America’s special operations forces — the Navy Seals, the Army Rangers, Delta Force, Special Operations Command (SOCOM), Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and so forth — have been a source of pride and inspiration, as well as disappointment, to Americans for generations. These elite warriors embody the hope of many for a means of achieving decisive and swift strategic victory in a short time and at a low cost in treasure, lives and limbs.
There are indeed many historical instances of special operations forces accomplishing astonishingly difficult, daring and successful raids. Nevertheless, Mark Moyar in his new book Oppose Any Foe: The Rise of America’s Special Operations Forces, gives us a stark reality check on the track record of success and effectiveness of these forces. He illustrates a common lack of understanding with a quote from an Associated Press reporter: “The Navy SEAL operation that freed two Western hostages in Somalia is representative of the Obama administration’s pledge to build a smaller, more agile military force that can carry out surgical counterterrorist strikes to cripple an enemy. That’s a strategy much preferred to the land invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan that have cost so much American blood and treasure over the past decade.”
As Moyar makes abundantly clear through numerous examples in his survey of special operations forces activities over the past 80 years, while special operators can be and have been very effective for certain well-defined tactical tasks, they in no way substitute for large, conventional forces; they have suffered many disastrous defeats; and even in tactical success, their record of strategic impact falls far short of a slam-dunk. Indeed, many in the military have long been of the opinion that such forces as such ought not even to exist.
The principal arguments against special operations from many leaders of the conventional military are: 1) They pilfer badly needed talent and other resources from conventional units; 2) Their elitism, arrogance, and tendency to bend if not break rules and protocols are unbecoming and destructive of military discipline; 3) When they fail, they concentrate and multiply the loss of the best warriors; 4) They cannot substitute for large, conventional forces; 5) the opportunities to use their specialized skills and tactics to valuable effect are too few and far between, and 6) Conventional forces have units that can do everything that special ops forces can do.