clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

What We Do Is Secret

History Channel’s ‘Six’ tries to take an apolitical look at SEAL Team 6. But even the Navy’s most famous unit can’t escape global politics.

(History Channel)
(History Channel)

Why is Walton Goggins being crucified?

That’s one question raised by “Man Down,” the fourth episode of Six, History Channel’s dramatic series about SEAL Team 6, the elite U.S. Navy group that took part in the mission to rescue Captain Richard Phillips and the killing of Osama bin Laden. This first question leads to a bigger, broader one: How did Walton Goggins wind up starring in this sometimes sappy, occasionally insightful, always hyperviolent show about the military in the first place?

The answer is he wasn’t supposed to, at least not at first. The role of Richard “Rip” Taggart, the hard-charging head of a SEAL Team 6 squad who’s left the service for life as a private contractor, was Joe Manganiello’s, but the True Blood hunk dropped out last April after filming two episodes due to health issues. Executive producer Harvey Weinstein called Goggins, and four days later he stepped into the role, with production resuming later that month.

Goggins made his bones on cable with supporting roles on The Shield and later Justified. He spent 2015 and 2016 climbing out of the That Guy Zone with meaty parts in The Hateful Eight and HBO’s Vice Principals. He’s booked jobs as the villain in 2018’s Tomb Raider reboot and as a lead in Three Christs, the adaptation of a famous psychology tome. Goggins is on the make, heading for a well-deserved and comfortable career in the movies. So, what is he doing on the History Channel scalping Taliban fighters?

Six emerges on the strength and collision of three currents in contemporary American culture. First: It’s a pure Peak TV play, the prestige playbook (grab a star and let him shine) now trickling down to basic cable. Second: Premiering nearly six years after the majority of Americans learned of the existence of SEAL Team 6, the show is the latest link in a chain of gritty, behind-the-curtain special-ops movies, books, video games, and TV shows that turn a decade and a half of war into escapist entertainment. And third: Six reflects a growing discomfort with that outsized SEAL industry, and with the unit’s ascendance into popular military myth. The show’s notably shades-of-gray portrayal of unacknowledged wet work hits the air as debate about the secretive missions of America’s special operations forces is becoming louder and louder.

“There is no political soapbox that [Six is] standing on, one way or the other. It’s not for or against anything,” Goggins told Uproxx. But that seems like wishfully apolitical thinking. Six — a show about clandestine operatives, starring a well-loved film actor, airing on a channel best known for documentaries about Hitler and reality shows about pawn shops — has a point of view, even if it doesn’t realize it. Any story about Navy SEALs, particularly Team 6, is a story about transparency: Are SEALs anonymous operators, or symbols of American military might? In the age of no more secrets, should ex-SEALs be permitted to become best-selling authors? What is the responsibility of the art we make about them? Six is rooted in a self-conscious, intermittently critical patriotism, and its answer to those questions is earnest. It’s also flawed.

The U.S. Naval Special Warfare Development Group, or DEVGRU — the Pentagon doesn’t actually acknowledge the Team 6 moniker — dates to the early 1980s. Until relatively recently, SEAL Team 6 was a mystery to most Americans, but that changed after the assassination of Osama bin Laden. The bin Laden raid brought us up to speed: They’re the SEAL super-elite, and they do the dirty work. A narrative took shape: Increased global instability proved that there were a lot of nails around the world, and Team 6 grew to become the hammer. “Once a small group reserved for specialized but rare missions,” a New York Times investigation explained, “the unit … has been transformed by more than a decade of combat into a global manhunting machine.” Its very existence — like the conditions requiring it — was a little terrifying. But to Hollywood, that made them even more compelling.

