“What Should It Look Like?” Part VI: Special Operations Forces

Oh boy here I go ranting again.

Fair warning, this is a dense one. For real. But that’s because this is one I’ve wanted to cover for a long time and have a lot of thoughts about. A lot.

Yes my guys, gals, and non-binary pals, we’re finally talking about the United States’ Special Operations Forces (SOF), those tacticool, high-speed, low-drag, routinely accused of war crimes special snowflakes that have destroyed the minds of so many middle and high school ages boys that ever owned an Xbox and played a single Call of Duty game after 2007.

I’m not going to waste a lot of time here in the intro because, as I’ve already said, I have a lot of thoughts on SOF both in terms of what they’ve become today and what role they play in the scenario we’ve thought of for this series of essays. Suffice to say up front, I think SOF are useful and necessary in a military context, but they have a myriad of problems of varying kinds. I’m going to outline some of those problems, and things I’d try to do differently in building a force for the mildly better future we envision and then employing them in said future.

First, we’re going to talk about the issue of “bloat” and uncontrolled growth in the SOF community. After that, we’ll talk about SOF being directed to missions that are out of the scope of what they should be doing (and also may just be straight up unwinnable). Finally, I’ll talk about the big elephant in the room, which is the toxic culture that is evident inside of SOF units and the SOF community as a whole. As usual, I’ll try to tie it all together in the conclusion and leave you with some closing thoughts for both today and for a (hopefully) better future.

Without further adieu then, let’s dive right into this!

A bad case of the bloats

I struggled with which of the issues with the SOF community I wanted to address first, because the more I thought about them, the more I realized it was a never ending loop of each of them feeding into one another to keep this disaster factory going. Ultimately, I decided I just had to pick one to start with, and I decided the issue of bloat would be the best point – not just because of how it feeds and is fed by the other issues (and I will call back to this throughout the essay), but because of the effect it then has on the rest of the Joint Force outside of SOF.

Before we get any further, I really want to drive home the scale of the bloat that the SOF community has experience over the past two decades or so in change. According to the IISS Military Balance for 2001, at the start of that year – prior to the terrorist attacks of September 11th and a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the United States Armed Forces consisted of 2,568,300 total personnel (1,367,700 active and another 1,200,600 reserve and National Guard).

Of those 2,568,300 troops, the collective SOF forces of the United States – under the auspices of United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM or just SOCOM – yes, like the video game), made up 42,920 of those troops across all branches of the military (28,620 active and another 14,300 in the reserves and National Guard – yes, there are National Guard special forces; and they’re based in Utah; be very afraid). I’ll apologize now for throwing a bunch of numbers at you – trust me, I’m not a numbers guy either – but there’s a point to this.

Jumping forward to the present, this year’s Military Balance has the total US Armed Forces pegged at active duty US Armed Forces at 2,177,050 personnel (1,359,600 active – just about 8,000 personnel fewer than it was in 2001, and 817,450 reserve and National Guard – over 395,000 fewer than it was in 2001). This amount is just over 391,000 troops smaller than it was in 2001 with the Cold War and the Persian Gulf War in the rear-view mirror and the Global War on Terror not yet initiated.

However, while the military as a whole has shrunk, the SOF community has grown – and by no small amount. In 2023, SOCOM clocks in with 65,800 total troops (which is larger than a good portion of the other armed forces in the globe). The Military Balance unfortunately stopped breaking down between active and National Guard/reserve forces in SOCOM at some point, so I don’t know what the exact proportions are (you can assume the majority of them are active), but even with that breakdown we can see how much each branch of the military’s special group of very special boys who are special has grown over the past twenty years. Compared to 25,900 total active and National Guard/reserve troops in 2001, Army SOF now have 35,000 – about 9,000 more; Navy SOF have almost doubled, going from 5,400 active and reserve in 2001 to 10,500 today; Air Force SOF have grown by over 5,000 troops, going from 11,620 in 2001 to 16,800 today; and finally, the Marines – who didn’t even technically have a SOF component in 2001, now have 3,500 Marine Special Operations Command (MARSOC) troops at their disposal.

So, by the numbers, while the military has shrunk overall since its GWOT era peak, and now that the active force is closer to the size it was when the GWOT started – and the reserve and National Guard even smaller – SOF forces have grown larger and remain larger.

