‘Alpha,’ by David Philipps: A Navy SEAL’s Behavior Worried Teammates and Changed How They Fought

In a new book, a Times reporter details the SEALs culture that fostered Eddie Gallagher’s rise and sheds new light on the events that led to his trial (and acquittal) in a polarizing war crimes case.

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Throughout the contentious trial of Eddie Gallagher, a Navy SEAL chief accused of killing a prisoner in Iraq in 2017, Navy prosecutors never mentioned the name of the Islamic State fighter he had actually been charged with murdering. He was just “the kid” or “the victim,” sometimes “the dirtbag” — not even “John Doe.” In “Alpha: Eddie Gallagher and the War for the Soul of the Navy SEALs,” the New York Times reporter David Philipps names and writes a chapter about the captive, a 17-year-old whose father had desperately tried to stop him from running away to join ISIS. The teenager’s name is Moataz, and his father did not know he was dead until he saw his son’s photo in media coverage of the trial.

This is one of many revelations in the book by Mr. Philipps, who covered Chief Gallagher’s trial and acquittal for The Times, and whose detailed new reporting of those events and what led to them is based on dozens of interviews, thousands of text messages, and thousands of pages of court transcripts, service records and confidential military documents.

(In May 2020, Eddie Gallagher filed a lawsuit accusing the Navy of illegally leaking information to Mr. Philipps and alleging that his articles were defamatory. A judge dismissed most of the lawsuit’s claims against Mr. Philipps last month.)

The book paints a picture of Chief Gallagher that contradicts the image presented by his defenders in court and by some conservative media outlets. In “Alpha,” the SEAL platoon members, deployed in Mosul, worry their chief is becoming “unglued” — abusing opioids and other drugs, stealing, and putting their lives at risk so he can court more battlefield action without any tactical gain. Both in Iraq and after they break their code of silence to report him, platoon members fear he might kill one of them.

In the edited excerpt below, during their time in Mosul, they also worry he is indiscriminately killing civilians. This account is based on the author’s coverage in The Times, Navy investigators’ interviews and investigation files, photos, Navy service records, texts between Eddie Gallagher and several SEALs, and SEALs’ court testimony and their interviews with the author.

Dylan Dille scanned the medieval maze of old Mosul through the black-rimmed eye of his scope. The senior sniper was hidden about 750 meters away in a pile of rubble across the Tigris River. As he searched the alleyways and street corners, he could feel his heart beat under his body armor and his brow go tense because he knew Eddie was hunting, too, and he would have to try to get the first shot.

It was June 2017, four months into the deployment. Eddie had given up on going back to the roof of the pink house and instead had settled on a new place that the SEALs in Alpha called the Towers. The site was two buildings on the east bank of the Tigris standing side by side across the green water from old Mosul. Around the Towers stood the ruins of a carnival grounds still filled with rides and a weed-choked park where locals once spent holidays. The Towers had high ceilings and curving staircases designed to host lavish celebrations. But the war had left the park waist-high with weeds and littered with unexploded shells, and the Towers were little more than bombed-out gray concrete bones.

At the base of the Towers, a modern six-lane concrete bridge had once crossed the river, but it and every other bridge across the Tigris had been destroyed. The center lay broken in two by a massive airstrike, as if snapped by a mighty karate chop. The pieces had fallen into the water, leaving two jagged stumps that jutted out over the river.

The battle for Mosul was in its last desperate weeks. Block by block the Iraqi Army had pushed ISIS into one corner of the old city with its back up against the river. Alpha had set up across the river to shoot the enemy in the back. The platoon spent day after day there, harassing ISIS from the rear while the Iraqi Army attacked from the front.

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    Old Mosul presented the SEALs with a tangle of civilians and enemy targets. They passed and intermingled on the street. Watching through his scope, Dille tried to hunt for details that distinguished the two. He could see the faded floral print on a woman’s hijab as she stepped out of her house, too colorful to be the dress of ISIS. He spotted a man in an old bowling shirt who had been bent over the engine of his car on and off for days but had still not gotten it running. Just a local, he decided. Rarely did he see actual fighters with guns venture out.

    They were too smart for that. But he hunted for men who seemed out of place: the ones who crossed the street with too much purpose for a besieged city where there was nowhere to go. In his scope he could see the sweat on their faces, their darting looks. Some of them walked while gripping tightly the arm of a child, their clenched fingers around the small arm, showing that they were using a local boy as a shield. It was a confusing, complex tangle, but a sniper watching long enough could tease apart threads and find the targets.

    Unfortunately, Dille quickly learned that his chief had no interest in taking the time to establish who was who. The first morning the snipers arrived at the Towers, the chief climbed up the curving stairway to the top floor of the north building and set up a tripod and a small folding chair in the middle of a room with a blown-out wall.

    He almost immediately started shooting one round after another. Boom. Boom. Boom. Dille scrambled to his own rifle and checked the chief ’s angle to try to line up his scope so he could see what Eddie was shooting at. He spotted a sandbank along the river where a narrow alley came down to the water. About fifty people had gathered to wash in the water. Dille saw the crowd scatter amid the shooting and sprint back into the city. Dille’s angle didn’t give him a full view of ground level on the riverbank, so he wasn’t sure if Eddie had hit anyone, but about one thing he had no doubt: These people weren’t legit targets.

