When I was going through BUD/S, the SEALs’ famously tough basic-training program, many of our instructors had never been to war. It wasn’t their fault. They were amazing guys, phenomenal mentors and leaders. But in those pre-9/11 days, the U.S. military hadn’t fought a real-deal war since Vietnam.
So when one of the instructors said, “This is what you do in a gunfight”—well, it was hard not to wonder, respectfully: “Oh yeah? And how many gunfights have you been in?”
For SEALs coming up now, the answer is, “More than you can possibly imagine.” By this point, the entire U.S. military has learned the lessons of war.
I have been thinking about that important fact as America notes the 10th anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq. The pundits can argue all they want to about the reasons we went there. The critics can add up all the costs we paid—big ones, in blood and in treasure. But wherever you stand on this war and the one in Afghanistan, this much is undeniable: All that intense and prolonged combat experience has made us far better warriors than we’ve ever been before. A decade after American troops stormed into Baghdad, the U.S. military is a battle-tested, forward-thinking, phenomenally sharp fighting force, truly ready for whatever threats come our way next.
That’s one of the hidden benefits of the war in Iraq: We are even better now.
I led 200 SEAL-commando missions in the western part of the country. I was there for some of the war’s bloodiest days. With my teammates on SEAL Team 3, we helped to shift the momentum against a zealous and creative enemy.
When we arrived, Sunni fighters were careening around al-Anbar Province with the three-pronged mortar launchers on the beds of little Toyota pickups.
By the time we left, we’d faced down the insurgents in numerous roadside firefights, and the Sunni awakening was in full swing. Many of our fiercest enemies were collaborating with us.
Building on all our intense SEAL training, we became the warriors we are today. We learned countless lessons in the heat of daily combat, testing every one of them:
- How to lure secretive insurgents into the daylight.
- How to apply swift and overwhelming force.
- How to communicate with tribal leaders and exploit local intel.
- How to turn yesterday’s enemies into tomorrow’s friends. How to up-armor our Humvees so we wouldn’t be so vulnerable.
- How to navigate around IEDs, RPGs and the other weapons of insurgency.
- How to pick the right targets and avoid the wrong ones. How to get inside a fortified building in a few quick seconds and get all our guys out alive.
- How to put old rivalries behind us and coordinate effectively with Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine units.
- How to improve the skills of poorly trained local troops. How to confront our mistakes honestly and correct them.
The lessons go on and on. We learned them because we wanted to and because we had to. All of us did.
I’m not just talking about special operators like the Navy SEALs, Army Special Forces and Rangers. Regular infantry units are now conducting missions that a decade ago only highly elite units were capable of. Now, the SEALs are exploring new frontiers for our special skills.
We aren’t done yet.
Does anyone believe the world of terror has changed so much that we won’t face new enemies again? No way.
From here forward, we will keep facing them. Our threats are like hydras now with many heads. We have to be ready for all of them.
I’m not saying we weren’t ready before. Clearly, we were. But now we have the talent and depth that comes only from intense battlefield experience. We are boned up and ready for damn near anything. We’re like well trained athletes after the season has finally begun. We’re in game shape now. All of us have been on the field.
When I got back from Iraq, I spent four years running all phases of basic and advanced SEAL training. After my time in Iraq, no one ever doubted my battlefield credibility or that of the other instructors. We had been to war. We had seen a huge amount of action. We had learned from our experiences there.
LCDR Rorke Denver a Navy SEAL assault-team leader in Iraq, ran every phase of SEAL training, basic and advanced. He starred in the 2012 film "Act of Valor." His new book, DAMN FEW: Making the Modern SEAL Warrior, (with co-author Ellis Henican) has just been published Feb. 19 by Hyperion.