When President Barack Obama dramatically announced last month that Osama bin Laden was dead, he referred to the men who had brought the al-Qaeda leader to justice as simply “a small team of Americans”. Such was the insatiable appetite surrounding the event, however, it was inevitable that the world would soon know that this was the handiwork of Seal Team Six.
Two dozen Seals, many of them veterans of a decade of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, had landed at Abbottabad, deep inside Pakistan, and dispatched their target with a “double tap” of bullets to the face and chest.
Officially, Seal Team Six does not exist. The equivalent of Britain’s Special Boat Service (SBS), the Seals are part of the United States Navy and take their name from an acronym for SEa, Air and Land, the three dimensions in which they operate. While the odd-numbered teams one, three and five have historically been based at Coronado, California, and the even-numbered two, four and eight at Little Creek, Virginia, not even Seals themselves will acknowledge there is a Team Six.
As if to bury the unit even deeper in mystique, within the world of “tier one” special forces it is referred to as DevGru, short for Development Group, or simply as “the boys from Dam Neck”, the Virginia town where this elite of an elite is housed.
By remarkable good fortune, Howard Wasdin, who fought in the Gulf War and was wounded during the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” incident, was preparing for the launch of his new book when bin Laden met his demise.
Wasdin did not fast rope from a Black Hawk into the bin Laden compound. He left the Seals in 1995 to pursue jobs as a security adviser and police officer and representative for a body armour company. In his late forties, he is now a chiropractor.
But Wasdin’s tale, already slated to be made into a Hollywood film, is no less gripping or significant for the fact that it is set in what now seems like the age of innocence that preceded the September 11 terrorist attacks of 2001.
In almost mesmerising detail, Wasdin describes what it is to train to be a member of Seal Team Six (and a specialist sniper to boot) and then to fight, kill and be wounded while putting that training into practice and operating alongside the CIA.
To the dismay of the Pentagon, the Obama administration has released so much detail about the bin Laden operation that it feels that there is little more to know. What has been lost in all that, however, has been the calibre of the men at the sharp end. Wasdin’s book puts that right.
Born to a girl of 16, Wasdin was brought up in the school of hard knocks. Brutally beaten by his stepfather and starved of affection, he developed a mental and physical toughness and a single-minded determination to prevail that made him ideal raw material for the Seals.
His account of how he qualified as a Seal (based on the premise of “train the best, discard the rest”), culminating in the notorious “Hell Week”, is skilfully interspersed with episodes of Seal lore, history and philosophy.
Seals, Wasdin explains, are “forever the optimists, even when we’re outnumbered and outgunned, we still tend to think we have a chance to make it out alive – and be home in time for dinner”. They strive to “steer the rudders of their own destinies” and believe “it’s better to burn out than fade away – and with our last breaths we’ll take as many of the enemy with us as possible”.
But it is Wasdin’s account of events in Somalia that primarily marks this book out as an important addition to any military library. Along with comrades identified only as Casanova, Little Big Man and Sourpuss, Wasdin – code-named Sierra Three – was one of four Seal Team Six members who fought in Mogadishu.
With his .300 Winchester Magnum rifle, Wasdin hits a militiaman aiming an RPG at an American helicopter just beneath his nose, killing him instantly. A homing beacon placed by the CIA inside an ivory-handled cane identifies a Somali warlord who is shot in the leg and captured.
In an act of surprising tenderness, Wasdin and Casanova jeopardise their cover to storm a house so that a Somali boy, suffering from gangrene resulting from terrible leg injuries caused by a landmine, can be treated.
Wasdin’s sense of almost supernatural immortality – he was the only one out of 100 in training to pass all tests – is finally punctured when he fires at “a booger-eater” (his chosen term of disdain) who raises an AK-47 and misses. He is shot in the right shin, shattering his lower leg.
Revenge is swift – “Double tap. Both rounds hit him in the face” – but Wasdin reflects that if he’d taken an extra half second with that first shot “I could’ve capped his ass and saved my leg”.
Seal Team Six is not for the faint-hearted or the politically correct. But it is a compelling portrayal of a remarkable breed of men capable of things that few of us can imagine – and most would prefer not to think about.