Thoughts of a Philosophical Frogman – Stoicism and Navy SEAL Training

The title of this short piece  is a tip of the hat to Vice Admiral Jim Stockdale’s  Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot, a book with which some of you may be familiar. 

Vadm Jim Stockdale was a career Naval Aviator who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his courage and leadership as a Prisoner of War for 7 years in Hanoi.  I was a career Navy Seal for 30 years, and though we never served together, I did meet him several times later in life and came to learn that he and I were introduced to Stoicism by the same Stanford Professor, about 8 years apart.  Stockdale and his approach to Stoicism as it may apply to and serve warriors have had a very strong impact on me and on so many others in the Navy and other branches of the military – but I’ll come to that later.

This discussion will be about STOICISM in SEAL and SWCC basic Training. 

SEALs are pretty well known, but what is a SWCC?  SWCC (pronounced Swick) stands for Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewman – the best tactical small boat operators in the world,  who start training with the SEALs, until their training necessarily branches off to focus on their specialty, and then later converges with SEAL training.  Like SEAL basic training, SWCC basic training is extremely challenging.

In my below notes, I use the male gender because until very recently, all SEALs and SWCCs have been males.  That has  changed –  the first female recently successfully completed and graduated from basic SWCC training, and by all accounts I’ve heard, was a star. 

Never quit1

STOICISM and BASIC SEAL and SWCC Training

Even though  Stoic virtues fit so well within the Navy SEAL Ethos and what Naval Special Warfare Leaders want SEALs and SWCCs to be, there is no formal program that teaches Stoicism to aspiring SEALs or SWCCs.   I know that many SEALs are familiar with Stoicism,  many embrace its tenets and may even identify themselves as Stoics, but Stoicism as such, is not part of any approved or official Navy SEAL or SWCC curriculum

That said, Stoic virtues are taught in Basic SEAL and SWCC Training – but under a different guise.

A former Navy SEAL Force Master chief, now retired, teaches aspiring SEALs and SWCCs what is referred to as The Whole Man Concept, which borrows extensively from not only Stoicism but also Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics.  But the Master Chief avoids attaching these labels to what he teaches – in part out of a desire to not sound overly academic to young warriors, many of whom signed up for the military and SEAL/SWCC training because they were tired of going to school.

   The Whole Man Concept is built around what are  listed as the six attributes or virtues of our ideal SEAL or SWCC warrior, and you’ll recognize their Stoic Roots:  

  • Moral courage
  • Physical Courage
  • Resilience
  • Humility
  • Teamability (a word the SEALs have coined for being a good teammate) 
  • Creativity

The Master Chief emphasizes that these are not just warrior virtues, they are also citizen virtues.  The SEALs are trying to develop not just great warriors, but also great citizens – respectable members of their communities – good husbands, fathers, sons, neighbors, who respect our nations laws, institutions and ideals.

He teaches that these virtues will of necessity express themselves differently in the  intensity of combat-on-the-battlefield, than in the relatively peaceful, but also challenging world of being at home in the community with one’s family. 

The  ideal warrior needs to be able to toggle back and forth in applying these Whole Man virtues, applying them in different ways appropriate to the two very different environments of battle and civil life.  The ideal Whole Man is able to adapt to and succeed in the environment in which he finds himself – make decisions and behave in ways appropriate to the dictates of the situation.  And that takes time, thought, refection and a strong will to improve. 

But that is all classroom stuff. The meat of SEAL and SWCC training is in the practical application of these Stoic, Whole Man  virtues – under pressure.This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is forged-by-adversity.jpg

SEAL and SWCC training reflects the views of Epictetus and Stockdale that insist that adversity – mental and physical – is the crucible that not only tests, and reveals, but also BUILDs and develops character.  Adversity feeds and reinforces the Stoic virtues of fortitude, courage and resilience.  Dealing well with adversity demands self discipline, and practical wisdom 

SEAL & SWCC training gives the candidates plenty of adversity to “stress-test” and develop their moral and physical courage, resilience, self-discipline, and humility.

Before SEALs and SWCCs begin their intense basic training, they spend weeks -sometimes months – in a preparatory holding pattern,  where they learn and reinforce the tenets of military culture, and do intense physical training to get ready for what they know will be the challenge of a lifetime.