This growth hasn’t been limited to personnel either. The SOF slice of the budget pie has also increased dramatically over the course of the GWOT. In 2001, prior to the beginning of the GWOT and prior to the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, the budget for SOCOM was $2.3 billion USD. By about twenty years later, in 2020, that budget had ballooned to $13.7 billion USD – an almost six fold increase in funding. But again, its not just about the number itself, but the percentage. In 2001, the US defense budget was just shy of $332 billion USD, making SOCOM’s budget about .07% of the entire defense budget. By 2020, the defense budget had risen to $778.4 billion – having risen to new heights, fallen, and then rising again in the late 2010s going into the 2020s to even greater heights. SOCOM’s budget had increased to be close to 1.8% of the entire defense budget – and increase of well over a full percentage point.

Now, I don’t want you to get it twisted and think me saying the military as a whole not being bloated and enormous with both people and money is a good thing. I think it was right for the military to shrink back down as we backed away from things we shouldn’t have even been doing to begin with. The problem now is that while the military has shrunk, SOF hasn’t shrunk with them after the growth they experienced during the GWOT. Proportionally, they’re taking up way more billets (and funding) than they were at the start of the GWOT, prior to 9/11.

But you might ask, “ok War Takes, but why does this matter?” That’s not a stupid question to ask for those with only passing familiarity with the military. It matters because SOF is not only not as relevant to the threats that the United States and others primarily face, but at the same time are taking up resources that could be directed to forces and capabilities that are better suited to deter and if necessary combat those threats. This is especially true as long as they remain optimized for and stuck in the mindset of low intensity conflict, COIN, and CT being their lodestars (as I will get to in more depth in the next section).

SOF are what the military wanted more of when the main thing it was worried about – to the detriment of almost all other issues – was running around in the “Sandbox” for long periods of time, humping through the hills and doing Zero Dark Thirty shit while wearing far too many pouches and overpriced sunglasses – and again, I cannot stress this enough – they were being central to a mission that I don’t think we should have been doing in the first place and was a massive waste of time, money, lives, with consequences we will be grappling with forever. Today – and in our theoretical scenario – the primary threat is from large, peer and near-peer adversaries with significant conventional military forces.

Again, while SOF still have a role to play in conflicts against these kinds of adversaries, the bigger and more consequential role is going to be played by other forces. Every troop, dollar, moment of attention, and ounce of effort that is applied to SOF over what it should be, is one one that could (and should) be applied to more effective areas. This includes not only combat arms such as air-and-missile defenses, long-range artillery – including both tube and missile, maneuver forces like infantry and armor, and etc., but also the capacity needed for the critical work of the rear echelon in logistics, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, transportation, and more. It doesn’t help that a by-product of SOF’s rampant expansion over the past two decades is a great deal of redundancy and overlap between missions as their unique capabilities fade away and they all basically turn into pale imitations of one another running around in the Middle East spitting dip and comparing beards. SOF still have a role to play today and in the future – just as they did in the past – but that role is different and I would argue doesn’t necessitate the numbers they still maintain. At the same time, they remain largely stove-piped off from one another and in competition with one another (which can be made even worse by toxic culture, which I will get to in the third section).

We don’t need theoretical cases to understand the effects that a bloated SOF force can have on the rest of the Joint Force, a we’ve had them from watching it pivot from counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency to preparing for the potential of great power conflict. Numerous capabilities were divested of during the GWOT in the interest of being able to continue feeding meat into the grinder in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. After 2005, the Army had only two active-duty short-range air defense (SHORAD) battalions on hand, with the rest being in the National Guard; the Army not only didn’t keep pace with the development in air and missile threats growing throughout the world, but then had to work rapidly to reconstitute its SHORAD capabilities following the initial Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Likewise, the Army also divested itself of reconnaissance helicopters during this period after several failed attempts at replacing the aging OH-58 Kiowa Warrior, believing the job could be done by a mix of drones and AH-64D Apache Longbows (spoiler alert: they were wrong, and now they’re having to spend time, money, and effort, on belatedly finding an OH-58 replacement).

Now, admittedly, it is unfair to put these examples squarely at the feet of SOF and only SOF. SOF just happens to be the most obvious one to blame in this case – out of many who share blame – for the questionable allocation of resources that resulted from poor decisions that were made in the interest of unwinnable wars that we shouldn’t have embarked upon to begin with. SOF, by virtue of its bloat – or lack thereof – is the ideal example of how overcompensating in one area can hurts others, and how those poor choices can come back to haunt you and cost you more blood, sweat, and tears later. That is something we’ll need to keep in mind for our own scenario and hypothetical force.

