Book Review: Rorke Denver’s “Damn Few : Making the Modern SEAL Warrior”

Damn Few cover

I had the opportunity to get my hands on a copy of Rorke Denver’s Damn Few: Making the Modern SEAL Warrior, which he wrote with Ellis Henican.  Here’s the short version of the review:  It’s a very good book, and if you like getting the inside story and how the Navy creates its SEAL elites and what they do with themselves once created, it is definitely the book for you.

Here’s the longer version.  Many of you may know who Rorke Denver is, since he was one of the stars in Act of Valor, the SEALS’ foray in film making.  For a non-actor, he was every bit as good as most people one sees in movies.  As you may recall, I have mixed feelings about that movie.  As a movie about who the SEALS are and what they do, it’s a great action adventure film.  My problem was that the movie made the SEALS’ particular arch enemy a terrorist . . . Jew.  Long-time readers may recall that I was extremely upset, as were many other politically conservative Jews.  A military friend of mine put me in touch with some of the SEALS involved in making that movie, though, and I came away pretty darn convinced that, at the end, the scene identifying the terrorist mastermind as a Jew was accidental.

I know that the boots on the ground guys aren’t out there dealing with Islamic terrorists, or Somali pirates, or Latin American drug lords, while all the time dreaming that what they’d really like to do is kill a few Jews.  Nevertheless, the fact that the powers that be involved in making the movie — the producers, director and, most especially, the Pentagon brass — did not delete a scene that should not have been in there, still rankles.  This means that, whenever I think of the SEALS and, most particularly, the SEALS in Act of Valor, 99% of me admires them tremendously and views them as true heroes, while 1% of me cannot quite seem to get over that feeling of snit and betrayal.  I was therefore worried that I might carry a chip on my shoulder that would leave me unable to enjoy the book.

I need not have worried.  Having read Denver’s autobiography about his life as a SEAL, I find that my 99% admiration for these guys has increased in strength (although I’ve discovered that I’m never going to let go of the 1% sense of betrayal against the brass).  The guys on the ground really are the closest things we will see on this earth to super men.

Every SEAL book starts, of course, with BUD/S and that insane subset of BUD/S, Hell Week.  Working together, Denver and his co-author, Henican, provide a gripping picture of the kind of men who make it through the program, as well as describing in detailed, but never boring prose, precisely what program they make it through.

And what kind of men are they?  Well,  in some ways, all types:  short, tall, wiry, beefy, analytical, physical, black, white, brown, etc.  These men are a cross-section of America.  What they all have working for them as they enter the BUD/S program is superb physical conditioning.  What not all of them have, but that the ones who succeed need, is that peculiar inner drive that enables them to suffer just as much as the person next to them, but not to quit.

As is the case with every book I’ve read about BUD/S, while the program is certainly intended to make sure that those who make it to graduation as SEALS are physically able to handle the rigors of their work, the real goal is to separate those who can cope mentally and emotionally in whatever environment they find themselves.  And that doesn’t just mean SEa, Air, and Land; it also means boredom, battle, conference rooms, and film premieres. They must be men with an unshakeable sense of themselves and their purpose, and with a scary level of concentration that allows them to acknowledge yet ignore fear, pain, and any other “distractions.”  Denver walks us through the tests of strength and endurance that these men have to pass in order to become SEALS.  I was tired and sweaty by the end, despite having experienced it only through my imagination, while in the comfort of my armchair.

As with so many people one reads about who become SEALS or Medal of Honor winners, even when he was a child, Denver had a passion for his passions.  I know that sounds stupid, but it’s not.  Those of us who raise children know that they cycle through various hobbies about which they’re passionate, provided that the commitment doesn’t become burdensome.  Soccer is great . . . until it becomes too hard.  Reading is fun . . . until you’ve exhausted the library’s supply of fantasy novels.  History is interesting . . . but it get’s boring after a while.  People like Denver, though, have a deeper drive that enables them, even as children, to sustain their interest in something long after everyone else has dropped out after having discovered that it wasn’t as fun or glamorous as they thought.

Denver describes being a hyper-competitive, hyperactive kid who succeeded at every sport he tried — and who didn’t quit once he’d achieved a goal (he made the team) or when the drill got boring or painful.  He got himself a lacrosse scholarship to Syracuse University, even though he’d only started playing the game a few years before, while in high school.  Once there, this hyper-competitive future warrior was a fine arts major.  As a liberal arts person myself, I liked that touch.