For years I have hosted a voluntary reading group for those in that holding pattern. This is an Informal effort to introduce SEAL and SWCC candidates to Stoicism, Stoic virtues, and to discuss how these virtues will apply to becoming a SEAL or SWCC.

I normally get between 6 and 10 volunteers who want to read and discuss ideas that may help them get thru training, and later serve them in the TEAMS.  I’d like more, but for many of these young men, reading and discussing ideas just sounds too much like school.

We begin by reading: 

                        -“Courage Under Fire”  by Stockdale (my favorite of his many essays)

                        –Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl

                        –One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Solzhenitsyn

                        –The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*@k  by Michael Manson

                        –The Warrior Ethos by Stephen Pressfield

(we have a list of other books we read, depending on the group and how much time we have.  For that list, contact me.) 

These aspiring warriors know they have to get thru first phase and Hell week or The Tour, (the SWCC version of Hell week) if they want to progress in their training.  In all likelihood, that will be the hardest thing they have ever done. 

Hardship and Struggle.  I tell them that during Hell Week or the Tour, when they are struggling, feeling down, hating life, questioning their commitment to the path they have chosen, that they should recall and draw inspiration from Stockdale’s moral and physical courage and fortitude in the Hanoi Hilton, and likewise Viktor Frankl’s courage and fortitude in the concentration camp at Auschwitz.

Stoicism is very much about controlling one’s attitude.  That’s not easy – especially under duress.  And so I tell them, when maintaining a Stoic positive attitude seems impossible –  there is one thing they can ALWAYS do which will reflect and build a great attitude – just focus on doing their best. That’s all they have to do. No matter how miserable they may be, how hard the training is, how weak or unworthy they may feel, they must ask themselves and be able to answer in the affirmative: “Am I doing my best?”  We can always control and OWN THAT. 

The SEALs have a very Stoic saying.  “Just Embrace the Suck!”This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is fear-is-what-stops-you-courage-is-what-keeps-you-going.jpg

And I remind them to remember what Stockdale taught:    The worst thing that can happen to a Stoic is to feel SHAME – to behave in a manner for which one is ashamed.  For the Stoic,  shame is the worst pain.

I remind them, that not just in SEAL or SWCC training –  but in LIFE  – every challenge, every setback is an opportunity to learn and grow.   Hardship and struggle are the crucibles for developing character,  and without hardship and struggle, character just doesn’t develop.

For many, that hardship may be the disappointment of not graduating and becoming a SEAL or SWCC.  Most of these young men have dreamed of and prepared for this opportunity for years, but only 25-30% succeed.  They get injured, or some other mishap occurs, or they physically don’t meet the standard, or they hit a weak moment and quit.

If and when that happens, I tell them, “Now you have a new challenge.  Get over it.  Learn from it. It’s up to you to let it make you better.”   Now they have an opportunity to exercise that very Stoic virtue of a resilient positive attitude, to make the best of whatever happens. 

I urge them to make “Not becoming a SEAL or SWCC”  the best thing that ever happened to them – because it opens the door to so many other great opportunities to challenge themselves and grow, albeit in a different context.  And I give them examples of people I know who didn’t make it through SEAL training, but who went on to succeed and live impressive lives in other contexts. 

——–

NOW a couple of thoughts from a “Philosophical Frogman:”

A few years ago, I wrote an essay entitled Stoicism, the Good, the Bad, the Ugly.  

    The Good – is what we all know and love about Stoicism – the ability to detach from and manage our emotions, focus on what we can control,  the emphasis on courage, resilience, perseverance and personal responsibility.

    The Bad – the caricature of the Stoic as one who seeks serenity and detachment above all else.  The Stoic as disengaged from life, being serene, but having no drive or passion.

    The Ugly – The Stoic who may have little patience or compassion for others who haven’t hardened themselves to  accept their suffering and rise above it.  The Stoic who may respond to others’ suffering with, “Just suck it up. Quit whining.  Deal with it – see it as an opportunity to become stronger.” 

   The “ugly” is that self-righteousness that some Stoics may fall victim to.  A brutal lack of compassion.  A lack of humility.  What I call  “the Samurai version of Stoicism.”