At the end of the day, SOF, by premise, are meant to be elite. There’s not meant to be many of them, because they’re selected to be the best of the best – not only physically, but mentally, intellectually, and so on. So, I posit to you, in that case: if that’s supposed to be so, why are there so fucking many of them? I mean sure, they’re still a small fraction of the entire joint force, but I can hardly look at 65,000 people and think that each and every one of them are a special snowflake. I see someone on Twitter with 65,000 followers, I don’t think that each and every one of those followers is a fucking savant. That was neither here nor there, I admit, but just something I wanted to get off my chest before we wrapped up talking about bloat (strap yourself in because there’s more rants there that one came from).

Hey, what’s my mission again?”

Another question you may be asking yourself at this point is, “War Takes, why did SOF get so big to begin with?” Well, the short answer is: “9/11.” The long answer is still “9/11” but with more detail. However, 9/11 and the GWOT didn’t just make SOF grow to its current bloated size, but it also twisted the mission of SOF away from its original purpose (and the purpose it would be best suited for in our scenario) – which was both fed by and fed into the bloat I just described (like I said, all this stuff has been working in one big feedback loop or series of loops).

Once again we’ll need to start from basics because before I can talk about SOF getting away from what it was designed to do, we need to talk about what that even was.

US SOF can point to a number of various ad hoc units through military history as being part of their lineage, such as various units and organizations from World War II like the Office of Strategic Services, the joint US-Canadian First Special Service Force, US Navy Underwater Demolition Teams, and more. But as the units we know today like the Green Berets and the Navy SEALs were officially founded in the 1950s and 1960s against the backdrop of the Cold War, their primary purpose from the beginning was to engage in unconventional warfare (UW).

Much has been written on UW – some of it good, some of it bad; some of it about right, some of it very wrong. By the Department of Defense’s own definition, UW is “activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt or overthrow a government or occupying power by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary, and guerrilla force in a denied area.” More simply put: UW is support to guerrillas, insurgents, or resistance fighters (however you prefer to style them). Those fighters are meant to be the core focus of UW, according to US. Army Special Operations Command’s own UW Pocket Guide from 2016. With that in mind, the platonic ideal of UW is a covert campaign to enable local peoples under hostile occupation or a tyrannical regime to have the means to fight back against that occupier or tyrant and free themselves. This very concept is reflected in the Green Beret’s Latin motto: De oppresso liber (“to free from oppression” or “to liberate the oppressed.”)

For those of you who are students of history and are familiar with some of the regimes supported by – or governments toppled by – the United States over the course of the Cold War, I’m sure you’re making a face right now after having read that last paragraph. Completely understandable. I’m asking you to bear with me some, because I think this concept of UW is one of those ones that isn’t necessarily flawed in its own right but has been twisted and misused or just paid lip service to or just ignored. Like so many things I study in this field – like the very concept of the military itself – while coming from a Left perspective and considering concepts like UW and others, I often think of the apocryphal quote attributed to Gandhi when he was asked what he thought of ‘Western Civilization’ – the answer being: “I think it would be a good idea.”

Indeed, early US SOF themselves immediately strayed from their supposed doctrinal mission with the advent of the Vietnam War in the 1960s. The use of SOF in Vietnam would largely be characterized by engaging in counter-insurgency (COIN) activity, rather than actual UW. There was an attempt made early on, at least, to stick to doctrine. One of the earliest missions of the Navy SEALs in Vietnam were attempting to undertake true UW in North Vietnam, working to train locals to rise up against the government in Hanoi (this, of course, failed – and we proceeded to learn nothing from it, nor think hard on maybe whether those whole ‘Vietnam’ thing was worth the effort if it was that hard to recruit people to fight against the North Vietnamese government). Use of SOF in Vietnam quickly descended into direct-action missions attempting to take out specific targets such as arms caches, senior leadership of the Vietcong, enemy bases or outposts, and etc. I’m sure these all things that I’m sure won’t sound familiar at all to any veteran of Iraq or Afghanistan – and consequently, it may surprise any of them to realize that we did not, in fact, win the Vietnam War.

SOF very early on fell into the COIN trap. As I’ve elaborated on at length before, I see COIN as losing game over 90% of the time. Fighting an insurgency is a recipe for either defeat, or eternal war with no end – never victory. When their initial attempts at UW in Vietnam failed, the US military seemed to fall back on the old standby of just trying to kill its way out of a problem. SOF were not really acting as they were supposed to, but instead were largely just doing covert, highly specialized versions of the missions that a conventional force would do: close with and destroy the enemy. Now, that’s one thing against a conventional force. I should make it clear that some of these direct action missions – as well as other missions like intelligence gathering and recon, that were also undertaken by SOF in Vietnam – are perfectly valid missions for SOF in the UW context. But, in the grand scheme of things with COIN – where you’re already essentially fighting a losing war, it’s just pissing in the wind. That may win you battles in COIN, but when you’re fighting “the birthrate of a nation” (as journalist David Halberstam put it in regards to Vietnam), it will never win you the war.

