Today the U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) are the most deployed and most famous elements of the entire armed forces, their exploits incessantly chronicled not only in the news but also in movies such as Zero Dark Thirty and Lone Survivor. But it is a safe bet that few people outside SOF know much about its history. It is, indeed, hard to think of any books that cover the subject; the volumes that exist, such as Mark Bowden’s first-rate works Black Hawk Down and Guests of the Ayatollah, tend to be accounts of one battle or one episode that refer only in passing to the backstory of the forces involved.
The prolific military historian Mark Moyar, who has served as a consultant to the U.S. Special Operations Command, has now stepped forward to fill this gap with this badly needed volume. It does not break much new ground for students of the subject — it is based primarily on published works — but it will serve as an invaluable and highly readable overview of SOF’s history not just for those newly joining its ranks but also for anyone who seeks to know more about these glamorous and little-understood forces. Not the least of its virtues is that it will introduce a wider audience to such SOF legends as Aaron Bank (founder of the Army Special Forces), Charlie Beckwith (founder of Delta Force), Richard Marcinko (founder of SEAL Team Six), and Arthur “Bull” Simons (leader of the Son Tay raid in 1970 to free American prisoners of war held in North Vietnam).
The Army, Navy, and Marine Corps can trace their story back to the Republic’s earliest days. Even the Air Force can trace its roots back to World War I. The Special Operations Forces, by contrast, while able to cite antecedents such as Rogers’ Rangers in the 18th century, were really created in World War II. The idea was originally British. Under Winston Churchill’s goading, the United Kingdom created the Army Commandos and the Special Operations Executive to harass the Axis at a time when there was scant hope of liberating Europe. General George C. Marshall, the U.S. Army chief of staff, visited the British Commando Training Center in the Scottish Highlands and decided to emulate the British example.
Thus was born the U.S. Army’s First Ranger Battalion under the command of 31-year-old Captain William Orlando Darby, a West Point graduate who was, in a superior officer’s estimation, “outstanding in appearance, possessed of a most attractive personality, . . . keen, intelligent, and filled with enthusiasm.” For his Rangers, Darby picked men who were, according to Moyar, renowned for “toughness, independent thinking, and the ability to improvise.” The initial recruits included “a lion tamer, a bullfighter, a church deacon, and the treasurer of a burlesque theater.” Other specialized units followed soon thereafter, ranging from the U.S.–Canadian joint outfit known as the First Special Service Force to, in the Pacific theater, the Marine Raiders, the Navy frogmen, and the OSS’s Detachment 101 in Burma.
The very creation of specialized units was opposed by many generals who worried, in the words of General Lesley McNair, head of Army Ground Forces, that the diversion of high-quality officers would “seriously handicap the selection and training of leaders who are so essential” for regular military units. In fact, the small U.S. Special Operations Forces of World War II would never represent a serious drain on military manpower in a force of 12 million troops. Their problem would be very different: They would be constantly thrown, at least in the European theater, into prolonged battles for which they were not prepared, against much more heavily armed Axis forces.
In January 1944, for example, the Rangers were tasked with leading a breakout from the Anzio beachhead in Italy. Near the town of Cisterna, however, they ran straight into the Germans’ elite Hermann Goering Division, equipped with tanks and artillery that the lightly armed Rangers lacked. Out of 767 Rangers who took part in this operation, 761 were captured or killed. Darby, then a colonel, cried when he got the news. What was left of Darby’s Rangers was disbanded and he was reassigned to lead conventional infantry; he would be killed by a German artillery shell in 1945.
Special Operations Forces enjoyed greater success elsewhere. Newly constituted Ranger forces were part of the vanguard for the invasion of Normandy, scaling the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc, only to discover that the heavy guns they were supposed to destroy had already been moved. In the Pacific, the Marine Raiders played a critical role in the battle of Guadalcanal, while the OSS’s Detachment 101 raised 10,000 Kachin tribesmen against Japanese forces in Burma. But all of these units were far too tiny to have much impact on a world war, and at war’s end they were all disbanded.
