Secret Armies, Shadow Wars, Silent Unaccountability

  • Headline: “Obama Embraces Special Operations Forces”
  • Headline: “Did U.S. Forces Commit Atrocities in a Key Afghan Province?”
  • Headline: “US Special Forces Kill ISIS Commander and Capture Wife in Syria Raid”
  • Headline: “Failure to Rescue Foley Shows Special Ops Limitations”
  • Headline: “US, Somali Commandos Nab Valuable Al-Shabaab Figures, Spokesman Says”
  • Headline: “US Special Operations Forces Screwed Up in Mali”
  • Headline: “US Special Forces Raids Target Islamist Militants in Libya and Somalia”
  • Headline: “U.S.-Backed Forces in Syria Accused of Human Rights Violations”

We live today in an era of postmodern war. It’s a two-front war – the first being the virtual front of threats, posturing, and arms buildups we persist in waging, Cold War-style, against state-based mirror-images of ourselves (Russia and China); the second being the dirty front we wage in the shadows against irregular, non-state thugs and pygmy tyrants who use their weaknesses as strengths, asymmetrically, to turn our strengths into weaknesses.

The first front is the martial opiate that self-satisfied, complacent politicians and bureaucrats (civilian and military) impose to their own advantage on the unsuspecting, addicted masses. It is the vehicle for perpetuating the dead myth of America’s preferred way of lethal, destructive war, along with the gluttonous defense spending and antediluvian institutional prerogatives that go with it.

The second front is the more serious, proximate arena of conflict, the moral equivalent of a crack epidemic that should, but doesn’t, command our attention. The weapons of choice America’s political and military decision-makers have chosen to employ for this purpose are essentially three – special operations forces (SOFs), private military and security companies (PMSCs), and drones – though it is the first of these – SOFs – that most seriously threatens much of what America professes to stand for and thus warrants our singular attention, here, now.

The Postmodern Earthscape

The era of modern, industrial war took us from the Civil War (with discontinuous detours through various banana republics and the Philippines) through World Wars I and II to the Korean War. The Cold War introduced us to the two fronts of the postmodern era, the first front having now occupied us, thanks to arms merchants, unimaginative bureaucrats and politicians, and the institutional inertia of the national security establishment, for the past 70 years; the second front having silently matured over time to full adulthood today.

The key features of the postmodern era that define us, set the contours of our political discourse, and motivate our political masters are several:

  • Due largely to the planetary shrinkage wrought by telecommunications and transportation technologies, the world we inhabit has become a global battlefield of sorts, in which there no longer is anything to distinguish the tactical from the strategic. Virtually every action, event, or circumstance, however seemingly obscure, insignificant, or remote, can and does have almost instantaneous strategic ramifications at many temporal and spatial removes from its point of occurrence. Think the Pat Tillman friendly fire death, or Blackwater cowboys gunning down civilians, or a drone strike raining death on a wedding party. Think Haditha, Abu Ghraib, Blackhawk Down, My Lai.
  • No longer are there wars of necessity; only wars of choice. The wars we face – real in reality, if unreal officially – are inherently unwinnable, practically speaking, though subject to the rhetorical deceptions of soulless public affairs deconstructionists whose strategic messaging enables politicians to claim success where it doesn’t exist and deny failure where it does exist.
  • We have consigned Constitutional war powers to the dustbin of irrelevance. We are far along a slippery slope that has taken us from Constitutional holy writ; to the Korean War’s artful circumvention via UN Security Council resolution; to the Vietnam War’s duplicitous Tonkin Gulf Resolution; to the 1973 War Powers Resolution (which, rather than reaffirming congressional prerogative, gave Congress a cowardly escape from its responsibilities); to the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force that licenses perpetual war against all comers of dubious provenance; to the 2011 air war against Libya, with its wholesale denial of any war powers consultation requirement; to today. Today, faced with inertial divided government, the name of the game is to circumvent congressional consultation altogether, whenever possible. The military doesn’t need it; politicians don’t particularly want it; and the public is comfortably indifferent.
  • Shameless, unrestrained politicization now permeates all things, domestic and international. We have forsaken altogether the doctrine long attributed to former Senator Arthur Vandenberg that “politics must stop at the water’s edge.” Now there is nothing, however strategically significant, that isn’t politicized as a matter of course.
  • Similarly, the checks and balances and separated powers envisioned by America’s founders as an antidote to the tyranny of concentrated power have been completely displaced by political loyalties that override institutional responsibilities. The wisdom expressed by Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson in the famous Truman-era Youngstown Sheet & Tube case has been lost to posterity: “While the Constitution diffuses power the better to secure liberty, it also contemplates that practice will integrate the dispersed powers into a workable government. It enjoins upon its branches separateness but interdependence, autonomy but reciprocity.”
  • Finally, the military we expect to represent and serve us is now a professionalized force, the citizen-soldier a distant vestige of our idealized past. Professionals expect unfettered discretionary license to perform their jobs as only they – skilled, trained, credentialed experts – see fit, uninhibited and unscrutinized by meddling civilian amateurs. Elite professionals expect this even more.

