What’s So Special About Special Ops?

seal
Sexy? Yes.  But how effective over the long haul?

W.J. Astore

What’s so special about Special Ops?  It used to be that special operations troops were few in number.  You had Army Green Berets, Navy SEALs, mixed units like the Delta Force, and a few others, but nowadays U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) consists of 70,000 troops, equivalent to five or six regular army divisions, a military within the military.

What’s truly elite about America’s special ops community, as Nick Turse shows in his latest article at TomDispatch.com, is their global reach and global power, to borrow an Air Force phrase.  Special ops forces have already been deployed to 137 countries in 2017, or 70% of the planet’s nations.  Talk about reach!  Yet enduring victories from past deployments, as Turse shows, have been surprisingly elusive.

Why is this?  Special ops forces are good at short-term kinetic actions (hit and run strikes, commando stuff), and they do their share of training and advising.  Yet their staying power, their persistence, their endurance, their ability to shift strategic winds in America’s favor, simply hasn’t been there.  Some would say that’s not their purpose, except that the U.S. military and government has been selling them as strategic game-changers, which they’re not.

As I’ve written before, I see America’s special ops forces as America’s global missionaries, our version of the Catholic Church’s Jesuit order during the Counter Reformation.  The Jesuits were soldiers of Christ, a militant order of highly trained missionaries, totally dedicated to upholding the one true faith (Catholicism, of course).  For many peoples around the world, Catholicism was the Jesuits.  And for many peoples around the world today (137 countries!), Americanism is a gun-toting special ops troop,

Coincidentally, I came across this report from FP: Foreign Policy this morning:

Pentagon taking lead in Africa makes some allies uneasy. At a recent summit meeting in Malawi attended by several U.S. generals and their African counterparts, some allies on the continent, while welcoming American attention, aren’t so sure they want it all from the Pentagon while the State Dept. is diminished.

“We have statements out of Washington about significant reductions in foreign aid,” Gen. Griffin Phiri, the commander of the Malawi Defense Forces, told the New York Times during the African Land Forces Summit, a conference between American Army officers and representatives from 40 African nations. “What I can tell you is that experience has shown us that diplomacy and security must come together.” He was unsure over the “mixed messages” coming out of Washington.

But is Washington’s message really mixed?  It seems clear.  Ever since 9/11, as Nick Turse has shown in several articles for TomDispatch.com, America has been downplaying diplomacy while ramping up “kinetic” strikes by special ops.  This trend has only accelerated under the leadership (if that’s the right word) of Donald Trump and Rex Tillerson at the State Department. When it comes to world affairs, Trump and Tillerson have often been AWOL, leaving the real action to Mattis and the Pentagon.

And nowadays the real action at the Pentagon is centered on SOCOM, the military within the military, America’s militant missionary order.

Even allies question America’s almost monomaniacal commitment to military action everywhere.  They’re right to do so.  For special ops aren’t so special when they’re deployed everywhere in dribs and drabs, parceled out on missions that lack achievable aims.

Finally, there’s this.  Say what you will of the Jesuits, they had faith.  A clear ideology.   Their faith, their devotion, was an inspiration to many. Even as their symbol was the cross, their skill-set was quite varied, e.g. they were often learned men, well ahead of their times in areas like science and mathematics.

Does Washington’s militant missionary order have a clear ideology?  A compelling symbol?  A varied skill-set?  Favorable and enduring results?  Evidence (so far) suggests otherwise.

Special Forces: America’s Jesuits

A Triple Stack of Special Ops with Flag -- Hooah!
A Triple Stack of Special Ops with Flag — Hooah! (Photo Credit: SOCOM)

W.J. Astore

Nick Turse has a revealing new piece at TomDispatch.com on the rise of Special Forces and SOCOM (Special Ops Command) within the U.S. military.  (For a telling critique of America’s excess of enthusiasm for Special Forces, see last year’s article here by Dan White for The Contrary Perspective.)

What are we to make of U.S. Special Forces being involved, in one way or another, in the affairs of 150 countries in the world over the last three years?  And, as Turse points out, just 66 days into Fiscal Year 2015, U.S. Special Forces have already made their presence known in 105 countries, a presence that seems never to wane.

One historical analogy that occurs to me (which I’ve used before) is the rise of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, within an embattled Catholic Church during the Reformation.  A besieged Church needed true believers to take the fight to heretical Protestants who were bent on the Church’s destruction.  So along came Ignatius Loyola and his church militant of Jesuit priests, sworn to believe that black was white if the Holy Church deemed it so.  Considered an elite within the Church, the Jesuits took the fight to the Protestants during the Catholic Counter Reformation in Europe and across the world.  Jesuits were everywhere, from China in the Old World to nearly everywhere in the New World, crusading for the Church and against the incursions of Protestantism and its various sects.

So, how does the 16th century shed light on the 21st?  America’s Vatican is obviously the Pentagon.  Its primary methods are wars and weapons sales and military training.  Its Loyola was until recently Admiral William McRaven, head of SOCOM.  And its Jesuit priests are America’s Special Ops troops, true believers who are committed to defending the faith of America.

In the aftermath of 9/11, in a rare outburst of honesty, George W. Bush said America was on a crusade across the world.  You might say against “protestants” and other heretics to the American way of life.  And who are our crusaders?  Who is being sent virtually everywhere (remember those 150 countries in three years?) on various “missions”?

Like it or not, America’s Special Forces are our lead missionaries, our Jesuits, our church militant.

The new head of SOCOM, General Joseph Votel III, West Point grad and Army Ranger, put it plainly back in August that America is witnessing “a golden age for special operations.”  What a telling phrase.  And indeed it’s getting increasingly difficult to recall “golden ages” in America’s past that weren’t linked to the military.

But that’s no accident when the national church is the Pentagon and its Special Ops troops are acclaimed as so many missionary heroes.

Welcome to your new golden age, America.