Defining the Special in Special Forces
A Soldier’s Perspective
By Pierre Jean Dehaene
This essay is a food-for-thought on the identity (culture), training and education of special forces (SF). The target audience is the special forces, the emerging wider special operations forces (SOF) community, politicians and key military decision-takers who must wield special forces. Admittedly every nation has its particularities, but many SF throughout the world have common concerns and difficulties when it comes to setting a culture that matches a clear identity. Not in terms of tasks like specialized forces, but in terms of purpose like special forces. Struggling to find a balance between too much or too little “unconventional” is also a universal phenomenon. It should be clear that there is a time for structure and optimization and there is a time for creativity and momentum. Knowing what to be in which circumstances is exactly the educational foundation of special forces: analytical acumen. Being able to analyze and adapt behaviour and processes to any given operational environment is the beating purpose of SF. Form (structure) and result are difficult to separate: standard or conventional structure equals standard or conventional results. The SF needs diversity as central to its being, it needs to embrace the edges of normality and slightly beyond. It needs more of General Carter’s principles for thinking beyond the cleverness of the adversary. The wider defense needs to also understand the importance of having an organization like the SF. It needs to see it through different lenses; as unusual purpose requires unusual process (in material and human management). The SF must see themselves more as a concept than a multi-tool. An amorphous concept that solves or regulates problems. Tools – which will be describe below – should never determine who they are or how they think. And finally, for far too long they have been training to fight, not to win.
The purpose of this paper is to define the special in special forces, then unpack the tactical (and strategic) sense behind that definition. The objective is to drive towards a shared understanding of what it is and what it is not in the wider Defense establishment. All discussions must begin by clearly defining terms, and in this case “special” must stop being synonymous with “elite”. This idea is detrimental to our purpose and to our culture.
From the meaning of special (where socio-political contextualization is primordial), this paper will argue: why special forces, why do they exist, what is their raison d’être to the government and defence establishment. I will argue that they exist to solve special problems which requires them to be - above all else – analytically equipped (cognitive) and physically trained to be versatile in spirit, mind and body, spanning the whole spectrum of force. They are not a specialized force, but a special force. They must begin seeing themselves, training themselves, as the imperfect solution to uncertain problems. They train and educate hard to be able to be whatever they have to be. (This is a critical point for developing the attitude and mindset needed throughout the organization). There are considerable implications – inside their own culture and defense wide – if they truly begin to understand their purpose (more will be said on this point).
This paper is necessary as there is no shared understanding (or purpose) without shared definitions. Definitions have already been made to define SF, but this paper suggests that the current definitions are too task oriented. Organizations like the SF, who’s tasks are increasingly carried out by all types of military organizations, need to finally distance themselves from a task-based identity. Doing what the SF does, better or worse, has no bearing on what being SF is.
I put forward that military and political decision-makers at all levels of command must plainly understand what the special in special forces means. Once purpose, through clear definition is attained, then a shared comprehension will enable purpose to determine process. This important relationship between purpose and process will be unpacked as a critical oversight in how SF are nested within the wider organization.
To solve (or regulate) problems abroad (primarily) in the ever-expanding domain of security (and vital interests) for the government and the people they represent. The ultimate essence of SF is to solve problems. That’s it. They must begin to see themselves in this broader and amorphous scope of purpose and function. SF is a special entity that is capable of analyzing and solving simple to complex security problems (in any shape or form). When there is uncertainty, when it is unclear which capacities are required, SF should be the clear entity of choice. There should be no doubt within the military and within the government of their purpose and utility. It is their very raison d’être: others cannot do it, due to required haste, equipment, knowledge or other – the SF is sent as they are trained to figure it out and have been given an exceptional amount of physical and cognitive tools (and a lengthy selection) with which to improvise and (hopefully) overcome.
There are many implications, but they all begin with how SF define themselves. Here – according to this author – there is a problem. Many SF define themselves as a list of tasks that they are able to execute (e.g., direct action, military assistance, special recon, and close protection). Though these skills are critical to an SF operator/team, they are just tools, and should not define who they are. Just as a mechanic is not defined as a list of tools. A mechanic fixes cars, whatever a car may be. 40 years ago cars required mechanical tools and an intimate knowledge of carburetors. 20 years ago cars increasingly became electronic obliging mechanics to adapt their tools and knowledge accordingly. Today cars are hybrid and electronic and tomorrow cars will be flying. A mechanic is defined as a person who “fixes cars”, and tools are just a temporary means to this purpose. In this line of reasoning, who are the SF - what is their purpose?
