Small Wars Journal

Book Review: Trident Over Ribbons Alpha by David Philipps

Wed, 01/11/2023 - 1:39pm

Book Review:

Trident Over Ribbons

Alpha by David Philipps

By Cole Black

David Philipps gives us the clearest picture yet of the national controversy surrounding Edward Gallagher, decorated Navy SEAL chief accused of war crimes, in his 2021 book ALPHA: Eddie Gallagher and the War for the Soul of the Navy SEALs. The cover of the book reads ALPHA in large white letters. Its subtitle mentions Eddie Gallagher in a more subdued blue text almost camouflaged into the shadowy, sunglass-wearing face of the man who sparked such a polarizing cultural debate. Gallagher wears his white dress uniform with its SEAL trident prominently displayed beneath the author’s name. Conspicuously cut out of frame are the ribbons, medals, and other awards earned during his 20-year military career pinned to his chest below the SEAL’s iconic warfare insignia. As Philipps emphasizes in his book, the struggle to define, preserve, and purify the true ethos embodied by the SEAL trident overshadows personal glory and reputation.

The first half of the book paints a meticulously well-researched picture of Alpha platoon’s deployment to Iraq and the infamous prisoner of war incident that pushed fellow SEALs in Gallagher’s unit to report him. It reveals the internal struggle between the SEALs of Alpha platoon and their increasingly unpredictable chief, all while fighting through the intense urban jungle of Mosul. The second half of the book describes the legal crucible endured by those who reported Gallagher, NCIS investigators, and prosecution trial attorneys, a blood-boiling series of missteps, obstacles, and private dealings that eventually led to Gallagher’s acquittal, both legally and in the eyes of large parts of the SEAL community and American public.

As evidenced by the cover, Philipps gives Gallagher a subordinate role throughout the story, portraying him as a pathetic figure symbolic of a larger cultural crisis. Instead, Philipps focuses on the members of Alpha who wrestled with the potential repercussions of their actions: should they report their older, more experienced chief for dangerous, erratic, and ultimately criminal behavior, or keep quiet to protect the warrior brotherhood so ingrained in the SEAL teams, not to mention their careers? There are those that take the risk to report and testify against Gallagher, like Special Operator First Class Craig Miller. There are those that participate conditionally, like the platoon medic Corey Scott. Then there are those that delay and obstruct justice because of negligence or self-preservation, like Lieutenant Portier. Each character speaks to the gray areas of modern combat and special operations contextualized throughout the book. Gallagher’s character reminds us of the solution to the paradox between a highly trained killer and outrage against killing an enemy combatant: the moral principles outlined in the Constitution all SEALs swear to defend.

Philipps painstakingly investigates the question of Gallagher’s innocence throughout the book with the impressive attention to detail of a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, distilling hundreds of hours of testimony and thousands of text messages into a stark condemnation of Gallagher’s character, his behavior in Iraq, the savage culture that enabled his actions, and subsequent self-serving attempts to limit the frag radius of his crimes. More important, however, are the larger implications of his book: the “moral drift” of warfighting units operating with minimal oversight outside of the public eye, a “pirate” subculture developed in the SEAL teams since Vietnam, enamored with violence and the ritual act of killing, and the collisions between modern warfare and ethics, Navy brass and public perception, loyalty and moral responsibility.

Gallagher’s trial, in the sunset of the Trump administration, became a litmus test for military leadership’s willingness to sweep things under the rug, the American public’s deep reverence for shining SEAL ethos, and then-President Trump’s willingness to override legal processes for political gain. The book leaves the reader with a far more detailed understanding of the Gallagher controversy than most people had as it happened (including, perhaps, the trial’s jury), an understanding that is overwhelmingly damning: of Gallagher’s warfighting record, of certain naval leadership figures, of politicized media response, and most importantly, of institutional and culture enablers of Gallagher-like individuals. Political interference and an unwritten code of silence led to an infuriatingly hamstrung investigation, tumultuous trial, and eventual acquittal. Even among the SEAL teams, the most notable heroes are those that come forward with the truth despite threats to professional advancement, relationships, or reputation.

Whether or not the reader believes the strong evidence that Gallagher directly killed Moataz (the young, misled ISIS prisoner brought to Alpha platoon) or chooses to brush them aside to preserve their polished mental image of US special operations forces, the celebrity status enjoyed by Gallagher considering these accusations was and is unacceptable. That Gallagher was not convicted is one thing, a miscarriage of justice made possible by a series of cover-ups and curveball immunity deals; that a Navy SEAL could betray his oath to the Constitution in pursuit of Rambo-like accolades and lawless violence to the point of targeting civilians and endangering his men, all while being hailed as a shining victim, a Mr. America, by mainstream media and public officials, is nothing short of shameful. His story describes the narcissistic descent into barbarity of one of our nation’s premier warfighters. We can hope that closing David Philipps’ book coincides with turning the page on what may come to be seen as the moral rock bottom of the United States’ treatment of modern warfare. Philipps, for one, seems to be optimistic about institutional change and the prospect of ethical repair, despite Gallagher’s legacy.

About the Author(s)

Cole Black grew up in San Diego, CA, and is currently attending Yale University. He is a sophomore pursuing a History major with a focus on War and Society. He hopes to pursue a commission as a naval officer after college.