In Mozambique, they are training recruits to defend against marauding militants linked to Islamic State. They’ve long targeted the Taliban in Afghanistan. One might call them the Forrest Gump of warriors, involved in every recent notable military event from the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani to the killing of Osama bin Laden. These are the American special operations forces, including SEALs, Green Berets and Marine Raiders, who are tasked with some of the deadliest and trickiest missions around the globe. These elite units carry a host of contradictions — not least that they are currently at their lowest deployed strength in two decades, even as some argue their strategic importance is greater than ever. Read on.
Isabelle Lee, Reporter
what the future holds
Special operations forces deployed abroad totaled nearly 5,000 across 62 countries, according to a document released during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Thursday. That was a 15 percent dip from 2020 and the lowest level since the 9/11 attacks sparked the “war on terror” in 2001. Part of that drawdown occurred at the end of Donald Trump’s tenure, as the former president in December ordered home a large portion of soldiers based in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. His successor, Joe Biden, won’t be eager to send them back into the fray, as the new president already faces the difficult choice on whether to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by May — so far, he’s considering a six-month delay, but he said Thursday that he “can’t picture” them there next year.
2. Not So Fast, Commander
Still, that doesn’t mean special operations forces will remain out of harm’s way. General Richard Clarke, who commands all U.S. special operations troops, said in that same document that elite Green Berets, Marine Raiders, Navy SEALs, and other specialized troops will head to Asia as America pivots from fending off Middle East extremism to combating the influence of Russia and China. “Nearly 40 percent of our deployed forces will focus on GPC requirements,” he said — using a term, “great power competition,” that highlights the role he envisions for these highly skilled troops.
3. Underpromise, Overdeliver
Special ops units fight in the gray area between overt war and tenuous peace. Their budget is only about $13 billion, just 2 percent of the military’s overall budget (as Blackhawk Down author Mark Bowden writes in The Atlantic, that’s the cost of just one aircraft carrier). Yet the military has shifted its strategy in recent decades from big guns, planes and tanks to wielding American force via small strikes by special ops units. Which paints the picture of a slice of the military that, despite its small portion of the budget, is disproportionately tasked with projecting Washington’s hard power.
4. Wanted: Cyber Soldiers
It’s easier to conduct smaller-scale missions than outright war, especially when the battlefield has increasingly gone online. “We need coders,” Clarke told thousands of defense industry representatives at last year’s Special Operations Forces Industry Conference. The message was that the military needs to open virtual doors in addition to blasting away the physical ones. Added to the unforgiving terrain of long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are new battlefields, like viral videos glorifying extremist violence as if it were a video game, top-secret servers where digital spies lurk and even universities where budding tech talent might be recruited by the enemy.
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For the last decade, special ops have borne the brunt of modern warfare under increasingly harrowing circumstances, with little recovery time between missions. While suicides for the military have decreased overall, suicides within the special operations sector have surged alarmingly. Because they are seen as almost invincible, special operations forces members are also less likely to seek treatment for PTSD. The Preservation of the Force and Family task force aims to provide special ops members with better care and access to treatment. For some, though, the answer to healing lies outside of the military system.
CSTs began in Afghanistan as a way to leverage women in the fight against terror. They were especially critical to establishing personal connections with the more than 14 million female Afghan civilians, given that the conservative culture forbade unmarried women from coming into contact with men outside of their families. Reaching those female civilians, particularly single ones, was crucial since they could potentially extract intel others could not. In a future where America can’t simply blast its way to victory, having women capable of communicating effectively may be the greatest weapon of all.
Minorities are glaringly underrepresented in special operations units, as they face many structural barriers to becoming elite troops. Black and Hispanic service members have between a 6 and 10 percent lower special ops training graduation rate, according to research by the RAND Corporation. Programs that increase knowledge about special ops and encourage people of color to begin and complete training are essential to fixing the representation problem.
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Like the marine mammals, they’re amphibious: It’s in the name, which stands for “Sea Air and Land.” The SEALs began as several specialized Navy units created during World War II and the Korean War. But they branched out into their own official entity in 1962, shortly before training South Vietnamese troops to conduct secret river missions. But most people hadn’t heard of them until SEAL Team 6’s 2011 foray into Pakistan to kill 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden. Almost half of Navy recruits want to join the SEALs, but only 6 percent of those applicants meet the physical and mental requirements. Of those who make that first cut, three-quarters will wash out during training, which requires swimming 1,000 yards in less than 20 minutes and running 4 miles in 31 — not to mention proving one’s scuba diving prowess.
2. The Green Berets
One of the lesser-known legacies of President John F. Kennedy is his championing of the expansion of the U.S. Army Special Forces, which he dubbed the “Green Berets.” The elite soldiers were so important to Kennedy that his family requested their presence within hours of his assassination, with 46 Green Berets traveling to Washington the next day to attend his funeral as part of his honor guard. The Green Berets cover everything from humanitarian assistance to anti-narcotics operations to psychological warfare. Like the SEALs, the selection process is brutal; they complete more than a year of grueling training, including a land navigation test where the recruits are made to survive for six days without help in the wilderness. There are about 7,000 active duty Green Berets.