With the American withdrawal from Vietnam in the 1970s and the eventual unification of the country under the North, the US military – and the SOF community – decided collectively to put that whole ugly mess behind them and go back to what they had been doing beforehand: preparing for the possibility of fighting World War III in Central Europe (or barring that, a smaller, regional conventional conflict, somewhere else in the world). This meant a return to form for US SOF in the 1970s and 80s. A prime example of this is the US Army’s 10th Special Forces Group. In the event of war in Europe, the group’s primary mission would have been to organize partisan and resistance activity either in territory occupied by advancing Warsaw Pact forces, or within the territories of Warsaw Pact nations themselves, and conduct “stay-behind” direct action against occupying forces as they pushed into NATO territory. If this had all come to pass (and assuming the war didn’t go nuclear, which was not guaranteed per say, but still way more likely than you want it to be), it would have been a UW mission in the truest sense. This was also when counter-terrorism (CT) started to become a mission-set, with the rise of political terrorism of various stripes in the 1970s. But at this point, terrorism was still a niche issue that necessitated a niche response, and not something that the entirety of SOF was notional geared towards, being left to specialized CT units like the Army’s secretive 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment–Delta (AKA: Delta Force) and the now infamous Navy SEAL Team Six (now known as the Naval Special Warfare Development Group or DEVGRU).

That’s not to say there weren’t some backsliding to old, bad habits. SOF relapsed back into its old Vietnam way of doing things – and gave us a glimpse of the future – under the Reagan administration when the Green Berets were deployed to El Salvador while it was in the midst of its civil war. While there, SOF once again where in the business of anti-communist COIN, and in doing so helped to facilitate right-wing government death squads that visited horrific carnage and slaughter on El Salvador’s citizens – including the infamous El Mozote massacre, in which the US-backed Salvadorian Army killed almost 1,000 civilians in and around the village of El Mozote, and which the US government then shamelessly lied through its teeth about. More than 75,000 Salvadorians were killed over twelve years of civil war, most of them by the military. Thirty years later, the country isn’t much better, off, sliding back into authoritarian rule under its feckless and petty tech-bro President and probable future dictator Nayib Bukele. As for the Green Berets and other US advisors that were there, these atrocities were so bad, that not the official publication of everyone’s favorite right-wing coffee company – Black Rifle Coffee – can bring itself to gloss over the fact that it all actually happened under US watch and can’t disguise feeling vaguely uncomfortable about it (though their cop out answer is that the advisors “hands were tied” – you know, you guys didn’t have to be there right?).

Ironically, the same war that would see SOF get back into its true wheelhouse would also be the one that spark the beginning of SOF’s second and more drastic straying away from its core purpose. That of course, was the War in Afghanistan and the GWOT in general, which actually started with a true UW mission. As popularized by the film “Twelve Strong”, the beginning of the US military involvement in Afghanistan was the deployment of Green Berets – alongside CIA operatives – into Afghanistan in 2001 to support the Northern Alliance and other Afghan resistance fighters in their fight against the Taliban government. In this sense, it may be the one real success story of the entire Afghan War. It’s easy to forget that – unlike in Iraq – US conventional forces did not do the brunt of the initial fighting on the ground when the war first started. When Kabul fell (the 2001 version not the 2021 remix), it fell to Northern Alliance fighters (fighting with Green Berets). In many ways, this initial success could be seen as the post-Cold War high point for the Green Berets in undertaking the traditional SOF mission of UW, a high that hasn’t been reached again since.

If you know me and have read my work by now, you know I have decidedly mixed feelings on the legacy of the War in Afghanistan. I ultimately think we shouldn’t have been there (and in fact, didn’t have to be there, as the Taliban were prepared to hand over Bin Laden, our main reason for going in). But if we had to go in, it would have better to have left on a high note after this point (and after it became obvious Bin Laden was no longer there) and then let Afghanistan figure out its own affairs internally. To put it more simply: we should have left as soon as the UW mission was accomplished and the circumstances changed. The Taliban was – and still is – an objectively evil and terrible government and supporting forces to overthrow was a moral move in my book. But what would proceed to happen in Afghanistan – and soon, in Iraq – over the next twenty years would very quickly taint anything moral and just that we had initially accomplished. It would also very quickly and drastically stray from the standard UW mission for SOF and lead us to the issues we now have.

