Welcome to the Age of the Commando
By MATT GALLAGHERJAN. 30, 2016
A FEW months ago, my wife and I had dinner with a couple we didn’t know very well. It was awkward at first, but there was wine, and conversation soon followed. At one point, the wife asked about my tour in Iraq, where I served four years as a cavalry officer. I began talking about the desert, the tribal politics and the day-to-day travails of counterinsurgency. “That’s all fine,” the husband interrupted. “But tell us about the super-soldiers. The Special-Ops guys. That’s what people care about.”
He had no time for “G.I. Joe.” He wanted “American Sniper.”
He is not alone. The mythos of Special Operations has seized our nation’s popular imagination, and has proved to be the one prism through which the public will engage with America’s wars. From the box office to bookstores, the Special Ops commando — quiet and professional, stoic and square-jawed — thrives. That he works in the shadows, where missions are classified and enemy combatants come in silhouettes of night-vision green, is all for the better — details only complicate. We like our heroes sanitized, perhaps especially in murky times like these.
The age of the commando, though, is more than pop cultural fantasy emanating from Hollywood. It’s now a significant part of our military strategy.
Last month the White House announced the nomination of Gen. Joseph L. Votel to lead United States Central Command, which is responsible for military operations in 20 countries in the Middle East and Central Asia, including Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Syria and Saudi Arabia — in other words, the hotbed of our geopolitical conflicts. General Votel has been the head of the military’s Special Operations Command since 2014. His Central Command nomination represents a break in tradition; it has almost always gone to generals of more conventional backgrounds. Military analysts hailed it as a sign of the Obama administration’s trust in, and reliance on, Special Operations.
Special Operations Command, or Socom, oversees all Special Operations Forces — our Delta Force operators, Navy SEALs, Green Berets, Army Rangers, among others. Special Operations personnel deployed to approximately 139 nations in 2015 — about 70 percent of the countries on the planet. While a vast majority of those missions involve training the defense forces of partner countries, a few involve direct combat.
In December, Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter announced at a House hearing that an “expeditionary targeting force” will be sent to Iraq to conduct raids on top Islamic State targets. They’ll be joining the roughly 3,500 troops already there working as advisers and trainers. President Obama seems desperate to strike a balance between doing nothing in the region and not reneging on his “no boots on the ground” promises.
Clearly, commandos have boots, and those boots touch the ground. But White House officials have taken to what a report in this newspaper recently called “linguistic contortions” to obscure the forces’ combat roles.
As the military as a whole downsizes, Special Ops recruitment continues to rise. There are approximately 70,000 Special Ops personnel today, a number that includes soldiers, civilians, National Guard and Reservists, as well. This number is up from 45,600 in 2001 and 61,400 in 2011. Still, Adm. William H. McRaven — then the head of Socom — told Congress in 2014 that “the force has continued to fray” from the endless deployment cycles. In response, the Army alone last year put out a call for 5,000 new Special Ops candidates.
In the political sense, the policy works. The secrecy surrounding Special Ops keeps the heavy human costs of war off the front pages. But in doing so, it also keeps the nonmilitary public wholly disconnected from the armed violence carried out in our name. It enables our state of perpetual warfare, and ensures that as little as we care and understand today, we’ll care and understand even less tomorrow.
Special Operations are not a panacea. Just as SWAT teams can’t fulfill their purpose without everyday beat cops on corners, operators can’t and don’t function in a vacuum. Many a military analyst has compared our current “counterterror” approach to a Band-Aid; while effective, that effectiveness has no clear end state. And recent history suggests an overreliance on our commandos can lead to tragedy. In 1993, in Somalia, Special Operations seemed a cure-all, too. Then came the battle of Mogadishu. Same with 1980 and Operation Eagle Claw, as we desperately tried to end the Iran hostage crisis. The former led to a short-lived retreat from international intervention, the latter to the very creation of Socom.
