Small Wars Journal

De Oppresso Liber – To Free the Oppressed – What’s in a Motto?

Thu, 04/19/2018 - 4:23am

De Oppresso Liber – To Free the Oppressed – What’s in a Motto?


David Lewton




U.S. Army Special Forces was created in 1952 under the auspices of the Army Psychological Warfare office as a discreet response to contain Soviet expansionism and counter communist inspired insurgencies in eastern Europe and Asia. U.S. leaders believed left unabated Marxist-Leninist ideology would expand and wield the Soviet Union greater influence and power at the United States expense. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy recognized the U.S. military would need forces able to combat communist guerrilla forces, insurgency, and subversion.   


During the Cold War (1945 – 1991) the Soviet Union was firmly entrenched in Eastern Europe, most noticeably demonstrated through the Warsaw Pact member-states. In Asia, the Soviet Union strengthened its relations with Mao Zedong, Kim Il-sung, and Ho Chi Minh. During this bipolar period, the United States and the Soviet Union’s policies and ideologies, respectively, often played out through proxies. These proxy wars were a consequence of the domino theory, i.e., if one country fell to communism, its neighbors were likely to follow suit. The Soviet Union and China supported North Korea in its invasion of South Korea in 1950 and backed Ho Chi Minh in his conquest to unite North and South Vietnam. In response, America fought alongside South Korean and the South Vietnamese troops. U.S. and Soviet involvement played out not only in the Indo-Pacific and Eastern Europe, but also in Africa, the Middle East, and Central and South America. It is in these proxy wars that Army Special Forces honed their skills as force multipliers.   


While U.S. Special Forces served as a bulwark against Soviet communist expansion it was also an attractive low-cost alternative to a conventional military response. For the next four decades, Green Berets trained, equipped, and led indigenous resistance forces and worked with foreign militaries to counter Soviet aggression in these so-called national wars of liberation. In 1956, U.S. Special Forces Headquarters activated two clandestine special forces units, one in Berlin in East Germany, and the second in Hawaii. Detachment A consisted of 90 Green Berets living and working in East Germany with the purpose of building resistance elements to counter Soviet aggression. The 14th Special Forces Operational Detachment began as a 16-man detachment, under the cover designation as the 8251st Army Unit. In the event of a general war, the 14th would lead Asian resistance forces against Sino-Soviet forces expected to overrun the rim of Asia. The 14th relocated to Okinawa, Japan in July 1957 and fell under the command of the newly minted 1st Special Forces Group.


Army Green Berets received many accolades for their actions in combat. However, much of their work remained unknown to the public. In El Salvador from 1981 to 1992, 55 Green Berets, officially, trained, armed, and assisted the Salvadoran military in its Civil War against the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front. This organization was a Marxist-Leninist inspired guerrilla organization that received arms and materiel from the Soviet Union, Cuba, and Nicaragua. Because of the political sensitivity and lingering public resentment of the Vietnam War, the United States government did not designate El Salvador a combat zone. Green Berets did engage in combat, however, fighting alongside the Salvadoran military. Twenty-one U.S. service members were killed in action. It was not until 1998 that the U.S. Army approved the combat infantryman badge to be awarded to Green Berets who served in El Salvador.


Post-Cold War to 2001


The 1990s were a precarious time for U.S. Special Forces. With the Cold War over so were the national wars of liberation, and with it, the Green Berets raison d'être. As a discreet economy of force that made its money as force multipliers against Soviet-backed insurgencies, Green Berets faced an existential threat.


While the disintegration of the Soviet Union brought greater access to free markets and new social freedoms, it also brought uncertainty. Proponents of the international relations theory of liberalism highlighted how increased economic interdependence, the move from autocracies to democracies, and adherence to an international rules-based order would lessen conflict. Concurrently, technological advances such as the internet and growth of affordable personal computers were changing business and social environs by overcoming physical and communication barriers. Thomas Friedman, the acclaimed author and New York Times foreign affairs columnist, captured the enormity of this technology shift in his 1999 book The Lexus and the Olive Tree, writing “the world is ten years old.” Friedman was speaking of the dawn of globalization, defining it as “the inexorable integration of markets, nation-states and technologies to a degree never witnessed before.”