SOFs: Machismo Fulfilled

“Macho, macho man/I gotta be a macho man/Macho macho man/I gotta be a macho. . . .”

– Village People, “Macho Man” (1978)

In Jean Larteguy’s probing 1963 novel about the French counterinsurgency experiences in Indochina and Algeria, The Centurions, paratroop Colonel Raspeguy, the novel’s central character, muses:

I’d like . . . to have two armies: one for display with lovely guns, tanks, little soldiers, staffs, distinguished and doddering Generals, and dear little regimental officers who would be deeply concerned over their General’s bowel movements or their Colonel’s piles, an army that would be shown for a modest fee on every fairground in the country. The other would be the real one, composed entirely of young enthusiasts in camouflage uniforms, who would not be put on display, but from whom impossible efforts would be demanded and to whom all sorts of tricks would be taught. That’s the army in which I should like to fight.

Given voice in fiction, grounded in reality, Raspeguy’s words were, and remain, a timeless, universal clarion call for advocates of special military operations. This is the very line of argument that has led so many to believe that only irregulars – specially skilled, specially trained, unconventionally oriented – can defeat enemy irregulars (guerrillas, insurgents, terrorists) who, by definition, don’t play by “the rules.”

That’s why those in power – civilian and military, executive and legislative – have become so infatuated with, even addicted to, such irregular formations and activities. Irregulars have a long tradition in this country – from Rogers’ Rangers in pre-Revolutionary colonial America; to Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion in the Revolutionary War; to the Mosbys, Forrests, Quantrells, and Cushings of the Civil War; to the Devil’s Brigade, Merrill’s Marauders, and Darby’s Rangers of World War II; to the formation of the Green Berets (Special Forces) in 1952, the SEALs in 1962, Delta Force in 1978, and U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) in 1987.

There is of course no demographic profile available to show us who serves in special units today. It’s safe to say, though, that they’re predominantly guys – white guys; young white guys (average age, we’re told, 29 for enlisted personnel, 34 for officers). That means that, whatever other characteristics they may possess, foremost among their traits is that they’re hormonally supercharged. That’s why the discipline these “elite” troops claim to possess is in constant tension with the indiscipline their nature endows them with.

The SOF culture is a physical one, not an intellectual one; totally tactical, not in the least strategic. SOF personnel are clearly physically mature (probably at the peak of their physical prowess). Given that they may well have deployed, on average, 4-10 times over the past decade and a half, frequently with less than 12 months at home between deployments, it could be said that they’re experientially mature (in the narrow sense that they’ve been there before, on the ground, and thus aren’t newbies who’ve never heard a shot fired in anger). But it’s highly questionable that they’re socially or culturally mature (most, we may safely speculate, coming from provincial, unworldly backgrounds), even less likely that they’re emotionally mature (think of bear cubs wrestling), and almost certainly the case that they aren’t intellectually mature. Big-picture thinking just isn’t what they do. Even though the tactical things they do have potentially immense strategic consequences, these guys typically aren’t given to strategic reflection; that, they dismissively think, is for somebody above their pay grade to attend to.

We know generally, if not specifically, how many they are – roughly 70,000 at last count, up from 42,800 in 2001. That’s roughly the equivalent of 4½ Army divisions; roughly equal to the entire defense force of Denmark or Norway; larger than the militaries of some 88 countries. Each armed service, plus the Marines, has its own special operations command, with the general composition of the force being about 54 percent Army, 25 percent Air Force, 16 percent Navy, and 5 percent Marines. Roughly 30 percent of these 70,000 – or about 21,000 – are actual “operators.”

We know generally, maybe even specifically, how much they cost – now about $10.7 billion a year, up from $3.1 billion in 2001. That’s a piddling 1.7 percent of the total US defense budget. But it’s more than the annual budget of the Environmental Protection Agency, four times the defense budget of New Zealand, three times that of South Africa, more even than the gross domestic products of some 36 countries.