As mission creep quickly set in with Afghanistan and an anti-terrorism focused UW mission quickly grew and morphed into occupation and state building, the mission of SOF quickly got away from UW as, well, there wasn’t a UW conflict to fight. We had become the occupiers that the populace very quickly got sick of within a few years and wanted to get rid of. Like wise, as the GWOT continued to ramp up from 2001 on, hunting down terrorists and attempting to dismantle terrorist groups and cells also became the primary concern of the military and of SOF, with CT and COIN melding into one unholy combination where they were basically the same thing to the military.

Once again confronted with COIN and unable to accept my thesis that it is – most of the time – unwinnable, SOF fell back on the same reaction as they did in Vietnam: trying to kill the problem away. SOF were once again essentially doing the same tasks infantry would do, only more special, more sneaky, with better toys, and etc. No matter how you dress it up though, they were doing the same job as any other grunt stuck in a pointless COIN war: killing insurgents with the hope eventually there will be no more; destroying their weapons caches with the hope they’ll stop getting new ones; destroying their outposts while hoping they wont’ just set up a new one a few miles away; etc. When that didn’t win the war immediately, the reaction was often just to throw even more SOF at the problem – leading to the bloat mentioned before. In all fairness, not all of this was SOF’s fault – when you’re a command or policymaker and have these really cool looking hammer that everyone thinks is great and special, you’ll want to smash every nail you can think of with it. This constant operational tempo, in addition to putting SOF up on a pedestal as the most special boys in the COIN fight, and with other factors, would also contribute to developing a rancid internal culture with horrific results both for those SOF interacted with and for its own members (which I will be addressing in the next section).

I could spend a long time going on about the use of SOF in Afghanistan – as I always say: “that could be an article in and of itself.” But there’s other things I want to cover, so what I want to talk about now is the cautionary tale of getting sucked into circumstances like that and pushing SOF into missions they shouldn’t be doing (or that no one should really be doing). This is especially relevant as the US military is now working to reorient its SOF back towards the missions they were founded to do in the first place, as great power competition increases and the possibility of war with a peer or near peer adversary becomes something that is actually plausible. Because of those twenty years of baggage, it’s not an easy job. After twenty years of GWOT, SOF operators are literally struggling to understand or feel comfortable performing the very mission that was their original justification and purpose and pining for the door-kicking they’ve been doing the past twenty years, feeling like that if they aren’t kicking down a door or clearing a room every few hours they aren’t doing their jobs right. God only knows how long it will take them to get over this – if they’re even capable of doing so in their current form (I would argue they can’t and would go further but I’ll save that for the conclusion). But don’t feel too sympathetic to a lot of them, however, because we’re going to use those institutional issues as a segway into the third main pillar of the issues of modern US SOF – which is their toxic culture and the depths to which it goes.

The Men Who Just Really Love Doing Crimes.

I should clarify from the start of this section, that I am well aware that US SOF have always had issues with culture and professionalism. One need only look at some of the stories from the Vietnam War to realize that SOF has long had issues. But even then, I would argue those were not as widespread, deep seated, and batshit insane as what we have seen and are still seeing in the SOF community in terms of legal, ethical, and moral violations after twenty years of COIN and CT as part of the GWOT in the Middle East and around the globe.

All of this goes hand-in-hand with the bloat SOF experience after the start of the GWOT. As discussed earlier, in the effort to show progress in the GWOT, SOF became the go-to weapon of choice for the US government in tracking down and capturing or killing high-value terrorist targets. They increasingly became the most lionized, hyped up, and obsessed over part of the US military in an era where the average troop was already put up on a pedestal, seen as the solution to any possible problem a policymaker may encounter in national security. At the same time, as the US was pulled deeper into the quagmire of Afghanistan and Iraq and key terrorist leaders like Bin Laden remained elusive, pressure mounted to show results in all of the various “forever wars” America had found itself entangled in.

