When it comes to Navy SEALS, Don Mann is the real deal. He was an active duty Navy SEAL for seventeen years, including eight years on SEAL Team Six. As he describes his experiences:
As a member of Seal Team Six for over eight years and a SEAL for over 17 years, he worked in countless covert operations, operating from land, sea, and air, and facing shootings, decapitations, and stabbings. He was captured by the enemy and lived to tell the tale, and he participated in highly classified missions all over the globe, including Somalia, Panama, El Salvador, Colombia, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
In addition to (or as augmentation for) his role as a SEAL, Mann is also a high endurance athlete, who has been in over 1,000 races (mostly extreme runs that make marathons look like a walk in the park). At one time, he was the 38th highest ranked triathlete in the world.
If anyone is qualified to write thrillers about a Navy SEAL Six team, Mann is the one. To date, Mann has actually written four such thrillers (in addition to a slew of non-fiction books about SEALS). The four thrillers are (1) Hunt the Wolf: A SEAL Team Six Novel; (2) SEAL Team Six: Hunt the Scorpion; (3) SEAL Team Six: Hunt the Falcon; and (4) SEAL Team Six: Hunt the Jackal. (For all but Hunt the Falcon, Ralph Pezzullo is listed as co-author.)
I received Kindle copies of all four SEAL Team Six novels from a book review site with which I’m affiliated. The reason behind this largesse was the fact that the official publication date for the fourth book is May 13. With my fondness for Navy SEALs and for thrillers, it was a foregone conclusion that I would gobble the books down all at once. I managed to read all four in a day-and-a-half. Looking back, this was a mistake. Because they are formulaic, reading them one on top of each other, without a decent interval of a few months between each one, highlighted their mechanical qualities and threw their flaws into relief. I think I would have liked them more had I read them less.
Before I get too deep into this, let me say that I have no problem with formulaic books. Most authors have a template they use, and readers keep returning to their books because they like that template. A perfect example of this is Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels, the 18th of which (Never Go Back : A Jack Reacher Novel) I had just finished reading just before I picked up Mann’s series.
The Reacher novels are pleasantly predictable: Ex-military cop Jack Reacher wanders aimlessly and across the United States and invariably stumbles upon grotesquely violent criminals who leave a wide swath of destruction in their wake until Reacher comes along and turns them into mulch. What makes the books work is Reacher’s character. He should be ridiculous, because he’s something of a superman, able to out-reason and out-fight every bad guy he comes across. Take away his impulse to be on the side of the gods, and he’d be a monster.
In fact, though, Child has made Reacher a very interesting character, because he walks us through Reacher’s logical process: What does Reacher notice as the bad guys approach him? How does he analyze the situation? What moral decisions is he making as part of this analysis? What tactics does he decide upon and why? And finally, how effective were his chosen tactics when he finally used them? Child puts you directly into the brain of a type of savant, a man preternaturally skilled at analyzing dangerous situations and turning them to his advantage.
Child’s books are also meticulously plotted. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Child is a massive stoner. He’s got the kind of obsessive attention to detail that makes sense only if someone is ripped on a drug that makes the hard work of imagining and writing such details fun, rather than deadly dull. Indeed, Child’s attention to fascinating details is so good that one can forgive the absence of an actual plot. For example, Child’s last book, Never Go Back, had an insanely stupid, lame denouement, something that’s antithetical to denouements. After all, a thriller, even if it can’t be thrilling, should at least be interesting.
When it comes to Never Go Back, though, Child didn’t even try. Still, Reacher is such an enjoyable character, you want to read the book anyway, and are willing to forgive Child his sins as a writer at least long enough to read the next Reacher book (should there be one).
Mann’s formulaic novels aren’t as good as Child’s book, but they’re not bad. Had I read them spread out over months, in the order in which they were published, I probably would have enjoyed them more than I did.
I know this sounds as if I’m damning Mann’s books with faint praise, and maybe I am. I need to make a full disclosure here, which is that I soured on the books about halfway through the third and in the beginning of the fourth. My low-level ill-will arose for a very specific reason, which is that Mann’s and my biases clashed.
In both the third and fourth books, Mann attacks the Israeli military. In the third book, it’s a completely gratuitous swipe about the Israeli special forces not being as good as they think they are. In the fourth book, the opening scene includes a quite detailed swipe at the Israeli military, implying that its members are rule-bound, cold-blooded, vindictive cowards. This might have been forgivable if this detailed scene had related to the rest of the book, but it didn’t. By book’s end, it’s clear that this anti-IDF sideline wasn’t necessary to the main plot. Mann just felt he wanted it in there.
