AMERICA The golden age of special
operations By Andrew Bacevich
As he campaigns for re-election, President
Barack Obama periodically reminds audiences of his
success in terminating the deeply unpopular Iraq
War. With fingers crossed for luck, he vows to do
the same with the equally unpopular war in
Afghanistan. If not exactly a peacemaker, our
Nobel Peace Prize-winning president can (with some
justification) at least claim credit for being a
Yet when it comes to military
policy, the Obama administration's success in
shutting down wars conducted in plain sight tells
only half the story, and the lesser half at that.
More significant has been this president's
enthusiasm for instigating or expanding
secret wars, those
conducted out of sight and by commandos.
President Franklin Roosevelt may not have
invented the airplane, but during World War II he
transformed strategic bombing into one of the
principal emblems of the American way of war.
General Dwight D Eisenhower had nothing to do with
the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic
bomb. Yet, as president, Ike's strategy of Massive
Retaliation made nukes the centerpiece of US
national security policy.
So, too, with
Obama and special operations forces. The US
Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) with its
constituent operating forces - Green Berets, Army
Rangers, Navy SEALs and the like - predated his
presidency by decades. Yet it is only on Obama's
watch that these secret warriors have reached the
pinnacle of the US military's prestige hierarchy.
John F Kennedy famously gave the Green
Berets their distinctive headgear. Obama has
endowed the whole special operations "community"
with something less decorative but far more
important: privileged status that provides special
operators with maximum autonomy while insulating
them from the vagaries of politics, budgetary or
Congress may yet require the
Pentagon to undertake some (very modest)
belt-tightening, but one thing's for sure: no one
is going to tell USSOCOM to go on a diet. What the
special ops types want, they will get, with few
questions asked - and virtually none of those few
posed in public.
Since 9/11, USSOCOM's
budget has quadrupled. The special operations
order of battle has expanded accordingly. At
present, there are an estimated 66,000 uniformed
and civilian personnel on the rolls, a doubling in
size since 2001 with further growth projected. Yet
this expansion had already begun under Obama's
predecessor. His essential contribution has been
to broaden the special ops mandate. As one
observer put it, the Obama White House let Special
Operations Command "off the leash".
consequence, USSOCOM assets today go more places
and undertake more missions while enjoying greater
freedom of action than ever before. After a decade
in which Iraq and Afghanistan absorbed the lion's
share of the attention, hitherto neglected swaths
of Africa, Asia and Latin America are receiving
Already operating in
dozens of countries around the world - as many as
120 by the end of this year - special operators
engage in activities that range from
reconnaissance and counter-terrorism to
humanitarian assistance and "direct action." The
traditional motto of the Army special forces is
"De Oppresso Liber" ("To Free the Oppressed"). A
more apt slogan for special operations forces as a
whole might be "Coming soon to a Third World
country near you!"
The displacement of
conventional forces by special operations forces
as the preferred US military instrument - the
"force of choice" according to the head of
USSOCOM, Admiral William McRaven - marks the
completion of a decades-long cultural
repositioning of the American soldier.
GI, once represented by the likes of cartoonist
Bill Mauldin's iconic Willie and Joe, is no more,
his place taken by today's elite warrior
professional. Mauldin's creations were heroes, but
not superheroes. The nameless, lionized SEALs who
killed Osama bin Laden are flesh-and blood
Avengers. Willie and Joe were "us". SEALs are
anything but "us". They occupy a pedestal well
above mere mortals. Couch potato America stands in
awe of their skill and bravery.
cultural transformation has important political
implications. It represents the ultimate
manifestation of the abyss now separating the
military and society. Nominally bemoaned by some,
including former secretary of defense Robert Gates
and former Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike
Mullen, this civilian-military gap has only grown
over the course of decades and is now widely
accepted as the norm.
As one consequence,
the American people have forfeited owner's rights
over their army, having less control over the
employment of US forces than New Yorkers have over
the management of the Knicks or Yankees.
As admiring spectators, we may take at
face value the testimony of experts (even if such
testimony is seldom disinterested) who assure us
that the SEALs, Rangers, Green Berets, etc are the
best of the best, and that they stand ready to
deploy at a moment's notice so that Americans can
sleep soundly in their beds. If the United States
is indeed engaged, as Admiral McRaven has said, in
"a generational struggle", we will surely want
these guys in our corner.
allowing war in the shadows to become the new
American way of war is not without a downside.
Here are three reasons why we should think twice
before turning global security over to Admiral
McRaven and his associates.
accountability. Autonomy and accountability exist
in inverse proportion to one another. Indulge the
former and kiss the latter goodbye. In practice,
the only thing the public knows about special ops
activities is what the national security apparatus
chooses to reveal.
Can you rely on those
who speak for that apparatus in Washington to tell
the truth? No more than you can rely on JPMorgan
Chase to manage your money prudently. Granted, out
there in the field, most troops will do the right
thing most of the time. On occasion, however, even
members of an elite force will stray off the
straight and narrow.
(Until just a few
weeks ago, most Americans considered White House
Secret Service agents part of an elite force.)
Americans have a strong inclination to trust the
military. Yet as a famous Republican once said:
trust but verify. There's no verifying things that
remain secret. Unleashing USSOCOM is a recipe for
Hello imperial presidency. From
a president's point of view, one of the appealing
things about special forces is that he can send
them wherever he wants to do whatever he directs.
There's no need to ask permission or to explain.
Employing USSOCOM as your own private military
means never having to say you're sorry.
When president Bill Clinton intervened in
Bosnia or Kosovo, when president George W Bush
invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, they at least went
on television to clue the rest of us in. However
perfunctory the consultations may have been, the
White House at least talked things over with the
leaders on Capitol Hill.
Once in a while,
members of the US Congress even cast votes to
indicate approval or disapproval of some military
action. With special ops, no such notification or
consultation is necessary. The president and his
minions have a free hand. Building on the
precedents set by Obama, stupid and reckless
presidents will enjoy this prerogative no less
than shrewd and well-intentioned ones.
then what ...? As US special ops forces roam the
world slaying evildoers, the famous question posed
by David Petraeus as the invasion of Iraq began -
"Tell me how this ends" - rises to the level of
There are certainly
plenty of evildoers who wish us ill (primarily but
not necessarily in the Greater Middle East). How
many will USSOCOM have to liquidate before the job
is done? Answering that question becomes all the
more difficult given that some of the killing has
the effect of adding new recruits to the ranks of
In short, handing
war to the special operators severs an already too
tenuous link between war and politics; it becomes
war for its own sake. Remember Bush's "global war
on terror"? Actually, his war was never truly
global. War waged in a special-operations-first
world just might become truly global - and
never-ending. In that case, McRaven's
"generational struggle" is likely to become a
Bacevich is professor of history and
international relations at Boston University and a
TomDispatch regular. He is editor of the new
Short American Century, just published by
Harvard University Press. To listen to Timothy
MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which
Bacevich discusses what we don't know about
special operations forces, clickhereor download it to your iPod here.