All these factors combined – and more – no doubt went to the heads of numerous SOF operators and leeched throughout the community. This was seen especially in Afghanistan, where by the 2010s US SOF had developed a reputation for a “shoot first, ask later” attitude towards their mission – at the expense of Afghan civilian lives. But this attitude went beyond simply having an itchy trigger finger, to allegations of outright unlawful killings (i.e. murder) and torture. Having been put on a pedestal and told how important they were, results being expected of them, and being told that they were doing God’s work, SOF seemed to take an attitude that the ends justified the means and that they were right in going to extreme ends outside of the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) to accomplish their mission. According to one SOF expose by Rolling Stone, a Green Beret writing to the author from federal prison (where he was incarcerated for smuggling 50 kilos of coke into Florida onboard a military aircraft), as long as the mission they were assigned was accomplished and everything was kept hush hush, SOF seemed to have free reign to go to whatever lengths necessary in the course of their duties.

This mindset was no doubt fueled by a sense of impunity, seeing that US SOF have only seldom faced any consequences for allegations of abuses and war crimes. In the rare occasions that investigations have been mounted or charges have been filed by the military, its even rarer that anyone actually is convicted or faces consequences for their actions. An extensive investigation of the ethics and culture of US SOF that was undertaken in 2020 found “no systemic ethics problems.” When Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher was put on trial for murdering a captured ISIS fighter, he was acquitted; and after being convicted of a lesser crime of posing with a dead body in violation of the laws of armed conflict, he was pardoned by then-President Donald Trump. In the few cases where punishments are doled out and actually stick, they’re usually relatively minor and done extraordinarily quietly, with the military and the government not wanting to draw any extra attention to the matter. In other cases, the government and the military have straight-up attempted to cover up any acts of wrongdoing. The standard that has been set for SOF over the past twenty years of Forever War is that you’ll likely never be punished for egregious acts, and if you are punished it’ll probably be a slap on the wrist at the most.

The impunity doesn’t just end with acts against civilians and enemy combatants in foreign countries, however. SOF have also developed a culture of violence and heavy handedness against other service members. The past two decades of GWOT are littered with stories of other US service members being sexually assaulted, hazed, and murdered, with the accused or suspected perpetrators being SOF operators – the previously linked article from Rolling Stone just barely scratches the surface of some of these instances on just one post, Fort Bragg (home of Joint Special Operations Command). This violence isn’t limited to being against those outside the SOF community, but occurs within it as well. A famous recent case is the murder of a Green Beret while deployed to Africa, having been killed by Navy SEALs and MARSOC operators during a hazing gone wrong (oh by the way the Navy SEAL sentenced for involuntary manslaughter in that case got his conviction thrown out). In some cases, SOF operators just decide to randomly visit acts of violence on people they don’t even know. The culture of impunity and superiority has developed to the point that its not just that SOF think they’re better than the rest of the military, but that the rest of the military is either an obstacle or a threat that must be dealt with – especially when their privileges and impunity are threatened by them. Despite their notional image as the best of the best, defending America’s values and interests, they seem to have little qualms about harming other Americans when push comes to shove. Even when they’re not murdering and torturing, SOF’s culture of impunity has led them to a point where they can’t stop committing crimes in general. Whether its smuggling drugs or embezzling official funds, SOF operators have been socialized to think they are entitled to it all.

In many ways, the culture of SOF operators has become akin to that of modern law enforcement in America – in that they act more like a cult or an organized crime group or gang (or all of the above) rather than as a professional military unit with good order and discipline. Strict group-think is enforced, with new ideas that break the mold or challenge the status quo are quickly shot down and those who suggested them are ostracized or punished. An “us versus them” mentality is imposed where those not in the cult or the gang are at best disdained or at worst outright hated or targeted. When the cult is under threat, all its members are expected to close ranks to defend it and any members who may be under attack – and God help you if you speak out. And even if you aren’t party to whatever transgressions that have been visited on someone else by the gang, and you largely go about your business trying to do no harm, you’re still part of the problem simply by not speaking out and doing anything about or taking part in a code of silence to cover for other’s wrongdoings. (By the way, this is not to say that these problems don’t exist anywhere else in the US military, but that they are particularity potent in the SOF community. You could really envision the SOF community as being a concentrate – if you will – of all the problems the military as a whole experiences, heightened to their logical extreme).

