The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, irrevocably changed the trajectory of Ron DeSantis’s life. The Florida governor and Republican presidential candidate writes in his memoir, The Courage to Be Free: Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival, that he had already been stunned by the “strident leftism” and “revolutionary chic” he encountered as an undergrad at Yale, and his heart was no longer into Ivy League culture he anticipated as he began his studies at Harvard Law School.
Inspired by his grandfather’s military service during World War II, DeSantis reached out to military recruiters and earned a commission in the Navy during law school. After graduation, in 2005, he joined the active-duty Navy as a lawyer in the Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps. In the U.S. Navy, he clearly found a community much more to his liking than the one he’d encountered in academia—one that would change his self-image and worldview.
In advertisements and appearances introducing himself to an ever-widening circle of potential voters, DeSantis has consistently downplayed his years of elite Ivy League schooling and instead leaned heavily into his military service and identity. As the first words of the TV ad that introduced him to Florida voters as a candidate for governor stressed, he was “Ron DeSantis, Iraq War veteran.” In the first Republican presidential debate in August introducing candidates to a national audience, he again stressed his military service as seminal to his approach to politics.
“I’m somebody that volunteered to serve, inspired by Sept. 11, and I deployed to Iraq alongside U.S. Navy SEALs in places like Fallujah, Ramadi, and it’s something that I think has taught me,” DeSantis said. “You know, when you go in that type of environment, anything you have, your personal agenda, you check it at the door. You go there and it’s about focusing on the mission above all else and guys come together and they get it done.”
When pressed by journalists about what exactly he learned during his military service in a time of war, however, DeSantis has been far less forthcoming. Yet his memoir and comments on the campaign trail offer some insights, suggesting that as part of a wartime SEAL team task force—one of the most secretive and male-dominated organizations on earth, where rules sometimes have to be bent and authority is rarely questioned—DeSantis learned the importance of relentlessly attacking your opponent and always staying focused on the mission at hand.
He also developed strong opinions on how, as commander in chief, he would broaden his “war on woke” to fundamentally transform the Defense Department and U.S. Armed Forces to better reflect the hard-charging macho ethos of an elite SEAL team in combat. After serving as a military prosecutor in court-martial cases and a temporary duty assignment to the Guantánamo Bay detention camp in Cuba, DeSantis volunteered to deploy to Iraq as an advisor to Naval Special Warfare SEAL Team 1, requiring him to complete a special operations weapons and land navigation course at the Naval Amphibious Base in Coronado, California, and participate in pre-deployment certification exercises in Fort Irwin, California.
Arriving in the dusty town of Fallujah, Iraq, in 2007 to serve as the legal advisor to Special Operations Task Force West, DeSantis immediately became a cog in a vast and lethally efficient man-hunting and counterterrorism machine. He landed at a critical juncture, part of a surge of 30,000 U.S. troops that represented the George W. Bush administration’s last-ditch effort to turn around a war that had been spiraling downward. Through its wanton slaughter of Shiite Muslim civilians, the Sunni terrorist group al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) was very close to succeeding in its strategy of igniting an all-out sectarian civil war that would drive U.S. forces from the country in defeat.
The year before, U.S. special operations forces (SOF) had tracked down and killed the emir of AQI, the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. AQI’s fanatical fighters and suicide bombers, however, continued their campaign of mass murder from the group’s base of operations in a string of hardscrabble towns along the Euphrates River in Iraq’s overwhelmingly Sunni Anbar province. Their names are etched in the annals of urban warfare, synonymous with some of the most brutal fighting in the long Iraq War: Haditha. Heet. Ramadi. Fallujah.
Anbar province was also the epicenter of a promising reconciliation movement known as the “Anbar Awakening.” A number of Sunni sheikhs had banded together and split from AQI, finding common cause with U.S. forces in their fight against the terrorist group. To maintain that positive momentum, the Navy commandoes of SEAL Team 1, which formed the backbone of Special Operations Task Force West, had to conduct their counterterrorism operations in a way that did not cause unnecessary civilian casualties or desecrate the Sunni mosques sometimes used by the terrorists as cover for operations. That would risk alienating the sheikhs so critical to the Anbar Awakening.
That put weighty responsibility on the shoulders of DeSantis, who was tasked with helping to interpret the critical rules of engagement (ROE) for operations that ensure that any use of force was consistent with military policies and international law. The challenge for a judge advocate was to color within the permissible lines but not restrict the actions of SEAL commandoes in ways that might get them killed.
In counseling the SEAL team commander and his operators, DeSantis made clear that he was not inclined to read the ROE so broadly that they limited proposed operations or constrained individual operators with overly restrictive rules. “My job is to help you accomplish your mission, not impede it,” DeSantis recalls telling the commandoes, according to his book. “I will never say that you ‘can’t’ do something, but will simply advise if a proposed operation would carry risk from an ROE perspective. But even with that, my role is to be a facilitator, not an inhibitor.”
DeSantis fully understood that his permissive interpretation of the ROE could lead to civilian casualties, but it was a risk he was willing to take. “To me, it is unacceptable to send someone wearing our nation’s uniform to a combat zone with one hand tied behind his back,” he writes. “War is hell, and it puts the lives of our military personnel at risk if operations get mired in bureaucracy and red tape.”
As the lone judge advocate with Special Operations Task Force West at its headquarters in Fallujah, DeSantis was also responsible for ensuring that the scores of prisoners and alleged insurgents captured during daily raids were treated and interrogated in accordance with U.S. military regulations and the Geneva Conventions. Indeed, by 2007, perhaps no task force mission in Iraq had undergone a more fundamental transformation than detainee interrogations.
