Small Wars Journal

Book Review - Oppose Any Foe: The Rise of America’s Special Operations Forces

Book Review - Oppose Any Foe: The Rise of America’s Special Operations Forces by Ian F.W. Beckett, Wall Street Journal

In May 1980, British television was interrupted by a live broadcast of balaclava-clad Special Air Service men storming the Iranian Embassy in London to rescue hostages taken by an Iranian separatist group. Such operations were not perhaps a surprise for the baby-boomer generation. After all, we had been brought up with celluloid heroics in which Dirk Bogarde —it was nearly always Dirk Bogarde—snatched German generals from Crete or raided Rommel’s supply lines in North Africa. But for younger generations of Britons, the embassy raid had an enormous impact, spawning a new fascination with special-operations forces. Their growing mystique has led to a stream of often lamentable books with “SAS” on the cover as well as, more seriously, a misleading confidence in their superiority to conventional forces for many missions.

As Mark Moyar’s “Oppose Any Foe: The Rise of America’s Special Operations Forces” demonstrates, there has been a similar trend in the U.S. The various American special forces, which date from the formation of the Army First Ranger Battalion in 1942, now number 70,000 members. They have moved from being a secondary weapon to a primary weapon. Gen. Peter Schoomaker became the first special-forces officer to be Army chief of staff in 2003, and Gen. Stanley McChrystal the first special-forces officer to be given direction of an entire campaign—in Afghanistan—in 2009.

But, at best, unconventional units have offered tactical rather than strategic success. The one exception was the ousting of the Taliban from Afghanistan in support of the Northern Alliance immediately after 9/11; operations against al Qaeda in eastern Afghanistan were not as successful. There has been a litany of failures, including Operation Eagle Claw in Iran in April 1980 and Operation Gothic Serpent in Somalia in October 1993. Successive presidents, however, have fallen under the spell of special forces, although their support has often been qualified and quickly withdrawn, as was the case with President Bill Clinton after Somalia.

It is Mr. Moyar’s contention that the problem has been that few incumbents of the White House have understood special forces’ limitations. Special forces, he says, are best suited to counterinsurgency...

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