The road back for Special Operations Forces was slow and marked with numerous dead ends. The Rangers were revived for the Korean War but suffered such heavy casualties that they were soon thereafter disbanded again. More lasting were to be the Special Forces created by the U.S. Army in 1952. Originally intended to wage guerrilla warfare behind Soviet lines in the event of World War III, the force had as its backbone an A team made up of approximately 14 seasoned sergeants led by a captain. In those early days the Special Forces were not considered prestigious and their recruits were hardly of high quality — a majority of the volunteers, notes Moyar, “failed a basic map-reading test.” Many joined simply because they couldn’t hack it in a normal Army unit. “By the end of the 1950s,” Moyar notes, “the outlook for special-operations forces appeared bleak.”
Things began to look up with John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. Dazzled by the mystique of elite fighters, Kennedy awarded the Special Forces the right to wear a green beret and began a large-scale deployment of these personnel to Vietnam. The Kennedy administration also saw the birth of the Navy SEALs and the Air Force’s relatively short-lived 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron, code-named Jungle Jim. They, too, were dispatched to Vietnam.
The Special Forces made their impact felt by mobilizing an army of Montagnard tribesmen in the mountains of Vietnam to fight against the Communists. Attempts by the euphemistically named Studies and Observation Group, staffed primarily by Special Forces, to infiltrate North Vietnam proved less successful. A 1970 raid to free U.S. prisoners of war held in Son Tay went off like clockwork — only no prisoners were freed, because they had already been moved. This was typical of the intelligence failures that continue to plague Special Operations Forces raids.
SOF, like the rest of the military, shrank after the Vietnam War, but this time they would not be disbanded. Indeed, the post-Vietnam period saw the creation of the Army’s first unit tasked with hostage rescue and other specialized missions. Delta Force, modeled on the British SAS, was at the core of the ill-fated mission, codenamed Eagle Claw, to rescue American hostages in Tehran in 1980. At Desert One, a rendezvous spot in the Iranian desert, the mission was aborted because of helicopter malfunctions and a collision between a helicopter and a cargo aircraft that killed eight personnel. The Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine personnel who took part in Eagle Claw had not trained together, and their lack of familiarity with one another’s procedures contributed to the mission’s failure. The successful but flawed invasion of Grenada in 1983 highlighted similar woes. This led Congress in 1987 to create the Special Operations Command as a headquarters to coordinate all Special Operations Forces. In 1989, SOF vindicated themselves by playing a leading role in the invasion of Panama.
But SOF’s travails were far from over. General Norman Schwarzkopf was so averse to SOF that he prevented them from playing any significant role in the Gulf War. A subsequent deployment to Somalia resulted in the Black Hawk Down disaster in 1993, with 18 American troops killed in Mogadishu while hunting for a Somali warlord. It would take 9/11 to bring SOF front and center in the American military establishment, a position they have occupied ever since.
SOF’s most important post-9/11 success was the first one: In the fall of 2001, a few hundred Special Forces and CIA personnel helped the Northern Alliance to topple the Taliban, rendering a conventional invasion unnecessary. The world was captivated by images of Special Forces with high-tech laser designators and radios riding horses across one of the world’s poorest countries to call in pinpoint airstrikes — as one officer put it, it was “the Flintstones meet the Jetsons.” The special operators had another high point a decade later, in 2011, when SEAL Team Six sneaked into Pakistan and killed Osama bin Laden. But while SOF proved uniquely adept in manhunting, conventional forces took the lead in counterinsurgency operations, which ultimately proved more consequential in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Today, as Moyar notes, the Special Operations Forces may be suffering from “overreach.” In the post-9/11 period, “overseas deployments, combat stress, and casualties far outpaced those of any other period of SOF history.” In today’s SOF, “an individual with five combat deployments [is] unexceptional and someone with ten [is] increasingly common.” One cost of this punishing operations tempo is that “rates of mental illness, alcoholism, suicide, and divorce” are climbing “to levels that deeply troubled the senior SOF leadership.”
But no respite is on the horizon. The world remains full of shadowy terrorists intent on doing Americans harm, and the SOF remain, along with drones, the most expedient response for presidents of both parties. Small raids may go awry occasionally, but they will never be as costly or unpopular as large-scale deployments of ground troops such as the invasion of Iraq. Given the extent to which the nation now relies on its special operators, it is imperative to better understand their background and culture. Moyar’s book is an excellent starting point.
– Mr. Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of the forthcoming book The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam.