Thursday, March 26, 2015

Isn't that SPECIAL..!

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.


brtrain said...

I absolutely agree with you. I recently read Kaplan's near-hagiographic "Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts" where he spends lots of time hanging out with SOF types. Everyone wants to be a Secret Squirrel type, or at least be seen as part of that crowd, even if you really are just another log-wog - necessary, but unglamorous.

It's not quite the same, but I've seen the sort of thing in many 3rd World countries where their "SOF" or "commando" forces are really just better-trained and equipped light infantry. Of course, they are also necessary to the continued survival of the regime that put them there, and sometimes their effectiveness against people with guns may be in doubt....

I understand your frustration with political and social issues. It''s much the same up here north of your border; we are trundling down the path you blazed just a few years before and people are being almost willfully blind to it. It's always been easier to frighten people and the more frightened they get, the easier it is for crap like this to happen.

Brian said...

Another word - I would like to see you keep writing; I'd miss your blog a lot. I love your rants and war stories; your battle accounts are stupendous and deserve much wider publication.

FDChief said...

If anything a lot of the 3rd World armies are WORSE; their armies are pretty much shit to begin with and the regime skims off the best people for their Republican Guard units or whatever they call them - the most loyal elements of the army - and then has to create an inner circle within the inner circle and so on.

By the time they're finished the "regular" units are a Dantaean Hell.

At least with the US military the educational and technical level is broad enough that these "special" units don't really put a dent in the quality of the rest of the forces...

Big Daddy said...

I think the SOF problem can be summed up in one phrase "Gucci door kicker". As you point out, most of what these guys currently do is just a fancy version of standard infantry grunt tasks. There are some exceptions like Air Force Combat Controllers and the few SF guys doing their original job of raising and advising indigenous forces but by and large you are right.
Anyway keep on blogging the fun stuff, and as a challenge see what you can write about Ghent Wevelgem where Gert Steegmans got blown into a canal.

Lisa said...

They were, generally, experienced guys with good infantry skills. But that was what they were.

This is exactly what I understand from the men who did that work in past wars; it was a job to do.

The "American Sniper" sort of film reclaims the anti-hero type, like Rambo, as one of our own. The country has assuaged its guilt over the poor homecoming for the Vietnam veterans. There will be no more soldiers suffering flashbacks or going native.

He may be slightly effed up from doing all the nasty things God and country asks of him, but Hyle's never gonna turn on us. He's a good little transformer, wearing his baseball cap on backwards, looking like he'd be at home anywhere in middle America.

Hollywood is providing the US military with priceless recruitment propaganda ... did it start with "Top Gun"?

Lisa said...

sorry ...

not "Hyle", but "Kyle".

Lisa said...

commo ck

FDChief said...

I think that the flicks are just a reflection of the country as a whole, Lisa.

We the People don't really want to think much about what these guys are actually doing, doing in the sense of the "why" they're fighting. If we did we'd have to see how we're doing what all those nasty redcoats we hated back in high school history were doing; just trying to suppress a nasty local rebellion for the local autocrats (or theocrats, or oil shieks...whatev...)

So most recent war flicks try and take the politics out of it to the extent they can. Some - like that one about the EOD guy (Hurt Locker) just made it seem meaningless. The Kyle movie made the Iraqis cartoon bad guys so the US could just be good guys. And, as most war films tend to do, they emphasize the "heroic" aspects of soldiering - nobody wants to go see some horrible film where the nice guys all die for nothing, right?

So the end result is to make the GIs into heroes...but plastic, instantly-disposable heroes who are about as subtle and memorable as that plastic cup of pop you drained and tossed aside...

Not coincidently I think this is why there is so little public interest outside the far Right in awards and decorations from these wars. For the real anti-war Left it's like celebrating "Panzer" Meyer for winning the Knight's Cross - sure, the guy's a hell of a soldier and did a hell of a brave thing. But look at the cause...

For the mushy Middle it's just a vague sense that there's no real honor or glory to be won bashing these hopeless wogs, that winning a Silver Star for killing some Iraqis is like getting a civic award for beating up kiddies in a daycare playground - it's not like they were Germans or Japanese or even NVA or VC...

So, yes - these war flicks are good propaganda, in a way. But also, not - because the wars they depict are so obviously moronic that they can't really sell the heroes AS heroes. It'd be like being awarded the "Biggest Midget" award...