How do you even begin to tackle this problem? Well, I think as things stand now you can’t. Part of this is there being too much damage to SOF as it exists now to “save” it (and I will talk about this momentarily in the conclusion, like I said earlier), but also needs other issues to be fixed. You need stronger and more consistent oversight of the military in general and SOF in particular from elected officials who are actually going to dig deep, ask probing questions, and demand results – and will need to have a strong moral compass on the issues at hand. You’ll need a top brass in the military that will also have zero tolerance for such behavior and other shitty behavior in general, won’t be afraid of the military getting a black eye or bad press for calling attention to bad behavior, and will rigorously act to deal with bad behavior and crimes of various kinds and dole out actual punishments. Finally, you’ll need a military justice system that actually delivers – well, justice, for the accused and isn’t biased or rigged to produce certain results or simply to protect the interests and appearance of the military. I just mentioned three things that could all be essays in their own right (and likely will be at some point if I can ever get around to them – I’m very tired ok), so clearly this is an issue that goes beyond just SOF and requires sea changes in how our country works, not just how our military or SOF works (something I have pointed out as being necessary in the past). If SOF in our hypothetical better future and scenario are to function without descending back into a toxic culture of murder and cruelty, than these issues will all need to be fixed alongside one another going forward.

De Oppresso Liber (but for real this time)

Ok, so, this is the part where I remember that I’m supposed to be writing about how I would do things differently in this hypothetical future and scenario we’ve crafted for this series. But before I get into that, I want to speak about the here and now – knowing that what I say here and now will make little difference but I want to get it off my chest anyway.

As things stand now, I think that SOF as currently constituted in the US military are essentially un-reformable (and this is not a new opinion of mine). I think the rot has gone on for too long and goes too deep for it to be salvaged. This – again – is similar to my views on law enforcement; I am a police abolitionist in that I think some form of law enforcement or public safety needs to exist in society, but that I think the current system is beyond fixing and needs to be knocked down and started fresh from a completely blank slate with new ideas and new people in order to work. In that sense, I am a SOF-abolitionist in that while I think SOF should exist in the military – both as it exists now and as I’d like it to exist – the slate has to be wiped clean and it has to be started over fresh and new with new people and concepts and rules and oversight.

But ok, if we did wipe that slate clean and started over, how would we want them to be? As I said earlier, a lot of changes need to happen alongside one another – both in the military and in our society. But if we’re assuming the political changes we’d like to see have already happened in the United States and we’re focused more on the military problem now, the answers to the main problems I’ve outlined are self-evident (to an extent) in the problems themselves.

First, we need to have discussions need to be had about how many SOF is enough, and how much funding is really needed, without just letting the community bloat to an extreme size and throwing money at it with no accountability. There also need to be questions asked about how many different types of units we need – does every single branch of the military need to have its own unique SOF unit? My inclination is to say “no” and there would need to be studies done on what types of units we really do need to avoid not only a redo of bloat, but to avoid redundancy and overlap. If a new SOF unit needs to be justified, it needs to have a truly unique argument as to why it uniquely needs to exist. If there’s any of the things I’m listing I think could actually happen under the current system, its at least this one – as there seems to be conversations going in the halls of power regarding potential significant cuts to SOF as I finish writing this essay. So, there’s that I guess (though I imagine this will quickly turn into a political culture war issue in Congress and elsewhere with a revolving door of retired generals making their way to hearings to defend their special snowflake boys to Greg Steube and a similar coterie of very big dumb Republican guys, so don’t hold your breath).

Second, the missions SOF are assigned need to be ones that are actually militarily relevant and useful to the grand strategy we’re adhering to (and also are actually militarily achievable – unlike COIN and CT). Over all of this, thirdly, the SOF community also needs to be subject to oversight with actual teeth to it and those who violate rules, procedures, and established laws (both US military law and the LOAC), need to held accountable for their actions in a meaningful way. This is by no means an all-inclusive list, but just the major issues that come to mind reflecting on everything I’ve dumped on you for the past then pages or so in change.

While all of these issues are important, as a defense analysts I am most interested in the missions angle – not simply because I want to make sure its addressed how SOF fit in to the scenario we’ve established before, but because it also ties in to the other issues in that circular feedback loop I described from the onset. In our scenario of coming to the aid of an ally that is under attack by a strong conventional adversary and is being invaded, what would SOF be doing?

In our scenario, SOF would likely be the first troops of ours on the ground to assist our ally, before any substantial conventional ground forces are able to arrive in strength. To that end, their initial goal would be the same as any and naval firepower that is being directed to the region as the invasion is underway: to slow down and hopefully stall the enemy advance until those aforementioned conventional ground forces can arrive and concentrate and counter-attack. This would be in close conjunction with allied forces on the ground – likely including their own SOF, if they have any. Much like US SOF planned to do in Central Europe if the balloon went up during the Cold War, they’d blow bridges, collapse tunnels, and undertake harassing actions to slow the enemy down as their forces moved forward onto allied soil.