That Denver knew himself and had moral courage early on reveals itself in one very nice anecdote he tells about joining the Syracuse lacrosse team.  Denver is a teetotaler.  Like me, his decision to abstain seems to stem, not from any puritanical opposition to alcohol, but because he doesn’t like it and prefers to be in control of himself.  Denver knew, though, that his team was a hard-partying, hard-drinking group.  At his very first party, he came up with a plan to put the drinking issue front and center.  He handed the team caption a bottle of booze (which told everyone that Denver didn’t believe he was morally superior to his friends) and then announced that, not only wouldn’t he drink, he’d willingly to fight anyone who thought they could make him.  Nobody fought him and Denver learned then that having a plan means that, in many situations, you’re already halfway to victory.

As is the case in all SEAL books, readers learn that, while these men love their country, they train and fight and risk because they love the battle and they are deeply committed to the warrior brotherhood.  When you’re on the battlefield, Denver makes clear, you’re not reciting the Declaration of Independence.  Instead, you’re looking out for your buddy, and you know he’s looking out for you.

One of the things that Denver emphasizes with something approaching fanaticism is the practice and preparation that marks every single waking moment in the SEALS’ lives.  He wants everyone to be very clear that SEALS don’t win battles, kill pirates, and take down bin Laden just because they’re strong and brave.  Strong and brave are a prerequisite, but what makes and breaks every single mission is preparedness.  These guys have practiced every move over and over. When they go to battle, they plot out every possible contingency. There is always not just a Plan B, but a Plan C and probably a Plan D too.

What I found fascinating about Denver’s book is a section near the end, in which he talks about the tension between the SEALS and the brass in Washington.  While the 1980s and 1990s were not really the SEALS’ glory years, 9/11 brought them into stark focus again.  Their ability to fight quickly and effectively in just about any situation was a splendid advantage in a war unlike any 20th century war America had fought.  In Iraq, once the invasion was over, big troop movements weren’t much good against insurgent guerrilla tactics.  What worked was the SEALS’ decision to go out, intentionally draw fire, and then mow down the opposition.  Their ability to raid and secure houses within minutes also meant that they could clear the rats out in their dens.

Success is a double-edged sword.  The SEALS were greatly admired, but they also came under pressure from Washington to become bigger.  That’s a problem when you have a pretty open try-out and training process that sees more than an 80% attrition rate.  The only way you can increase the numbers is to decrease the standards.  But if you decrease the standards, then you’re not SEALS anymore.  You’re just another “more elite than the regular military” force.  Denver is honest enough, though, to say that during his post-Iraq years as a SEALS’ instructor, he saw some of the instructors get too caught up in making the training process so rigorous that only perfect specimens would graduate.  That too risked rendering the SEALS obsolete, as they would become too select to sustain themselves.  Denver believes that there’s an uneasy balance now, with instructors recognizing that easing off a little is not the same as abandoning standards.  Time will tell  if this compromise works.

Regarding the way in which the books is written, I have to give Denver and Henican two thumbs up for an excellent structure and a strong authorial voice.  (That latter quality can be difficult in a co-written book.)  Each chapter begins with an apt quotation about war and warriors, and a personal anecdote that relates to the chapter’s topic, whether it’s BUD/S, Iraq, marrying, or making a movie.  (And speaking of marrying, it seems that SEALS, when they’re home, worship their wives, which is as it should be, of course.)  I liked this structure, which helped me understand better the information in any given chapter.

The book balances nicely personal reminiscences, easy-to-understand descriptions of objects and conduct alien to the ordinary civilian, and stories about SEALS other than Denver himself.  That last means that the book isn’t too self-referential, something that can get dull.  Sometimes, after having read a memoir, I’m done with the person, not because I don’t like that person, but because I feel I’ve learned enough about him or her to satisfy me.  With Denver, however, I finished the book with no small degree regret, wishing I could spend a little more time in his company, as well as the company of his wife (she sounds great) and his teammates.

Overall, I give this book an A+ for content and readability.  If you like military memoirs, you should definitely include this one on your list.