Text by John Weisman Chevy Chase, MD
IN THE HISTORY OF THE U.S. NAVY THERE HAS NEVER BEEN an unconventional warrior quite so unconventional as Dick Marcinko.
Perhaps the best indication of his capabilities was that in August 1980, at the age of thirty-nine, Marcinko, then a commander, was picked by the Chief of Naval Operations, Thomas Hayward, to design, build, equip, train, and lead what many believe to be the best counterterror force in the world, SEAL Team Six.
His route to the command of Six was circuitous. A renegade high-school dropout from a broken home in the Pennsylvania coal fields, Marcinko made the Navy his career and special warfare his obsession. As a gung-ho young SEAL officer in Vietnam, he operated behind enemy lines. While others dug in behind barbed wire and sandbags, Marcinko and his platoon—in black pajamas and barefoot, using captured Soviet weapons and ammo—hunted the Viet Cong deep inside their own turf.
During one six-month period, Marcinko’s SEALs performed an incredible 107 combat patrols, with more than 150 confirmed VC killed and 84 captured. During two tours in Vietnam, Marcinko won the Silver Star, four Bronze Stars with Combat “V,” two Navy Commendation Medals, and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Silver Star. As a Naval attache in Cambodia in 1973 and 1974, Marcinko’s exploits included bodysurfing behind a patrol boat on the Mekong River during a Khmer Rouge ambush. He spent 291 days in combat in Cambodia, and was awarded the Legion of Merit for his actions.
The Navy was Dick Marcinko’s life. It gave him an education—a high-school diploma, a B.A., even a master’s in international relations. It also gave him a deadly trade: unconventional warrior. Ambushes, booby traps, exotic weapons, high-altitude parachute drops, underwater infiltrations—Marcinko is a virtuoso of them all.
The day he assumed command of SEAL Team Six, CNO Hayward’s orders to Marcinko were brief—almost to the point of curtness. He was told he had less than six months to bring the new unit “on line.” He was ordered to get the job done, whatever the personal or professional cost. “Dick, you will not fail,” is what Hayward said.
To achieve that goal, Marcinko rewrote the rule book on unconventional warfare, and its training. He cut corners. He stepped on toes. He wheedled and cajoled. He threatened— and occasionally he terrorized. His sin was that he believed the end was worth the means; his hubris, that he thought he could get away with it.
Indeed, if we’re talking heroic here about Dick Marcinko (and I believe we should be), he is heroic in the classic sense of the word: Dick’s warrior hubris was too much for some of the Pentagon’s Olympians, and so a few Navy technocrat “gods” brought him down as an example to others.
The specific tragic flaw that caused Marcinko’s fall was one of his most gallant qualities: loyalty. His loyalties always lay with the men under his command, rather than with the Navy system of which he was a part.
Marcinko has never been reluctant to admit as much. Soon after we met, I asked him if the litany of transgressions against the system the Navy accused him of committing were true.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Guilty as charged. Guilty of preaching unit integrity above other values. Guilty of putting my men before bureaucratic bullshit. Guilty of spending as xlv much money as I can get my hands on to train my men properly. Guilty of preparing my men for war instead of peace.
Of all these things am I indeed guilty. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima fucking culpa.“
Dick Marcinko’s story is as exciting as any piece of fiction—but it is more than that. It is the provocative chronicle of an American hero—a warrior whose legacies still live on, through the men he trained, and led, and inspired.