    At the same spot a few days later, Dille saw three women making their way along a path through deep reeds. He heard Eddie start firing and saw the women turn and disappear into the reeds. Had they been wounded or killed? Dille couldn’t be sure, but he was increasingly sure his chief was shooting at anyone he saw, civilian or fighter, man or woman.

    Dille realized his mission in Mosul would have to shift. He had come to the Towers to kill ISIS. Instead he was going to have to keep Eddie from killing civilians. He would do it by firing warning shots to scare people away before Eddie could spot them. The strategy came to him instinctively one morning a few days after Alpha had started operations in the Towers. Eddie had set up in a bathroom that offered a good view of the city from the north tower. Dille and Dalton Tolbert [his friend and fellow sniper] both wanted to stay as far away from Eddie as possible, so that day they set up in the south tower.

    That morning, Dille spotted a man coming down a road leading to the river with a boy. They were at a spot where Dille could see them for about a half block before they came into Eddie’s view. Dille focused his scope on the pair. He noticed the man wasn’t gripping the boy by the arm. Instead, it was the boy who was leading the man along, gently pulling him by the sleeve. It was a small detail that told everything: They were family, and almost certainly not enemy fighters.

    Dille had to do something before Eddie could get a shot. Knowing he had only seconds, he aimed a few meters in front of the pair and just a degree off to the side, hoping a bullet would hit the dirt in the road and scare them back. He squeezed the trigger. He saw a splash of dust and watched the pair scurry back the way they came. As they ran, he breathed a sigh of relief.

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    That night Dille told Tolbert what he had done. He was almost ashamed to admit it. He knew shooting warning shots was a quiet form of insurrection against Eddie and might even help ISIS, but he felt he had no choice. To his surprise, Tolbert smiled and said he had been doing the exact same thing. They agreed to keep doing it to try to buy time. When their lead petty officer, Craig Miller, had left, he told them he had reported Eddie to the commanding officer, Lt. Jake Portier, and that Lieutenant Portier vowed to take care of it, so a fix was in the works. Both snipers hoped they could limit the damage until Eddie was removed.

    It was a high-stress operation. A warning shot had to hit close enough to scare off a target, but not so close that it accidentally killed. Snipers had to read the subtle clues to decide who deserved a warning and who didn’t. But because Eddie shared much of the same field of fire as the other snipers, they often only had seconds to spot a person, make a decision and line up a shot before Eddie got a chance to fire.

    It was the opposite of what sniper work was supposed to be. Dille and Tolbert had gotten a small taste of what the real work was like before Eddie’s constant shooting put them on a new mission. One morning, Dille was scanning the street life for targets when he spotted a man in a saffron-and-gold robe hustling down a side street amid the dusty locals. He had a long, bushy beard but no mustache and full, round cheeks that suggested he was not sharing in the besieged city’s hunger. “Check this dude out,” Dille called over to Tolbert, who was tucked behind some rubble a dozen feet away.

    “Talk me on,” Tolbert said. He traced his scope along the outlines of the city as Dille guided him verbally in a hopscotch of known landmarks until he was at the right street: the green mosque, then the grassy bank, side street to the north.

    “Looks like homeboy is doing a little too good,” Tolbert said. They watched him. He hurried down the road and turned down a side alley. There he peered around furtively, then crawled through a rat hole pecked in the wall of a house. Dille swung his scope to the front of the house. It seemed normal enough. No fighters on the roof, no young men loitering outside. The two snipers waited and watched. They saw members of a family come in and out through the front door. The man in the robe was not one of them.

    “Definitely something shady,” Tolbert said.

    The SEALs’ rules of engagement didn’t require a target to be armed. If snipers saw someone they reasonably thought was aiding ISIS in any way, they could shoot. But both men were extremely careful, knowing every bad shot could galvanize the locals against them and build support for the enemy.

    Tolbert and Dille kept their scopes trained on the house, figuring the man with the saffron robe would eventually emerge. Finally, they saw him crawl out of the hole. The snipers both instinctively slid their fingers to their triggers. No one would crawl from a rat hole like that instead of using the front door unless he was ISIS. As the man squeezed out of the rat hole, Dille centered him in his scope. So did Tolbert. Just as Tolbert was putting pressure on his trigger and exhaling to fire, Dille took the shot. Dille would later remember that shot as an example of what his work was supposed to be: Calm. Calculated. Considered. Justified. He wouldn’t get many more like it.

    Eddie’s shooting forced a shift. Now the snipers had to race to keep people from getting murdered. Every day when Dille lay down behind his rifle, his heart would pound as he watched the street and searched for the next person to come around the corner, knowing he would have only a few seconds to decide whether to save or end a life.

    Karma was still the driving force of the platoon, but it had flipped. Instead of inflicting the cosmic payback on evildoers, Dille was now trying to protect the world from one. It was exhausting. The tension of being forced to fire at people to make them flee in terror without accidentally killing them left him covered in sweat. The pressure of spending hour after hour hunting, knowing he had lives in his hands, fried his nerves. By the end of each day he tottered down the winding stairs with his hands shaking, physically and emotionally drained. He wasn’t sure how long he could keep it up.

    This article is adapted from “Alpha: Eddie Gallagher and the War for the Soul of the Navy SEALs,” by David Philipps, published in August 2021 by Crown.

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