The Secret Army inside the Army (Bacevich)

Andrew J. Bacevich writes at

Globalizing the Global War on Terror

By Andrew J. Bacevich

As he campaigns for reelection, President Obama periodically reminds audiences of his success in terminating the deeply unpopular Iraq War.  With fingers crossed for luck, he vows to do the same with the equally unpopular war in Afghanistan.  If not exactly a peacemaker, our Nobel Peace Prize-winning president can (with some justification) at least claim credit for being a war-ender.

Yet when it comes to military policy, the Obama administration’s success in shutting down wars conducted in plain sight tells only half the story, and the lesser half at that.  More significant has been this president’s enthusiasm for instigating or expanding secret wars, those conducted out of sight and by commandos.

President Franklin Roosevelt may not have invented the airplane, but during World War II he transformed strategic bombing into one of the principal emblems of the reigning American way of war.  General Dwight D. Eisenhower had nothing to do with the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb.  Yet, as president, Ike’s strategy of Massive Retaliation made nukes the centerpiece of U.S. national security policy.

So, too, with Barack Obama and special operations forces.  The U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) with its constituent operating forces — Green Berets, Army Rangers, Navy SEALs, and the like — predated his presidency by decades.  Yet it is only on Obama’s watch that these secret warriors have reached the pinnacle of the U.S. military’s prestige hierarchy.

John F. Kennedy famously gave the Green Berets their distinctive headgear.  Obama has endowed the whole special operations “community” with something less decorative but far more important: privileged status that provides special operators with maximum autonomy while insulating them from the vagaries of politics, budgetary or otherwise.  Congress may yet require the Pentagon to undertake some (very modest) belt-tightening, but one thing’s for sure: no one is going to tell USSOCOM to go on a diet.  What the special ops types want, they will get, with few questions asked — and virtually none of those few posed in public.

Since 9/11, USSOCOM’s budget has quadrupled. The special operations order of battle has expanded accordingly.  At present, there are an estimated 66,000 uniformed and civilian personnel on the rolls, a doubling in size since 2001 with further growth projected. Yet this expansion had already begun under Obama’s predecessor.  His essential contribution has been to broaden the special ops mandate.  As one observer put it, the Obama White House let Special Operations Command “off the leash.”

As a consequence, USSOCOM assets today go more places and undertake more missions while enjoying greater freedom of action than ever before.  After a decade in which Iraq and Afghanistan absorbed the lion’s share of the attention, hitherto neglected swaths of Africa, Asia, and Latin America are receiving greater scrutiny. Already operating in dozens of countries around the world — as many as 120 by the end of this year — special operators engage in activities that range from reconnaissance and counterterrorism to humanitarian assistance and “direct action.” The traditional motto of the Army special forces is “De Oppresso Liber” (“To Free the Oppressed”).  A more apt slogan for special operations forces as a whole might be “Coming soon to a Third World country near you!”

The displacement of conventional forces by special operations forces as the preferred U.S. military instrument — the “force of choice” according to the head of USSOCOM, Admiral William McRaven — marks the completion of a decades-long cultural repositioning of the American soldier.  The G.I., once represented by the likes of cartoonist Bill Mauldin’s iconic Willie and Joe, is no more, his place taken by today’s elite warrior professional.  Mauldin’s creations were heroes, but not superheroes.  The nameless, lionized SEALs who killed Osama bin Laden are flesh-and blood Avengers.  Willie and Joe were “us.”  SEALs are anything but “us.”  They occupy a pedestal well above mere mortals.  Couch potato America stands in awe of their skill and bravery.

This cultural transformation has important political implications.  It represents the ultimate manifestation of the abyss now separating the military and society. Nominally bemoaned by some, including former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and former Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen, this civilian-military gap has only grown over the course of decades and is now widely accepted as the norm.  As one consequence, the American people have forfeited owner’s rights over their army, having less control over the employment of U.S. forces than New Yorkers have over the management of the Knicks or Yankees.

As admiring spectators, we may take at face value the testimony of experts (even if such testimony is seldom disinterested) who assure us that the SEALs, Rangers, Green Berets, etc. are the best of the best, and that they stand ready to deploy at a moment’s notice so that Americans can sleep soundly in their beds.  If the United States is indeed engaged, as Admiral McRaven has said, in “a generational struggle,” we will surely want these guys in our corner.

Even so, allowing war in the shadows to become the new American way of war is not without a downside.  Here are three reasons why we should think twice before turning global security over to Admiral McRaven and his associates.

Goodbye accountability.  Autonomy and accountability exist in inverse proportion to one another.  Indulge the former and kiss the latter goodbye.  In practice, the only thing the public knows about special ops activities is what the national security apparatus chooses to reveal.  Can you rely on those who speak for that apparatus in Washington to tell the truth?  No more than you can rely on JPMorgan Chase to manage your money prudently.  Granted, out there in the field, most troops will do the right thing most of the time.  On occasion, however, even members of an elite force will stray off the straight-and-narrow.  (Until just a few weeks ago, most Americans considered White House Secret Service agents part of an elite force.)  Americans have a strong inclination to trust the military.  Yet as a famous Republican once said: trust but verify.  There’s no verifying things that remain secret.  Unleashing USSOCOM is a recipe for mischief.

Hello imperial presidency.  From a president’s point of view, one of the appealing things about special forces is that he can send them wherever he wants to do whatever he directs.  There’s no need to ask permission or to explain.  Employing USSOCOM as your own private military means never having to say you’re sorry.  When President Clinton intervened in Bosnia or Kosovo, when President Bush invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, they at least went on television to clue the rest of us in.  However perfunctory the consultations may have been, the White House at least talked things over with the leaders on Capitol Hill.  Once in a while, members of Congress even cast votes to indicate approval or disapproval of some military action.  With special ops, no such notification or consultation is necessary.  The president and his minions have a free hand.  Building on the precedents set by Obama, stupid and reckless presidents will enjoy this prerogative no less than shrewd and well-intentioned ones.

