Ethos or Mythos?

 The Seal community is justifiably proud of its Ethos.    It describes high ideals and provides a beacon of values to guide Seals through the challenges of these difficult times.  I fear however, that some Seals may not be getting regular exposure to the Seal Ethos , and without that regular exposure, some Seals may instead be falling under the influence of  the more seductive ‘Seal Mythos’ – the myth and the legends that the public has come to believe about who Seals are, what they do, and what they stand for.

The Seal Ethos describes a quiet professional with impeccable integrity, who is physically and mentally tough, compassionate, proud of his heritage, his training, and his team- mates, a gifted and talented leader, humbly ready to risk all for the benefit of his team, his service, and his country.

The Seal Mythos however, speaks more of bravado than quiet professionalism, more in-your-face, than humble servant of our country.   The Seal Mythos portrays Seals as amazing fighters, experts in the full range of commando skills, incredibly strong and fit, who love the fighting, violence and killing of war, can kill you in a nanosecond with their bare hands (and not think twice about it).   When these highly trained and efficient killers are unleashed against the enemy, there just isn’t enough Kryptonite to stop them.

Those of us who are, or have been, inside the culture of the Seal Teams, chuckle at this fantastic portrayal of the superhero of the Seal Mythos – because our insider knowledge knows the truth.   But we also recognize that the Seal Mythos has been an important recruiting tool and strong motivator to help young men get through BUD/S training and into the Seal teams.   BUD/S instructors continue to motivate trainees with that vision of their future selves as superhero commandos , who can (metaphorically) leap tall buildings in a single bound.

But what about the Seal Ethos? It depicts a very different character – one who doesn’t need or concern himself with the adulation of an adoring public.  The Seal Ethos describes someone who dedicates himself to the dictates of profession, family and community.  “A common man, with uncommon desire to succeed….always ready to defend those who are unable to defend themselves….who doesn’t advertise the nature of <his> work, nor seek recognition for <his> actions,” who must earn his privilege to serve every day.   While the Seal Mythos is about the Seal as superhero, the Seal Ethos is about the Seal as humble servant to his profession, his teammates, community and nation.

This is not a new issue.  We can go back nearly 3000 years and look at Homer’s  Illiad to see the warrior of the Seal Ethos in Hector, a great warrior, but also a great citizen, husband, father, and son – an honorable man who fought because he had to for his city and his community. We see the warrior of the Seal Mythos in Achilles, half man and half god (a true ‘super-hero’), a great fighter, but a selfish and ego-driven prima-donna who fought primarily for personal glory.

I believe there is a moral development process in becoming the Seal described in the Seal Ethos.   While the trainee and young Seal may be attracted to the ideal in the Seal Mythos, the more mature Seal aspires to live up to the ideal in the Seal Ethos.  We eventually realize that we are not, nor ever will be, superheroes.  Most of us who choose to stick around the community as our ‘life’s work,’ become more humble with time, and are dismissive of the Seal Mythos.  We are most proud of the aspirational qualities included in the Seal Ethos.

Psychologists all know that for ideas and ideals to take root, they need to be repeated – again and again.  The Marine Corps knows this.  In the book Built to Last, the authors point out that in the best corporations, the values of the organization are repeated in every speech, in every public declaration by all the leaders of the organization.  However in most organizations, vision statements and aspirational ideals are normally framed and placed in a lobby or nice conference room, and are rarely discussed, consulted, or reinforced .  Is this happening to the Seal Ethos?

I’m told by young Seals, that after they graduate from training and report to the Teams, they rarely hear the Seal Ethos again, apart from vague references to it – like to the Declaration of Independence. I believe Seals need to have the values of the Seal Ethos explicitly and repeatedly reinforced.  I challenge our leaders to use the Seal Ethos to its full potential to balance the powerful ‘siren song’ of the Seal Mythos.

A challenge to Seal Leaders: An hour with a Platoon, Task Unit, or Team, to examine the nuances, the implications, and responsibility inherent in the Seal Ethos will communicate to your men what you value and stand for.  Specific values in the Seal Ethos should be repeatedly referenced in remarks to troops, families, and others.  Finally, I challenge every Seal, starting in BUD/S, to memorize the Seal Ethos.

One final point:  Our values and ethos are not what we say, or teach in a class, or write in a document.  Our real values and ethos are reflected in what we do, how we live, what we reward, how we treat each other and how we treat people outside of our immediate circle of family, friends, and culture.

11 thoughts on “Ethos or Mythos?

  1. Bob,

    I think you make some great points here, not just for Seals but for any organization serious about cultivating a specific organizational culture. As you pointed out, too often our well thought out mission statements and values are never referenced or repeated.

    I think the most dangerous thing about the Seal Mythos replacing the Seal Ethos is the lack of control embodied in the mythos. We can never control the outcome of a battle or know what’s behind a corner. Pursuing the Seal Mythos sets people up for failure because no amount of training, skill or desire can change a chance outcome.

