A you-are-there–style narrative of the most extreme military training in existence, the Navy’s six-month Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) program.
Novelist Couch (Silent Point, 1993, etc.), an alumnus of BUD/S Class 45 and SEAL Platoon Commander in Vietnam, clearly brings the necessary fervor to this subject, as he understands why SEAL training is so severe, producing enormous attrition among the officers and enlisted men who attempt BUD/S each year. Couch follows Class 228 through every aspect of this strictly regimented training, conveying an unprecedented intimacy with the process, and documenting the camaraderie of men put to the test. The three phases of BUD/S combine harsh physical training (PT) and constant competition with the omnipresent escape route of Drop On Request (DOR), which allows overwhelmed trainees a face-saving exit, while insuring that each class is winnowed down to the most hardcore. The First Phase culminates in Hell Week—a period of sleep deprivation and constant, borderline-sadistic PT, much of it (like “drown proofing”) in the water, which forces many DORs, including those who must withdraw due to Hell Week–related injuries, but may return in a later class. Those who continue into Second and Third Phases learn SEAL specialties, from night swimming to tactical shooting and covert demolitions, while continuing with PT evaluations, and increasingly realistic combat and emergency simulations. The author offers a good historical understanding of the SEALs, whose group identity developed in the crucible of Vietnam, where their loss rates were high, and also some anecdotes of real SEAL combat missions, which demonstrate why such severe training is necessary. While Couch’s stylized macho prose (e.g., unease described as a “gut check”) is nothing if not appropriate to the material, the superior element here is the empathy and texture within his character depictions, of the earnest, youthful trainees (many of whom sooner or later DOR) and the merciless yet knowing instructor cadre.
An energetic read for sailors, SEALs, and the greater population of armchair SEALs.