Brad Willis Interviews Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist and Author David Philipps
In partnership with the Coronado Public Library, Warwick’s of La Jolla hosted a Q & A with Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter David Philipps, who just released the book “Alpha: Eddie Gallagher and the War for the Soul of the Navy SEALs.” Philipps was interviewed on Zoom from his home in Colorado Springs, Colorado, by Brad Willis, a former war correspondent and award-winning journalist himself.
“Was Gallagher a hero or a murderer? A role model, or a man unhinged? Did he commit the crime, or were his own men in Alpha Team out to get him, as he claimed?” asked Willis, kicking off the interview.
The book, which Willis describes as a “tremendous piece of investigative journalism,” chronicles the much-publicized and highly controversial saga of Special Operations Chief Eddie Gallagher, who headed up the Alpha SEAL platoon—based here, in Coronado—and led his men in an operation against Islamic State fighters in Mosul, Iraq in 2017. Although the operation was dubbed a military success and Gallagher returned home a decorated war hero, his sterling reputation was soon tarnished with accusations of war crimes by several of his own men. Breaking an unspoken code of silence, several men on his platoon accused him of stabbing to death an injured, teenaged ISIS prisoner, as well as firing sniper shots at “school aged girls” and “old men,” according to Philipps.
Although he was indicted on ten counts, ultimately, a jury let Gallagher off on all but one—essentially for taking a photo with the dead prisoner and texting it to friends, according to Philipps. Later, former President Donald Trump reversed his punishment, allowing him to keep his rank and retire honorably.
Philipps, a seasoned military reporter and national correspondent who has written for publications like the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune and the Philadelphia Inquirer, is no stranger to war stories. But he says he was immediately taken by the story of a Navy Chief getting turned in by his own men for murder.
“This was a story that, right away, caught my eye,” said Philipps.
Philipps says he was able to gain access to “mountains” of information, including interviews and thousands of text messages between the men in the platoon, information that even the jury wasn’t allowed to see.
“I said to myself, OK…strap in, pay attention, and just try to figure out what happened,” said Philipps.
The first person he talked to was Gallagher’s wife. His instinct—after years of military and war reporting—was to question Gallagher’s mental health, he said. Gallagher had, after all, done multiple deployments and spent most of his adult life in the global war on terror.
“If the allegations were true, was this a story about post-traumatic stress disorder, or a brain injury? Were there warning signs along the way? Was this man injured, and the Navy had failed to recognize it?” asked Philipps.
But Gallagher’s wife was quick to set him straight. She said “that’s not what this story is about,” recalled Philipps. She said that her husband loved what he did, and was mentally and emotionally sound.
“Eddie’s wife told me that the younger SEALs in his platoon couldn’t handle his leadership style, that he asked too much of them,” said Philipps. “She said they were afraid of their own cowardice and they framed him with lies about murder to cover up what really happened in Iraq.”
But when he asked the men in the platoon about what happened, he got a very different story.
“It was like something from Apocalypse Now,” said Philipps. “They had this leader that they loved and looked up to, someone that they saw as the ‘ideal’ SEAL before deployment, but once they reached Mosul, it was like a switch flipped.”
Philipps said Gallagher allegedly became obsessed with violence, and began bragging about killing. Some of them men reportedly witnessed Gallagher firing sniper shots at unarmed civilians. Then there was the teenaged prisoner of war, an ISIS fighter taken in custody after a firefight.
“The prisoner was wounded and sedated. He was no threat. The battle was over,” said Philipps. “But three of the guys told authorities they saw their chief take out a knife and stab him to death.”
According to Philipps, the resulting accusations tore the tight-knit platoon apart. Although Philipps said it was important to note that a jury decided Gallagher was not guilty of attempted murder, the story wasn’t much of a “whodunnit.”
“In terms of a mystery, it’s not Sherlock Holmes. It’s not even Murder She Wrote,” said Philipps. “The larger mystery is more of a cultural ‘whodunnit.’”
Philipps said there seemed to be an internal disagreement among the SEALS—not whether or not killing a prisoner of war is wrong—but a question of loyalty. Some argued that the enemy doesn’t fight on the terms of the Geneva convention or abide by any formal rules of engagement. The SEALS are tasked with doing the most challenging, almost-impossible jobs, things that may never get talked about. They are real warriors fighting a dirty war.
“There was a feeling that you should be loyal to the men who you serve with, that would probably take a bullet for you in combat,” said Philipps. “Are you really going to hang them out to dry for killing an ISIS fighter?”
But then, others in the platoon felt differently, including the men who came forward with accusations against Gallagher.
“Some thought, yes, this is wrong, it’s cold-blooded murder,” said Philipps. “And not only is it wrong, but it’s dangerous. Because if that thinking spreads to other teams, we’re just a well-paid murder squad.”
Philipps said the book isn’t so much about Gallagher, as it is about the men of Alpha. He said it’s a book about a group of SEALS who did something really difficult, who risked everything to go up against a culture that celebrated Gallagher.
“The easiest thing they could have done was walk away, said Philipps. “They could have gotten a nice write up and recommendation, and moved up with their career. But they cared enough about the organization to do what they felt was right … they loved the team so much they were ready to put it all out there.”
Willis, who spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan as a war correspondent and received the prestigious Alfred I. duPont Award, said that conflicts wrought from combat are never black and white. He said he hopes the book will strengthen the SEAL organization and offer an opportunity for reflection.
“Things just aren’t that simple,” said Willis, who counts many members of the SEALs as friends. “War is messy. It’s not a situation of hero vs. villain. It’s much more complicated than that. It always has been, and it always will be.”
Watch the interview here: