By Water Beneath the Walls, by Ben Milligan

Why this book:  The author asked that I review this book before it was published. I declined, he politely persisted, I politely agreed to just take a look at it.  After I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down. I read a galley proof. It will be published and available to the public in July 2021. 

Summary in 4 Sentences: Ben Milligan’s intent was to explore how one of the nations and the world’s premier land commando units resides in the Navy, vice the Army, the Marine Corps or perhaps another government agency. He explores how the US military approached commando and commando-like (small unit raid operations) during WW2, Korea and ultimately Viet Nam, when the SEALs finally came into their own.  It is a story of individual champions in all the services arguing for a special capability, and repeatedly being shut down by leaders steeped in conventional thinking who could not imagine that  the value of such a force could be worth the costs. It is also a story of battles between staffs, as well as battles fought by intrepid early special operators, often under-trained, under-resourced, and poorly supported against our nations enemies in war. 

My Impressions: I wasn’t planning on reading this whole book -was planning to just read a chapter or two, skim the rest and give Ben Milligan an overall  impression.  But as I got started, I couldn’t put it down.  It is a great read – Ben Milligan has an engaging writing style that pivots back and forth between intense and serious, to humorous and even occasionally “snarky.”  Ben is a former SEAL with a BA in History and an MA in International relations and he successfully brings those worlds together in this book.  He is an outstanding researcher and a great story teller.  And though I had spent my career in the Navy SEALs and have read more military history than even most military officers, this book was full of new information and insights that give me a greater understanding of not only the history of the Navy SEALs but also of Special Operations.  His narrative extends from stories about leaders at the highest levels of power and authority in the military, those whose decisions shaped the direction of Special Operations,  down to the operators on the ground – their characters, experiences, decisions, frustrations and tragedies.

By Water Beneath the Walls is written in Five Parts:  Neglect, Opportunity, Relevance, Exigency, Culmination, and finishes with a Conclusion entitled:  Nature Abhors a Vacuum.  The chapters in the book have titles like:

  • Chapter 1: The Reluctant Creation and Violent Demise of the Navy’s First Commandos, the Marine Corps Raiders; 
  • Chapter 3: The Us Army’s First Commandos and the Raid That Wasn’t;
  • Chapter 6: The Contest for the Guerrilla War in China and the Organization That Had  “No Damn Business” fighting in IT: The US Navy’s Army of Sailors; 
  • Chapter 11: The First SEALs, Their Search for a Mission , and the Report That Found It for Them; 
  • Chapter 15: The Navy’s Skeleton Key to Inland Combat, and the Final Against-the-Current Achievements in the War’s Ebb Tide That Exposed the SEALs’ Preeminence as the US Military’s Go-Anywhere Commandos. 

The unusual title comes from a brief story on the fore-page about how in 705 AD, Justinian II “led a small group of fighters under the impregnable walls of Constantinople by way of an unguarded aqueduct and captured the city. It was a victory that never should have been, by water beneath the walls.”  The analogy is obvious: How unlikely it is that the SEALs should become one of the worlds most successful and famous commando forces, while being part of the Navy (and not the Army or USMC.)  Perhaps this too “never should have been.”    So, how did that happen?   That is the question Ben Milligan and this book seek to answer. Most  of the story takes place well before there were any SEALs.   Indeed, the SEAL Teams didn’t simply spring onto the scene. 

There is a fascinating back story, and By Water Beneath the Walls tells it.   In this book we learn about the rise and demise of William Darby’s Rangers in WW2, of the formation of the Naval Combat Demolition Units, Scouts and Raiders, and Underwater Demolition Teams, as well as Marine Raider units, and how they fared in North Africa, Normandy, and the Western Pacific.  We learn of the Navy-run insurgency operation and network behind the lines in Japanese-occupied China.  We learn of early attempts at using UDT’s as raiders in Korea, then of the ill-fated but bold efforts to create out of whole-cloth, a joint team of insurgents to run operations behind China’s lines in Korea. And we learn how repeatedly, after such units were created to meet an immediate need in war, at the conclusion of that war, the services either disbanded them altogether, or scaled them way back,  and reverted to what they knew best how to do – train and resource traditional general military forces. 

The final two sections of the book appropriately focus on Viet Nam, where the SEALs initially earned their credibility.  I came into the SEALs just after the Vietnam War, and all of the experienced SEALs I worked with and for had fought in that conflict.  Though I thought I had a pretty good idea of what that war was about, By Water Beneath the Walls gave me context to help me better understand and appreciate the stories of my mentors.  I knew many of the people he portrays in the operations he describes, which made this section that much more meaningful to me. 

The last part of the book spotlights a single SEAL platoon from SEAL Team TWO in Viet Nam, which provides an engaging picture of what SEALs did in that war.   Milligan highlights some of the colorful stories about the members of this platoon, some of the operations they conducted, and gives a detailed description of one particularly harrowing operation in which much went wrong, and only through amazing heroism on the part of the SEALs and their supporting helicopter pilots did the platoon survive, albeit with several SEALs severely wounded. 

The book concludes with CNO Adm Jimmy Holloway at the end of the Viet Nam war confiding to SEAL Medal of Honor recipient Mike Thornton,  that the Navy’s long term intention was to “dissolve the Teams.”  Was it deja vu all over again?  It seemed that the SEALs, “like the Raiders and Rangers before them, would be disbanded at the apex of their achievements.”  p502  The irony is that this was the same Adm Holloway who led the Holloway Commission investigating the failure of Operation Eagle Claw (Desert One) in 1980. The resulting Holloway report led directly to justifying the establishment of US Special Operations Command which all but ensured that the services would not be able to disband the SEALs, the Army SF, the Rangers or other Special Operations Forces. 

