Small Wars Journal

A Recommendation for Quiet Professionals

Fri, 05/13/2011 - 9:18am
A Recommendation for Quiet Professionals

by Dave Maxwell

Download the Full Article: A Recommendation for Quiet Professionals

There are two schools of thought in Special Operations regarding writing for publication. On one hand, there are those who suggest SOF operations and experiences should remain in the shadows known only to those within the community. On the other, there are those who argue the SOF story should be told in detail to ensure the proper recognition for, correct employment of, and sufficient resourcing for SOF. I am a believer in a modified version of the second school—with one very important caveat.

Quiet Professionals must put less emphasis on the "quiet" and more on the "professional." As members of SOF, we have a professional responsibility to write and publish and share our experience with each other, the rest of the military and the interagency team as well as to inform, and yes, even influence, policy and decision makers. At the same time we have a responsibility to read and learn from the writings of our joint and interagency partners as the experiences of all must be cross-leveled, understood, and integrated. As the old proverb goes, "intelligent men learn from their mistakes and wise men learn from the mistakes of others."

Download the Full Article: A Recommendation for Quiet Professionals

Colonel David S. Maxwell, US Army Special Forces, is a member of the military faculty at the National War College of the National Defense University. He has nearly 30 years' experience in the Infantry and Special Forces, with more than 25 years of service in Asia. He is a graduate of the National War College, the School of Advanced Military Studies, and the US Army Command and General Staff College. The opinions expressed are the author's and not sanctioned by the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the US Government.

About the Author(s)

David S. Maxwell is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Previously he was the Associate Director of the Center for Security Studies in the School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University.  He is a retired US Army Special Forces Colonel with command and staff assignments in Korea, Japan, Germany, the Philippines, and CONUS, and served as a member of the military faculty teaching national security at the National War College.  He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, the Command and General Staff College, the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth and the National War College, National Defense University.


I agree with most of the article but I do disagree slightly with regard to the 'chest thumping' issue.

As the Colonel pointed out, there is a perception in the SF community -- not necessarily SOF as a whole -- that SF is being marginalized by conventional forces. In my opinion, Ranger Battalion , and other JSOC assets do not face the same issues that SF groups face in terms of interacting with mother army. The 'chest thumping', as the Colonel points out, is in fact a 'bureaucratic survival method' because UW -- the principal mission of SF -- is being outsourced. I recently had a discussion with a MITT team member, who did not know my background, say to me that the MITT team does what SF does. I've heard similar statements from CA teams, PRTs, and other regular army units. SF has historically faced difficulties or at least a high degree of scrutiny from conventional forces; this phenomenon will not go away anytime soon.

I agree with the comment above that SF has to almost self-advocate to justify its existence at times. The 'chest-thumping', which can indeed be misconstrued as arrogance, is none-the-less a reiteration of fact: SF is the premier (I know the Colonel dislikes this description) UW asset in the army. The SFQC is designed entirely around the UW mission, and is the model for MARSOC's emulation of the mission set. You cannot train conventional forces to wear every hat, this is why the army has different branches. Saying that SF is a premier UW asset should not be taken as SF believing that it is superior in every way. Futhermore, SF should not be apprehensive in openly stating one of its core competencies.

I do agree however that the 'chest-thumping' taken or delivered in the wrong context can be a detriment to both influence and perception -- especially when the younger SF soldiers who drink too much of the koolaid and fail to internalize the mindset, instead causing a rift between conventional forces and the SF community with the 'too cool for school' attitude. Quiet professionalism is something that is attained as one spends time in the army and I will leave it at that.

Change will not come unless it comes from both sides: an understanding from the conventional army that SF is SF -- this includes SF not adhering to 670-1 in the field, something that drives CSMs mental; and from the SF side understanding the fact that SF is designed to support the main effort: mother army.

Matt S. (not verified)

Sat, 05/14/2011 - 7:36pm

Great article, Dave.

Apologies for the typos. Writing on a borrowed hand held device.

Bill M:

I think we are in 100% agreement. Everyone needs to advocate for what they think is the right strategy, campaign plan and C2 arrangment. But they do not need to do it by chest thumping or (as I did not mention in the article, by denigrating the abilities of other forces). I do not think I at all advocated that SOF not be in the lead (SOF should be on the right missions as has been my personal and very fortunate experience to have been part of on of those led by SOCPAC). We just need to advocate that based on "just the facts" (thanks to Joe Friday) without having to bring in the extraneous comments often along the lines "I am better than you". My point remains we need to hav the discussions and even debates based on experience, merit, and the facts and not on "chest thumping.". You cannot positively influence anyone by cheat thumping and trying to make yourself look good by making others look bad. And this is not exclusive to SOF of course but it has been my experience of late reviewing SOF papers (as well as reading blog and journal comments) that the cheat thumping is on the rise. We can all do better than that.

Agree with 95% of the article. Perhaps I misread the 5% I tend to disagree with, and that is we shouldn't advocate for SOF to lead certain operations over GPF or conventional forces because apparently that causes problems? It should cause debate, and debate in our ranks shouldn't be perceived as problems. It is not chest thumping to advocate for SOF to be in the lead of irregular warfare missions that we have been funded, trained and organized to do. I agree there are a lot of SF chest thumpers, based on exaggerated view of self (we attract big egos), and a limited understanding of what conventional forces do. I have heard from too many SOF soldiers that we're the only ones in the fight, yet many conventional soldiers have been and remain outside the wire 24/7 in very hostile conditions. Sadly the number of casualties indicates that the few (very few) SOF operators that claim we're the only ones in the fight are off base.

That doesn't mean that SOF shouldn't advocate for more influence in a form of warfare we have been involved in since our inception. Clearly defeating Saddam's Army was the core competency of our conventional forces and they did it with great skill. SOF's role was "relatively" minimal during this phase, but they rapidly shifted to key role in the IW fight.

As Dave knows full well SOF doesn't come in one color, and some SOF elements are better suited for different missions. The force that killed UBL was the ideal force for that mission. SF ODAs in the village are the idea force for that mission. The correct C2 organization isn't black and white, but my point is it shouldn't simply be determined by rank.

Paul Olsen (not verified)

Fri, 05/13/2011 - 10:58am

Agree that our quiet professionals must write in order to fully characterize their capabilities and pursue required resources. That's how the Defense Enterprise Management System works. But after watching today's news, it appears that if the members of this profession don't write their own works, others will attempt to do so at a level that may not be helpful. I say "write on," but ensure this process is vetted through a rigorous process, overseen by the same community of professionals that of professionals that understand the larger picture and live it day to day.

Anonymous (not verified)

Fri, 05/13/2011 - 10:13am

yes and if you are all "quiet" and invisible how are women going to find you?

Brett Patron

Fri, 05/13/2011 - 10:00am

Dave: This is spot-on.