There is absolutely nothing antisemitic about Mann’s negative attitude towards the Israeli military, and I respect that fact. It’s clear that Mann dislikes it as a military, not as a Jewish military. I got the strong feeling that, at one time, or over a period of several times, Mann had some bad experiences with the IDF and he’s using his novels as a place to vent his negative feelings.
Being spiteful is Mann’s prerogative — and it’s my prerogative to get unpleasantly ruffled because of that spite. I’m certain that the IDF has rotten apples in it, since all militaries do. I have no idea whether the IDF and its special forces are overrated, but it’s entirely possible that they are . . . or not. Nevertheless, I do feel that it was wrong for Mann to take self-serving, unnecessary swipes at a military that is on the side of the angels in the long war against the worldwide hydra of Islamic militants (along with the American military). Israel is a sufficiently beleaguered nation to deserve some respite from creative vindictiveness. The clash between Mann’s bias (not thrilled about the Israeli military) and my bias (supportive of the IDF) definitely dimmed my pleasure in his writing.
And now, finally, my review. All four books have the same pattern. Thomas Crocker is Mann’s alter ego: he looks like Mann (mustache and thinning hair), he exercises like Mann (taking his team on extreme climbs in the Himalayas or extreme runs in the Sahara desert), and he works like Mann once did, heading a SEAL Team Six unit tasked with dangerous secret missions. The book isn’t written in the first person, but we see everything through Crocker’s eyes and hear his thoughts. He loves his country; hates the enemy; worries about the damage to his soul from the deaths he’s caused; cares for his team; loves his wife and his daughter, whom he constantly leaves behind because missions take precedence; looks at his rough childhood as the crucible that created the warrior that he now is; sublimates fear; and manages to continue moving despite the fact that he’s invariably concussed, wounded, bleeding, and sleep deprived.
Crocker’s teammates are more literary ciphers than real characters. They exist to move the plot forward. Akil, the team’s navigator, is the Egyptian-born Muslim who came to America as a child, is a stalwart defender of America’s freedoms against Iran’s Islamic totalitarianism and, when he’s not being incredibly brave and disciplined, thinks only of sex. Mancini, the team’s weapons expert, is also the book’s expositor. He’s a know-it-all with a photographic memory/ Wherever the book takes the team, he will offer commentary about the sights they see, the nature of the enemy, the weather, etc. In other words, because the omniscient narrator never drops away from Crocker’s viewpoint, it’s up to Mancini to fill the reader in on everything Crocker cannot know. The other term members are given names and details (beard, wife, smile, fiancée, etc.), but are sufficiently ill-defined as characters to be completely forgettable.
One of the two things I’ve taken away about SEALs from the non-fiction books I’ve read is that they are trained, and trained, and trained, and then trained some more. The other thing that sticks in my brain is that they meticulously prepare for every mission. Mann has realized that an action novel that spends too much time detailing all of the SEAL’s meticulous preparation will work best as a sleep aid, rather than a thriller. Ironically, though, by avoiding all the mission detail, what Mann ends up with is a group of SEALs who rush unprepared into just about everything. If it weren’t for their highly trained skills and their really cool weapons, these guys would be morons, doing everything by the seat of their pants and getting into big trouble because of it.
In the first three books, the team’s missions involve Iranian infiltration in North Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In the last book, his team takes on a Mexican drug cartel. In all four books, the team is constantly frustrated by politics, especially those emanating from the CIA, which is given over to extreme political cowardice. In all four books, good people die, good people get wounded, bad people get horribly killed, and innocents get rescued. The good guys usually prevail, but it’s a painful, demoralizing, bloody, bloody process.
I’d be more specific at this point, but I can’t. Having read all four of the books in the same 48-hour period, they’ve run together in my mind, leaving only an overarching pattern without any defining details jumping out at me.
Looking at all four books a little temporal distance (I read the last one on Tuesday), I think the following is a fairly objective summary: These books are not great, but they’re not bad. They’re workmanlike thrillers that give some insight into (1) the never-ending training in which SEALs engage; (2) the enormous toll their work takes on their private life; (3) the terrible risks they take, partly out of love of country and partly because they’re very courageous adrenalin junkies; and (4) the genuine dangers in today’s world against which our armed forces and special forces protect us. If you’re looking for a quick, easy-to-read, fairly interesting military thriller, you could do a lot worse than Don Mann’s SEAL Team Six series. They won’t win any prizes, but they’ll definitely keep you entertained.