The idea of SEALs as sin-eaters was catnip to the culture industry. The bin Laden mission, called Operation Neptune Spear, took place in May 2011; by early 2012, the wave of SEAL-related cultural artifacts was cresting. In February of that year, Relativity Media released Act of Valor, which originated as a Navy recruitment initiative (what better way to attract potential enlistees than to make the job look like that of an action star?). The Navy asked production companies for proposals, according to the Times; the final product starred active-duty SEALs. October 2012 saw the release of the video game Medal of Honor: Warfighter, which allowed players to control SEALs. But pop culture products about DEVGRU, specifically, have a tricky line to toe: How do you tell an interesting story — any story at all — about a group that doesn’t officially exist? (Seven SEALs were given “career-killer” reprimands for sharing classified information with the Medal of Honor developers.) How do you create nuanced, three-dimensional characters out of soldiers who show up in newspaper stories pseudonymously as Mark and James?

SEALs don’t play much of a role until the very end of Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s December 2012 film about the events leading up to and including the killing of Osama bin Laden. They even look alike: burly, bearded men with longish hair, bad sunglasses, and well-worn desert camouflage. For Maya (Jessica Chastain), the composite character CIA analyst portrayed as the driving force behind the manhunt, the SEALs are an unnecessary extravagance. “I didn’t want to use you guys, with your dip and your velcro and your gear,” she tells soldiers played by Chris Pratt and Joel Edgerton. “I wanted to drop a bomb.” The film’s final sequence — the assault on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad — is messy. A chopper crashes; bin Laden isn’t the only casualty. While Zero Dark Thirty’s politics have been assailed, it did create the popular template for how we view Team 6: a fraternity whose fidelity is to each other and to the mission, equally.

But Zero Dark Thirty, despite its claims to reality, is fiction. No Easy Day — one SEAL’s account of Operation Neptune Spear — is not. Or at least it wasn’t marketed as such. The book was written under the pseudonym of “Mark Owen,” and published without being submitted for vetting by the Pentagon. The day after the book was announced, Owen was revealed to be former Team 6 member Matt Bissonnette. The disclosure raised the fundamental question at the heart of SEAL-focused entertainment: Bissonnette was part of perhaps the best-publicized raid in military history; why shouldn’t he be celebrated for it? (The government’s answer: Because he was a SEAL. This past summer, Bissonnette agreed to turn over his nearly $7 million in royalties and speaking fees to the government.)

On one hand, the book is extremely basic military history fare: This was the mission, this was how it went. But its release was something else: a high-speed collision of black-ops warfare and the culture of celebrity. (No Easy Day knocked Fifty Shades of Grey out of the top spot on the USA Today best-seller list.) If Zero Dark Thirty gave us a picture of the SEAL elite as a chummy, difficult-to-manage gang, the commotion around No Easy Day helps explain how they got that way.

Bissonnette’s account allows for the possibility that he fired the shots that ultimately killed bin Laden; Rob O’Neill, another SEAL on the mission, gave motivational speeches and interviews having claimed that he fired the lethal bullet. The bin Laden mission is a soup of fact and fiction — The New Yorker saw its account disputed by famed journalist (and longtime New Yorker contributor) Seymour Hersh. The bin Laden story is a battle of competing narratives. Who gets to tell the tale? Who gets the glory? What counts as a leak, or as investigative journalism? What is a firsthand account, or a tell-all bestseller? As long as such missions are carried out covertly, the public-facing picture remains incomplete. But in an age without secrets, it seems to be only a matter of time before the clandestine comes out into the open. What happens if we don’t like what we see?

Six arrives at the end point of that question, at a complicated moment for the SEAL unit at its center. The thorny ethical issues hinted at and then steamrolled over in documents like No Easy Day and Zero Dark Thirty — What are the consequences of an off-the-books special forces squad? What happens when you treat every problem as one worthy of rendition and destruction? — have returned to haunt us.

