Oppose Any Foe: The Rise of America’s Special Operations Forces,
by Mark Moyar
(Basic Books, 432 pages, $30)
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.
These arguments against special ops forces, and their corollary counter-arguments in favor, form the recurring background theme for all of the stories in the book. As evidence of the validity of the arguments against, the majority of special operations groups created during World War II were disbanded and assimilated into conventional units before the end of the war. As evidence of the arguments pro, America has come to rely upon special ops forces to an unprecedented degree in the years since 9/11/2001. These have grown from a few hundred commandos in the beginning to 70,000 today.
While “unconventional” warfare has been around at least as long as “conventional” large armies and navies, and the frontier experience in North America in the past 400 years provides many examples, the special operations forces as we know them today, according to Moyar, have their roots in World War II. For this reason Moyar dedicates three of his eleven chapters to the warriors of that period: Rangers and Forcemen; Raiders and (Navy) Frogmen, precursor to the SEALs; and the Office of Strategic Services or OSS, precursor to the CIA. From there he surveys the evolution, burial, and resurrection of special operations forces during the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the rise of JSOC and SOCOM including the failed 1980 Iran hostage rescue mission “Eagle Claw” as well as adventures in Grenada, Panama and Desert Storm, a.k.a. the First Gulf War; then “Gothic Serpent” (the “Black Hawk Down” incident in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993); defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan, the capture of Saddam Hussein, and the explosive growth in special operations in the years since 9/11/2001 including the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan, “Neptune Spear.”
For the busy reader who requires an executive overview, Moyar provides excellent one-to two-page summaries at the end of each chapter. One reason to read the details, of course, is to become familiar with the myriad historical facts that inform Moyar’s conclusions. But the overriding reason to open the book at Page 1 and turn each one all the way to the end, is to get the full impact of the human story. For while this is a book about strategy, tactics, weapon systems, politics and policy, it is above all a story, or rather collection of stories, about the extraordinary individuals who have volunteered, trained, planned, executed, and bled for America and its allies in special operations. From the blue-blooded West Point valedictorian to the backwoods kid from West Virginia who lied about his age in order to enlist, and for whom Marine boot camp was the most comfortable and well-fed period of his life so far at the time, Moyar gives us countless portraits of exceptional, flawed, skilled, and above all courageous soldiers, sailors, and airmen.
• “Given the severity of the injury, no one would have faulted Harris had he lain down on the beach and awaited medical attention. But he chose instead to lead other Rangers in the charge up to the city. Pushing his intestines back in with his cartridge belt, he guided men out of the mine field and into the riptide of Rangers that was flying up the bluff.” (From p. 4, the landing on Gela, Sicily, July 10, 1943.)
• “A few adult males opened fire on the SEALs, achieving nothing save for the exposure of their own locations. The return fire of the SEALs, exceptional in its accuracy, killed all of the hostile shooters in seconds.” (From p. 303, the assault on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, May 1, 2011.)
• “Mitchell and St. Laurent, aware that they could not fight off multiple squads of North Vietnamese by themselves, resolved to take Mixter’s body to a new location from which they would be extracted by helicopter. But with St. Laurent wounded and both of them much smaller than Mixter, they were unable to carry the body. Back on the radio, St. Laurent contacted John Plaster, who was coordinating action from an OV-10 Bronco overhead, to say that they intended to stay with Mixter until they could be picked up. Plaster could see large bunches of North Vietnamese in nearby positions, who would surely shoot apart any helicopter that landed near the spot where Mixter lay dead — if they have not already killed Mitchell and St. Laurent by the time a helicopter was ready to retrieve them. Plaster told St. Laurent that he and Mitchell needed to move, even if it meant leaving Mixter behind. ‘It’s OK, Lurch would understand,’ Plaster radioed. ‘We have to think about the living right now, partner. Now get moving.’” (From p. 148, Recon Team Colorado in Laos, January 1971.)
When we learn how a soldier died in a battle, it’s not a cold, abstract statistic; we feel it in our gut and tears flow because we know him personally, even if only for a page.
For every story of a brilliantly conceived and flawlessly executed raid requiring super-human capabilities against overwhelming odds, there are plenty more cases of events turning horribly, even inexcusably wrong from the start of the mission. A helicopter assault in the Iranian desert doesn’t anticipate hundred-mile-wide sandstorms. A handheld device for guiding precision munitions reboots due to exhausted batteries and signals its own location as the target. A surprise attack is derailed when one of the soldiers accidentally fires his weapon, alerting the sleeping enemy and bringing hellfire down on the team. A helicopter lands on an Afghan hilltop previously confirmed by multiple high-tech gadgets and laser beams to be remote from any human presence, only to find it crawling with AK 47- and rocket-propelled grenade-wielding insurgents the second the craft touches down.
Readers who are looking only for a Delta Force thriller or Navy SEAL adventure story may be put off by the recurring and detailed accounts of the infighting among the armed services. But the mature reader will appreciate the realism of these case studies, which contrasts with the oversimplified and sanitized versions that tend to make their way into too many college textbooks of various disciplines. It’s not possible to understand the evolution of the special operations forces without taking into account inflated and/or fragile egos, petty jealousies, soft and hard power manipulation, hierarchy, bureaucracy and organizational politics.
At the highest levels of politics, Moyar reserves special criticism for America’s presidents, who have rarely demonstrated a clear understanding of the special operations forces’ capabilities and limitations. Franklin Roosevelt initiated formation of the first special operations forces at the urging of his Marine Captain son James over the objections of his generals, then progressively lost interest. Lyndon Baines Johnson and Barack Obama used the special operations forces at times less because they were the appropriate military assets to deploy than because they could use them without attracting too much public attention. Bill Clinton threw the Rangers under the political bus after the Mogadishu debacle. Only John F. Kennedy, in Moyar’s view, demonstrated support for the special operations forces that was based on a lucid assessment of their strengths and weaknesses.
Many books have been written about particular special operations services, units and/or missions. Oppose Any Foe purports to be the first comprehensive history of its kind, putting all of the others under its contextual umbrella. With few flaws, it succeeds brilliantly in presenting a sweeping 100,000-foot view all the way down to ground, dirt, sweat and blood level. A must-read.