war on the rocks

A Small State’s Special Operators, Up Close

October 25, 2018

It was -18 °C at ground level. While we got dressed, the boys talked, joked, and were in a good mood. The activity level was high. Everything had to be ready before boarding, so I was left alone to get dressed in a tight James Bond-esque black one-piece jumpsuit. I felt like the personification of “matter out of place.” To jump out of an airplane that still works never appealed to me. Even though parachuting today is considered “low risk,” the uncertainty made me reflect on my own mortality. I was uncomfortable. With a pulse of 190, my fear was probably easy to spot. “It is cool that you are coming with us today, Tone! This is what you anthropologists call participant observation — isn’t it?” John joked, to make me relax.

Once inside the Hercules, the operators sat down, fastened their seatbelts, and got quiet. Some listened to music, others drowsed. They switched off. Before a mission, everyone concentrates on his own things. They all know what they have to do, and they do it in a calm, almost ritualistic, way. To them, the flight and jump was just a transport leg — the real job came later. All the preparations were done. When we reached the right altitude, the jumpmaster announced, “10 min­utes, boys.” The jumpmaster’s announcement was the signal to switch on. Everyone started the procedural checks to ensure that everything was in place. The operators got up and took their places in a line. The jumpmaster checked everyone once more. When the tailgate opened, the light turned green, and they jumped. They were ready to work.

I was invited by the commander of the Norwegian Naval Special Operations Commando (Marinejegerkommandoen, or MJK) to provide them with an outsider’s view for their reorganization process. They wanted insights in order to improve themselves, insights on their culture that they couldn’t acquire without opening their doors to an anthropologist. I have spent three decades studying culture, two decades as a teacher, advisor, and researcher with the Norwegian Armed Forces, and a decade doing research on special operations forces. I did 18 months fieldwork with the MJK. Long fieldworks gave answers to questions we never asked up front. My book Making Warriors in a Global Era gives a close up picture of the special operators’ everyday life in a small state unit. It describes some well-known topics, but also several subjects not often discussed in academic literature with big state perspectives.

Special operations forces used to be small not-well-known units, with not-always-well-trusted men. The ”War on Terror” changed things. While armed forces in most NATO countries and Western democracies have downsized over the past decades, special operations communities have, in contrast, grown tremendously in size, resources, influence, and status. They have gone from being “matter out of place” during the Cold War, to becoming “forces of choice” in the global era. Today, special operations units have, globally, a privileged place close to powerful stakeholders and resources.

Many are fascinated by the secret, hidden world of special operations forces: their culture, their stories and adventures, what they do, how they do it, and what doing it does to them. These units can legally hide behind a veil of secrecy, and few outsiders are allowed inside to do any kind of long-term research or quality check. There is very little rigorous and comparative research on these units or access to sufficient sources and reference material. There are countless books and films on special operators. The books are often well-written and interesting, but they are mostly individual “kill and tell” memoirs about the high-end and high-order operations. And they focus almost exclusively on the key players: the big states. The stories told in Making Warriors in the Global Era provides new insight on how warriors are made in our time: how the operators are socialized in an institutional apprenticeship, how they retain their unconventional mindset, gain skillsets, ways of communication, and leadership, and how “muted” social practices seem to keep them safe, sound, and sane. The stories are analyzed in the context of special operations units over the world, and raise questions and discussions on rather complex phenomena.

Mind-set, atmosphere, men­tal state, and mood transmit socially. Standing in the tailgate, overlooking the beautiful wintery landscape of Northern Norway with a small dark pink stripe on the horizon, knowing I was going to jump, was a bit surreal. Time and again during my fieldwork, I had observed the operators’ calmness and cognitively knew this was their modus operandi. Before normal missions, I was calm as well. I was not doing the hard job, so there was no reason to get agitated. But this time it was different; I was going to parachute. Seated in that Hercules, I acknowledged that the Marinejegers’ (badged naval operators) calm­ness had a physical as well as a mental effect: The atmosphere of the team transmitted. Securely strapped to the jumpmaster, acknowledging that I now trusted this man with my life, I had an almost resting pulse. I had attained a state of inner calmness from the boys and could enjoy the thrill of free falling from 12,000 feet. The mental mode of the operator is not left to the individual. It is not only an individual skill to switch on and off when the opportunity presented itself. The operators gain this calm mode from training and copying the behavior of older operators and instructors. These changes of pace are part of the local socializing process in the MJK. Changes of pace work as compartmentalization: The operators are totally in the present when on duty, and relaxed when they are off. Marinejegers learn to deal with changes of pace because they have to, because it is the nature of war.

