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.

State of (Military) Failure

turse

Tom Engelhardt

Reposted from TomDispatch.com and used by permission.

Someday, someone will write a history of the U.S. national security state in the twenty-first century and, if the first decade and a half are any yardstick, it will be called something like State of Failure.  After all, almost 15 years after the U.S. invaded the Taliban’s Afghanistan, launching the second American Afghan War of the past half-century, U.S. troops are still there, their “withdrawal” halted, their rules of engagement once again widened to allow American troops and air power to accompany allied Afghan forces into battle, and the Taliban on the rise, having taken more territory (and briefly one northern provincial capital) than at any time since that movement was crushed in the invasion of 2001.

Thirteen years after George W. Bush and his top officials, dreaming of controlling the oil heartlands, launched the invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (the second Iraq War of our era), Washington is now in the third iteration of the same, with 6,000 troops (and thousands of private contractors) back in that country and a vast air campaign underway to destroy the Islamic State.  With modest numbers of special operations troops on the ground and another major air campaign, Washington is also now enmeshed in a complex and so far disastrous war in Syria.  And if you haven’t been counting, that’s three wars gone wrong.

Then, of course, there was the American (and NATO) intervention in Libya in 2011, which cracked that autocratic country open and made way for the rise of Islamic extremist movements there, as well as the most powerful Islamic State franchise outside Syria and Iraq.  Today, plans are evidently being drawn up for yet more air strikes, special operations raids, and the like there.  Toss in as well Washington’s never-ending drone war in Pakistan’s tribal borderlands, its disastrous attempt to corral al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen (leading to a grim and horrifying Saudi-led, American-supported internecine conflict in that country), and the unending attempt to destroy al-Shabaab in Somalia, and you have at least seven wars and conflicts in the Greater Middle East, all about to be handed on by President Obama to the next president with no end in sight, no real successes, nothing.  In these same years Islamic terror movements have only spread and grown stronger under the pressure of the American war machine.

It’s not as if Washington doesn’t know this. It’s quite obvious and, as TomDispatch Managing Editor Nick Turse, author of the highly praised Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, points out today in his latest report on the U.S. military’s pivot to Africa, the pattern is only intensifying, something clearly recognized by key American commanders. What’s strange, however, is that none of this seems to have caused anyone in the national security state or the military to reconsider the last 15 years of military-first policies, of bombs dropped, troops dispatched, drones sent in, and what the results were across the Greater Middle East and now Africa. There is no serious recalibration, no real rethinking. The response to 15 years of striking failure in a vast region remains more of the same. State of failure indeed!

Be sure to read Nick Turse on how U.S. military efforts in Africa show more regress than progress.

I Had A Base in Africa: Nick Turse on the U.S. Military and AFRICOM

turse

W.J. Astore

In the movie Out of Africa, Meryl Streep (playing Karen Blixen, who used the pen name of Isak Dinesen) wistfully intones, “I had a farm in Africa.” It’s a considerable understatement given her character’s ambition and energy and drive.  Rather than out of Africa, the U.S. military’s new motto is Into Africa, and like those cocky European colonialists of old, the military has plenty of ambition and energy and drive.  So notes Nick Turse in his latest book, “Tomorrow’s Battlefield: US Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa.”  Turse, the prize-winning author of “Kill Anything that Moves,” a searing examination of America’s war against Vietnam, turns his sharp eye to yet another misguided U.S. military adventure, this time within and across the continent of Africa.  What he finds is disturbing.

The U.S. Army likes to talk about BLUF, or giving the bottom line up front, and Turse has a doozy on America’s militarized designs on Africa:

Over the course of the Obama presidency, American efforts on the [African] continent have become ever more militarized in terms of troops and bases, missions and money.  And yet from Libya to the Gulf of Guinea, Mali to this camp in South Sudan, the results have been dismal.  Countless military exercises, counterterrorism operations, humanitarian projects, and training missions, backed by billions of dollars of taxpayer money, have all evaporated in the face of coups, civil wars, human rights abuses, terror attacks, and poorly coordinated aid efforts.  The human toll is incalculable.  And there appears to be no end in sight.” (184)

A grim BLUF indeed.  Perhaps that explains why the U.S. military is so reluctant to give Turse any information, even seemingly innocuous data such as the number of bases the U.S. has in Africa.  Turse, who happily has a sense of humor, recounts tedious and frustrating battles with military public affairs officers as the latter employ various delaying tactics to stymie him.  Indeed, if the U.S. military was as effective at winning wars as it is at fighting reporters, we might truly have a military that’s second to none.  Turse perseveres through all this, relying on public sources, freedom of information requests, interviews, and other creative means to tease out the numerous ways AFRICOM is seeking to penetrate the continent.

