanted pirates and outlaws for his new unit, men who, if you “want to call them sociopaths, you can.” Marcinko said his priority was “not so much a military unit, as a mafia. If there were problems at the command, I kept it in-house, like a padrone or mafioso.”[18]

This was the source of the culture of secrecy and cover-up that would bedevil SEAL Team 6 for years to come.

In January 1990, Marcinko was found guilty of conspiracy and sentenced to 21 months in a federal prison after receiving $110,000 in illegal kickbacks on a contract for grenades—money he had wanted to use to help establish a security business after he retired from the Navy.[19]

An NCIS investigator said that ”Marcinko was dirty. No doubt about it.”

But after he got out of prison, Marcinko rehabilitated his image by publishing a best-selling memoir Rogue Warrior, which, like Chris Kyle’s American Sniper, was filled with embellishment.

Cole writes that, while Marcinko “should have served as a cautionary tale for the generation of SEALs to follow, too many saw in Marcinko something else: a model to aspire to.”[20] His book served as a “recruitment tool for a new generation of SEALs who would go on to fight the forever wars in Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11.”

Another Bright Shining Lie

Marcinko’s spirit was alive and well in May 2011 when two SEALs who had allegedly killed Osama bin Laden, Rob O’Neill and Matthew Bissonnette, wrote tell-all books that conflicted with one another and were filled with inflated claims.

Bissonnette said that he had killed bin Laden’s armed courier, which other SEALs in his unit said was false.

After Bissonnette shot bin Laden in the chest and leg, O’Neill professed to have shot bin Laden in the face, when SEAL Team 6 had been given orders not to shoot him there. O’Neill then violated the laws of war by canoeing bin Laden, splitting open the top of his skull and exposing his brain, making identification next to impossible before the body was discarded.[21]

An Award for Dishonesty and a Revenge Mission

In 2018, President Donald Trump awarded the Medal of Honor to Britt Slabinski—even though he was arguably a war criminal who helped cover up the circumstances in which Sergeant John Chapman had died on a mountain in eastern Afghanistan in March 2002.

As Former SEAL Receives Medal of Honor, a Controversy Is Reignited - The  New York Times
Britt Slabinski received Medal of Honor from President Trump in May 2018. [Source: nytimes.com]
John Chapman [Source: wkipedia.org]

Slabinski had left Chapman for dead when he was actually alive—in violation of the SEAL code of never leaving a team member behind—failing to mount a rescue mission as Chapman battled al-Qaeda insurgents futilely for more than an hour.[22]

After Chapman and another SEAL named Neil Roberts died, SEAL Team 6 went on a revenge mission in which they mutilated Afghan corpses.

SEAL Vic Hyder stomped on a dead al-Qaeda operative’s already damaged skull, and executed an unarmed man. His platoon-mates subsequently started calling Hyder “Waingro” after the serial killer in the movie Heat who killed impulsively.[23]

Killing an Alleged British Spy

Another SEAL coverup occurred following the botched rescue mission of British aid workers and suspected MI-6 spy Linda Norgrove, who had been taken captive by the Taliban in Nangarhar province.

SEAL Team 6 reported that Norgrove was killed by her captors when she was in fact killed by a SEAL who tossed his fragmentation grenade which exploded next to her.

Linda Norgrove
Linda Norgrove [Source: theguardian.com]

President Obama humiliatingly had to call the Queen of England to apologize and admit how Norgrove had actually been killed.[24]

Theft and the Killing of One of Their Own

During an April 2009 SEAL Team 6 mission to rescue the commander of a commercial vessel who had been taken by Somali pirates, $30,000 recovered from the pirates mysteriously went missing.

In June 2017, a group of Navy SEALs in Bamako, Mali, killed one of their own comrades—Green Beret Logan Melgar—in a hazing ritual gone bad.

Navy SEAL Who Attacked Green Beret Logan Melgar Later Hit on His Widow
Logan Melgar [Source: thedailybeast.com]
[Source: theintercept.com]

Melgar was targeted because he threatened to expose how Tony DeDolph was stealing cash from a SEAL Team fund and hiring prostitutes and bringing them back into their military compound.

