"It pays to be a winner."
Mind-blowing. Image Entertainment has released the six-part documentary from 2000, Navy SEALS: BUD/S Class 234, which follows a group of candidates experiencing the absolutely grueling six-month training course to become Navy SEALS, possibly the toughest, most elite military commando force in the American armed forces. Making other "survival" courses look like Girl Scout picnics, the BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEALS) training course is excruciating enough just to watch, let alone partake in, and Navy SEALS: BUD/S Class 234 does an excellent, no-frills job of conveying the courage, tenacity, and intelligence that is required of these brave military men to finish this physically and mentally punishing training.
Developed during WWII, the Navy SEAL is now one of the most formidable fighting soldiers in the world, involved in covert operations all over the globe, and expert in various forms of combat and underwater operations. Frequently, SEALS are the first American boots to land on foreign soil, prior to "official" military maneuvers. Many of their operations remain strictly confidential. They're the "go-to" warriors America uses when a job is deemed too dangerous or too sensitive for regular troops. So how does the Navy find and train such men? We all watch too many movies in this country, and we just assume such warriors are "there," as if Central Casting called them up on the morning call sheet.
The first answer is easy: the Navy doesn't have to find these soldiers - they all volunteer. One of the elements of Navy SEALS: BUD/S Class 234 that I particularly enjoyed was the emphasis of this fact, and the implication that there will always be people who want to be the very best they can be. There will always be soldiers who prove themselves in some area of the military, and then wish to go even further, pushing themselves beyond any sane level of reasoning, so they can say they are the very best. The elite. In a culture that increasing celebrates mediocrity, and looks askance at anyone who dares to be proud of their achievements (for example, school districts eliminating honor rolls, because it makes the other students "feel bad"), it's great to know there are still institutions out there that ask for effort above and beyond just "satisfactory."
As for the training of the Navy SEAL, well, it can best be described as rigidly controlled insanity. This isn't like anything I've ever seen in any other video. What these candidates go through in just the first 24 hours is more punishing that what you or I would ever go through in our lifetimes. I had heard about the notorious "Hell Week," which comes at about the third week of training, where the candidates are allowed almost no sleep for a week as they're pushed to the absolute brink of complete mental and physical exhaustion. But just the first 24 hours of the BUD/S course looked like it would kill me - how the hell do those guys make it all the way to "Hell Week?" After witnessing these first brutal hours, you have no trouble believing the instructor when he tells the candidates that the typical failure rate for an average class of 83 candidates, is over 70%.
If you think that such punishment is gratuitous, well, it is in a way - but it isn't sadistic. The main purpose of this kind of intensive training is to first weed out all underperformers, and second, to burnish those promising candidates into suitable SEAL operatives. The most frequently heard phrase called out by the strangely sanguine drill instructors (everybody knows they're tough enough - they don't have anything to prove) is, "It pays to be a winner." In other words, those who excel, those who come first in challenges, get to rest. And that's all they get. Everybody else - another oft-heard phrase is "Second place is first loser" - gets punished. Punishment, such as "Log PT" where the candidates must muscle around a 150 pound log, is designed to break all candidates except those who have that "X" factor to succeed. It isn't necessarily who's the biggest or most ripped - it's who has the heart and will and determination to gut out what the drill instructors throw at them, while maintaining the smarts to do it right the first time, and not fail.
That's the other main element of Navy SEALS: BUD/S Class 234 that I particularly enjoyed: the absolutely uncompromising positions of the drill instructors. Nothing is accepted as an excuse for failing at a task - not even minor injuries. The drill instructors don't want to hear about it, and if they do, it's time to get "wet and sandy," where the candidate is instructed to jump in the ocean, and then roll around in the sand until he's completely covered - not the most comfortable way to perform P.T. exercises. Excuses are bull. Get it done, do it right, or D.O.R. (drop on request, quit the program). As one of the head drill instructors says, "You screw off, I'll catch you every time. And I'll make you pay." For a team this elite, only the very best can and should advance, and those that can't cut it - tough luck. It's the purest expression of effort and achievement I've ever witnessed. If you win, you momentarily rest. If you lose, you pay.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.