Special Operations Forces (SOF) has become the “easy button” for our country’s leaders when it comes to the need for a U.S. military/diplomatic presence around the world. With over 7000 personnel and a jack-of-all-trades mission set, U.S. Army Special Forces (the Green Berets) are the overwhelming force of choice for most of the missions. It is evident in the number of casualties as well as medals for valor. Three out of the nine Medals of Honor recipients from the SOF community since 9/11 were Green Berets. Navy SEALs had four (two while serving in special mission units), Army Rangers had one, and Air Force Combat Controllers had one. (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_post-Vietnam_War_Medal_of_Honor_receipients) As of December 26, 2019, half of the 20 U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan during 2019 were Green Berets. (“20 American Service Members Have been Killed By Hostile Fire in Afghanistan in 2019,” https://www.npr.org/2019/12/24/791205527/20-american-service-members-killed-by-hostile-fire-in-afghanistan-in-2, 24 December 2019) Every active duty Special Forces Group has lost at least one soldier in either Afghanistan or Syria so far this year. (“Every single active-duty Special Forces group has lost at least one soldier this year,” Task & Purpose, 18 September 2019). As the largest provider of SOF, it begs the question of why has there never been a Green Beret U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) commander since the command stood up in 1987 (to clarify, when referring to a Green Beret officer, I am referring to an officer who graduated from the Special Forces Officer Qualification Course, branched Special Forces, and grew up in an Army Special Forces Group to include commanding at battalion and group level; not someone who graduated the Special Forces Qualification Course and spent most of their time in another organization; three former commanders earned their Green Beret, Generals Shelton, Schoomaker, and Brown)?
Institutional bias or discrimination?
A quick analysis of all 13 (minus one acting) USSOCOM commanders shows that seven of them were former JSOC commanders and one was a deputy JSOC commander. Out of the nine Army generals, six of the nine were all former JSOC commanders (four were in Ranger Regiment and two served in special mission units). It is of note that the two former Navy USSOCOM commanders were special mission unit alumni. It would appear that the path to command of USSOCOM is through the Ranger Regiment, special mission units, and JSOC not Army Special Forces. (https://en.Wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Special_Operations_Command)
Some within the Army Special Forces community see it as discrimination. Green Berets have always had a reputation of being outside the main-stream and rebels with nicknames like “snake eater” or represented by pop cultural antiheros like Rambo. It is part of Special Forces lore that the only way the Green Beret became authorized headgear is when Lieutenant General William Yarborough wore it during President John F. Kennedy’s visit to Ft. Bragg, NC on October 12, 1961. The Army is a very conservative tribe and those who do not adhere to the societal norms are looked upon with suspicion. One could argue that this tradition continues today with the relaxed grooming standards to include beards that Green Berets have down range. Being different is not okay. It is interesting to note that special mission unit personnel and other service’s SOF also wear beards, but it is more tacitly acceptable.
Part of the difference is that Army Special Forces are the long-term SOF force of choice. They are the ones who have a more permanent presence on the battlefield and will occupy battlespace compared to other SOF units. As result, they come into contact more with conventional forces. These interactions, unfortunately can sometimes lead to resentment and conventional force leaders seeing Green Berets as undisciplined with their nonstandard appearance and serving as a bad example for their troops.
JSOC Commanders habitually interact directly with senior government leaders to include the President and the Secretary of Defense. There is name recognition throughout the national security apparatus with all JSOC commanders. U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) Commanders do not have that kind of visibility or access (USASOC includes Green Berets, Rangers, Civil Affairs, Psychological Operations, and Special Operations Aviators). USASOC Commanders are mostly Green Berets. Out of the nine former Commanders, six were Green Berets by this paper’s definition.
Furthermore, SF generals tend to stay operational and steer clear of the Pentagon. They focus on commanding Theater Special Operations Commands (TSOC) and 1st Special Forces Command. Lacking an understanding of how the national security apparatus works at the Pentagon and in Washington, DC hurts the Special Forces community. Special Forces needs to do a better job on managing its senior talent and pushing them to assignments at the Pentagon and on the staffs of Global Combatant Commands (especially at the major/lieutenant colonel level). Special Forces senior officers tend to stay in SOF assignments like USSOCOM or close to them if they work at the Pentagon such as working within the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations & Low Intensity Conflict (ASD SOLIC), the Joint Staff’s Deputy Director for Special Operations (DDSO), or the Army’s G3 Special Operations Directorate (SOD). Rising field grade officers are not “in front” of senior Army leadership as much as their conventional brethren. Special Forces needs to do a better job of ensuring the first non-SOF job a Special Forces general officer has since they were a captain is as an assistant division commander.
