BY WATER BENEATH THE WALLS

Milligan delivers a well-researched history beginning after Pearl Harbor, when the Marine Corps commandant learned that the president was “much interested” in the use of commandos. In August 1942, Evans Carlson (“Carlson’s Raiders”) led a raid on Makin Atoll designed to take pressure off Marines at Guadalcanal. It was a poorly organized debacle in which a dozen men were left behind to be captured and beheaded. Some successes followed, but all commando forces were disbanded after 1945, although the Navy retained two specialized units, which foreshadowed the SEALs. They were the Underwater Demolition Teams, who performed heroically in reconnaissance and clearing obstacles before landings in Normandy and the Pacific and the continued development of the Seabees, “the Navy’s builders.” Except for improvised raids during the Korean War, the usual peacetime deterioration followed until the arrival of John F. Kennedy. Though his love of special forces was mostly focused on the Green Berets, the first SEAL team was commissioned on Jan. 1, 1962. Special units flourished during the Vietnam War, but they had little effect on the outcome. Perhaps luckily, the SEALs’ commitment never exceeded 150 during that time. The Green Berets (well over 1,000) specialized in winning hearts and minds and recruiting Indigenous fighters, with spotty success. With no specific role, the SEALs acquired a reputation as pure fighters, and Milligan devotes most of the final 150 pages to small-unit actions, not all of which involved SEALs or ended well. By the war’s end, SEALs were established as America’s elite go-anywhere warriors. Since this book describes their “rise,” the narrative ends with Vietnam. Milligan has scoured archives and turned up much unpublished material. He describes far more small-unit battles and lives of obscure but colorful men (all men) than a focused history requires, but few readers will complain.

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