(As an aside, it’s worth noting that reporters who pay fawning tribute to U.S. efforts in Africa are happily accommodated by military public affairs.  Turse, an old-school investigative reporter who’s not into fawning, gets stonewalled, his reward for having integrity.)

Though AFRICOM is eager to deny or minimize its “footprint” in Africa to Turse, the story is different when the military talks among themselves.  Turse begins by cleverly recounting a military change of command ceremony he attended in Germany in 2013.  At that ceremony, speaking freely to one another, U.S. military commanders were not reticent at all.  One military commander obsequiously praised his boss in these words: “General Linder has been saying, ‘Africa is the battlefield of tomorrow, today.’ And, sir, I couldn’t agree more.  This new battlefield is custom made for SOC [the Special Operations community], and we’ll thrive in it.  It’s exactly where we need to be today and I expect we’ll be for some time in the future.” (3)

Sir, I couldn’t agree more that Africa is already becoming a battlefield for U.S. special ops, now and in the future.  And it’s “custom made” for us — we’re going to thrive there!  Mark those words, America.  We’ve heard their like before in the jungles of Vietnam in the early 1960s, when America’s fledgling special ops community boasted then that Vietnam was tailor made for the counterinsurgency skills of U.S. elite warriors.  We were going to thrive there too.  And look where that got us!

Turse’s knowledge of Vietnam makes him sensitive to the perils of mission creep in Africa, the problems of winning hearts and minds in cultures poorly understand by American troops, the dilemma of overthrowing less-than-tractable leaders (long ago, Diem in South Vietnam; more recently, Gaddafi in Libya) and the chaos that often results when the “bad man” is gone, the proliferation of U.S. weaponry that often accelerates regional violence, and so on.  Rather than give an honest accounting of these difficulties, the U.S. military often prefers simply to declare victory, or at least to take credit for success, however partial or fleeting.  Indeed, as Turse tartly observes, when it comes to Africa and America’s military missions there, “it’s so much easier to claim success than to achieve it.” (168)

For anyone interested in the U.S. military and especially AFRICOM, Turse’s honest, no-BS account makes for cautionary reading.  It should be required reading for all U.S. military personnel assigned to Africa, who deserve to read honest criticism while being exposed to critical thinking.  It’s a helluva lot better than hearing “I couldn’t agree more, sir.”  And perhaps it’ll save the U.S. military from having to intone, tragically this time, “I had a base in Africa.”

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.

Spreading Violence is Much Easier than Bridging Cultural Gaps

Teach a man to shoot ...
Is a warm gun the universal translator?

W.J. Astore

In Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, the U.S. military is fairly good at projecting power. Indeed, the military prides itself on “global reach, global power,” achieved through a worldwide system of bases and funded by enormous amounts of “defense” spending.  What the U.S. military is not so good at is understanding foreign cultures.  Often, it seems the number one goal of military interventions is selling weapons to armies in the countries in which the U.S. military intervenes, so-called foreign military sales or FMS for short.  This is true of Iraq, Afghanistan, and now many countries in Africa, as Nick Turse has shown in several groundbreaking articles at TomDispatch.com.

The U.S. military is “can-do” when it comes to projecting power, and “can-do” when it comes to building host nation armies (of course, the reliability of those armies, such as the Afghan National Army, is often highly suspect, even after a decade of training and billions of dollars in weapons and related equipment).  But what the military always gives short-shrift to is cultural understanding.  Cultural gaps are either ignored or dismissed as irrelevant (“Grab them by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow”) or bridged in ways that ultimately reveal how little we know about the foreign peoples on the receiving end of American largesse.

I learned this firsthand about ten years ago when I was at the Defense Language Institute (DLI) in Monterey, California.  Of all things my lesson came as the result of a Peter, Paul, and Mary song.  While I was the Associate Provost at DLI, the school received an urgent request from a U.S. official working with Iraqi schools. The official wanted help translating the song, “Don’t Laugh At Me,” from English to Arabic. The song, which appears on the Peter, Paul, and Mary CD Songs of Conscience & Concern, is used in U.S. elementary schools to promote tolerance. Its first lines are “I’m a little boy with glasses/The one they call a geek/A little girl who never smiles/’Cause I have braces on my teeth.” The refrain urges: “Don’t laugh at me/Don’t call me names/Don’t get your pleasure from my pain/In God’s eyes we’re all the same.” Rather safe and innocuous lyrics, one might think.