One of the major arguments against making a special forces branch in 1989 was that its officers would not be competitive for promotion beyond colonel. It seems that in certain ways, that has become a self-fulfilling prophesy.
In many ways it is a clash of cultures. That can lead to either unintentional bias or blatant discrimination when senior military leaders choose other senior military leaders.
Direct Action vs. Special Warfare, which one briefs better?
Another potential reason for the lack of Green Berets at the most senior levels of military leadership is confusion over what they do. It is as a lot easier to explain a direct action mission versus a several month (or year) special warfare mission. Special warfare covers a wide-gamut of missions and frankly is not as captivating as a unit fast-roping onto an objective and killing a high value target all the while being filmed through the grainy view of a night vision lens.
The definition of special warfare is the execution of activities that involve a combination of lethal and nonlethal actions taken by a specially trained and educated force that has a deep understanding of cultures and foreign language, proficiency in small-unit tactics, and the ability to build and fight alongside indigenous combat formations in a permissive, uncertain, or hostile environment. It includes SOF conducting combinations of unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense, and counterinsurgency through and with indigenous forces or personnel. (“Special Operations,” Department of the Army, Pub 3-05, August 2012, p.9). What a mouthful. There is a lot to dissect and understand in their lengthy definition. Compare that complex and somewhat confusing definition to direct action’s meaning which entails short-duration strikes and other small-scale offensive actions conducted with specialized military capabilities to seize, destroy, capture, exploit, recover, or damage designated targets in hostile, denied, or diplomatically and/or politically sensitive environments. (“Special Operations,” Joint Pub 3-05, 16 July 2014, p. II-5) Which one briefs better?
Army Special Forces not only has an image problem, but also a messaging problem. It has vacillated through the years with leaning towards unconventional warfare as its core mission to changing the terms to irregular warfare or special warfare. It can get very confusing when one tries to explain the differences and nuances. Also Special Forces has the reputation of “those guys who primarily teach foreigners small unit tactics.”
Operating in the human domain can be hard to explain. Living in a small Afghan village for six months and drinking tea every day with the locals can seem futile or a waste of time, but that is what Green Berets do, they recognize that the way to win on the battlefield is through the human mind.
One of the best used school-house examples of this concept is the Green Beret captain who meets with the same village elder in Afghanistan weekly for months without ever asking anything of him. Four months into their relationship, the captain receives orders to capture a suspected Taliban leader who lives in that village. Instead of swooping in during the middle of the night, explosively blowing down doors, and shooting anyone perceived as a threat, the captain asks the village elder’s assistance in taking the suspected Taliban militant into custody. The elder says, give me 30 minutes. 30 minutes later he delivers the suspect without a shot fired and nobody on either side killed or wounded. Which is the better way? I am not denigrating or discounting the need for direct action missions (or the SOF units that conduct them) using ever kinetic tool available, but sometimes a non-kinetic approach works even though it is not always the most titillating use of military power.
“SOF has become synonymous with counterterrorism (CT), and this has caused confusion and puts SOF in a precarious struggle with itself and its own identity.” This focus on CT has “short-term effects and does not contribute to solving long-term problems.” Most of what SOF does is not counter-terrorism. “It has been said, by SOF senior leaders (in general terms), that less than 10% of what SOF does is CT and 90% is other SOF missions and activities, but organizationally, SOCOM focuses 90% of its attention on CT.” (Task & Purpose, “How to Fix Special Operations, According To A Former SOCAFRICA Commander,” by Brig Gen Donald C. Bolduc, U.S. Army (Retired) and other, 31 August 2018, taskandpurpose.com/fix-special-operations-bolduc-socafrica/amp/)
Since most mortal human beings are not privy to the selection process for USSOCOM Commander, it is not possible to say exactly why none of the past three Green Beret USASOC Commanders were not selected to command USSOCOM, but if past performance is an indicator of future behavior, direct action is the way to top command in the SOF community as well as a balance of assignments in and out of SOF. If the Special Forces community wants to change that dynamic, it will take a hard internal and external look at the human terrain we operate in not only in Ft. Bragg but also in Tampa and Washington, DC.
About the Author:
Spent over 26 years in the Army as both enlisted and as an officer to include 19 years in Special Forces. He continued his service post military working for the government as a civilian and in that capacity served in various hot spots around the world. Some of his deployments include Afghanistan, the Balkans, Iraq, Korea, and Ukraine. He has written extensively on international security matters.
Francis Marion is an SOFX BLACK network member and can be reached for comment at [email protected]
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