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.

America’s Post-Democratic Military

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America’s citizen-military no longer exists

W.J. Astore

In October 2005, during the Iraq War, historian David M. Kennedy noted that “No American is now obligated to military service, few will ever serve in uniform, even fewer will actually taste battle …. Americans with no risk whatsoever of exposure to military service have, in effect, hired some of the least advantaged of their fellow countrymen to do some of their most dangerous business while the majority goes on with their own affairs unbloodied and undistracted.”

We have, in essence, a post-democratic military in the U.S. today, which is the subject of my latest article for TomDispatch.com.  You can read the entire article here; what follows is the first section on how our citizen-soldier tradition morphed into a professional force of volunteer-warriors augmented by privatized forces of mercenaries and corporations.

From TomDispatch.com:

In the decades since the draft ended in 1973, a strange new military has emerged in the United States. Think of it, if you will, as a post-democratic force that prides itself on its warrior ethos rather than the old-fashioned citizen-soldier ideal.   As such, it’s a military increasingly divorced from the people, with a way of life ever more foreign to most Americans (adulatory as they may feel toward its troops).  Abroad, it’s now regularly put to purposes foreign to any traditional idea of national defense.  In Washington, it has become a force unto itself, following its own priorities, pursuing its own agendas, increasingly unaccountable to either the president or Congress.

Three areas highlight the post-democratic transformation of this military with striking clarity: the blending of military professionals with privatized mercenaries in prosecuting unending “limited” wars; the way senior military commanders are cashing in on retirement; and finally the emergence of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) as a quasi-missionary imperial force with a presence in at least 135 countries a year (and counting).

The All-Volunteer Military and Mercenaries: An Undemocratic Amalgam

I’m a product of the all-volunteer military.  In 1973, the Nixon administration ended the draft, which also marked the end of a citizen-soldier tradition that had served the nation for two centuries.  At the time, neither the top brass nor the president wanted to face a future in which, in the style of the Vietnam era just then winding up, a force of citizen-soldiers could vote with their feet and their mouths in the kinds of protest that had only recently left the Army in significant disarray.  The new military was to be all volunteers and a thoroughly professional force.  (Think: no dissenters, no protesters, no antiwar sentiments; in short, no repeats of what had just happened.)  And so it has remained for more than 40 years.

Most Americans were happy to see the draft abolished.  (Although young men still register for selective service at age 18, there are neither popular calls for its return, nor serious plans to revive it.)  Yet its end was not celebrated by all.  At the time, some military men advised against it, convinced that what, in fact, did happen would happen: that an all-volunteer force would become more prone to military adventurism enabled by civilian leaders who no longer had to consider the sort of opposition draft call-ups might create for undeclared and unpopular wars.

In 1982, historian Joseph Ellis summed up such sentiments in a prophetic passage in an essay titled “Learning Military Lessons from Vietnam” (from the book Men at War):

“[V]irtually all studies of the all-volunteer army have indicated that it is likely to be less representative of and responsive to popular opinion, more expensive, more jealous of its own prerogatives, more xenophobic — in other words, more likely to repeat some of the most grievous mistakes of Vietnam … Perhaps the most worrisome feature of the all-volunteer army is that it encourages soldiers to insulate themselves from civilian society and allows them to cling tenaciously to outmoded visions of the profession of arms.  It certainly puts an increased burden of responsibility on civilian officials to impose restraints on military operations, restraints which the soldiers will surely perceive as unjustified.”

Ellis wrote this more than 30 years ago — before Desert Storm, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, or the launching of the War on Terror.  These wars (and other U.S. military interventions of the last decades) have provided vivid evidence that civilian officials have felt emboldened in wielding a military freed from the constraints of the old citizen army.  Indeed, it says something of our twenty-first-century moment that military officers have from time to time felt the need to restrain civilian officials rather than vice versa.  Consider, for instance, Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki’s warning early in 2003 that a post-invasion Iraq would need to be occupied by “several hundred thousand” troops.  Shinseki clearly hoped that his (all-too-realistic) estimate would tamp down the heady optimism of top Bush administration officials that any such war would be a “cakewalk,” that the Iraqis would strew “bouquets” of flowers in the path of the invaders, and that the U.S. would be able to garrison an American-style Iraq in the fashion of South Korea until hell froze over.  Prophetic Shinseki was, but not successful.  His advice was dismissed out of hand, as was he.

Events since Desert Storm in 1991 suggest that the all-volunteer military has been more curse than blessing.  Partially to blame: a new dynamic in modern American history, the creation of a massive military force that is not of the people, by the people, or for the people.  It is, of course, a dynamic hardly new to history.  Writing in the eighteenth century about the decline and fall of Rome, the historian Edward Gibbon noted that:

“In the purer ages of the commonwealth [of Rome], the use of arms was reserved for those ranks of citizens who had a country to love, a property to defend, and some share in enacting those laws, which it was their interest, as well as duty, to maintain. But in proportion as the public freedom was lost in extent of conquest, war was gradually improved into an art, and degraded into a trade.”

As the U.S. has become more authoritarian and more expansive, its military has come to serve the needs of others, among them elites driven by dreams of profit and power.  Some will argue that this is nothing new.  I’ve read my Smedley Butler and I’m well aware that historically the U.S. military was often used in un-democratic ways to protect and advance various business interests.  In General Butler’s day, however, that military was a small quasi-professional force with a limited reach.  Today’s version is enormous, garrisoning roughly 800 foreign bases across the globe, capable of sending its Hellfire missile-armed drones on killing missions into country after country across the Greater Middle East and Africa, and possessing a vision of what it likes to call “full-spectrum dominance” meant to facilitate “global reach, global power.”  In sum, the U.S. military is far more powerful, far less accountable — and far more dangerous.

As a post-democratic military has arisen in this country, so have a set of “warrior corporations” — that is, private, for-profit mercenary outfits that now regularly accompany American forces in essentially equal numbers into any war zone.  In the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Blackwater was the most notorious of these, but other mercenary outfits like Triple Canopy and DynCorp were also deeply involved.  This rise of privatized militaries and mercenaries naturally contributes to actions that are inherently un-democratic and divorced from the will and wishes of the people.  It is also inherently a less accountable form of war, since no one even bothers to count the for-profit dead, nor do their bodies come home in flag-draped coffins for solemn burial in military cemeteries; and Americans don’t approach such mercenaries to thank them for their service.  All of which allows for the further development of a significantly under-the-radar form of war making.

The phrase “limited war,” applied to European conflicts from the close of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648 to the French Revolution in 1789, and later to conventional wars in the nuclear age, has fresh meaning in twenty-first-century America.  These days, the limits of limited war, such as they are, fall less on the warriors and more on the American people who are increasingly cut out of the process.  They are, for instance, purposely never mobilized for battle, but encouraged to act as though they were living in a war-less land.  American war efforts, which invariably take place in distant lands, are not supposed to interfere with business as usual in the “homeland,” which, of course, means consumerism and consumption.  You will find no rationing in today’s America, nor calls for common sacrifice of any sort.  If anything, wars have simply become another consumable item on the American menu.  They consume fuel and resources, money, and intellect, all in staggering amounts.  In a sense, they are themselves a for-profit consumable, often with tie-ins to video games, movies, and other forms of entertainment.

In the rush for money and in the name of patriotism, the horrors of wars, faced squarely by many Americans in the Vietnam War era, are now largely disregarded.  One question that this election season has raised: What if our post-democratic military is driven by an autocrat who insists that it must obey his whims in the cause of “making America great again”?

Come 2017, we may find out.

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.