We know generally where they could be – in as many as 147 countries over the course of a year, 70-90 countries at any one time. But we don’t know specifically where they are. Each of the six regional combatant commands (including the US Northern Command) has its own SOF command, as do US Forces in Korea. Considering that US Africa Command covers 54 countries, US European Command 52 countries, US Southern Command 31 countries and 15 territories, US Pacific Command 36 countries, and US Central Command 20 countries, SOFs could be deployed almost anywhere, in any numbers, in any capacity, in any guise. Reportedly some 7,200 of them were deployed abroad in 2014 (up from 2,900 in 2001): 69 percent in the CENTCOM area of operations, 10 percent in PACOM, 10 percent in AFRICOM, 6 percent in EUCOM, 4 percent in SOUTHCOM, 1 percent in NORTHCOM. So, many questions remain: Are they in such countries as those widely considered to be both most fragile and least peaceful (like Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Sudan, and Pakistan, for example)? Are they in China, Russia, Iran, North Korea? Somebody knows, but not us. Somebody cares, but apparently not us.

We know generally what they do – direct action, special reconnaissance, countering weapons of mass destruction, counterterrorism, unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense, security force assistance, hostage rescue and recovery, counterinsurgency, foreign humanitarian assistance, military information support operations, civil affairs operations. But we don’t know specifically what they’re doing. Are they just gathering intelligence, advising and training, building relationships, supporting resistance movements, rescuing hostages, and the like? Or are they engaged in extralegal assassination, extralegal kidnapping, extralegal destabilization of hostile governments? Are they engaged in targeted drone killings? Are they winning hearts and minds or antagonizing and alienating people in whose countries they have homesteaded? Are they performing provocative acts of aggression inside the sovereign territory of other countries? Are they providing support to foreign autocrats and tyrants? Are they even engaged in policing, surveillance, and infiltration of “dissident” groups here at home? They’ve done such things in the past, so it’s not unreasonable to fear that they might conceivably be doing them now.

The Web of Complicity

“We’re on a mission from God.”

Elwood Blues (Dan Aykroyd), The Blues Brothers (1980)

Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense reminded us of the blindingly obvious: that there are “known knowns,” “known unknowns,” and “unknown unknowns.” About SOFs, there are an unknown number of unknown unknowns, but we presume there are many. There are a number of major known unknowns – like exactly where they’re located, what they’re doing, how well or not they’re doing it, to what effect, with what direction and guidance from whom. There are, nonetheless, some important things we do know – the most notable of which is the almost total cloak of secrecy in which SOFs operate as a matter of course. It is secrecy on steroids, the elevation of the military’s congenital obsession with secrecy to a fetish. It’s why there are so many known unknowns and presumed unknown unknowns. 

A second thing we know we know, accordingly, is that such secrecy has become what those in power consider a necessary counterpoise to the total politicization of our national security affairs. A third known known, therefore, is that this is why SOFs have come to occupy such a place of centrality in our strategic posture.

The expansion and expanded use of SOFs is a newfound blessing for the military that offers it a double dividend. First, SOF operations provide unending reaffirmation of the military’s sense of self as the nation’s first line of protection. This continuing march to the sound of the guns in turn reinforces the felt need to perpetuate massive military spending in order to maintain a “strong defense.” What politician in his right mind, after all, can afford to deny the military its wishes in time of war?

Considering that SOCOM has been charged by the Joint Chiefs of Staff with leading the fight against international terrorism, the increased reliance on SOFs, therefore, also gives added weight to the arguments of those who favor presumably decisive counterterrorism – hunting and killing – as a proper mission over slow, inconclusive counterinsurgency (which smacks of the nation building the institution has long resisted as an appropriate role).

The second big dividend SOFs offer the military is self-servingly bureaucratic. As SOFs expand in numbers and uses, units must be created that have to be commanded. These command opportunities represent new potential for rank, promotion, and institutional clout. Whereas special operators traditionally have taken a back seat in the competition for career advancement, now they have risen to mainstream status. SOCOM is commanded by a 4-star general or admiral, and its superstructure numbers an additional three 3-stars, four 2-stars, and three 1-stars. That’s 24 stars of bureaucratic heft. Moreover, by way of example, the Army Special Operations Command alone now has 13 colonel-level commands and 57 lieutenant colonel-level commands.

For civilian officials – executive and legislative – the SOF imperative is the answer to their political dreams. At the heart of the matter is the seemingly arcane distinction insiders make between clandestine activities – secret, not defined in law – and covert activities – legally and doctrinally defined as both secret and deniable, not attributable that is to the US government. To uninitiated outsiders, this seems a distinction without a difference. What’s secret is secret, after all, whether admitted to or not; and absent revelations from investigative reporting, whistleblowers, or outspoken aggrieved victims of undercover abuse, nobody knows the difference.

But bona fide covert activities – traditionally the predominant purview of the intelligence agencies – are subject to reasonably stringent legal prescriptions that require the President to submit a presidential “finding” (authorization) to Congress in writing before such activities are undertaken; or, when circumstances dictate, to report to Congress in “timely fashion.”

