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.