The first episode of “In Session,” where I discuss specific policy issues and life experiences with members of the United States Congress. This episode features Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT) to discuss his new book, “American Commander: Serving a Country Worth Fighting For and Training the Brave Soldiers Who Lead the Way.”
Listen to the interview and subscribe to “In Session” on iTunes here.
JOE: In your new book, you write about joining the U.S. Navy and becoming a SEAL as well as your decision to run for Congress. What compelled you to write the book
ZINKE: I’m often asked, ‘what is it like to lead the world’s most elite force?’ And this book is not about me per se, but it’s about a description of what it’s like to be in one of these teams. What it’s like to be a spouse. A couple chapters are dedicated to my wife. What’s it like when your husband is on a 45-minute beeper and is gone — and goes out the store, he may not come back because he may get beeped and be gone for three or four months. At the end of the day, the read should make Americans proud that we have forces like this that have the level of commitment, level of dedication. Americans should sleep a lot better at night knowing that there’s people like this out there.
JOE: How long did it take you to write the book?
ZINKE: Well, Scott McEwen and I, the co-author who also wrote “American Sniper,” it’s been over two years. A lot of it was driving across the expanse of Montana recording segments and having those segments then transcribed into a manuscript and then looking at priorities. This has been a couple years in the making.
JOE: Were there any hard parts? You ever get writer’s block?
ZINKE: Not so much but when we gave it to the Department of Defense — I’m sensitive, when I was in the Special SEAL teams, everything we did I always signed a nondisclosure statement to make sure that operations that I conducted were looked at before I disclosed them. When we did, there was over 100 pages, you know in these pages of a lot of redactions. A lot of them quite frankly were cultural — I didn’t see anything that would disclose a tactic technique and procedure — but a lot of them was cultural censorship, which was interesting. I was privy to these elite commands during what I call the early formative, kind of the early pirate years on it. So to be politically correct in the hindsight, we got a lot of it in the book so I think the reader can tell what a pirate was and what we were thinking, but it was a fun book to read and write.
JOE: There was one moment you talk about checking for redactions and stuff. There’s one moment that made me laugh. In the prologue, you write about a time that a SEAL team platoon was stationed in Scotland and they went bowling while enjoying some whiskey that Scotland is known for and you write “after damages were assessed, the local commander decided it met the threshold of writing an Official Operational Report Naval Blue message to headquarters. Such messages are typically reserved for significant losses or a major incident short of war.” So SEALs are pretty rowdy.
ZINKE: Well in this case, you know the report came in and I was at the time was a [inaudible 3:36] where the most senior admiral in Europe and the report comes through and the admiral reads it and the report had that there was bowling ball strikes in the ceiling. And everyone was looking at the admiral to see whether he’s gonna be really upset about it — and this was Mike Boorda at the time — so he began as an E-1. And he kinda looked at it and he kind of assimilated the information then he goes ‘were those 12- or 15-pound balls?’ because he could figure out how a bowling ball could hit the ceiling.
JOE: Yeah, I laughed pretty hard at that. On a more serious note, you’re particularly critical of military’s rules of engagement in the book, that it puts troops’ lives in danger. For the folks who haven’t been in the military or cobalt situations, could you explain what the rules of engagement are and why you think they need serious reforms?
ZINKE: Well the rules of engagement are rules that are given to our troops on how you fight. If you see a threat, what are your actions available to you? And I’ve been the strongest of advocates is reluctant to go to war, but if you go to war you have to make sure the troops on the front lines have the right equipment, the right training and right rules of engagement to win decisively on the field of battle. But when our troops feel they can’t fight effectively, that their hands are tied behind their backs, that they can’t engage in an enemy who’s actually shooting at them unless they can positively identify who that enemy is or if they move into a building, we can’t engage that building because you don’t know if it’s gonna cause collateral damage. You know war is hell and that’s why the decision to go to war is a very very difficult one, but if we’re putting our troops in harm’s way you gotta get the tools to win. There’s a lot of frustration right now that our guys are being put into harm’s way without an overreaching policy, but what exactly are we doing, what are the tactical objectives, what are the strategical objectives? And look, if we’re gonna put our sons and daughters in harm’s way, then give them the tools to fight.
JOE: You were an early supporter of President-elect Trump. Have you spoken with him or his advisers about reforming rules of engagement?