While our forces prepared for a counter-offensive to liberate occupied allied territory, that’s when SOF would really go to work, undertaking the mission that was always meant to be their primary responsibility: unconventional warfare. SOF would infiltrate behind enemy lines and work to establish an insurgency against the occupying forces – or support ones that have already cropped up. SOF would train and advise these forces, directing them on where and how to strike in order to make the biggest impact on the occupation, fighting alongside them in the process. It would be a return to form for SOF, fighting in support of insurgents fighting for their rights and freedoms, rather than engaging in a COIN campaign (and forcing the enemy to engage in such an ultimately hopeless endeavor themselves). The goal here is to continue weakening the enemy, drawing away forces and effort to fight the insurgents and lowering enemy morale and effectiveness, while making the coming conventional counter-offensive more effective and faster from having worn down and worn out the enemy internally. Once conventional forces press forward and link up with the insurgents, they may be able to link up with those conventional forces to press on and assist them – following Mao’s own theories on insurgency and guerrilla warfare, with the guerrillas gradually growing into the final phase of conventional warfare.

Additionally, aside from shooting people or even training other people to shoot people, SOF would play a critical role as eyes and ears quietly observing enemy movements and activities. In an age of satellites, drones, and other technical means of intelligence gathering, you often still can’t beat a soldier on the ground to give you an eyes-on account of what’s going on and to catch nuance that a long-range camera just can’t get you. To get back to the shooting while still staying in the intel gathering mold, SOF could also embark on moire aggressive intelligence gathering or snatching operations to get key info that not even satellites or drones can get eyes on, further demonstrating their importance in a highly technical age of warfare.

All in all, SOF would play an important role in the scenario we’re thinking of. That’s something that anyone on the Left that still thinks that armed conflict is sometimes sadly necessary will have to get comfortable with. This is a big assumption on my part, based mostly on vibes and what I see in discussions online, but I get the impression that among a Left that already has a dim view of the military, the dimmest and darkest possible view is that of SOF and its operators. Again, given the transgressions I outlined earlier in this essay, I don’t’ think that’s a view without reason by any means. But that’s why I wanted to talk about all the systemic issues with SOF to show its just one thing that’s led them to what they currently are, and to demonstrate just how far they’ve strayed from the purpose they were meant to have originally. If reoriented on that original purpose, and utilized in service of ideology and motives that were not inherently imperialistic, SOF do have an important role to play. This is especially true if in this better world we imagine that we still wish to support those seeking their own liberation (I should surely hope so or I wouldn’t even bother writing this shit), without getting drawn into the moral and military deathtrap of regime change and occupation and COIN. Deploying SOF to train, advise, and equip insurgents fighting for better lives in their homeland is the way to avoid stumbling into our own versions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Basically, we always want to make sure that the only role we play in any insurgent, is being on the side of the insurgents than as the COIN practitioners (assuming the insurgents aren’t pieces of shit and genuinely want a better future for their people and aren’t just batshit insane).

On that note, I think I’ve said just about all I can think to say on this subject for now and my brain is starting to run on empty. Out of all the essays in the series, I think that this one was the one I was both most excited for and the most dreading to write for a long time because of how intellectually and emotionally dense a subject it is. In all honesty, for how much I’m glad I’ve broached this subject, I’m happy to put this one in my rear-view mirror and move on to greener pastures now that I’ve said my piece. As with everything I write, I hope it at least promotes some introspection and some useful discussions and debate.

I’ll be honest, I don’t know if this is the end of the “What Should It Look Like” series or not. I think I was maybe planning on doing another one at some point specifically on the Reserves and National Guard and the role that they should play and how they should be different, so I’ll probably get to that at some point. I may switch things up for the next essay though and do something different, depending on what strikes my fancy at the time or what’s in the news by the end of the Summer. Now that I’m doing fewer of these a year, I don’t want to make every single one a “What Should It Look Like” until its all done, so I want to try and keep it fresh for you all. For now though, thanks for your patience as I move to a new schedule and space these further out. I’m juggling a lot in my life and not having to do these every month has made it a lot easier, so I appreciate all of your understanding.

Until next time, as always, stay safe out there and keep on keeping on. I’m going to go enjoy Memorial Day weekend and stuff my face with burgers and beer. Peace.

Image credit: US Department of Defense

One thought on ““What Should It Look Like?” Part VI: Special Operations Forces

  1. I’ve always wondered what number of the 65,800 SOCOM personnel were the actual operators and how many were supporting their missions since I’ve seen tons of normal Army guys with SOCOM deployment patches. (Side note: I am an admin guy in DoD that really wants to get into military analysis. How important is grad school into getting into that field?)


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