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Act of Valor Book Review

Act of Valor, by Dick Couch and George Galdorisi, 320 pp, Berkeley Books, 2012

Actually, it should be “Acts of Valor,” since the SEAL heroes of the book engage in several operations, any one of which could have served as the climax of an action thriller. But this is no ordinary book. It’s a novelization of the Kurt Johnstad screenplay of Act of Valor, a film that started out as a documentary and morphed into a feature film.

SEALs are the heroes of the book in more than one way. While they fight the bad guys in the best traditions of any thriller, the story also showcases the SEALs themselves: their mission, their character, and their methods (without giving anything secret away). There’s been a lot in the news about some spectacular successes, and if you’re at all curious about what these guys are about, this is the book for you.

Obviously, the novelization follows the action and dialogue of the film. I suspect one difference between the movie and the novelization is that the authors can use narrative to explain what’s going on in the background, or provide useful details, something that would destroy a movie’s pace. For a reader, such explanations can be critical, since they have to construct their own movie in their minds, and without the benefit of a special effects department.

Since the movie isn’t out yet, I can’t say if or where the authors diverged from the movie’s dialog or storyline, but I hope that the movie is as exciting and authentic as the book.

Those are the two words that best describe the novel Act of Valor. It’s exciting because it pits a lot of really interesting good guys (the SEALs and their friends) against some very nasty narcothugs and terrorists. The action ranges from Costa Rica to Somalia to the Pacific Ocean, and as hairy as it gets, the danger they face is nothing compared to the danger they’re trying to prevent. There are lots of fights, and lot of good story between the fights.

It’s authentic because not only do we see the SEALs with their wet suits and M4 rifles, but we see them before deployment, as family men. The authors create complete, realistic characters who have decided to take on the most challenging duty in the armed forces. At the same time it’s showing us the tremendous demands SEAL duty and missions place on these men, it shows us what kind of men are capable of performing them.

And they don’t just step into a phone booth and come out ready for battle. The text takes us through their detailed, carefully organized preparation for a mission, from the first warning to execution, and even after the battle. SEALs win because they don’t believe in fair fights. They think and plan and prepare so they know what to expect when the music starts. It’s true they are amazing athletes, and scary (in a good way) warriors, but they’re not bulletproof.

If you want one word to describe a SEAL’s behavior, don’t use “brave,” although it’s true. Try “methodical.” Or “organized.” Or “anal” if you have a death wish. SEALs pay a great deal of attention to their gear, practice procedures until they’re ingrained, always take care of each other, and never, ever take any short cuts.

Dick Couch and George Galdorisi are the perfect choice to write the novelization. Both are retired Navy captains and accomplished writers. Couch was a SEAL himself, serving in Vietnam, and Galdorisi a naval aviator. Both have been active in the government since leaving the service.

As a disclaimer, I must mention that much of what I learned about the SEALs has come from Couch’s excellent nonfiction works The Warrior Elite and The Finishing School. These two books provide a detailed and thoughtful narrative of what is arguably the toughest training of any military service in the world. It isn’t easy to get into SEAL school, the attrition rate can be 80 percent, and if you pass BUD/S school, another year of amazingly tough training will entitle you to be called “the new guy.” Then comes another year of advanced training needed before you can report to a team.

And while the story in Act of Valor is fiction, thanks to the news we know there are other stories out there that are not.

Even if you’re planning to see the movie, buy the book.