And then what…?  As U.S. special ops forces roam the world slaying evildoers, the famous question posed by David Petraeus as the invasion of Iraq began — “Tell me how this ends” — rises to the level of Talmudic conundrum.  There are certainly plenty of evildoers who wish us ill (primarily but not necessarily in the Greater Middle East).  How many will USSOCOM have to liquidate before the job is done?  Answering that question becomes all the more difficult given that some of the killing has the effect of adding new recruits to the ranks of the non-well-wishers.

In short, handing war to the special operators severs an already too tenuous link between war and politics; it becomes war for its own sake.  Remember George W. Bush’s “Global War on Terror”?  Actually, his war was never truly global.  War waged in a special-operations-first world just might become truly global — and never-ending.  In that case, Admiral McRaven’s “generational struggle” is likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University and a TomDispatch regular.  He is editor of the new book The Short American Century, just published by Harvard University Press. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Bacevich discusses what we don’t know about special operations forces, click here or download it to your iPod here.

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Copyright 2012 Andrew J. Bacevich


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9 Responses

  1. Are we admitting that we have lost? America fielding international death squads seems an admission that we have lost the moral high ground as well as having lost the war. Can a strategy of assassination defeat a movement that has some popular support? Are the people that we label “terrorists” viewed the same over there? Does this strategy make their movement weaker or stronger? Does this make us stronger or weaker?

    • Are we admitting that we have lost?

      Only if you define the war to be won or lost in terms of a Risk board. This transition does, certainly, reflect that we have given up on trying to fight the civilizational war George Bush’s crowd imagined. That doesn’t actually upset me all that much.

      Can a strategy of assassination defeat a movement that has some popular support?

      Al Qaeda has very little popular support.

      Are the people that we label “terrorists” viewed the same over there?

      One of the most interesting finds from the bin Laden compound were his messages decrying how unpopular al Qaeda had become because of their atrocities against Muslims, such as the bombings of Shiite mosques.

      • This transition does, certainly, reflect that we have given up on trying to fight the civilizational war

        we already won that war. al qaeda has been marginalized, and the arab / muslim world is now focused on reforming their own countries, not blaming the West for all their ills.

    • We’ve been fielding international death squads since the day the Cold War began. Usually we used locals, but I’m sure we’ve brought in foreign mercenaries many times. Compared to the far worse things we did during the Cold War, like some of the murderous governments we created and the coups we’ve sponsored, the death toll is pretty trivial. But the largest such act, Operation Phoenix, was very large and very bloody, and perhaps had the perverse result of killing the best and bravest leaders that Vietnam could have had, conveniently clearing the decks for Hanoi bureaucrats to sweep down and unify the country without any role for local Communists.

      Church Committee or no Church Committee, it doesn’t seem to me that there was ever a mandate from the American people to never use assassination as a weapon again if it saved a few bucks and a few of our boys. We simply don’t value the lives of foreign human beings.

      • Yes, but look at it this way. We and the nations affected have paid dearly Cold War assassinations and coups (Iran, Vietnam, Congo, Chile, etc.) and US backing of corrupt dictators from Chile to Indonesia to South Africa. During the Cold War, what was one country’s national struggle was a communist conspiracy to successive US governments. That is the problem about picking who to kill with drones. Most Americans, including myself, are not going to cry for Queda operatives hit by drones. And a case can be made that the number of civilians killed in drone attacks is no more than those killed in more traditional operations.

        The problems are 1) one country (even one president!) making those decisions all over the world; 2) the antiseptic nature of drone warfare in which the attacker can attack at will with no damage to itself; 3) the proliferation of drones throughout the world, which governments can use against regime protesters; 4) possibility of drone attacks on leaders of other countries the US doesn’t like; etc. Fundamentally, the proliferation of drones will not only change and lower the cost ofthe tools of warfare, it will ultimately localize and decentralize fighting, put powerful weapons in the hands of free-lancers (who wants a suitcase bomb when you can use a drone) and introduce a new level of chaos to global security.

  2. QUOTE: “There are certainly plenty of evildoers who wish us ill (primarily but not necessarily in the Greater Middle East).”

    Perhaps. But, more important, there are certainly a lot of perfectly decent people in the Greater Middle East who wish us ill (or would like to get us off their backs and out of their backyards) because of the horrors of the wars and drone-attacks we’ve visited on them.

    Did a few New Yorkers (and a lot of middle Americans) wish “ill” on Al-Qa’ida after 9-11? And should we therefore call these American ill-wishers “evildoers”? I think not. Could we have a little nuance, please?

    I don’t like the language Mr. Bacevich used here, whatever his reason for using it. I respect him greatly. But this usage just adds to the likelihood that the USA’s wild, lawless, unconstitutional, and (in my view, also, “evil”) war-making will be looked at by the public, if at all, unreflectively.

  3. The transition from large-scale, main-force war fighting – like the Iraq War – to special forces operations and drone strikes is a consequence of the transition this administration has made from the “War on Terror” (a civilizational conflict between “the West” and “the Islamic world”) to a war against al Qaeda.

    • I agree. But it is very dangerous to make war seem consequence-free. Too many empires went down that road when their armies were optimal, and found themselves uncontrollably rolling down the road to hell when conditions turned against them. Remember what General Lee said during one of his great victories: “It is good that war should be so terrible, or we would soon grow too fond of it.”

    • So we have 66,000 special ops people in 120 countries to fight al Qaeda? About 30 guys for every terrorist? I think the US taxpayers are being scammed.

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