For all the fear of U.S. Special Forces being irrelevant in this new world, it proved to be unnecessary. From a realist perspective, nation-states sought greater security to ensure their survival. The surest way to increase one’s security was to maximize one’s power at the expense of others. This ten-year-old world marked the first time U.S. Special Forces were employed as a military instrument to primarily lessen human suffering and provide greater security and stability for limited political objectives that while tragic posed no existential threat to the United States. Green Berets found themselves working in conflict-afflicted environs where the U.S. government and international institutions deemed states had violated the international rules-based order. Professionalizing foreign military forces and law enforcement to counter lawlessness and subversion became the norm.    


In the 1990s, U.S. Special Forces saw service in the first Gulf War in 1990-1991 and the Balkan Wars in Bosnia and Kosovo from 1995-2001. In the first Gulf War, they conducted special reconnaissance and worked with coalition partners. In the Balkans, they worked with NATO partners, militias, and troop-contributing nations in Bosnia, Albania, and Kosovo.


The Balkan Wars served as a visceral example of the chaos following the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The death toll during this period included more than 100,000 people. More than 10,000 civilians died during the 44-month long siege in Sarajevo at the hands of Bosnian Serbs. The most infamous atrocity was the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, where Bosnian Serb forces killed more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys.


Green Berets in the 21st Century


The United States response to the Al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, called upon U.S. Special Forces for their force multiplier capabilities. Green Berets infilled into Afghanistan on October 19, 2001, linked up with the Northern Alliance and Afghan warlords, and together with the CIA and U.S. air power toppled the Taliban in 50 days, on December 7, 2001.


The Green Berets design, regional orientation, and recent operational experience in the Balkans made them a logical choice. Their unfair advantage was their design as force multipliers, working through and with indigenous forces in a denied area, to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power. With Afghanistan ongoing, U.S. Special Forces deployed to Iraq in 2003 and akin to Afghanistan, linked up with indigenous forces and routed the Iraqi army alongside U.S. troops.


U.S. Special Forces continue to work in Afghanistan, the Middle East, the Indo-Pacific, Europe, Africa, and Central and South America. They work to free people from human suffering at the hands of outlier, rogue and pirate states that violate territorial integrity and political sovereignty. And they confront terrorist organizations and violent non-state actors that commit human rights violations, terrorize people, and murder innocent people for political objectives.


With 17 years at war and counting, it is appropriate to ask what these past actions indicate regarding the future employment of U.S. Special Forces. The sine qua non question to answer is, "Will Army Green Berets be employed correctly?" That is, as a specially selected and uniquely trained, educated, and equipped discreet force employed to accomplish objectives that conventional forces are ill-equipped and incapable. This question matters as the U.S. Special Operations Command and joint services push for greater interoperability.


In the last decade, Green Berets have deployed to 135 of the 195 recognized countries in the world, according to the 1st Special Forces Command website. Strengthening defense and law enforcement relationships has its benefits. There is a point of diminishing returns, however. That special operations planners discount the impact of diminishing returns is demonstrated by many repetitive and unoriginal security cooperation exercises each year. In many instances, U.S. Special Forces train, advise, and assist the same units with little progress to show each year.


The Current Geopolitical Environment


In 2018 the geopolitical environment is experiencing elements of the Cold War, adding more complexity to the myriad security challenges. Great power competition has resurfaced with China, Russia, and the United States competing for influence, power, and material resources. Great power competition has dethroned terrorism from its nearly two-decade-long position at the top of the food chain of U.S. national security threats.


National security focused professionals have proposed that political warfare, as defined by George Kennan, a former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, and author of the Long Telegram, and Gray Zone campaigns as defined by Michael Mazarr, a Senior Political Scientist at the RAND Corporation, are the likely strategies that nation states will employ to upset the balance of power in their regions. Political warfare and gray zone strategies include the use of all national tools – diplomatic, information, military, and economic – the dismissal of international institutions and legal bodies, and the manipulation of social media coupled with state-sponsored cyberattacks against persons, governments, and national infrastructure. No person, office, agency, institution, or government is off limits. All actions short of declaring or going to war are employed.


Michael Mazaar, in his 2015 monograph, Mastering the Gray Zone, labels China and Russia as “…revisionist states seeking to upset or change the balance of power or influence in their regions.” He goes on to say, “The international system is becoming populated with a particular type of revisionist state likely to be in the market for gray zone strategies. These states desire a shift in international distributions of power and influence but are not tempted to go to war to get them.”