According to Matthew Cole, the case “shined a spotlight on just how broken the SEALs were by 2017.” One of the SEALs who participated in the crime, Adam Matthews, had been pushed to his mental and physical limit on multiple deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq and was regarded as disabled.[25]

Navy SEALs Gone Wild: Publicity, Fame, and the Loss of the Quiet  Professional: Crowell, Forrest S., Naval Postgraduate School:  9781687370549: Amazon.com: Books
[Source: amazon.com]

Navy SEALs Gone Wild

In 2015, SEAL Lieutenant Forrest Crowell completed a Master’s thesis at the Naval Postgraduate School entitled “Navy SEALs Gone Wild: Publicity, Fame, and the Loss of the Quiet Professional.” Crowell wrote that the cultivation of celebrity status had “incentivized narcissistic and profit-focused behavior within the SEAL community,” thereby eroding the SEALs’ integrity.[26]

Unfortunately, the SEALs had very little integrity to begin with—as their exploits during the Vietnam War make clear.

In Code Over Country, Matthew Cole argues for greater military and congressional oversight and scrutiny of the SEALs and prosecution of individual SEALs for their crimes.[27]

The Navy SEALs, however, are not simply rogues operating within an otherwise honorable military establishment. Rather, they perform the dirty work that is necessary to sustain the U.S. Empire. As such, the impunity that they enjoy is mandated by the highest powers in the land who would themselves stand exposed if the full truth of their actions were to become more widely known.

  1. Matthew Cole, Code Over Country: The Tragedy and Corruption of SEAL TEAM SIX (New York: Bold Type Books, 2022), 166.

  2. Cole, Code Over Country, 159, 160, 221, 222, 223, 224, 225, 226. According to Cole, Kyle also lied about the number of military decorations he received.

  3. Cole, Code Over Country, 172.

  4. Cole, Code Over Country, 148, 149, 152, 153.

  5. Cole, Code Over Country, 161, 162, 163.

  6. Cole, Code Over Country, 166.

  7. Cole, Code Over Country, 162, 163, 166.

  8. Cole, Code Over Country, 166.

  9. David Philipps, Alpha: Eddie Gallagher and the War For the Soul of the Navy SEALS (New York: Crown, 2021); Jeremy Kuzmarov, “Pathology of the GOP is Frighteningly Evident in Its Lionization of Navy SEAL Killer Eddie Gallagher,” CovertAction Magazine, September 6, 2021, https://covertactionmagazine.com/2021/09/06/pathology-of-gop-is-frighteningly-evident-in-its-lionization-of-navy-seal-killer-eddie-gallagher/

  10. Cole, Code Over Country, 20.

  11. Cole, Code Over Country, 21.

  12. Cole, Code Over Country, 22.

  13. Cole, Code Over Country, 23, 24.

  14. Cole, Code Over Country, 26.

  15. Cole, Code Over Country, 29.

  16. Cole, Code Over Country, 25.

  17. Cole, Code Over Country, 43.

  18. Cole, Code Over Country, 47.

  19. Cole, Code Over Country, 70.

  20. Cole, Code Over Country, 76

  21. Cole, Code Over Country, ch. 13 & 14. David Ray Griffin in Osama Bin Laden: Dead or Alive? (Northampton, MA: Olive Branch Press, 2009) suggested that had Bin Laden died years earlier of kidney failure and that the identity of the man the SEALs killed in May 2011 was concealed because his remains were quickly dumped at sea.

  22. Cole, Code Over Country, ch. 6.

  23. Cole, Code Over Country, 123, 124, 126, 127.

  24. Cole, Code Over Country, 184-199.

  25. Cole, Code Over Country, ch. 16.

  26. Cole, Code Over Country, 247, 248.

  27. Cole, Code Over Country, epilogue.

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About the Author


  1. I think that there are many reasons for this. This is more of a guess than a reason on my part. I think a lot of women are very attracted to these types of men. So, when daddy comes home from the battlefield, he is often welcomed home by a beautiful wife and children who are all thrilled to see their daddy coming home safe and sound.

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