Yet, translating this feel-good song of tolerance into Arabic was neither safe nor easy. After gathering our best Arabic translators, we quickly learned that even the simplest lyrics posed problems of translation. What about that geeky American boy with glasses, the one being taunted for being bookish? Our translators, many of whom hailed from Middle Eastern countries, explained that in Iraq he would most likely be admired and praised for his smarts. How about that American girl with braces, so reluctant to smile? Well, most Iraqi kids would be fortunate indeed to have access to orthodontia. In an Iraqi cultural context, laughing at geeks with glasses or girls with braces just didn’t translate.

And if such seemingly simple lines as these were untranslatable due to the culture gap, what about lines like “I’m gay, I’m lesbian, I’m American Indian,” or even more treacherously, “A single teenage mother/Tryin’ to overcome my past”?  Best not go there, we concluded.

I learned a lot from this experience. If we can’t translate seemingly harmless song lyrics to promote diversity and tolerance, how do we expect to “translate” democracy?

It seems the military’s answer to this is to focus on what needs no translation: violence.  So the goal is to build host armies and police forces and to sell them weapons while building fortress-like American embassies (in Iraq and Afghanistan) or American bases (which are mini-fortresses) to watch over the benighted buggers of the world.

Some might say that warm guns serve as universal translators.  But a harsher conclusion is this: That we are indeed translating our culture overseas: a culture built less on tolerance than it is on violence.

Lessons of the Vietnam War

The My Lai Massacre
The My Lai Massacre

W.J. Astore

Nick Turse has a fine op-ed in the New York Times, “For America, Life Was Cheap in Vietnam.”  In it he argues that for Americans involved in the Vietnam War, life was very cheap indeed – Vietnamese lives, that is.  Turse has written a powerful book, “Kill Anything that Moves,” that documents the total war the United States waged on the Vietnamese people and countryside.  As Turse notes in his op-ed, American leaders like General William Westmoreland demonstrated “a profligate disregard for human life,” mainly because their strategy “was to kill as many ‘enemies’ as possible, with success measured by body count.  Often, those bodies were not enemy soldiers,” Turse concludes.

As the U.S. embraced a bloody war of attrition, Turse observes that “the United States declared wide swaths of the South Vietnamese countryside to be free-fire zones where even innocent civilians could be treated as enemy forces. Artillery shelling, intended to keep the enemy in a state of constant unease, and near unrestrained bombing slaughtered noncombatants and drove hundreds of thousands of civilians into slums and refugee camps.”

I recently came across two accounts that lend further support to Turse’s conclusion.  The first is an article written by Bernard Fall, “This Isn’t Munich, It’s Spain,” published in Ramparts in December 1965.  (My thanks to Dan White for bringing this article to my attention.)  Bernard Fall was an expert on Vietnam; among other classic books, he wrote “Hell In A Very Small Place” (about the siege of Dien Bien Phu) and “Street Without Joy.”  He was killed by a mine in Vietnam in 1967.

Writing in 1965, in the early stages of large-scale American deployment of troops, Fall noted that the war had already become “depersonalized and, to a large extent, dehumanized.”  “It is a brutal war,” Fall continued, “and already, in what may loosely be termed the ‘American period’ [of Indochinese conflict], the dead are near a quarter million, with perhaps another half million people seriously maimed.”

“A truly staggering amount of civilians are getting killed or maimed in this war,” Fall concluded, illustrating his point by recounting an air raid he had accompanied that destroyed a Vietnamese fishing village.

By later standards (massive bombing by B-52s in Arc Light attacks), the air raid Fall witnessed, consisting of A-1 Skyraiders carrying napalm and fragmentation bombs, was small.  But don’t tell that to the Vietnamese fishing village that was utterly destroyed in this “small” raid.  As Fall recounts, the village may or may not have been harboring a Viet Cong unit.  If it had been harboring a VC unit, it may have done so unwillingly, and that VC unit may have already moved along by the time the Skyraiders appeared overhead.  No matter.  The village and villagers were burnt, blown apart, and strafed.  A U.S. official report recorded that a VC rest center “had been successfully destroyed.”

Such indiscriminate attacks convinced Fall that the U.S. was not “able to see the Vietnamese as people against whom crimes can be committed.  This is the ultimate impersonalization of war.”

But even more worryingly for Fall was that “The incredible thing about Vietnam is that the worst is yet to come,” a tragically prescient statement.