In June 2015, the Times published a lengthy investigation of Team 6’s mission creep, ethical lapses, and glaring lack of oversight. Earlier this month, The Intercept took the argument a step further with “The Crimes of SEAL Team 6.” The cottage industry of hero narratives, reporter Matthew Cole argues, leaves no room for the bloody, vengeful, and occasionally sadistic conduct of the squadron, including “canoeing”: splitting enemy casualties’ skulls with an extra bullet. (The Intercept reported that SEAL Team 6’s senior commander had sent the unit an internal memo in response to the story. According to Cole, the memo doesn’t dispute any of the facts in the article; instead, it asks ST6 members to “maintain the highest OPSEC posture and limit the spread of the article.”)

Set against the specter of an administration seemingly bent on an isolationist foreign policy, you begin to wonder if, 15 years into a global war on terror that allowed for — that required, SEALs might argue — such reported behavior, SEAL Team 6 is a unit out of step with the current moment.

From the jump, Six signals a willingness to investigate that idea — if not the ability to make a coherent statement about it. Early in the pilot, Goggins’s character leads his squadron on a lethally efficient manhunt in an Afghan village. But their target is missing and has left behind a house of corpses. “Damn savages,” Taggart mutters. And then he scalps one of the corpses in a rage, to the utter disgust of the other SEALs. The show does the moral calculus for you: using every possible avenue, legal and not, to chase down the bad guys has turned Taggart into one. But it’s not just an isolated incident, one man gone mad — on the same mission, Taggart executes an American fighting for the Taliban, shooting the man as he kneels in the dirt. “He was a threat,” he explains, retroactively applying all the legal standing he needs to kill a fellow citizen. It’s not exactly inspired filmmaking — the dialogue is choppy, the palette drab sand — but think about where you are. This is a show on the History Channel suggesting that the things SEALs do have consequences — for the SEALs themselves, but also for the country whose values they’re charged with upholding.

Do we really want to know what SEAL Team 6 does? Can we afford not to? The show hints at answers — no, and of course not — but it runs into a larger problem. The ultra-secret unit just isn’t compatible with the vocabulary of cable television. Which is how we get a subplot about one SEAL’s struggles with infertility, and another about a SEAL dealing with the teenage daughter he’s ignored since birth (and who is seriously crimping his cooking-for-one-in-the-nude style). Six wants us to know that being a SEAL has a cost, but the only way it knows how to calculate the cost is to make these guys stock television characters: the burnout, the warrior-poet, the family man. Which has the weird effect of diluting the trauma of their work: “bad sperm” and “annoying kids” are problems that accountants have, too.

Goggins brings to his performance the charm and rage we’ve come to expect from him, but his character suffers from the same thin characterization. The show won’t write Taggart off as a lost cause, and it needs a plot past “find that bad guy.” So it has him kidnapped by Boko Haram (that’s where the crucifixion comes in), and then double-kidnapped by Islamist terrorists, one of whom is the brother of the American that Rip killed. These are the real bad guys, the show tells us. So Team 6 mobilizes to find Rip, and the careful moral balance goes out the window. Everything set in Nigeria is filmed with a sepia tint, lest you expect to find shades of gray in the vengeance.

Six is strongest when it’s pulled in tight on the SEALs themselves — when it’s in the chain-link cages they use as lockers on the base in Virginia Beach. The relationship among the operators is sketched with something like nuance and empathy: These are the only men on the planet who can understand each other. When they’re off the clock, they haze the new guy and they wear skinny jeans with flip flops at the beach. It’s a sort of military workplace dramedy, with its own private jokes and point of view. Perhaps the bonds of enlisted SEALdom can overcome personal differences (in this case, racism from a coworker). But before the show can address these ideas, the SEALs pack up and head off to Nigeria to shoot and slash and choke their way through a series of anonymous antagonists.

What is Walton Goggins doing being crucified on the History Channel? Now we have an answer. Literally and figuratively, he’s been put on the cross for the sins of SEAL Team 6. Here’s a spoiler and a metaphor, all wrapped up in one: After a night of torture, his captors undo the ropes and let him down.