The Painful Story of How U.S. Special-Operations Forces Grew Up

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The first month of 2012 was, indeed, a highly auspicious time to wave the banner of special-operations forces in support of a new national-security strategy.

Through the Osama bin Laden raid and other recent victories, special operators had amassed unprecedented prestige both within Washington and in the country more generally.

Special-operations forces seemed not only more exciting, but also more efficient and decisive than the conventional military forces that had been employed in the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan. Hollywood was releasing movie after movie extolling the virtues of the special units, including a film called Act of Valor that starred active-duty SEALs. On the Internet, dating sites were hit by epidemics of men pretending to be special operators in order to win the hearts of unsuspecting women.

Although President Obama relied mainly on subordinates to sell his new strategy to the public, he did cite the special operators while explaining the strategy during an interview with journalist Mark Bowden, who was writing a book on the bin Laden operation. “Special Forces are well designed to deal with the very specific targets in difficult terrain and often-times prevent us from making the bigger strategic mistakes of sending forces in, with big footprints and so forth,” he explained. “So when you’re talking about dealing with terrorist networks, in failed states, or states that don’t have capacity, you can see that as actually being less intrusive, less dangerous, less problematic for the country involved.”

What Obama had called “Special Forces” were in actuality the special-operations forces (SOF) — the official term for all the units dedicated to the conduct of special operations. Special-operations forces include not only the U.S. Army’s Special Forces, but also the Army Rangers, Navy SEALs, Air Force Night Stalkers, and Special Operations Marines, among others. Mixing up Special Forces with special-operations forces was a common enough mistake, and one that might have been unworthy of mention had the president merely been dispensing praise to an obscure federal bureaucracy, on the order of the Japan–U.S. Friendship Commission or the American Battle Monuments Commission. But SOF had become the centerpiece of Obama’s national-security strategy, and hence the misstep encouraged doubts about the amount of thought that had gone into the strategic redesign. Later events were to confirm that administration strategists had not given adequate consideration to the strengths and limitations of special-operations forces before hoisting them to the apex of the world’s most powerful military.

It was not the first time that presidential ambitions for special-operations forces had outstripped presidential familiarity with those forces. Indeed, no president, Republican or Democrat, has ever demonstrated a commanding grasp of special-operations forces and their capabilities, although John F. Kennedy at times came close. Presidential unfamiliarity acquired a new significance under Obama, however, because U.S. special-operations forces were larger and more prominent than ever before, and because their ascent in Obama’s first term contributed to a terrific crash during his second term. Egged on by the White House, the Special Operations Command would attempt to acquire new powers at the expense of the rest of the U.S. military and government. Its leadership would flout the rules of the Defense Department and Congress, on the presumption that no one would dare challenge the men who killed Osama bin Laden. Congress eventually used its power of the purse to rein in Special Operations Command, killing the budgets for ambitious plans to extend the reach of special-operations forces.

Most of the factors that precipitated this calamity could have been anticipated, and at least some avoided, had the principal players been attuned to the history of American special-operations forces. That history began during the first months of U.S. participation in World War II, when in the crucible of total war the United States formed its first units dedicated to special operations. From 1942 to 1945, the Army Rangers, the Marine Corps Raiders, the Navy Frogmen, and the special operators of the civilian-led Office of Strategic Services (OSS) executed difficult and dangerous operations that not only made them the role models for future operators, but also brought into daylight the main challenges that were to confront special-operations forces ever afterward.

The 75-year rise of special operations forces from humble origins in World War II to the present day is, at bottom, a coming-of-age story. Special-operations forces began as unwanted stepchildren, and they languished in that status for more than four decades. From time to time, they found supportive stepfathers in Washington, but for the most part they were left at the mercy of jealous stepbrothers. In 1986, the creation of the Special Operations Command in Tampa and its accompanying bank account set SOF loose like an 18-year-old who just moved out of the house prone to naïve ambitions and unwise choices. In the first decade of the 21st century, special-operations forces came into their own, growing into a force of 70,000 troops with help from a president and Congress desperate for weapons to wield against Islamic extremists. Champions of special operations called for the transformation of SOF from a secondary weapon that supported conventional forces to a primary weapon that could take the place of their conventional counterparts. But then the success went to the heads of the special-operations leaders and caused them to reach too far, leaving the Department of Defense strewn with wreckage whose pieces are still being picked up today.

Like any good coming-of-age story, the story of special-operations forces is interwoven with a colorful cast of characters. Most special operators volunteered for what they knew would be unusually difficult and dangerous duty, and thus the pantheon of special-operations forces brims with men of exceptional talent, courage, dedication, and selflessness. These same special operators, being mortals, have at times succumbed to folly, narcissism, or fear. For some, the acquisition of elite status helped turn confidence into hubris, with all the attendant troubles one might expect. Brilliance has been mixed with bad judgment, in no small part because of the need to make decisions quickly, under stress, and without sleep. The story includes first crushes, rites of passage, harrowing action scenes, falls from grace, and redemption. As a story of war, it has more than its share of suffering, glory, and death.

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