Further, like a postmodern Praetorian Guard, our operators don’t serve at the will of the American people. Though Congress holds the purse strings for Special Operations, decisions about individual missions are not generally put before them for approval. Individual force commanders overwhelmingly make those calls. While Mr. Obama has proved cautious in authorizing their use, the next commander in chief might not be so prudent.
Clear away the smoke and romance, and Special Ops often function as highly trained kill squads sent out into the beyond in the name of country. They are the best there is at that. But this strategy ensures a recurring cycle of armed conflict, a decision of such significance that all citizens need to be weighing it and considering it, not just a select few.
My own experience with Special Ops is mixed. I didn’t have many positive encounters with them overseas. As part of the fabled surge in Iraq, my scout platoon and I patrolled a rural town north of Baghdad for 15 months on a counterinsurgency mission that often seemed to conflict with that of the operators.
IN early 2008 we were called to a farm to help pick up the pieces after a commando raid. A tribal leader claimed that two of his lieutenants had been taken by mistake by “the other Americans, the ones with helicopters.” Those other Americans, the tribal leader told me, said that the two Iraqis were brothers, and members of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Now we were left to explain to the men’s family why they were gone, why their house had been cycloned, and why a placard of Mecca had been torn from a wall, and receive the hard stares from those men’s children as we stood over a dead pet dog that had been shot during the raid.
I didn’t tell that story to our dinner companions, though. Instead I talked about a visit I made to Tacoma, Wash., in 2011, when I got to know the other side of these other Americans. I’d left the military and was now a writer, or trying to be one. A college friend and his Ranger unit were returning from Afghanistan, and I had visions of writing a tale of young men constantly at war but in between battles.
The Rangers, the Special Ops unit that Pat Tillman left his N.F.L. career in 2002 to join, is a proving ground of sorts, and attracts many younger soldiers. Though designed in part as an elite light infantry for airfield seizures, the Rangers have seen their purpose morph: More than ever, kill-or-capture raids are their raison d’être. They’re the fullbacks of the Special Ops world, all brute force and power, as memorialized in the film “Black Hawk Down”: “We get on the five-yard line,” a Ranger officer tells a dismissive Delta soldier, “you’re going to need my Rangers.”
The days in Tacoma were spent trying (and failing) to get the Rangers’ public affairs office to approve on-post access. The nights in Tacoma were mostly spent in bars with young Rangers looking to unwind from their last tour while also prepping for the next one. They described the routine: three to six months deployed, three to six months stateside, rinse and repeat. Elizabeth Samet, who teaches English at West Point, calls these service members “war commuters.” More than one observer in Tacoma, including some partners and spouses, termed it an addiction.
If that was true — and it didn’t apply to many, in my estimation — they’d have their reasons.
A number of Rangers I met joked that vampires saw more light than they did during their deployments. I came to see these young men in a way I hadn’t when I’d worn the uniform myself, because of the way they embraced the endlessness of it all. They weren’t fighting for resolution, as we’d been in Iraq, or how we thought we’d been. Peace over there wasn’t their goal. Calm back here was.
I didn’t agree with that worldview, not at all. But I still appreciated it.
On Super Bowl Sunday, my friend and I were invited to watch the game with a group of older sergeants. It seemed that most had already settled into their stateside lives, sharing diaper responsibilities with their wives, swapping war stories with one another in between.
While the adults watched the game, kids ran around with Nerf guns as big as they were. This was no Cowboys and Indians. They were playing “Rangers and Rangers.” They all wanted to be like Daddy, and none were willing to play the role of an Al Qaeda jihadist, even in pretend.
The baby-faced Ranger privates I helped sneak into bars in 2011 are hardened sergeants by now. The sergeants I met are either in charge of entire Ranger companies or have moved into the so-called black units of Socom, like Delta Force. They remain anonymous silhouettes to the country they serve, not just because their bosses at the Pentagon want it that way, but because we do, too.
The other Americans, indeed.