Linda Robinson. Masters of Chaos: The Secret History of the Special Forces. PublicAffairs. 388 pages. $26.95
One of the startling images of the Afghan War was that of heavily bearded U.S. Green Berets on horseback leading the U.S. effort to defeat the Taliban. But this was not the battle of Urdurman revisited. These were high-tech horsemen. They had at their command the ability to call in close air support at any minute from the skies above. It took a month of fighting for the 100 Green Berets and the indigenous fighters of the Northern Alliance to overthrow the fanatics of the Taliban and lay the foundations for a more stable Afghanistan. Apart from bringing a whole new dimension to taking old Nelly for a canter, this feat brought about a new appreciation of what U.S. Special Forces can accomplish.
The Green Berets inhabit a special world all their own. For obvious reasons, we do not know much about it, except what we can glean from the John Wayne movie of 1968, which one had to brave protest lines to get in to see and in which members do impressive stuff with weapons, eat bugs, and are mighty proud of their distinctive headgear. One soldier even speaks flawless Norwegian, which in itself constitutes an act of bravery.
This gap in our knowledge is filled by Linda Robinson’s Masters of Chaos: The Secret History of the Special Forces. Linda Robinson is a senior writer with U.S. News and World Report and a former Nieman fellow. She has covered various wars and guerrilla conflicts, and she served as an embedded reporter with the Green Berets during operation Iraqi Freedom. Her book picks up where Charles M. Simpson iii’s Inside the Green Berets: The First Thirty Years left off, covering the conflicts of the past 15 years from Panama to Iraq as seen trough the eyes of individual soldiers.
Let’s get the definitions squared away first. The term “Special Operations Forces” is an umbrella term for a variety of commando outfits belonging to the various services, including Army Rangers, Navy Seals, and the secret Delta Force, whereas “Special Forces” refers solely to the Green Berets, who are the topic of this book.
The Green Berets date back to 1952 and were inspired by the exploits of the Office of Strategic Services (oss) of World War II, whose operatives had created havoc behind enemy lines. The prime mover behind their creation and the leader of its first group was Colonel Aaron Bank, an oss veteran, who saw a continued need for a standing force of this kind specializing in unconventional warfare, whose skills took time to develop and who were best deployed at the initial stages of a conflict. Fascinated by their warrior mystique, John F. Kennedy saw them as a useful tool for fighting communist Third World insurgencies. Hence, the special warfare center at Fort Bragg, where their training starts, is named after him.
The defeat in Vietnam caused the Green Berets, perhaps more than other army outfits, to fall into disrepute. They were routinely portrayed in movies as crazed killers, and their budgets and their numbers were cut drastically. They lingered in bureaucratic limbo until Ronald Reagan brought them out of obscurity in his effort to roll back Soviet influence around the world, and they were particularly useful during the protracted struggle in El Salvador.
What does it take to become a Green Beret? The Green Berets number some 9,500 men. They are divided into five groups, with each group assigned to a specific region of the world. They operate in 12-man teams. Physically, these men must be as hard “as woodpeckers’ lips,” to stay in the vernacular which the book skillfully captures. They must be able to function under conditions of extreme stress and fatigue. They jump out of airplanes at night from altitudes of 30,000 feet and let their chutes open at the last minute to avoid detection from the ground. The ability to handle a variety of weapons imaginatively is of course a must, and they have a way with explosives. One of the men portrayed in the book is able to hit a target consistently within a two-inch radius at 300 meters with a scoped rifle. As anyone who has been around the 300m range can testify, that is pretty accurate shooting, especially since the inherent dispersal of even the best ammunitions at that distance is about one inch.
But physical toughness and proficiency in arms is not enough. Equally important is the ability to act as diplomat and negotiator, to strike up quick alliances, and to read a situation quickly. That involves knowing your assigned region, its languages and local customs intimately, and that you can get only through books. The Green Beret is the embodiment of the ideal of the scholar-soldier, and according to Robinson it is precisely this combination of brawn and brain and the ability to operate on the plane of strategy that sets the Special Forces apart.
Above all, the book makes clear, the Special Forces is a way of life, a calling rather than a profession. Most of these men stay on for 20 years or more, which ensures a high degree of institutional memory.
Among their pre-9/11 triumphs Robinson lists the so-called Ma Bell takedowns in operation Just Cause in Panama in 1989, an exercise in cunning in which Special Forces operatives phoned some of strongman Manuel Noriega’s key commanders from a phone booth and warned them of the consequences of resisting the U.S. invasion. The finest victories are those that discourage the enemy from putting up a fight in the first place and thus avoid unnecessary bloodshed.
There have also been failures, of course. The chief of them was Mogadishu in Somalia, a prime example of city fighting with enemy fighters hiding among civilians and of the disastrous cost when the leadership in Washington belatedly decided it was not worth the effort. But the point about the Green Berets is that they seek to learn from failure so that lives have not been lost in vain. Thus, the urban training course the Special Forces now go through is built on the experience of Mogadishu.