China has demonstrated this gray zone strategy in its multi-pronged approach that includes its three warfares (public opinion warfare, psychological warfare, and legal warfare), its anti-access and area-denial strategy in the Western Pacific, its territorial aggrandizement in the South China Sea, and its 21st century Silk Road known as the Belt and Road Initiative . Russia has similarly demonstrated this strategy, annexing Crimea in 2014, and providing military and economic aid to Syria during its ongoing seven-year civil war. A civil war that has resulted in the deaths of 400,000 Syrians and created 11 million refugees. Putin’s backing of Bashar al-Assad has enabled Assad to remain in power and for Russia to thwart U.S. policies in the region. This is gray zone 101.


Steven Metz, the Director of Research at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, in his article In Ukraine, Russia Reveals its Mastery of Unrestricted Warfare, contends the United States is temperamentally unsuited to fight gray zone conflicts. Metz writes, “The US wants its conflicts and security problems to remain tidily restricted. Its strength is greatest when there is no political ambiguity or ethical confusion, and when partners jump on board.” This point is debatable. Metz comments, however, strike at a larger issue. If he is correct and the United States is unsuited to fight in gray zone strategies, are Army Green Berets fated to be employed inaccurately in the future?




The 2017 National Security Strategy includes transnational criminal organizations, jihadist terrorist groups, and revisionist states as threats confronting the United States. The summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, says “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.” The U.S. Army Special Operations Command 2035 strategy adds, “the future operating environment will continue to be dominated by nation-states, with technologically enabled non-state groups with trans-regional reach wielding more influence than seen in decades past." U.S. special operations forces are expected to play a critical part in the employment of these strategies.


U.S. Special Forces are likely to be employed in two ways. First as a military instrument conducting nonlethal and lethal targeting against terrorist groups and non-state actors. Second, as an instrument to further stability in countries and regions. This means more training, advising, and assisting with foreign militaries and law enforcement with an emphasis on information and intelligence sharing. The greater goals are the marginalization of terrorists and non-state actors and maintaining the status quo balance of power.


The expected employment of U.S. Special Forces is not an awakening, however. The concern with repetitive train, advise, and assist strategies is that it provides no incentive for partners to reach a level where they no longer need U.S. military assistance. Steven Metz of the U.S. Army War College communicates this dilemma well in his article, Abandoning Counterinsurgency: Toward a More Efficient Antiterrorism Strategy, highlighting the difficulties these countries face, albeit from a counterinsurgency perspective. Metz writes:

The American approach to COIN is contingent on partner elites acting irrationally – doing things against the interests of themselves, their families, and their affiliates….Another flaw with traditional conceptualization of COIN appears as the U.S. seeks to destroy insurgents, yet the local partners often benefit from the existence of an insurgency large enough to sustain American investment and interest but not powerful enough to overthrow them.



Seeking stability and security is a bedrock objective of U.S. foreign policy. Al-Qaeda and Islamic State have not gone away. China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea challenge the United States and its allies, seeking to increase their sway and prestige at the expense of the United States. In this 21st Century Great Game, the United States will be required to maintain its diplomatic, economic, and military efforts on par with its competitors. As a result, U.S. Special Forces will increasingly be employed due to their force multiplier capability, and wide-ranging skill set.


The battlefield is messy, and success often appears ephemeral. U.S. Special Forces deploy to austere and remote locations to confront terrorists that pose no existential threat to the United States. They continue to defend against human suffering at the hands of depraved terrorists and Islamist militants while strengthening defense relationships at a time when revisionist states are actively working to undermine the United States. Two Special Operations Imperatives are helpful concerning the future employment of U.S. Special Forces:  understand the operational environment, and consider long-term effects. It is up to U.S. Special Forces senior leaders to ensure Army Green Berets are employed accurately in this complex security environment.

About the Author(s)

David Lewton served 15 years in U.S. Special Forces and is a retired Special Forces Warrant Officer. He served in Operation Enduring Freedom – Afghanistan, Operation Enduring Freedom – Philippines, and Operation Iraqi Freedom. He now works as a security consultant.