ZINKE: I certainly, I have. My wife is part of the transition team. I was an early adopter to Trump. The status quo was not working. A very high supporter of some of his picks or his probable picks. One being Jim Mattis. I fought with him in Fallujah. I think the Department of Defense needs a warrior to reassess and reprioritize what’s important. Let’s make sure the guys on the front line are looked at after, that’s the Sergeant Chief Petty Officer, and then atrophy of growing bureaucracy. So decisions that have to be made on the front lines, we don’t have to call back 15 layers of chain of command to finally get a decision, which is probably gonna be late, underwhelming and restrictive. So again, if we trust our troops and the people that lead them, we have to have also the faith and trust that they’re gonna make the right decisions to the front line.
JOE: You trained and mentored some very legendary SEALs. Marcus Luttrell and Chris Kyle. What were the two of them like in their younger years, what were they like to be around?
ZINKE: When, and I had the opportunity to be in charge of BUDS training, which is BUDS is the Basic Underwater Demolition SEAL, it’s the beginning of SEAL training. And I was a first phase, which is the hardest of the weeks of training. And when students come in, they look much the same. Shave their head for a reason, as we want them to be the same. But anyone who gets through training, I can tell you, is worthy of wearing the trident. Chris Kyle, when he was a sniper, as I also later years was in charge of the sniper program, clearly he had talent. And as far as a sniper goes, he showed that he had more talent than even the talented guys next to him. In a sniper, they’re a little different. They’re a little more of a lone wolf, you’re given a lot of latitude. You’re not watched. You’re definitely not micromanaged.
JOE: SEAL snipers don’t use spotters either, do they?
ZINKE: At times they do. It depends on the type of target in the area. These weapon systems they use now, they are out to 2,500 meters. It’s very sophisticated. And the sophistication of the weapon systems and the communications and all these elaborate video also requires. It’s very in-depth with technology. The younger snipers today, I think, are better at their job than their previous generations of snipers — both tough — the early generations of snipers were as tough as the newer generation is, but the younger generation has better tools and more sophisticated weapon systems. And they’re deadly.
JOE: SEALs have been around for quite awhile, but they’ve gotten a lot of attention in recent years because of things like the Bin Laden mission, [the] Maersk Alabama hijacking. Do you feel that the SEALs are being publicized maybe too much in some cases
ZINKE: I think you have to be careful. When I went in the SEAL teams, no one knew what a SEAL was. When I was at SEAL Team Six, you couldn’t even say that name, otherwise you were gone. To a degree, it’s helped the publicity of recruiting, so there is that aspect of it. But I think when you have SEALs write books like this one, I think it’s prudent to send that manuscript for a review just to make sure that what you’re writing doesn’t disclose tactics, techniques, procedures that those who are in harm’s way today or future operations at risk. You can tell a story without disclosing specific capabilities and I do agree with the policy of making sure that another authority takes a look at these transcripts. But also what I disagree with is censorship for culture because it doesn’t have quite the right message that some public affairs or some admiral or some bureaucrat wants. Speak the truth and fear no man.
JOE: Population of veterans serving in Congress is pretty small compared to past times. I think it was a peak in 1971 there were almost 150, now it’s down to about 100. With so many veterans from a decade and a half of war, why don’t you think more veterans are more compelled to run for office?
ZINKE: There’s been a period where the veterans have atrophied. But we’re building a bench. SEAL PAC, the leadership PAC that I run, we were successful. We have some great new members. To include Brian Mast, a double amputee out of Florida, Jack Bergman out of Michigan, a Lieutenant General retired Marine Corps officer — brilliant. We have Banks, we have Don Bacon who is a former General in the Air Force. And Scott Taylor, a former SEAL coming from Virginia Beach, so now I have a swim buddy. But we’re seeing more and certainly we’re actively recruiting veterans. So I think number one on the Hill, a veteran voice should be heard. But also, often time veterans see things not through a red or blue lens, but red, white and blue. And it’s important to have them on these committees to be American first.
JOE: You said you have a swim buddy now, do you swim in the Potomac or what?
ZINKE: I say that as a term, SEALs, when we first link up, we oftentimes do not do operations alone, you pair up with a swim buddy. And my new swim buddy in Congress is Scott Taylor. He’s a younger version so can probably swim faster than I can.
JOE: One other thing, and this just came up. Some Senators are pushing for reforms to JASTA, which you supported the override. Because it could hurts groups acting abroad and the SEALs do a lot of work abroad, for instance in a country like Pakistan. Do you that their criticisms or concerns are warranted in that it could come back and backfire against American forces abroad?
ZINKE: One is this reflects U.S. law, not overseas. I think if it needs to be tweaked, let’s tweak it. But certainly for 9/11, every country should be held accountable if their actions resulted in the death and destruction of American citizens on our soil. And part of the bill was if they did something overseas in London, it was handled differently than if they did the same action in New York City. I don’t care where you do it. If you act against the United States, our facilities and our people, we should come after you.
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