The U.S. Department of Defense is an ecosystem. It’s constituent parts–the four Services, the Unified Commands, the myriad agencies and field activities, the Joint Staff, the enormous Office of the Secretary of Defense–are not the result of a purposeful design to achieve the ideal arrangement. The organisms in the DoD jungle have evolved over 240 years to reach their present state, competing with each other, sometimes consuming each other, combining, breaking apart, developing new capabilities and losing old ones. The ecosystem contains 1.4 million active duty personnel, over 700,000 civilian employees, and millions more reservists, national guard, and defense contractors, nourished by a yearly budget of over $600 billion.
One class of creatures in the DoD jungle fall under the vague term of Special Operations Forces or SOF. The most famous SOF units are known by their nicknames—SEAL Team Six and Delta Force for example. We know them as the small stealthy teams that go deep behind enemy lines and kick in doors in the middle of the night to capture or kill terrorists. They go to places we aren’t supposed to be in and do things it’s best we don’t know about. Like so many other things in the SOF world, these adventuresome missions are called by a bland military euphemism–“direct action.”
SOF wasn’t always famous—its practitioners lived for decades in the margins of the DoD jungle. The evolutionary ancestor of American SOF was the vaguely named Office of Strategic Services (OSS), born during World War II and deriving most of its DNA from the British spy agencies. The OSS engaged in direct action, but its chief function after the war was to organize, train, and direct indigenous guerilla forces in Europe to oppose the spread and influence of Soviet-friendly regimes. It also secretly set up and ran radio stations for what might have been called propaganda, but instead went by “psychological operations.” This term, not vague enough by SOF standards, has since been replaced by “mission information support operations.”
A boost for SOF came in 1961 when President Kennedy authorized the green beret as the official headgear of U.S. Army special forces, thereby establishing a brand. The Green Berets were described as “force multipliers,” – a team of 12 men could train up a battalion of 800 nationals. In addition to combat skills, the job required cross-cultural savvy to build advising relationships with locals. In Vietnam, special forces teams formed and trained fighting units among the montagnard tribes, as well as engaging in long range reconnaissance, rescue operations, sabotage of enemy supply lines, and other direct action. U.S. Army Rangers, famous for their grueling ten-week training program in which starved and exhausted soldiers are brought to the limits of their endurance, developed a specialty for overrunning and capturing enemy airfields by dropping from low flying aircraft in specially outfitted trucks and motorcycles.
A SOF friend who served as part of the vaguely (and misleadingly) named Military Assistance Command Vietnam Studies and Observation Group (MACV-SOG) told me a story on a topic that many Peace Corps volunteers would find familiar—the dread of being offered a local delicacy as the guest of honor of an indigenous tribal leader. In this case the dish was a slab of pure pig fat. Naturally he couldn’t refuse. He finished it off by hiding the morsels in the dirt around his seat. He describes a characteristic looseness with protocol among the SOF cadre. Soldiers called each other by first name rather than “sir” or by rank. An especially admired officer might simply be called “boss.”
Over the years SOF has grown in stature in the DoD and in the American consciousness. Today SOF units play key roles in U.S. conflicts in places like Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and Pakistan. They have helped partner countries contain insurgencies and criminal networks in Colombia, the Philippines, and Uganda. They operate in 80 countries worldwide, mostly as trainers of host-country forces. Army General Stanley McChrystal came out of the SOF world to lead the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan before a lapse in protocol brought his career to an end. Special forces have grown in numbers and funding in recent years even as the rest of the military has been cut back. It may be no surprise that they attract some resentment from the rest of the military, as well as criticism that the U.S. depends too much on their capabilities to pursue its national aims.
The brief story provided here only scratches the surface. It is meant to show that direct action is only one of the tools that special forces bring to the foreign policy toolbox.