The United States hasn’t been hit by a terrorist attack in five years — about five months longer than most had predicted immediately after 9/11.
Vice President Cheney often reminds that this record isn’t an accident. There are a number of reasons why we haven’t been hit. Some of the reasons we know about: the efforts of the military in Afghanistan and Iraq; the Patriot Act; generally heightened security; the SWIFT program; NSA surveillance; intelligence coordination with allies, etc. Other reasons are less discernable.
President Bush indicated that many of the victories against terrorists would be hidden from view; they will never be recorded in history. Many of these victories have been won by the military’s elite units — special-forces/counterterrorism units and others that the media knows little, if anything about. Indeed, Kiefer Sutherland got more coverage in five minutes at the Emmys than all of the Rangers, Green Berets, Marine Force Recon, SEALs / DevGru, and Delta operators combined.
And that’s as it should be. Very little public information is available about elite warriors so that terrorists are kept in the dark until it’s too late. Most of what the general public knows or suspects about elite forces comes from fictional accounts in movies, television shows or novels. Sure, lots of people know or have met Green Berets or SEALs, particularly people living near the southern Virginia and southern California coasts or in central North Carolina (it’s fairly certain, however, that every woman in the U.S. who’s ever set foot in a local watering hole has met a SEAL, who’s usually using the ingenious cover of a slightly overweight sales rep from Cleveland). Videos about SEAL and Green Beret physical training are a cottage industry. And there are several books by former Special Forces operators. But none of these accounts provides more than a non-classified peek into the training, techniques, and operations of elite warriors. Yet what the peeks reveal is astonishing nonetheless.
The superhuman physical conditioning of special-forces personnel is legendary. Anyone who’s worked out with elite athletes such as pro-football players or Olympians on the one hand and Rangers and SEALs on the other will tell you there’s no comparison — not even apples and oranges. Put your money on a SEAL breezing through a month of two-a-days at any pro football training camp versus a pro-football player surviving just a couple of days of SEAL training.
Interminable running, incessant push-ups, and spine-fusing overhead presses are standard features of special-forces PT. Each unit, however, has its own peculiar brand of hell. Stress fractures from Delta’s nonstop 40 mile marches with 50 pound rucksacks and hypothermia from the SEALs’ repeated nighttime immersions in frigid surf require team members to transcend ordinary limits of human pain and endurance. At the Delta, SEAL and Force Recon levels it’s less about physical invincibility than about extraordinary mental discipline
There are plenty of tough, brave, superbly conditioned soldiers among the roughly 1 million U.S. Army personnel on active duty and in the Guard and reserves. Yet fewer than 4000 are Green Berets. And only a handful are Delta operators.
The latter cohorts must not only possess exceptional physical prowess but have the reflexes, instincts, intelligence, and presence of mind to make multiple rapid fire judgments under impossible circumstances with absolutely no margin for error. They’re experts in demolition, surveillance, escape and evasion, hand-to-hand combat, infiltration, hostage rescue — i.e., every aspect of counterterrorism. They can handle the most exotic weapons imaginable, several adapted specifically for their use. They’re the most lethal individuals on the planet. And among the most level-headed, dedicated, and trustworthy.
Although their operations are clandestine, it’s widely acknowledged that forces such as Delta and the SEALs played crucial roles in Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Given the nature of the threat of terrorism, it’s likely that there are numerous other operations around the world in which special forces are presently engaged. Since their operations are largely classified, we won’t know when one of them has made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. Someone will be missing from Coronado or Ft. Bragg, but we won’t know who or why, and we won’t get a chance to thank him. It happens with enough frequency that funds such as the Special Operations Warriors Foundation have been established to assist the children of fallen elite warriors.
While it may be apocryphal, Winston Churchill is often quoted as having said (supposedly paraphrasing Orwell) “We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.” We owe it to these gentlemen not to take for granted the undisturbed sleep we’ve enjoyed the last five years. Without them we might not have been so fortunate.
– Peter Kirsanow is a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. He also is a member of the National Labor Relations Board. These comments do not necessarily reflect the positions of either organization.