By Water Beneath the Walls is not a quick read for someone wanting a SEAL book for a junk-food-read on an airplane ride.  It is a multi-course banquet – 500 pages long, covers a lot of fascinating history, and Milligan builds his case with engaging and often edge-of-your-seat examples of brave men learning hard lessons that will make current operators wince. It is a fascinating read for anyone interested in the history of not just the SEALs, but of Special Operations, and it is an engaging read for anyone who enjoys great story telling by a wonderful writer.  I really enjoyed learning so much from this book.


The many fascinating things I learned in this book, include: 

…that there has been a tug-of-war going back decades and probably longer between some of our most senior military leaders who advocated for elite specialized commando forces, and those who either did not support the idea, were adamantly opposed, or distrusted or even despised the idea of such forces.

…how and why conventional leaders in the Army and Marine Corps repeatedly smothered healthy efforts to create creditable raiding forces in their services, in WW2, Korea, and even Viet Nam.

…about the backgrounds, personalities, and military experiences of some of those who were huge in the history of Naval Special Operations.  Such heroes as Buck Halperin, Draper Kauffman, Rear Adm John Hall, Phil Bucklew, Milton Miles, NCDU Bill Freeman, PO1 Bob Wagner,  Lt Pete Peterson, and many more – even Ernie King, Arleigh Burke and Elmo Zumwalt.   

…how Draper Kauffman, considered the Father of UDT, had been an ambulance driver in France in the early years of WW2 (shades of Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms,) was captured and became a Nazi PoW, then served in the Royal Navy –  all before becoming a US Naval Officer and a key leader in forming and shaping the NCDUs and UDTs.  

…about extensive and controversial US operations that the Navy successfully ran behind Japanese lines in China.  And how Wm Donovan and the OSS lobbied hard to take them over, and in failing that, sought to undermined them.  

…that the Navy’s China operations played a key but subtle role in the Navy’s eventual support for creating SEAL Teams.  Phil Bucklew, one of the key founders of Naval Special Warfare had been a China operator.  Adm Arleigh Burke, CNO of the Navy in the late 50s and early 60s, always an advocate for bold action, had been a fan of the Navy’s China initiative.  He was a strong supporter of creating a Navy unconventional warfare raiding capability, and his influence mattered.

…that the unlikely (even incredible) mission that Anton Myrer gave Sam Damon in Once an Eagle to serve as an advisor/observer with communist insurgents in China in the 1930s had to have been based on Marine officer Evans Carlson who indeed was assigned to accompany Chinese Communist guerrillas fighting the Japanese in the late 1930s.

…about efforts to resurrect raiding units and a raiding capability in the often overlooked war in Korea.   I learned about the Navy’s efforts to use commandos to prep the battlefield for the landing at Inchon, the initial and fumbling steps of UDT to do small raids beyond the shoreline, and the bold, but poorly planned and executed efforts to insert US forces in the rear of China’s forces to generate Korean resistance. 

…about the mistakes made by the early pioneers in raiding operations, learning everything by trial and error, without the benefit of decades of experience and lessons learned that have been passed down to current special operators.  These were painful to read. 

…how Phil Bucklew and Dave Del Guidice with the help of a very enterprising SEAL E6 (Bob Wagner) “fought” to get SEALs any role at all in the Viet Nam War, a role which expanded as their successes and contributions were recognized and were clearly disproportionate to their size. 

…how the SEALs developed the idea of “snatch” missions designed to capture VC in Viet Nam in order to interrogate them and get intelligence. As obvious as this may seem, others weren’t doing it.  For others, it was all about body-count. 

Some of the great catchy expressions I enjoyed in By Water Beneath the Walls (page numbers are from the galley proof I read, and may not be reflected in the published version)

“Edson was a perfect Marine, and no perfect Marine has ever used his imagination unless ordered to do so.” p16

“Courage is always strongest when not allowed too much time for thought.”p 81

(Howlin’ Mad Smith’s) “mustache trimmed equidistant from nose and lip, and a jowly face that relaxed into a scowl (as every good Marine’s does)….p 145

“When they finally breasted the surf, many LVT drivers, slightly braver than smart – the best ratio in combat – drove onto the beach…” p146

“‘After that, there was the Jesus factor – the unpredictable.’  Though Luehrs and Acheson had not walked on water, they had been baptized in it, and they returned as apostles for a new method.” p 154

“Now Theiss was giving Kauffman a choice, a military euphemism for an order.” p166

(He was accompanied by) “at least eight other high-ranking officers –  a saluting , murmuring,  pyramid of authority, deferential to (Gen Mark) Clark and imperious to everyone else.”  P309

“Secretary of Defense Louis A. Johnson, a bald and bulky West Virginia Lawyer whose glad-handing past as Truman’s campaign director concealed a mind that never saw an arm without considering how to twist it.”  p 237

“Wide mouthed as a duck and so bowlegged that one observer declared that he (Roy Boehm) wore his “balls in parentheses,”…p414

About schoultz

CEO of Fifth Factor Leadership - Speaker, consultant, coach. Formerly Director, Master of Science in Global Leadership at University of San Diego; prior to that, 30 years in the Navy as a Naval Special Warfare (SEAL) officer.
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3 Responses to By Water Beneath the Walls, by Ben Milligan

  1. This is a great review of a great book, Bob. Thanks for giving me a head start on my own review for USNI Proceedings. Ben’s book is a whole course, waiting to be taught… hopefully by him.

  2. Pingback: Rogue Heroes – History of the SAS by Ben MacIntyre | Bob's Books

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