By TARA McKELVEY
Special Operations Command was founded on disaster. The Iran hostage rescue operation of April 1980 — when three of the eight helicopters that were supposed to be used for the mission had mechanical problems, and eight U.S. servicemen died — was a turning point for the United States, and for the U.S. military, too. Americans were humiliated by the spectacle of fifty-three people being held captive in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, and military officers struggled to find a way to ensure that the branches of the military worked together more effectively in order to prevent a similar situation from unfolding in the future.“Once upon a time all the special operators were trained and kept separate in different branches of the military, and this mission showed the importance of unity,” a senior-level officer at U.S. Special Operations Command headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida told me, describing the hostage crisis as a galvanizing force that led to creation of U.S. Special Operations. “Congress decided, ‘We can’t let this happen again.’”
The story of the hostage crisis received intense scrutiny. Indeed, one of the most popular news programs in the nation, Nightline, was established during the hostage crisis as journalist Ted Koppel tracked the number of days that the Americans were held at the Embassy. Since that time, journalists and Special Forces have worked in tandem, and have also been at odds, as Americans have faced their most trying times.
Some time after the failed attempt to rescue the hostages in Iran, a review panel, headed up by Admiral James L. Holloway, was created by Joint Chiefs of Staff in order to find a better way for the military to respond to crises. The work of the Special Forces had been deteriorating for decades, particularly since the Vietnam war when its funding was cut dramatically. The members of the Holloway panel made a series of recommendations that were designed to make U.S. Special Forces more nimble and effective and to ensure that they would be able to successfully resolve crises like the one in Iran and supported the creation of an umbrella unit that would oversee this part of the military. President Ronald Reagan signed off on the establishment of U.S. Special Operations on April 13, 1987.
“That was the genesis of it,” explained Lt. Gen. William “Jerry” Boykin, a former Pentagon’s senior military intelligence official who served under President George W. Bush.
Since then, Special Operations has expanded its mandate from rescuing hostages to fighting drug traffickers and terrorists, jumping into countries that ranged from Grenada to Somalia and building up a fleet of covert planes and helicopters, as well as engaging in psychological operations and Civil Affairs, which trains soldiers and officers to work with local people in a host of countries and assist in fighting against insurgencies. The men and women who work in Civil Affairs have also worked extensively to provide humanitarian aid to people in Haiti after the island was hit by natural disasters, and they helped restore public transportation, electrical grids, and other parts of the infrastructure in Bosnia and assisted in the creation of a national government. In Kosovo, soldiers in the Civil Affairs division set up a radio station in Pristina and helped ensure that people had access to running water, according to the “United States Special Operations Command History” (USSOCOM History and Research Office, 2008). (Embedded above, right).
In recent years, members of the Psychological Operations unit created websites to fight against the propaganda circulated by terrorist groups in Iraq. They have also funded American-style magazines in Latin America and provided $1.5 million for the creation of a Mali documentary about “tolerant tenets of Islam.”
Since 2001, one of the elite units, Joint Special Operations Command (JSCOC – it is pronounced “j-sock”), has focused on a global campaign of hunting down and killing the leaders of Al Qaeda and other violent groups, and today the pursuit for terrorists is the main focus of the unit. Joint Special Operations Command encompasses several branches of the military, including the Army’s Delta Force, the Navy’s SEAL Team 6, and the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, and its umbrella organization in the military is the United States Special Operations Command, located in Tampa, Fla., with the strike forces stationed at Fort Bragg.
While Special Operations encompasses a variety of missions and tasks, ranging from the establishment of radio stations and websites to restoring electrical grids to the building of roads and schools in war-torn countries, the division of Special Operations that has accrued the most funding, equipment, and personnel has been the side that focuses on “direct action,” or the pursuit of terrorists. Direct Action is often referred to as “kinetics,” which are “basically very offensive things like raids, door kicking,” Michael P. Noonan, the managing director of the Program on National Security at Foreign Policy Research Institute, a Philadelphia-based research organization. “Non-kinetic is working by, with and through local population, or counterinsurgency work.”
Some military analysts believe that the emphasis on the offensive side of Special Operations is short-sighted. “That’s the Hollywood part. The most exciting part,” John Nagl, president of a Washington-based, nonpartisan organization, the Center for a New American Strategy, told me, describing the dangerous Special Operations missions that are undertaken to capture and kill terrorists. “But in some ways it’s the least important part.” He argues that the significant work for special operators and soldiers lies in helping people in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries to rebuild civil society and other institutions and in this way establish a more lasting peace.
Journalists have traditionally been drawn to the more glamorous, and dangerous, aspects of U.S. Special Operations and focused their coverage on the capture and killing of terrorists and on efforts to rescue Americans, dating back to the Iranian hostage crisis. Covering prosaic aspects of Special Operations, such as their efforts at promoting civil society in countries overseas, may seem less appealing, and yet provides many important stories about the U.S. military and its role in the world.