Afghanistan saw the principle of working with indigenous forces, the heart of unconventional warfare, put into practice. Working with Afghan warlords — to whom treachery and switching sides come as naturally as breathing — demanded extraordinary diplomatic finesse. Not to mention large amounts of cash for bribing, another fine local tradition.
The Afghan story has been told before. What is new in Robinson’s book, and its chief contribution, is the story of the Green Berets’ part in the Iraq war. Whereas their assignment during the Gulf War of 1991 was limited mainly to reconnaissance, they were given a crucial role in Iraq by commander Tommy Franks. In fact, in the north and the west, they were pretty much all there was on the ground.
To the north, the newly elected government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey was reluctant to be seen aiding the attack against a fellow Muslim country, and it was especially concerned that the Kurds of northern Iraq would secede and make common cause with the Kurds in Turkey. After much dithering, the Turks vetoed the transit of a heavy-armored American force through their country. This meant the collapse of the whole battle plan for this theatre, which had envisioned that the 60,000 men of the Fourth Infantry Division would hit Saddam Hussein from the north. Thus, it was left to the Special Forces to fill the void, a pretty tall order. To remedy the matter, U.S. intelligence spread the rumor that the Turks would allow an American transit at the very last moment. Saddam took the bait, and 13 of his divisions were kept tied up in the north.
In the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, the plan had initially been to surround the city with the Kurdish allies and leave it to the U.S. conventional forces to enter the city, but that scenario was quickly overtaken by events on the ground, and it required all the diplomatic skills of the Green Berets to keep the Kurds under control. Any moves toward secession by the Kurds would have triggered an instant Turkish invasion of northern Iraq.
In Mosul, Iraq’s third largest city, the plan had been to let the Iraqi army, once its surrender had been accepted, take charge of the city. But the Iraqi army simply melted away. The result was anarchy and widespread looting. But Mosul happens to be the dwelling-place of a great many officers, retired and active, so the Green Berets issued a call for the local retired officers associations to meet up at a certain hour and start helping in the rebuilding of Iraq. The response was overwhelming, with 1,000 officers signing on. Thus, chaos was contained until the 101st Airborne Division under Lieutenant General David Petraeus could take over.
Unfortunately, some of these early achievements were undermined by the U.S. government’s subsequent policy of de-Baathification and the refusal to pay the Iraqi army. Though the urge to purge was perfectly understandable, it meant that a lot of the skilled people needed to run Iraq were barred from taking part in the reconstruction. And not paying the army meant that a lot of officers could no longer feed their families, creating all manner of discontent.
In the west, the Green Berets’ mission was to sneak in early to prevent the launching of any Scud missiles at Saddam’s neighbors, Israel in particular. During the Gulf War, the U.S. air force had been unable to locate all the Iraqi missile launchers, allowing Saddam to fire his Scuds repeatedly on Israel, with some of them getting past the Patriot air defense system.
Then, Israel had desisted from responding — but it could not be expected to sit idly by for a second time. Therefore, it was crucial for the Special Forces, working closely with the Air Force, to locate and destroy the Iraqi launch vehicles before they could cause a widening of the war. The close coordination between ground forces and air power in this theatre elaborated on and surpassed anything that had been seen in Afghanistan.
In central Iraq, the Green Berets were sent in on a reconnaissance mission to provide advance intelligence from the Karbala gap, through which the U.S. forces would have to pass on their way to Baghdad. Unhelpfully, just before the start of the war, a retired U.S. general had felt the need to confide to cnn audiences around the world, including the regime in Baghdad, that the U.S. would want to put Special Forces in the Karbala gap for this purpose. This led to frantic Iraqi searches in the area and endangered the men. One may expect carelessness and ignorance from journalists, but from a retired general? What was the man thinking?
Finally, in the south, the Green Berets helped secure the vast Rumaila oilfields near Basra before Saddam could torch them as he had done in Kuwait in 1991.
There were a few slips, the main one being the failure to protect the moderate Shiite cleric Abdul Majid al Khoei from assassination by the forces of the radical firebrand Moqtada al-Sadr. Khoei’s Green Beret protection detail had reluctantly honored the cleric’s wish to go to the mosque in Najaf accompanied only by his own people, and he was hacked to death on its steps. If his Green Beret bodyguards had accompanied him, they might have prevented his death. But overall, their efforts were enormously successful. Indeed, the Special Forces are credited with having captured half of the most wanted figures of the Saddam regime found on the famous deck of cards.
Unconventional warfare, of course, makes some people uncomfortable, mainly those who refuse to recognize the nature of the threat we face. As the U.S. is so strong conventionally, nobody in his right mind would want to attack it head on: Our enemies attack obliquely and from the shadows, and they go for psychological impact. For this kind of asymmetrical challenge the Special Forces are ideally suited. In the words of George Orwell, quoted at the head of the chapter on Afghanistan: “We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.”
Recognizing the unique contribution of the Special Forces does not mean suddenly scrapping U.S. conventional forces. According to Major General Geoffrey Lambert, who served as commandant of the U.S. Army’s John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, “To change everything in the Department of Defense to just fight asymmetrical threats would be a terrible mistake. There are still plenty of conventional foes.”