I dropped into a discussion of a particular aspect of the current film The Gunman the other day over at Lawyers, Guns & Money, and ended up thinking way more about this than I probably should; that for all that the U.S. public seems to think about soldiers that it typically thinks about soldiers in some very odd ways.
One of those ways we've talked about here quite a bit; that the interest in and concern for the soldiers that this public cheerfully (or, worse, unthinkingly) sends to do dirty work in the less-paved parts of the world isn't even an inch deep, that it typically takes the form of "yellow-ribbon patriotism" disconnected with any real interest in the soldiers themselves, what they're doing, and why.
But the discussion at the above post touched on something I started thinking about when we talked about that Chris Kyle American Sniper flick back in January. Which is that when Americans do think about soldiers, U.S. soldiers in the recent wars and rumors of wars in Southwest Asia, Africa, and the Balkans, they tend to think not of "soldiers" but of a particular type of soldier - the "special forces" soldier.
And that, in turn, got me thinking about "special" and "regular" soldiers and the aspect of the armed forces that has changed a lot since my RA time in the Eighties is the vast expansion of what is typically termed the "Special Operations Forces" or SOF, for short.
We certainly had the Army Special Forces in my time (along with the special-est SF outfit, SFOD Delta or "Delta Force") along with the aviation outfit that went with them.
The Navy had their SEAL teams, the Air Force their Pararescue outfits, and the Marines their Recon. Since then, however, we've had the U.S. Army Ranger battalions added to the "SOF Community", and the Marines have upgraded a bunch of their Marine Amphibious Units or MAUs to "special operations-capable". And the number of guys working in the Army SF and Navy SEAL outfits has grown all to hell. There's a LOT of swinging dicks swinging around the "SOF Community"
Here's the thing. If you lump all those outfits into the category "special forces" it seems to me that you end up with a hell of a lot of guys that are fundamentally just high-speed light infantrymen.
Hey, look, the batt guys in the Ranger Regiment are damn good troops, among the best-trained and organized parachute infantry in the world. But that's what they are; parachute infantrymen. They may work out on the hairy-assed end of conventional war...but what they do is what my old parachute battalions did; patrols like recons, raids, and ambushes, hasty and deliberate defenses, hasty and deliberate attacks. They may be a little faster and a little more precise than my old outfits, but the skillsets are fundamentally the 11-series skillsets.
Thinking that actually got me thinking about “What does count as a “special operations mission”?
I can think of just two right off the top of my head; the original Army Special Forces (which was intended to be a sort of WW2-SOE-OSS-style guerrilla-warfare outfit) mission of training up friendly G's...and the Navy’s Underwater Demolition Teams, who were tasked with amphibious reconnaissance and landing-beach-obstacle removal.
Regular grunts can't and don't do that stuff; those really ARE "special" missions.
But everybody else just seems to me to do light infantry stuff with just some cute extra tricks thrown in and sometimes in an "operations other than war" setting.
AND...since the beginning of the Global War on (Some Kinds of People Who Use Some Kinds of) Terror ISTM that a lot of the Army SF and Navy SEAL teams - the successors of the UDTs - have moved a lot closer to conventional infantry (at least in execution).
SFOD Delta and SEAL Team 6 may perform “special operations missions” in the sense that they don’t always operate on a conventional battlefield...but the principles of a hostage rescue seem very analogous to a “raid"...and many of the sorts of missions that the regular SF and SEAL teams were performing in SW Asia seem very much like conventional infantry patrols.
Marine Recon missions seem very analogous to the Army's Rangers, and the Air Force's PJ missions seem to me like your basic "raid"; move to the objective (the downed pilot), secure the objective whilst killing or driving off enemy forces, withdraw from the objective.
So while there seem to be a lot more US troops thrown into the "special operations" bag of holding the number that actually do anything "special" - that is, who do something other than be a high-speed, low-drag infantryman - are not just rare but fewer than they were back in my day.
Think about the Kyle movie we talked about. The dude was a sniper. A SEAL team sniper, sure...but a sniper. My old battalions had a bunch of 'em. They were, generally, experienced guys with good infantry skills. But that was what they were. They weren't these war-porn super-soldiers...and I suspect that the actual number of people out there who are or could be is really, really tiny, and that the war-porn has got the U.S. public confused in thinking that their "special operators" ARE super-soldiers instead of just better-trained and experienced infantrymen.
After all this discussion of "specialness" I'm not sure what the general misconception of "special forces" as movie super-soldiers might do the the public's enthusiasm for sending those guys out to slay Afridis where they run.
But it's nothing particularly intelligent or good, I suspect.