U.S. special operations forces (SOF) are a secretive bunch. The American public is usually exposed to them through the media or Hollywood, and as a result, stories about SOF tend to focus on great successes, failures, or controversy. Occasionally, stories emerge from within their ranks, providing first person accounts of specific events or spans of time. Whether the tales are told by the community’s heroes or by its disaffected, they are almost universally accepted as equal and expert testimony. But this does not make them equal in reality. As with any organization that shuns outsiders, SOF keep the most important details close to the vest and rarely see an upside to pushing back when their story is poorly told. Not surprisingly, misperceptions are common and often left to fester.
In the decade-plus since 9/11, SOF’s operational tempo is without precedent. If asked to describe SOF activities, most would probably depict the green eyes and black rifles that stormed Osama bin Laden’s compound, or the bearded men on horseback descending from the mountains during the early days of the war in Afghanistan. SOF’s prowess at killing and capturing is notable, but what makes these organizations truly distinctive and special is the pace at which they evolve and adapt. Their ability to quickly incorporate lessons learned and morph to face changing battlefields and changing enemies are skills that remain without peer across the U.S. military. These traits ultimately prove beneficial to the broader military community as innovation in tactics, equipment and processes, conceived and tested by SOF, intentionally cascade to the rest of the force as best practices. SOF consistently passes along battlefield advantages through lessons hard learned and heavily paid for.
A recent article — and dozens of other films, books, and statements — suggests that SOF’s secretive nature makes it a convenient policy tool, allowing wars to be hidden from front pages. This is, however, a fanciful notion, as the front pages themselves display. Media exposure for SOF has never been greater. Helmet cam footage taken during a hostage rescue operation in Iraq last October was posted to Internet news sites only shortly after outlets broke the story. When American forces snatched an al Qaeda leader outside his home in Tripoli in 2013, the world was able to view CCTV footage of the event within hours of the capture. The notion that special operations will go unnoticed by the public is a military planner’s dream, but it is far from reality.
If policymakers are trying to keep the human cost of war out of the public eye, SOF isn’t the answer. Employment of a more-surgical force with a specific objective carries less risk than larger and less precise operations, but recent events have shown that operations conducted in the shadows do not always stay in the shadows.
The death of Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler was covered extensively after he was killed during the above-mentioned raid in Iraq. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter himself discussed Master Sgt. Wheeler’s exploits during a post-mission Pentagon press conference. Conversely, when Sergeant Joseph Stifter, a field artillery crew member from the 1st Infantry Division, died this past January in a vehicle accident in western Iraq, major news outlets barely mentioned it. The circumstances of these two deaths were certainly different, but they lay bare the lie that special operators somehow elude the spotlight.
The notion that SOF roam the globe with impunity is also a myth. In reality, SOF is confined by detailed planning and long chains of approval that reach beyond even the senior levels of the Department of Defense. The approval process for special operations spans the U.S. government and requires painstaking analysis of costs and benefits. When possible, host-nation partnering and concurrence is sought as well. Where other U.S. forces are present, SOF’s role is usually as a subordinate, complimentary component to a larger conventional command, which owns the regional battle space. In some locations, it is even common for SOF to incorporate representatives from conventional units in order to mitigate the potential for misunderstandings.
SOF may hold an out-sized role in post 9/11 conflicts, but they are neither a Band-Aid, nor are they taking over the globe. SOF provides the National Command Authority additional options, options that dot the spectrum between large-scale conflict and diplomacy. After 15 years of war, there is rightful skepticism about what can be achieved through continuous military engagement. Many are hopeful that there is a better path to an end state where we win and our enemies lose — but that just may not be the case. Ideally, we will find effective ways to erode the foundations of dangerous ideologies, but in the interim, SOF may be the last and best answer when the questions we face are convoluted, the problems wicked, and all are placed against a backdrop of a shifting notion of what it means to engage in combat.
Craig Michel is a former U.S. Army Special Forces officer.
Photo credit: Staff Sgt. Bertha A. Flores, U.S. Army