- US special operations forces have only gotten more active in recent years, deploying to more countries for a wider range of missions.
- Those troops have earned a reputation for their successes, but exalting them as “elite” misunderstands their role and risks corrupting the force as a whole, writes Lt. Col. Stewart “PR” Parker, a career Special Tactics Officer and senior military fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
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America’s special operations forces (SOF) are in high demand and their global presence is growing. In 2019, SOF operated in 141 countries, up from only 60 just over a decade ago. Rightfully, SOF have earned a reputation for their tremendous successes, like killing Osama bin Laden in 2011.
As the pace increases, so have concerns over their behavior. But the nation’s reverence for its SOF may itself be part of the problem — for too long, media has labeled SOF as more “elite” than the rest of the military. But the term “elite” implies better, and this raises the question, better for what?
Throughout history, SOF have evolved in myriad ways, most memorably with the creation of US Army Special Forces, whose Green Berets were officially recognized by President John F. Kennedy in 1962.
Today, all military personnel assigned under United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), are known by the umbrella term “special operations forces” (SOF). But America’s response to the 9/11 attacks pushed SOF into the limelight like never before, leading the way in global counter-terror (CT) and counter-insurgency (COIN) operations, and earning the media’s label as the “elite” echelon of the US military.
Since 2018, the Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy has been reorienting the military toward deterring state adversaries like China and Russia, simultaneously de-emphasizing CT and COIN. Unlike in current operations, during large scale conflict, SOF would primarily enable the main efforts of conventional military capabilities like fighter squadrons and infantry battalions.
Yet the obsession with “elite” SOF continues. As Dr. Tom Searle explains in the “General Theory of SOF,” “too often, special operations attract inordinate attention in the media and a certain mystique due to the perceived elite-ness of the SOF that conduct these operations.” The internet is littered with references to “elite” SOF units, from respected journals and news sources , to the sedate but authoritative Encyclopedia Britannica, which defines the “Green Berets” as an elite force in the US military.
It is surprising that the word “elite” has become a ubiquitous part of SOF’s description in the media because it is simply incorrect.
Defense strategists obsess with using precise terminology to explain units, tasks, and operational environments. “Elite” is never used as a term of reference for SOF inside the military. Leaders do not present SOF as “elite” when speaking to the press or when testifying before legislative oversight committees. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff does not advise the president on military forces in terms of “elite-ness.” The word “elite” does not appear in the USSOCOM mission statement. “Elite” is not even included in the official Department of Defense dictionary.
The word “elite” should never be used to describe SOF, because SOF are special, not elite.
While “special” and “elite” may be conflated in casual conversation, they do not mean the same thing. Elite implies better, whereas special is different. To say that SOF is better raises the question, for what purpose?
For example, Navy SEALs are special sailors, because SEALs are trained to “lock-out of submarines, jump out of planes, leave large ships, operate mini-submarines, swim to meet the enemy, and SEALs often fight the enemy on land.” But SEALs are not truly elite sailors, because SEALs are not better at doing the things that traditional sailors do, like operating warships, submarines, and aircraft.
Different military forces, like tools, are designed for different functions. A broad claim that SOF is elite, or better than the rest of the military makes no more sense than describing a screwdriver as a better version of a hammer.
Not only is the “elite” description of SOF incorrect, it is potentially dangerous. Over investment in SOF at the expense of conventional military forces would cause degradation in priority mission areas, including those normally assigned to SOF. USSOCOM is guided by the “SOF Truths,” the fifth of which states “most special operations require non-SOF assistance.”
The mission that killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Syria in 2019 and hundreds more like it could not have been possible without robust support from conventional ground, air, maritime, space, cyber, and logistics capabilities. Conceiving of SOF as elite could also lead to assigning SOF missions that would be better suited for conventional forces, which could lead to mission failure.
Furthermore, the term “elite” is dangerous because self-perceptions of elite-ness can lead to unhealthy hubris among SOF personnel. Those who feel elite may believe they are entitled to act outside the law, or that they are exempt from military standards of discipline.
Unfettered public praise for SOF may be contributing to exactly this trend. Young men — and more recently, women — who enter the military with aspirations to join SOF units are unwittingly indoctrinated by the media in their formative years that they will become “elite” once they have finished the appropriate training.
Recently, SOF have been accused of so much criminal behavior that in 2019, Congress mandated a comprehensive review on SOF professionalism. Some of the more egregious allegations against SOF include murder in Afghanistan, war crimes in Iraq, cocaine smuggling from Colombia to the US, manslaughter of a SOF teammate in Mali, theft of official funds, and numerous cases of sexual assault.
America should always be able to trust that its SOF component is ready, competent, and professional, but these crimes alleged to have been committed by SOF personnel have shown beyond doubt that perceptions of “elite-ness” are unwarranted.
SOF have contributed and sacrificed greatly in America’s bloody campaigns, but SOF are merely a tool set designed to accomplish missions that conventional forces cannot conduct on their own. Notions of SOF “elite-ness” expressed by the media and popular culture are unhealthy.
Allowing such perspectives to pervade public consciousness unchallenged damage the very SOF enterprise which Americans rely upon for their protection. Without recognizing that SOF are special, but not elite, SOF risks becoming less than what the country needs them to be.
Lt. Col. Stewart “PR” Parker is a career Special Tactics Officer currently assigned to the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) as a senior military fellow. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Department of Defense or the US government.