The nature of special operations units is that selection is meticulous and rigorous, and well known to be hard-core. They tend to select people out, not in. They select for its teams, and the fact that operators are selected for teams, make them both unconventional and incomparably resilient. Individuals have to be able to get along and to conform to one another, or the team will not cohere. Special operations forces recruit mentally robust personnel, and psychological research provides good evidence that this hard selection actu­ally selects the men that are best prepared for the challenges associated with their missions and employment. Recruiting robust personnel is vital, but so is keeping them sound and sane. While most psychological research focuses on the individuals and underlines the competitiveness of special operators, anthropology gives room for the cacophony, complexity, and aspects not easily measurable in everyday life. Marinejegers are competitive, but more important is their social intelligence. This aspect is rather under-communicated in the literature. Marinejeger aspirants make it through selection because they are good team builders. Mental health comes down not only to individual characteristics, but also to the collective mindset they acquire as apprentices. Marinejegers learn to “switch on” through military drill, but it is by their everyday social practices that they learn to “switch off again” and recharge their batteries. It seems that it is their social practices and changes of pace which keep them collectively mentally healthy. Collectivity is a key concept in all their practices.

All military units have is a formal hierarchy of decision-making, but informal practices always exist in parallel and are complementary. The practice of collective, informal decision-making, in the MJK known as “Seamen’s Council” and in the Special Air Service (SAS) called “Chinese parliament,” is well known in most special operations units, but is rarely described and discussed in academic literature. Important decisions in the MJK are generally made collectively, not by its commanders in splendid isolation. This egalitarian way of decision-making is practiced at all levels. The main purpose of the council is operational: Long and thorough discussions before missions create room for creative thinking, initiative, and avoiding group thinking. It seems to make Marinejegers better prepared for uncertainties, strengthens risk analysis, and enhances trust and cohesion within the unit. This unconventional practice works, and can be used, because it is a small unit. The MJK is a unit of less than 200 personnel, which even in a Norwegian context is small.

And this is an important point: Size matters. Small states’ armed forces are not only smaller, they are different from big states with world dominance. The entire Norwegian Armed Forces is only one-fifth of the size of U.S. special operations forces (which counts approximately 83,000 personnel). So things must be, and are, done differently. Only by looking outside the American, British, and Canadian cases can we describe and discuss the differences and commonalities among the special operations forces’ international community. The MJK has a lot in common with its “big brothers” in the big nations, but it is also special in its own terms. That “everyone knows everybody” in the Norwegian special operations community is not a saying, it is a fact. This makes information (and gossip) flow much easier than in huge organizations. The two Norwegian special operations units are not specialized to the same degree as in the United States: All operators must be able to conduct operations on the full spectrum of missions. In a small community like the MJK, they create common interpretations and collective memories, which make it easier to change modus operandi as well as ways of organizing everyday life and missions.

To understand wars and armed conflicts, we need knowledge about the inner logic of military institutions and warrior culture. The aim of my book is to provide  new data, analyses, and discussions that can resonate and infuse new debates among both military personnel and academics. The rise of special operations forces means that they have an impact on how armed conflicts are dealt with and wars are fought today. Special operators are disciplined professionals, but are not a silver bullet in complex conflicts. This book gives a grounded understanding of what they can achieve, and what not. It raises questions on how war affects us all, and Western society’s norms and values, negotiations, and adaptations to the global era, as well as in-depth analyses of what we are looking for from our armed forces. With fine-grained ethnography — in the Marinejegers’ terminology called “good stories with some why’s, not only how’s” — we can have better-informed discussions on war, warriors, and some of the big issues of our time.


Dr. Tone Danielsen is a social anthropologist and works as a principal researcher at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment (FFI). She has done extensive studies on military culture, operations, teamwork, innovation, leadership, organizational changes, and civil-military cooperation. She lived a decade in the Middle East, and did her first fieldwork in Syria.

Image: Ulflarsen