And the worst might be represented by U.S. Army Lieutenant General Julian Ewell.  As the commanding general of the 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam, Ewell became known as the “Butcher of the Delta.”  Douglas Kinnard, an American general serving in Vietnam under Ewell, recounted his impressions of him (in “Adventures in Two Worlds: Vietnam General and Vermont Professor”):

Ewell, recalled Kinnard, “constantly pressed his units to increase their ‘body count’ of enemy soldiers.  This had become a way of measuring the success of a unit since Vietnam was a war of attrition, not a linear war with an advancing front line.  In the 9th [infantry division] he had required all his commanders to carry 3” x 5” cards with body count tallies for their units by date, by week, and by month.  Woe unto any commander who did not have a consistently high count.”

In a war in which commanding generals rewarded American troops for generating high enemy body count and punished those “slackers” who didn’t kill enough of the enemy, small wonder that Vietnam became an American killing field and a breeding ground for atrocity.

Bernard Fall ended his powerful article on an ambiguous note.  After having talked to a lot of Americans in Vietnam, he noted he hadn’t “found anyone who seems to have a clear idea of the end – of the ‘war aims’ – and if the end is not clearly defined, are we justified to use any means to attain it?”

In Vietnam, the U.S. used immoderate means, often with wanton disregard for the lives or livelihood of the Vietnamese people, in pursuit of ill-defined ends.  Echoing Fall’s words, we pursued open-ended devastation for no clear purpose with little regard to moral responsibility.

We lost more than a war in Vietnam.  We lost our humanity.

Wars Are Not Won by the Suppression of Truth

Shock and awe, and awesomely deadly
Shock and awe, and awesomely deadly

W.J. Astore

The American way of war has often relied on massive firepower as a way to reduce American troop casualties.  This was true of World War II and Korea, which were conventional “big battalion” wars, and it was also true of Vietnam, which was an unconventional war involving much smaller units.  The problem in Vietnam was the wanton use of firepower, to include napalm and Agent Orange as well as traditional bombs and artillery shells, which devastated the countryside and destroyed the lives of so many innocent Vietnamese.  The horror of this approach to war was recently captured in Nick Turse’s bestseller, Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam.

During the Vietnam War, the American government was at pains to deny that massive firepower was being misused, even when that criticism came from within the ranks.  This lesson was brought home to me while reading Douglas Kinnard’s Adventures in Two Worlds: Vietnam General and Vermont Professor, in which he looks back on his earlier book about Vietnam, The War Managers.  Upon publishing The War Managers in the mid-1970s, Kinnard says in Adventures (127-28) that he received the following note from an informed reader:

“Another [note received] from a colonel who had had two tours of duty in Vietnam and had tried in 1969 to publish an article criticizing the tactical conduct of the war, especially the overuse of fire power.  Indeed, any of us who were connected with the use of fire power knew it was overused, and certainly this was true in 1969.  The publication of his article in The Military Review was turned down not by the journal itself but by the office of the Secretary of Defense.  Let me point out that the turndown was not a rejection based on international policy or strategic implications.  ‘Colonel X’s article has been reviewed by this office and is returned without clearance on the basis of policy objections.  The main thrust of the article is in conflict with the announced policies of reducing US casualties and of Vietnamization of the War.  Publication of an article of this nature is also considered detrimental to the national interest in that it erroneously lends validity to charges of catastrophic death and destruction in the Republic of Vietnam.’ Signed, Roger Delaney, Deputy Director of Security Review.  The article, by the way, was a very interesting and informative one.  The turndown is incredible, but it is part of the history of the War.” [emphasis added]

It’s fascinating how the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) acted to suppress internal criticism within the U.S. Army itself that was aimed at curbing excessive firepower and its devastating impact on South Vietnam, which was after all our ally in that war.

Three factors seem to have driven OSD’s decision:

1.  Firepower (the more, the better) was linked to reducing U.S. casualties, thus making an unpopular war more palatable to Americans.

2.  Firepower (the more, the better) was used as a prop to Vietnamization, i.e. a crutch for ARVN (the South Vietnamese Army) in the field.  When ARVN didn’t perform well, massive firepower came to the rescue, which served to mask the inadequacies of Vietnamization.

3.  Even with this massive firepower, you as an American soldier were not allowed to say that it was causing widespread death and destruction, leading to the loss of the very hearts and minds that we claimed we were trying to win.  In other words, you had to deny logic as well as the evidence of your own eyes.

There’s a famous paradoxical saying about the Vietnam War: Americans had to destroy the Vietnamese village to save it.  What General Kinnard’s anecdote makes clear is that by 1969 you weren’t even allowed to say that you were destroying the village even as you burned it, since such acts so obviously contradicted the announced policy of Vietnamization as well as the idea of pursuing “peace with honor.”

But how can there be honor when honest efforts by American troops to critique deeply flawed and immoral tactics are suppressed in the name of political expediency?