    Living the Seal Ethos on the other hand is completely within the individual. We can each decide to be loyal, humble and to have integrity. I can’t decide to win but I can decide not to quit.

    In life we never control the outcome, only the inputs. The Seal Mythos is about outcomes, the Seal Ethos is about inputs. In reality we can only live one and hope for the other.


    • Siddhartha – great point that I hadn’t considered. The Ethos is indeed very much a description of internal character qualities, those Stoic things we can control. The Mythos is more an image and reality an attachment to being perceived in a certain way. And you’re right – outcomes are always to a certain degree out of our control. Maybe the Ethos ought to include those qualities of Serenity, Courage, and Wisdom that Rheihold Niebuhr descrubes in his Serenity prayer. As always, thanks for your insights. Bob


  2. Bob,

    I agree that this is a subject that extends across many organizations within the Navy. There is an effort to instill an Ethos within midshipmen with Ethics, Honor, and leadership training. However upon graduation, the learning stops and that Ethos withers.

    From the dictionary, I see Ethos two-fold – as being internal in the sense of internalized, however also external in the sense of a common community spirit – and Mythos being more of an individual concern for the external, the image.

    There is an interesting link to Aristotle and Mythos as related to the Tragedy. This is a bit from the book, “Representation and Ideology in Jacobean Drama; The Politics of the Coup De Theatre” by Rizzo, “Aristotle applies to his initial definition of mythos the same formula employed for tragedy, namely “imitation of action”.”

    I think that many organizations attempt to use a Mythos to imitate an Ethos, but fail over time because, Mythos is a belief or assumption about this external component of self.


    • Johannes- as usual you bring up an interesting observation – ‘ethos’ can have an individual/internalized interpretation and a community/cultural interpretation. That is a nuance of the Seal Ethos issue that my little essay didn’t address, because, as obvious as it is – it didn’t occur to me. Thank you! ‘Mythos’ as imitation of action reinforces what Siddhartha said about the Mythos as an ‘external’ in the Stoic sense – something we can’ t control. And then there is the complicating question: can there be an ethos of the mythos? Better stop there…:) Thanks Johannes – great to hear from you again. Bob


  3. Bob, as usual, well written. I encourage you to submit to as many Navy publications, especially the BLAST. Recently, I have sadly discovered that our retired ranks have lost sight of the SEAL Ethos. This should be a life long commitment, not just a active duty responsibility. I know that I am not as eloquent as your colleagues but just adding my two cents.


    • Carol – I agree – I’m actually planning on submitting it to the NSW Ethos magazine, and the Blast frequently uses those essays. Regarding the Post-active duty Ethos of retirees – people don’t change after they leave active duty. They are the same people. Their ‘ethos’ will not change much, if at all. The things you’re not happy seeing from retirees -we saw the same general behavior when they were on active duty. The difference is that on active duty, there were structures that provided external constraints on self-serving behavior that don’t exist to the same degree when people leave active duty for the private sector. Internal constraints are the ones that count….That’s MY two cents.


  4. Bob

    I very much enjoy your thoughtful posts. This one especially rings true. A few months ago I watched the recent splatter movie Troy with some young people enamored of Achilles. I was attracted to Hector. This motivated me to read the Illiad again after many many years. Well said.



    • Tod – I think there is so much in the Illiad – I too want to read it – again for the first time. Thanks, and I’m flattered that you read what I write. LIke the blind pig rooting around in the mud, I occassionally find an acorn. Bob


  5. I got the following in an email to my personal address from a recently retired Seal Officer.

    “I strongly agree with your comments on the SEAL Ethos. The SEAL Ethos is not much more than a poster on the Q-deck. We MUST further engage the chiefs mess to stress the importance of our ethical principles. The young enlisted men will always endeavor to emulate the chiefs. I am not discounting the importance of strong and moral officer leadership; however, the power of the chiefs mess to positively influence the SEAL community can NOT be overstated.

    As a TU CDR I often found myself at odds with the CPO’s regarding ethics and the ethos. Their perspective was you can’t fight an evil enemy following a code of ethics. I would often hear–“cut the guys some slack; they are combat vets.” The recent illegal arms sales arrest will undoubtedly receive significant attention.

    Exacerbating the situation; as the NSW community expands, many of the CPO’s are promoted before they are ready. Often they want to remain “one of the boys.” Furthermore they believe “taking care of the boys” at all costs is their charter as CPO’s. They fail to understand that required discipline is often taking care of the boys. Unethical behavior is not acceptable because someone is a combat vet.

    At numerous times as a TU CDR and XO I found discipline that should have been instilled at the CPO level was pushed up to officers because of their failure to take action. As you know this creates a “us verses them” environment between the officers and enlisted.”


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