Small Wars Journal

Special Ops Bravado Hurts National Security

Wed, 05/01/2013 - 5:49pm

Special Ops Bravado Hurts National Security - CNN Op-Ed by Michele L. Malvesti and Nancy Walbridge Collins.

Wednesday is the second anniversary of the Osama bin Laden raid.

The terrorist leader's death made the world safer, but the bombings in Boston on Patriots' Day are a cruel reminder that we will never prevent every act of terror. In the United States, we accept that risks coexist with our culture of freedom. Yet we also must act with greater responsibility in the face of ongoing threats.

We can begin by rejecting a culture that drives details of our nation's special operations missions out into the open, thereby weakening our national security...


I suspect if a non-bias group of researchers studied this problem they would find multiple cultural factors driving it. I think most people in my generation of SF view bravado as a sign of personal weakness or insecurity, but obviously that perception has changed over the past few decades. True believers know their contributions are minimal in the bigger picture and they take quiet pride in being a small part of the much greater collective effort.

I am not confident the authors hit upon the most important concerns/risks this bravado creates. They had three key points.

1. Excessive focus on the shinny object minimizes the contributions of the much larger team and in turn creates backlash. Eventually we're going to see significant SOF antibodies emerge which will harm our national security.

2. They believe excessive accolades will cause SOF to be misused and overused. Maybe, but I suspect the greatest risk of that happening is every SOF leader from Company level and up wanting to make his mark during his period of command. CDR's don't get rewarded for telling their CDRs that the men need a break.

3. The authors claim "most" portrayals depict the direct action/violent view of SOF, which prohibits the collective understanding of military power. I'm not sure this is true, there are probably more articles on special operations in the Philippines and Columbia for example than there are on some recent successful direct action missions. The market determines which ones get read the most, discussed the most, etc., and it is simply a fact that if it bleeds it leads. Personally I don't see what is wrong by advertising special operations forces conducted a success raid to kill UBL or rescue hostages in Somalia. The risk is when we disclose the tactics and techniques used.

I think the greater risk to our security is the distrust in the U.S. to keep a secret that will be develop with potential future partners. A lot of governments and/or individuals put themselves at great risk to work with us and expect us to be able to maintain their confidentially. Publically exposing a doctor in Pakistan who allegedly assisted the U.S. find UBL, who is now in Pakistani prison will do little to enhance our security posture in the coming years. There are a lot of "real" quiet heroes out there who don't want media coverage because it will put their families at risk, but they have the courage to act without any expectation of hero worship. If those true heroes lose faith in us, that will impact our national security in ways we can't anticipate over the years.

Sadly the authors call for a directive to address the leak problem. The USG seems to have two answers for everything. One is to throw money at the problem and the other is to come up with more rules than one can possibly read. We already have these directives and laws, they just need to enforced, but more importantly we need to reinstate the culture of quiet professionals and that means less media coverage. That is a hard pill for our commanders to swallow who are addicted to it.


Sun, 05/05/2013 - 12:16pm

In reply to by Brian_Deuce

Agree completely. As we continue to look for smaller, quieter, cheaper tools to implement foreign policy, SOF provides a clear alternative to moving a DIV or a carrier strike group into an AOR. All the services are scrambling to provide an answer to "what comes next" (see AirSea Battle) and SOF is no different. For all the success of the SOF elements within our services in recent years, I wonder sometimes if they are selling something more than they can provide. The new "Global SOF Network" as proposed concerns me, as it creates an inherently disjointed command structure and understanding of who is responsible for what. As everyone tries to carve out their niche in the future environment, I think we are focusing on the tools more than we are the house we are trying to build.


Fri, 05/03/2013 - 2:36pm

Well written op-ed, and well thoughtout responses. But I'm surprised to see that no one has acknowledged why the SOF leadership supports this publicity; funding. Touting successes provides a narrative, and in a time of significant fiscal pressure, those narratives help sell the need to maintain or increase cash flow. SOCOM and the service components are fighting in a zero-sum game with the other services and COCOMs for an ever shrinking pot of money.


Thu, 05/02/2013 - 12:23pm

Definitely a fine article. I particularly liked the point warning that Special Ops personnel should not be sent on missions that other units can accomplish. Well led combat arms units are quite capable of putting together successful raids or patrols into enemy lines. But the same people upon whose shoulders such missions rest are not conditioned to bed down at night surrounded by armed people whose language they do not understand. Army special forces, at least, are; as the 5th SFG demonstrated (again)in Afghanistan. And they need to maintain those skills. Assigning them missions that can be accomplished by conventional forces detracts from maintaining those skills.

As for self-promotion and seizing upon one moment in a war or battle, those are the foundations upon which many a famous career has been built. And that didn't start with Custer or end with MacArthur. Nor it is unique to the American military experience, or even special operations. I take issue with the idea that true special operators live only for the satisfaction of a mission well done. Like all human beings, they a composite of motivational factors. The very best among them are striving for the respect of their fellow operators. Their team members in old SF jargon, and that includes subordinates, peers, and select superiors. If they are going to be asked to be humble and self-effacing, the example has to come from the top down.

G Martin

Thu, 05/02/2013 - 6:52am

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

100% agree. But I would add that this goes beyond SOF and DoD. I couldn't believe that the SWAT team who took the Boston Bomber into custody appeared- the entire team- on national news and reviewed the entire event. I'm sure there were people taking notes. On the same day I saw that I read an article profiling the FBI's top CT person in NYC- picture, name, and how she and her office responded after the bombing. Again, I'm sure someone was happy to read those details who wishes us harm.

The Quiet Professional, sadly, is not in our culture today. I'm not sure how to bring it back. I am amazed at the difference between talking to WWII and Korea vets and talking to more recent vets. For most of the older vets you have to pry to get them to talk- and usually they don't describe their action as heroic. More recent vets can't seem to talk enough- and the amount of books they've written border on the narcissistic.

I'm afraid that our culture has both bad and good- and the bad seems to be that we more and more worship all things "of the individual". This worship of all things individual exaggerates the contribution of "the one" and ignores team efforts. We see it in sports and now we see it in the military. Our organization, however, seems to reward the "squeaky wheel". As one commander put it recently- "if a bad guy falls in the forest, and no one is there to see it- then SOCOM doesn't fund you."

Dave Maxwell

Wed, 05/01/2013 - 8:46pm

This is probably the most important OP-ED written in decades about SOF. It touches on many critically important points – recognizing the entire Intelligence Community-DOD team that got Bin Laden, the danger to national security from overexposure and overuse of SOF, the importance of both SOF surgical strike and special warfare capabilities, and the recognition that SOF should not (and cannot replace) the GPF. The only people that should be offended by this are those with a big mouth who need to take a large cup of shut the "f" up (excuse my language).

That is not to say that SOF cannot be properly written about from a national security academic and lessons learned perspective. SOF can and should be correctly written about in the press because the American public has a right to know about and understand and properly honor all its military forces. But the exposure of sensitive information in "I was there war stories" as well as exposure by those in positions of responsibility who know should know better needs to cease. This Op-Ed should be hung on all SOF team room walls and the bulletin boards of policy makers and pundits alike.