war on the rocks

Understanding the Marine Corps’ Special Operators

June 5, 2014

Dick Couch, Always Faithful, Always Forward: The Forging of a Special Operations Marine (Berkley, 2014)


On a bright day in February 2006, I stood alongside my fellow Marines and Sailors as then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld presided over the activation ceremony for Marine Corps Forces, Special Operations Command (MARSOC). Virtually all of us had recently fought in Iraq or Afghanistan, were immersed in counterinsurgency theory (neither had the military’s controversial FM 3-24 been written nor had the Iraq surge begun), and we were full of hope that our admission into the special operations community would allow us to contribute to the defense of our great nation in a way that was commensurate with our potential.

Eight years later, in, Always Faithful, Always Forward: The Forging of a Special Operations Marine, Dick Couch, a former Navy SEAL and CIA operations officer, describes the journey of a group of Marines through MARSOC’s training program. The book is an easy read and achieves the author’s objective of giving us an overview of MARSOC’s assessment and selection process (A&S) along with its initial training course (ITC), which is the Marine Corps equivalent of Navy SEAL and Army Special Forces training (on which Couch has written other books). The chapters are structured around the training phases. In each, Couch describes various events and selection methodologies while simultaneously providing profiles on a few of the students and their instructors. While various technical errors in the book (mostly related to equipment) can be forgiven, the expansion of a training schedule to 228 pages at the expense of meaningful context and accurate history cannot. With such special access, it is disappointing that Couch did not write a book as deep as the courage of those whose efforts he chronicled.

People are by nature political and quite often, new organizations collide with existing corporate cultures. As such, all large organizations — be they commercial or government enterprises — struggle with creating new units. Everyday, US. Special Operations Forces are deployed to some 75 countries where they live with and train indigenous forces in order to help other nations solve their own security issues. Commonly known as Foreign Internal Defense (FID), these operations are a critical component of the U.S. National Security Strategy and National Strategy for Counter Terrorism. In 2005, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan put enormous pressure on the special operations community to meet their global objectives because FID takes a lot of time and there are not many people within the Defense Department who can deploy to remote parts of the world in small teams and engage with indigenous forces across language and culture barriers. Subsequently, the need for more FID experts was the primary impetus for the creation of MARSOC. There were however, other ways to expand the U.S. military’s FID capability without creating MARSOC, which the Commandant of the Marine Corps was against. Unfortunately, the reader will not read much about these early debates and a series of working groups that struggled with how to make up for this FID capabilities shortage as two wars were underway. If Couch had spent more time on this crucial part of the story, he could have provided depth to our understanding of MARSOC, Special Operations Command (SOCOM), and how our senior leaders approached America’s longest conflict.

Now that the Iraq War, or at least America’s direct involvement in it, is over and sequestration has been foisted upon the military, it is imperative that each special operations component have skill sets that are unique, and therefore special, in order to justify their existence — politics matter. As the maritime element, the SEALs have cornered all things water with their mini-subs and assortment of special boats. Air Force Special Operations, whose para-rescuemen and combat controllers are vital elements of SOCOM’s ground force that Couch negligently omits, lead the way with connecting the ground to the air. Army Special Forces provides the only unit that is specifically trained to do Unconventional Warfare (UW).

For a time, MARSOC was tasked to do UW, but the Army would not allow its monopoly to be challenged and UW was eliminated as a MARSOC core competency. I recall an Army Special Forces general personally throwing two MARSOC Marines out of the 18-B weapons course. I also remember a Special Forces colonel putting his coveted Special Forces tab on a table and telling a MARSOC officer that he would sooner give up his tab then see MARSOC Marines attend advanced special operations training. Although MARSOC Marines are now allowed to attend these courses, the purpose it serves is still in doubt. If Couch would have sufficiently explored the inter-service politics, he would have uncovered MARSOC’s principal issue — to what ends does the organization serve?

MARSOC’s flagship core competency is FID, which is done by every other SOF ground element, as well as by conventional forces. Thus, there is nothing “special” about FID as a mission. In the introduction, Couch says, “The most difficult, nuanced and important of special-operations mission sets is foreign internal defense,” and in the epilogue he agrees with Linda Robinson that FID will become increasingly important for the United States in accomplishing its security objectives. Couch unfortunately does not provide any details on how MARSOC training creates a force that is differentiated with respect to the conduct of FID and therefore fails to tell the reader why MARSOC matters. He does, however, make it crystal clear that the Marines can run fast and by getting the correct fins, Captain something or other improved his swim time.

Intra-Marine Corps dynamics played just as much of a role in shaping MARSOC as did the politics external to the organization. As Couch correctly notes, MARSOC was created by fusing the 1st and 2nd Force Reconnaissance Companies (later renamed 1st and 2nd Marine Special Operations Battalions or MSOBs) with the grossly misunderstood Marine Special Operations Advisor Group (MSOAG). (MSOAG was originally named the Foreign Military Training Unit or FMTU. Later, the MSOAG headquarters became the Marine Special Operations Regiment HQ while A Company, MSOAG became 3rd MSOB.) This concoction was indicative of Donald Rumsfeld’s 2006 comments that, “You go to war with the Army you have—not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time,” and represents a broader struggle inside SOCOM between those focused on Direct Action and those trained to work with and through indigenous forces.

It appears the war for MARSOC’s soul is now over as Couch writes that the deepest roots of MARSOC are within in the Force Recon community. History and victors. The officer in charge of developing MARSOC’s Assessment & Selection program was a captain from MSOAG and ITC grew out of MSOAG’s seven-month training pipeline called the Marine Special Operations Advisor Course.  The advisor course’s culminating exercise involved a full-scale deployment to an offsite location where we trained and advised a mock partner-nation force. Unlike today’s Derna Bridge, our final exam was done entirely in a foreign language with contracted role players from the geographic area we were assigned. Force Recon’s contribution to ITC is an amphibious small boat phase (a skill set that MARSOC has never used) and to a lesser extent, the shooting package Couch describes. Thus, MARSOC’s most important roots are in the unit that was originally formed to do MARSOC’s core competency – MSOAG. However, Force Recon had infinitely more political power than MSOAG because no matter what anyone says, the military will always value traditional heroics over the actions of a few who can quietly, and in another language, engage partner nation forces and build foreign networks.

As a new unit, FMTU / MSOAG attracted all sorts of characters, some of whom were native level speakers in multiple foreign languages. Although many of them probably couldn’t pass the physical rigors of the new ITC, the CIA team that infiltrated Afghanistan in 2001 was comprised of men whose strongest days were well behind them and at five feet, five inches tall, without any significant training in small unit tactics or infantry operations, it is highly unlikely T.E. Lawrence would even be admitted to MARSOC selection, let alone pass ITC. How ironic that his words are used so liberally by Couch and the command.


Billy Birdzell served as a USMC Infantry Officer and was a founding member of MARSOC. He is currently the manager of strategic partnerships at the Remington Outdoor Company.