By law, traditional diplomatic and military activities are exempt from consideration as covert (and thus not subject to such reporting requirements). Traditional military activities are considered those that remain under the purview of a military commander. Legalistic purists therefore say that these traditional military activities, when secret, are merely clandestine, passive intelligence-gathering, not active covert measures that seek to influence governments or political processes.

Throughout the Cold War and immediate post-Cold War period, there was considerable emphasis on having CIA paramilitary capabilities to compensate for international sensitivities to intervention by regular military forces. Today, the emphasis is on the use of military irregulars to compensate for the domestic legal restrictions that have been imposed on CIA covert paramilitary activities. Thus, the growing, seemingly permanent role of SOFs and what SOCOM commanders have testified is their standing posture: “persistent engagement.”

Score: Centurions 1, Us 0

“From a distance you look like my friend,/even though we are at war/From a distance I just cannot comprehend/what all this fighting is for. . . .”

– Julie Gold, “From a Distance” (1987) (as sung by Nanci Griffith, Judy Collins, Bette Midler)

All of this, unbeknownst to most of us, exacts a terrible price, the ideals of representative democracy left hanging in the balance.

Consider accountability and oversight. America’s founders were clear-eyed and clear in their design. War was and was to be an exceptional undertaking, not the norm; emergency, not routine; temporary, not permanent. It was to be embarked upon only with the consent and approval of the people’s representatives, acting on the people’s behalf, after reasoned deliberation. It was to be prosecuted by a military of the people whose proper purpose was providing for the common defense (not projecting power or force). It was to be subjected to stringent oversight, not ignored out of neglect or indifference. During the Cold War, with the perceived threat of hair-trigger nuclear annihilation, we compromised on this sanctified ideal. Today there is no threat – certainly not terrorism – worthy of continuing such a grand compromise; yet, through SOFs, we face a state of perpetual war in the shadows.

Consider transparency and truth. Secrecy is antithetical to transparency – and to truly representative democracy based on the consent of the governed and popular sovereignty. Though we preach transparency as an ideal, we are perfectly willing to swallow the self-serving claims of those in power that secrecy is essential to security. Truth – the truth of intentions and actions, of success and failure (never easy to establish for special operations) – has been left totally in the hands of manipulative civilian and military officials to orchestrate for our consumption and for their purposes.

Consider debased ethics. As we did during the Cold War, we continue today to let our enemies dictate our behavior, to determine the rules of the game, to establish what is acceptable and proper. The underlying proposition, that the only way to fight fire is with fire, results in an ethical race to the bottom in which we willingly forsake our own principles and values. At the same time, those in power have shown themselves all too willing, even eager, to endorse dirty deeds on their political behalf while hiding behind the cloak of deniability to keep their hands clean.

Consider blurred boundaries. There is little disputing that the ways in which our political and military masters have chosen to employ SOFs have, by intentional design, blurred sanctified boundaries that absolutely need to be maintained: those that distinguish military, intelligence, police, and internal security activities from one another (the mere existence of a special operations command that supports the domestically oriented US Northern Command speaks for itself); and those that define sovereignty, territorial integrity, aggression, and intervention in accordance with the international rule of law.

Consider the wholesale undermining of civilian control. There is no greater threat today to the hallowed Constitutional precept of civilian control of the military than special operations and operators. Where the military operates in total secrecy, accountability is jeopardized by the freedom, the license, that such secrecy confers; and where those charged with responsibility for exercising oversight forsake that responsibility for intentional ignorance and deniability, civilian control is nothing but rhetorical artifice.

In the final analysis, all of us share blame for a state of affairs we don’t even recognize. Considering that only about one percent of us serve in the military today (and less than 19 percent of Congress have served), it is perfectly understandable that most of us have little to no appreciation of the realities of military affairs. Even more is that so with regard to specialized military affairs totally hidden from public view. Our “insight,” such as it is, comes from the movies we turn out in droves to get off on (Lone Survivor, Zero Dark Thirty, American Sniper, Act of Valor among them). We are voyeuristic spectators, and special operations forces are the centurions-turned-gladiators who provide us vicarious outlet for our basest aggressive, violent impulses. They voluntarily do the work we have – and want –nothing to do with, and we’re perfectly content to muddle along, in blissful ignorance, our hands kept even cleaner than those who represent us.

The prosecution rests.

“The greatest temptations are not those that solicit our consent to obvious sin, but those that offer us great evils masking as the greatest good.”

– Thomas Merton

Gregory D. Foster is a professor at the National Defense University, a West Point graduate, and a veteran of the Vietnam War.