The Stoic Sage that I aspire to be, understands and accepts that not everyone can be, or wants to be a strong, hard, and resilient Stoic. Even the Stoic Sage is regularly tested, fails, and continues to test him/herself – recognizing that he/she doesn’t always measure up.   The Stoic Sage I aspire to be has learned to respect people where they are, to help those who may be struggling, serves as an example of hardness AND compassion, for others as well as for him/herself.  

That “ugly” side of Stoicism is one I have struggled with, and I know other self-professed Stoics have as well.  I am trying to feel more empathy and be more compassionate toward those who suffer. That said, I still believe that discomfort, fear, not getting what we want, suffering, dealing with the perfidy of others, are best viewed as learning opportunities, that scar tissue is tough tissue, for building resilience in an unforgiving world.  I am suspicious of coddling those who don’t get what they want, or are struggling.  The Navy SEAL in me is also still trying to embrace the suck (while I may also curse it!)  How do we find the balance in “love”  between compassion, and tough love?  With oneself as well as with others? 

TO CONCLUDE I come back to Stockdale.  He and other POWs from North Vietnam (I have met and worked with a number of them) have all said they wouldn’t trade their experience in Hanoi for anything.  It made them stronger and better able to contribute, when they returned to civilized life in America.  Jim Stockdale himself, came back and eventually became the President  of the Naval War College, and introduced the Navy to Stoicism by creating what became, and is still known as “The Stockdale Course”, (actual title “Foundations of Moral Obligation”) which for over 40 years has influenced leaders in all services of the military – and that includes me, and the Navy SEALs. 

And those, ladies and gentlemen are a few thoughts from a “Philosophical Frogman.”

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11 thoughts on “Thoughts of a Philosophical Frogman – Stoicism and Navy SEAL Training

    • Thanks Colin. I see you’re back on the govt payroll – congratulations. I’m very busy but not getting paid for anything I’m doing – currently on a bike ride in France, and next month doing a charity Bike Ride for the Navy SEAL Museum. That’s the kind of cool stuff I’m doing these days. Bob

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  2. Hello sir,

    My first exposure to you was through Mark Divine’s Unbeatable Mind podcast, and of all the guests he’s had over the years, yours is still the one that has really resonated with me the most. Since then, I have read through Bob’s Corner, which I’ve also enjoyed.

    I’m interested in getting the additional reading list you mentioned for the SEAL and SWCC candidates voluntary reading groups. I tried your sandiego.edu email but it bounced back.

    Thanks for your service, and for sharing your thoughts and perspectives. I really enjoy them and find them inspiring.

    Take care and be well!
    Scott Miller

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  3. Hello sir,

    My first exposure to you was through Mark Divine’s Unbeatable Mind podcast, and of all the guests he’s had over the years, yours is still the one that has really resonated with me the most. Since then, I have read through Bob’s Corner, which I’ve also enjoyed.

    I’m interested in getting the additional reading list you mentioned for the SEAL and SWCC candidates voluntary reading groups.

    Thanks for your service, and for sharing your thoughts and perspectives. I really enjoy them and find them inspiring.

    Take care and be well!
    Scott

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    • THank you Scott. Here is a list of the books we draw from with our group in PTRR, which stands for Physical Training, Rest and Recovery – for guys going into BUD/S for the first time, or recovering from injuries in previous classes getting ready to go back in.