3. The French Foreign Legion
While not American, you will find U.S. volunteers among its ranks. More than 9,000 men are enlisted in the legendary French expeditionary force, which accepts able-bodied men of any race, religion or nationality. In popular culture, many join “to forget” — a lost love, a criminal history or bad record with another country’s military. Those shady histories, plus their status as foreigners, has led some to call them “the expendables.” The Legion was first created by King Louis Philippe in 1831, and in 1883, a French general addressed legionnaire soldiers on their way to Northern Africa with the stirring call to arms: “You are soldiers meant to die.” The perks? Free food, free housing, free French classes, a salary that starts around $1,500 a month and the ability to start applying for French naturalization after three years of service. But nowadays recruitment standards include a background check, as the republic doesn’t want to arm just anyone.
4. Blackwater and Other Modern Mercenaries
Mercenaries have been a part of warfare since 2500 B.C., when they were first mentioned in the Amarna Letters — the reference to them was, well, less than pleasant (habiru, the word used for them, is related to “plunderer” or “murderer). The latest iteration has attracted many former special ops to private military companies, like the infamous “Blackwater,” started by former Navy SEAL Erik Prince and renamed “Xe Services” in 2009 and “Academi” in 2011 as it tried to shed its blood-spattered image. Shortly before leaving office, Trump pardoned four Blackwater contractors who opened fire on and killed 14 civilians in Iraq in 2007. In a historic first, soldiers from the Russian mercenary company Wagner face charges for war crimes committed in Syria after filming themselves killing an alleged Islamic State member in horrific fashion. Experts hope that the case will lead to more accountability for mercenaries operating globally.
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Special ops units are increasingly being scrutinized, due to an alarming rise in suicides and highly publicized cases of everything from assault and spousal murder to sexual assault and child rape. In January, the Pentagon’s inspector general launched an investigation into whether some elite troops are committing war crimes. It might not take that much sleuthing to find out, given how some former special ops members brag about their actions. Another ex-soldier granted a break by Trump was Edward Gallagher, who was convicted of posing for a picture with a dead captive, but cleared of illegally killing him despite a text message prosecutors said Gallagher sent to friends: “Good story behind this one. Got him with my hunting knife.”
2. Budding Entitlement
A United States Special Operations Command investigation found that leadership had eroded across the special operations units, leading to more misconduct and ethics violations. The 2020 report found that some special ops members were taking the “special” part a little too far, leading to an “unhealthy sense of entitlement.” The solution? More hands-on leadership and throwing out the “bad apples” early on.
3. Soldiers ‘P.I.A.’
Tucker Carlson made headlines in early March when he criticized what he called the military’s attempts to feminize its ranks. The Fox News host argued that “while China’s military becomes more masculine,” the troops under Commander-in-Chief Biden were becoming “more feminine” — using a photo of an Air Force officer wearing a flight suit designed for pregnant women as his case study. Pentagon leaders have pushed for more diversity in the ranks, recruiting women for leadership roles while adjusting height requirements. And they didn’t take kindly to the criticism, with Michal Grinston, the Army’s top enlisted official, tweeting that women “lead our most lethal units with character.” It’s true that women are seen as key to winning tomorrow’s wars because of the camaraderie they are able to establish with civilian women, especially in gender-segregated societies.
4. Reliability and Transparency
Special operation units were active in 80 percent of the world’s countries in 2020. But unlike with other military units, there is an astounding lack of transparency about what they were doing, in part because so many of their projects are deemed classified. In March, Biden limited counterterrorism drone strikes outside of war zones in an effort to rein in special opps units. Now, senior CIA and military officials have to get the White House’s permission to conduct strikes.
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Members of special ops teams are very protective of their ranks. Just ask Shipley, a YouTube detective of sorts who tracks down and exposes people who masquerade as former commandos or otherwise exaggerate their military bona fides. Shipley is one of the longest-serving SEALs in history, serving from 1985 to 2003. Yet he, too, has faced criticism: His YouTube channel, Stolen Valor, got taken down after he “doxxed” one of the people he exposed by releasing their personal information online.
2. Capt. Paris Davis
In 1965, all of Davis’ Army Special Forces comrades were shot by counterattacking North Vietnamese troops, leaving him leading South Vietnamese volunteers while rescuing the wounded. He was later nominated for the Medal of Honor for his heroics, but the Army somehow lost the nomination. And when his commander renominated him, the Army lost it again! His teammates, who continued to push for his nomination, saw the refusal to award him the medal as a reflection of his identity: Davis, who retired as a colonel, was one of the first Black special ops officers. But after years of inaction, his nomination is now up for review again, meaning the 81-year-old may finally be recognized.
3. Gene Yu
He served for eight years as a Green Beret, then wrote Yellow Green Beret: Stories of an Asian-American Stumbling Around U.S. Army Special Forces. As a civilian, he was promoting his book in Taiwan, whose president then happens to be his uncle, when a Taiwanese national, Chang An-Wei, was kidnapped by gunmen of the Abu Sayyaf jihaddist terrorist group — prompting Yu to step up and help arrange An-Wei’s release. Yu now runs Blackpanda, a cybercrime response company.
4. Kathleen Wilder
In 1980, Lt. Col. Kathleen Wilder completed the Army’s Special Forces Qualification Course but was denied graduation. However, she fought back, and won, with a sex-discrimination complaint against the Army that allowed her to wear the badge signifying her graduation. Now, 41 years later, Wilder’s dreams have come true: The Army announced in July 2020 that another woman had completed the course and was the first to be placed onto a Green Beret team.