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I read the first paragraph of an article in The New York Times today. It said of US Navy SEAL Team 6:

On clandestine raids in the dead of the night, their weapons of choice have ranged from customized carbines to primeval tomahawks.

Is this true, and if so, where and when were tomahawks used by Navy SEALs?

Team 6’s Red Squadron logo includes crossed tomahawks, so I thought that might be the origin of the claim.

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  • 17
    At first I thought this question was about whether they used cruise missiles.
    – March Ho
    Jun 7, 2015 at 11:52
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    @MarchHo I am OP. I laugh every time I revisit this question, when I see your comment! :o) Jan 26, 2018 at 10:59
  • Need to differentiate between the axe-like hand weapon and Tomahawk missiles. Mar 8 at 0:31
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    @DanielRHicks Can Tomahawk missiles be used as non-weapons? Mar 31 at 15:11
  • @RodrigodeAzevedo - Well, I suppose you could use one to keep your house warm. Mar 31 at 18:26

2 Answers 2

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According to Matthew Cole, SEAL Team Six's Red Squadron did indeed use tomahawks:

The SEALs’ successes throughout 2002 resulted in the Joint Special Operations Command choosing the unit to lead the hunt for al Qaeda, as well as the invasion of Baghdad in March 2003. The rise of JSOC as the sharp tip of America’s military effort led to a similar increase in size and responsibility for SEAL Team 6 in the early years of America’s two post-9/11 wars. By 2006, the command rapidly expanded, growing from 200 to 300 operators. What were originally known as assault teams now formally became squadrons, and by 2008, the expansion led to the creation of Silver, a fourth assault squadron. One result of the growth was that back in Virginia, the captain in command of the entire 300-SEAL force had far less oversight over tactical battlefield decisions. It was at this point that some critics in the military complained that SEAL Team 6 — with their full beards and arms, legs, and torsos covered in tattoos — looked like members of a biker gang. Questions about battlefield atrocities persisted, though some excused these actions in the name of psychological warfare against the enemy.

Against this backdrop, in 2006, Hugh Wyman Howard III, a descendant of an admiral and himself a Naval Academy graduate, took command of Red Squadron and its roughly 50 operators. Howard, who has since risen through the ranks and is currently a rear admiral, was twice rejected by his superiors for advanced SEAL Team 6 training. But in 1998, after intervention by a senior officer at Dam Neck, Howard was given a slot on Green Team. Because of Howard’s pedigree, SEAL Team 6 leaders running the training program felt pressure to pass him. After being shepherded through the nine-month training, he entered Red Squadron. Howard took the unit’s identity seriously, and after 9/11, despite the questionable circumstances that led to his ascent, his influence steadily grew.

In keeping with Red Squadron’s appropriation of Native American culture, Howard came up with the idea to bestow 14-inch hatchets on each SEAL who had a year of service in the squadron. The hatchets, paid for by private donations Howard solicited, were custom-made by Daniel Winkler, a highly regarded knife maker in North Carolina who designed several of the period tomahawks and knives used in the movie “The Last of the Mohicans.” Winkler sells similar hatchets for $600 each. The hatchets Howard obtained were stamped with a Native American warrior in a headdress and crossed tomahawks.

At first the hatchets appeared to be merely symbolic, because such heavy, awkward weapons had no place in the gear of a special operator. “There’s no military purpose for it,” a former Red Squadron operator told me. “But they are a great way of being part of a team. It was given as an honor, one more step to strive for, another sign that you’re doing a good job.”

For some of Howard’s men, however, the hatchets soon became more than symbolic as they were used at times to hack dead fighters in Iraq and Afghanistan. Others used them to break doorknobs on raids or kill militants in hand-to-hand combat.

During the first deployments in both Iraq and Afghanistan, it was common practice to take fingers, scalp, or skin from slain enemy combatants for identification purposes. One former SEAL Team 6 leader told me that he feared the practice would lead to members of the unit using the DNA samples as an excuse to mutilate and desecrate the dead. By 2007, when Howard and Red Squadron showed up with their hatchets in Iraq, internal reports of operators using the weapons to hack dead and dying militants were provided to both the commanding officer of SEAL Team 6 at that time, Capt. Scott Moore, and his deputy, Capt. Tim Szymanski.

Howard, who declined to answer questions from The Intercept, rallied his SEALs and others before missions and deployments by telling them to “bloody the hatchet.” One SEAL I spoke with said that Howard’s words were meant to be inspirational, like those of a coach, and were not an order to use the hatchets to commit war crimes. Others were much more critical. Howard was often heard asking his operators whether they’d gotten “blood on your hatchet” when they returned from a deployment. Howard’s distribution of the hatchets worried several senior SEAL Team 6 members and some CIA paramilitary officers who worked with his squadron.

Source: Matthew Cole, The Crimes of SEAL Team 6, The Intercept, January 10, 2017.


Bold is mine.

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  • Can you please shorten that quote some and pull out information that isn't related to them using tomahawks? That answer is hard to read as it stands.
    – Joe W
    Feb 21 at 17:17
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    Would using bold help? Feb 21 at 17:18
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    It could but I think there are several paragraphs that can be removed as they don't serve to answer the question
    – Joe W
    Feb 21 at 17:19
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    For now, the relevant parts are in bold and the less relevant in not-bold. I may remove some of the less relevant stuff later. At the moment, I want to include the whole excerpt so that the interested reader can get the context without having to read the whole article. Feb 21 at 17:23
  • "[The words] were not an order to use the hatchets to commit war crimes", surely doing battle with a hatchet is not a war crime. Is the suggestion that they were mutilating already dead enemies? That is a war crime, but often ignored when it does happen. For example, Osama's body.
    – fredsbend
    Mar 16 at 19:20
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The 2003 ABC News article Some U.S. Troops Choose Historic Tomahawk doesn't show that US Navy SEALS, in particular, use tomahawks, but shows that their use is somewhat common amongst modern US military, and makes the claim seem more prosaic.

Members of Air Force security groups, Army Rangers and special forces are some of the U.S. troops who have chosen to add tomahawks to their basic gear. [...]

It wasn't until after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and the United States began fighting in Afghanistan that [a manufacturer] started making [tomahawks] in quantity. In fact, it dramatically changed the way he does business — Johnson says his time is now almost exclusively devoted to producing the modern tomahawks for military customers, and he makes only a few historical tomahawks a month. [...]

Currently, service members are buying tomahawks individually or, in some cases, units are using operational funds to buy them for their group.

The terms "primeval" and "weapons" seems to be a little exaggerated. These are of a modern design, and while they might be used as a weapon, they seem to be carried as a more general tool.

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  • primeval would be wrong, regardless. primitive maybe, but primeval connotes before the stone age and tomahawk are definitely stone age implements.
    – CGCampbell
    Mar 31 at 15:09

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