      BOOKS WE READ IN PTRR

      *Legacy, by James Kerr – (Short) The ethos of the New Zealand All-Blacks rugby team, the most successful professional sports franchise in history. What are their values and how they take care of each other and keep on winning.
      *Man’s search for Meaning, (Short) by Victor Frankl – An autobiographical account of Frankl’s time in Auschwitz. Selected as one of the 20 most impactful books of the 20th century. I re-read it every 3 or 4 years and always learn from it.
      *Courage Under Fire, by Stockdale (short) an Article – 10 pages – describing Stockdale’s experience in North Vietnam Prison and how he used Stoicism to help him not only survive, but lead and thrive.
      *Rifleman Dodd, CS Forester (medium length – required reading in the USMC) a novel about how a soldier in the British army fighting Napoleon in Spain gets separated from his company, but stays focused on his mission and his training. Great example of Charlie Mike – Continue Mission.
      *Warrior Ethos, (short) by Stephen Pressfield. This is Pressfield’s look at what a Warrior Ethos should be, emphasizing the tension between aggression and restraint.
      *Tactical Ethic, (Short) by Dick Couch About how warrior should fight, and the challenges of dealing with Rogue cultures in SOF. Particularly relevant in light of the Eddie Gallagher debacle and other recent incidents in the NSW Community.
      *Fearless, by Eric Blehm – (medium length) The story of Adam Brown, Navy SEAL who overcame amazing odds to become a highly admired SEAL, and who was eventually killed in Afghanistan.
      *The Trident, (medium length)by Jay Redman – The personal story by a Navy SEAL who made some serious mistakes and then fought his way back to rebuild his reputation. But then he was shot in Iraq and faced the fight of his life to stay alive and recover.
      *The Subtle Art of not giving a F*ck, by Michael Manson (medium length)- a philosophy for millennials based on taking full responsibility and not sweating the small stuff, and only giving “F”s about things that are truly important.
      *A day in the life of Ivan Denisovich, (short) by Solzhenitsyn One day for one prisoner in the Gulag – referenced by Stockdale repeatedly.
      *David and Goliath, (pretty short) by Malcolm Gladwell Multiple stories of people standing up against the odds, persisting, believing in themselves and succeeding.
      Fight Club, by Palahniuk – (pretty short) a Novel which addresses how modern life is creating a culture of wimps. And one guys solution to that – make life tough and scary and only then do you learn to love it. And then, how pushing the envelope and unleashing our crazy/primal nature can get out of control, can go too far and be destructive. Movie is good, book is much better. And a bit of strange read.
      Gates of Fire, By Steven Pressfield (longer book) – the story of the Spartans at Thermopile. Basis for the movie The 300.
      Starship Troopers, by Heinlein – (medium length) Science fiction novel of a warrior culture several centuries in the future, and a society that only lets its warriors vote. Heinlein’s political manifesto.
      Captain’s Class (longer book) About how the best sports teams in history have all had in common a great team captain – not the greatest player, but a great leader.
      Boys in the Boat (longer book) About the 1936 US Olympic Crew Team – an amazing story of great coaching and persistence.
      Greenlights, (short to medium length) by Matthew McConaughey – his personal memoir. Reading is good, listening to him tell his story in his own voice on audible is better – lots of fun, great stories, humor and wise lesson’s learned.

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      • Thank you! I’m pleased to see quite a few books I have read and own on there, but obviously a lot of books I need to read. Once an Eagle is one of my favorites and I know you listed it under Bob’s Books. I’m curious why that’s not included here (I’m assuming it’s the length, but thought I’d ask).

        Also, do you have an email address you’re willing to share?

        Thanks again, and keep sharing!
        Scott

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      • Scott – my challenge with young athletic, high energy men preparing for BUD/S is getting them to read anything – so I default to shorter books. One of the guys in a previous group read Once an Eagle along with me and some other guys. Unfortunately he got med-dropped from BUD/S and is now transferring to the army to give SF a try. He is also reading War and Peace at my suggestion. It deservedly has the distinction of being named by many as the best novel ever written, but most people won’t read it because it’s “too long.” Most guys are in the prep phase for BUD/S for only a few months, and usually only get 2 o3 of the books on that list. Which ones vary based on what they want to read. I’m just trying to get them interested in reading! I am at bob.schoultz@gmail.com

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    • usually have often been able to get authors of the books we select to join us – among those who’ve joined us so far, Jim Mattis, Karl Marlantes, Mattehw McConnaughey, Steven Pressfield. I think you’d fit in well and would enjoy discussing books with a bunch of thoughtful warriors (you’ll know a bunch of them) ranging from Vietnam Era retirees to guys still in the fight, to young guys just out of BUD/S. Normally 20-30 guys show. We do have a few meatheads attend, which is good, to keep the rest of us grounded. LMK you’d be welcomed.
      Bob.schoultz@gmail.com

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      • Email got cut off at the beginning. Scott – you might be interested in joining a SEAL reading Group that Jay Hennessey and I put together and run. We meet bi monthly and … (the rest of the message got thru)

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