After SOF personnel in Iraq were disciplined for prisoner abuse in 2004, and especially following the black eye of the Abu Ghraib detainee abuse scandal that became a worldwide recruiting poster for al Qaeda, SOF commanders had moved to professionalize their interrogation operations. That emphasis on professional interrogation procedures and intelligence-gathering techniques led directly to the discovery and killing of Zarqawi and many other so-called high-value targets.
Here again, DeSantis was willing to stretch the rules governing detainee operations. He blamed “corporate media outlets” for the cloud from the Abu Ghraib scandal that still hung over detainee operations. “Because the media had such a field day with Abu Ghraib, largely to further partisan attacks against the administration of George W. Bush, the detainees themselves knew that they could claim ‘abuse,’ and that such allegations would throw sand in the gears of the operation, regardless of whether any abuse occurred,” DeSantis writes.
DeSantis doesn’t mention that 11 U.S. soldiers were ultimately convicted of crimes relating to the Abu Ghraib scandal or that a number of other service members were reprimanded. The prisoner abuse and misconduct at Abu Ghraib, which was documented in an official investigation led by Army Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, prompted the U.S. Army to conduct more than 30 criminal investigations into misconduct by U.S. captors during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Although U.S. military policy in 2007 prescribed timelines for task forces to either release detainees or move them to larger detention centers run by U.S. forces or turn them over to the Iraqi government—in part to minimize the risks of what DeSantis describes as “detainee complications”—DeSantis adopted a permissive interpretation of those rules as well. “Once a detainee was sent to the [U.S.] facilities in Baghdad or Basra, the ability to mine the detainee for additional intelligence was essentially over,” he writes. “It was thus important for us, in some circumstances, to justify holding certain detainees for much longer than the theater-wide rules allowed.”
In past interviews, Navy Capt. Dane Thorleifson, commander of Special Operations Task Force West, praised DeSantis as smart and resourceful as well as an important member of the team. Recently contacted by the author, Thorleifson confirmed that he stood by his earlier positive assessment and remarks.
Separating the reality of DeSantis’s wartime service and its influence on his thinking from the mythology he has created about it is tricky. But there are some clear throughlines. DeSantis’s recent position that Russia’s war of aggression against a democratic Ukraine was merely a “territorial dispute” and that the United States needed to prioritize “defense of our own homeland” played well with the neo-isolationist, far-right wing of the Republican Party and with former President Donald Trump’s base. It also had echoes of DeSantis’s wartime experience.
In his book, DeSantis describes a primary lesson from his time in Iraq as a rejection of the Bush administration’s call for supporting democracy around the world. “This messianic impulse—that the U.S. had both the right and the obligation to promote democracy, by force, if necessary, around the world—was grounded in Wilsonian moralism, not in a clear-eyed view of American interests.” After his dismissive comments about Russian aggression prompted fierce backlash even within the Republican Party, DeSantis backtracked somewhat, while still failing to stake out a clear position on Ukraine.
In wartime Iraq, DeSantis learned to fit comfortably into a special operations task force, an extremely insular and press-averse organization where little internal dissent is allowed, the imperative of “good order and discipline” takes precedence over any questioning of authority, and the established rules sometimes have to be bent in order to achieve the mission.
That characterization also describes DeSantis’s take-no-prisoners leadership style as governor of Florida. There has been his well-publicized battle with the Walt Disney Company—one of the largest private employers in the state—because Disney officials criticized his bill forbidding instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in K-12 classes, dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by opponents. DeSantis similarly shut down planned state funding for a Tampa Bay Rays training facility because the baseball organization tweeted in support of gun control measures after back-to-back mass shootings. When the New College of Florida leaned too far in the direction of its liberal arts tradition, DeSantis launched a successful hostile takeover of the board of trustees. He also signed a six-week abortion ban into law behind closed doors and in the dead of night, away from the prying eyes of reporters and television cameras.
DeSantis’s wartime service and military experience also inform his stated determination to broaden his “war on woke” to include the U.S. Armed Forces, which he has said have been infected by “things like gender pronouns.” In July, DeSantis unveiled his “Mission First” plan to remake the U.S. military by eliminating diversity, equity, and inclusion hires and policies. “I see a lot about things like DEI [Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion programs], and I think that that’s caused recruiting to plummet. I think it’s driven off a lot of warriors, and I think morale is low,” DeSantis said in a Memorial Day interview with Fox News. “I think the military that I see is different from the military I served in.”
Yet the elite SEAL team DeSantis served with more than 15 years ago was virtually all male and overwhelmingly white (Even in 2021, 95 percent of all SEAL officers and 84 percent of SEAL enlisted troops were white, versus just 2 percent Black in both groups; there are no female SEAL commandoes.). By contrast, the all-volunteer U.S. military writ large is more diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, and gender than any in U.S. history. In 2022, for instance, racial minorities comprised 31.2 percent of the active-duty force (with Black people accounting for 17.3 percent), while women accounted for 17.5 percent of the force.
The diversity and inclusion initiatives that DeSantis disparages have long been viewed by the Defense Department as effective tools for integrating those ranks and forging them into a cohesive fighting force. In poll after poll, the American public has consistently judged that effort successful by ranking the U.S. military as one of the most trusted institutions in the country, presumably because the public sees in the military a reflection of its better self: diverse, meritocratic, and professionally nonpartisan.
Nevertheless, if elected president, DeSantis promises to use his broad powers as commander in chief to impose “very big changes” on the U.S. military to exorcise the “woke mind virus” along with diversity and inclusion programs. And enemies real or imagined better believe he is willing to use overwhelming force to accomplish the mission.
Source: Foreign Policy