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Thursday, December 22, 2011


A friend recently got to chat for an hour with the leader of the mission which went in to get Osama bin Laden. I'm not allowed to describe the circumstances, but this is a true story.

Of all the elite branches of the military, the Navy Seals are generally considered to have the toughest physical requirements; less than one in five of those who try out make it. A select few Seals are selected to try out for Seal Team Six. And it's probably a safe assumption that the thirty best members of that group went after Osama.

So the guy who was chosen to head that mission was the elite of the elite of the elite.

I asked my friend, so what was this guy like? What was he built like, how smart did he seem?

My friend said that he was polite, and came across soft spoken but confident. He was in his thirties, good-looking, six feet tall, and weighed maybe 210, none of which seemed to be fat. He added, "He wasn't, you know, New York smart, like some of these guys who just have to prove to you how smart they are within the first five minutes of meeting you. But everything he said made sense and fit together, and after a while it just sort of gradually dawned on you that you were talking to a very smart guy."

My friend said that one of the more interesting things that came out of the conversation was that the military brass aren't necessarily fond of Special Operations personnel. Admirals and the like are used to having lower-ranking personnel toadying up to them, and Navy Seals, who are elite in a different kind of way, usually aren't quite as effusive in their obsequiousness. So there's sometimes a little tension.

This Seal had been on 85 combat missions before the Osama raid. That is a mind-boggling number. Let's say the odds of surviving any given mission are 98%. (I have no idea what they actually are, but that seems a reasonable estimate, and it's quite possible the odds on some missions are less.) But using that 98% estimate means that the odds of surviving all 85 missions are .98 to the 85th power, or .17956.

In other words, a less than one in five chance.

People who value their own lives less, or are at least willing to risk them in a good cause, actually lead lives more valuable than those of us who value our lives more highly.


Brian Fradet said...

Hi John,

A very interesting article, thank you. That said, I believe (and could be wrong) that this whole thing boils down to what people value in life. To me, life is way too precious to take those kind of risks. I never understood these things. To others, they don't seem to care, or, at least that what it appears. This guy seems to have nerves of steal, or maybe just compared to me. Thanks again! Brian

John Craig said...

Thanks Brian.

All I know is, this guy has led a far more worthwhile life than me. (Even if all those combat missions came in wars I don't support.)

Anonymous said...

Given that the guy is still around, the SEALs must be so good at what they do that a Bayesian would estimate that his survival probability per mission is at least 99.3%. Still, like you I would not play Russian roulette with those odds.