As has been correctly observed on several occasions: it is special force, not specialized forces (specialized in x, y, and/or z). The large majority of the conventional army are specialized forces. They have a particular purpose and are equipped and trained to carry out that purpose efficiently and consistently. Special is the term that needs to be understood, and if it doesn’t mean specialized (perhaps even the contrary), then how is it to be defined? For one thing, special is a term implying uniqueness or unusualness; often, difficult to define, therefore, with hesitation, the word special is used. There is something uncommon and unclear about it. Amorphous is a suitable synonym for how SF should understand itself/define itself tactically and strategically.
War is uncertain and paradoxical in logic. It always has been to varying degrees depending on technological, political and societal developments – often in concert. The nature of war (and strategy) makes it very reasonable to have a force that is not defined by its tools and training.
The Essence of SF Training and Education:
The essence of SF training and education is to be analytical and by this understand the advantages and limitations of any training and education. A tool cannot determine how they think, nor a doctrine, nor an aide memoire, nor common tactical heuristics. We often forget that words do not simply describe reality but create it. Similarly, cognitive and physical “tools” determine (and limit) the way we understand problems. The tools we master become the solution to problems. Problems are then determined by the tools – rather than the outrageously logical inverse. What often happens in tactical education within the infantry and by consequence within the SF, is that common practices (knowing and executing them), provide credibility. There is a “way of doing things” – doing things this way validates one’s qualities and reputation as a tactician. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with knowing the handbook, on the contrary – but the adversary knows it, air-softers know it, even Hollywood knows it. The handbook must be understood as a baseline, as a “blue-sky-condition-tactical-maneuver” handbook. True tactics is about disorienting the enemy, and the ultimate result of this is surprise (tactical champagne). History is full of victories where one side did something unexpected – used cunning and guile (often employing a new technology or method) – to out-play the adversary.
The adversary today knows how SF train, knows the equipment SF have, knows SF tactics, techniques, procedures, and doctrines. It is almost as though the SF are no longer thinking about how to win; but just how to fight. The SF should be training to win, not just to fight. And not just winning a battle, but many battles, understanding that the more successful a tactic, the quicker it becomes obsolete. (See concept of “Fitness Landscape”.)
Adaptation and the Knowledge System
It is a valid argument to propose that the SF be trained very broadly, in many kinds of military skills (physical and cognitive). That those who fill its ranks are adept at learning and adapting – seeing each tool provided in training as nothing more than possible means to an end. This is a wisdom that seldom finds itself in military education/culture (especially at the tactical levels). There is a time for everything – this is one of humanity’s most ancient proverbs. The SF should be an organization that does what the conventional army has not yet had the time to learn or master. The SF must constantly discover itself in time and place – resetting itself to zero time and time again. It must be the army’s primary instrument of anticipative tactical and strategic posturing. It must work in conjunction with all specialists within the nation – inter-defense, think-tanks, private sector etc. – to be that amorphous adaptive tools of force that can answer to any call. There is no sector from which SF cannot learn. Our engagement with other knowledge systems (notably in the private sector) is nowhere as active as it should be. The private sector is an incredibly rich untapped resource often kept at an arm’s length. As drones, cyber, disinformation warfare, automated (AI) weaponized robots, heat-signature detecting low orbit satellites, and space lasers start to dominate the battlefield, SF will need the private sector desperately to inform and develop counter measures. Strategic partnership with these sectors (with the necessary information security) is how SF keep up to the pace of change using all available national resources.
Special note for human resource management: ‘You need people who are prepared to take a risk with their careers in order to go outside, develop themselves, come back in and add to the dynamic of thought that you need to be able to [think unthinkables]’. Most career officers understand that leaving the military – even temporarily – can have (severe) career consequences (as loyalty or reliability is perhaps put into question?). The system, like any institution, prefers uniformity, internal consistency and standardized checklists for promotion/reward. When in fact, perhaps leaving the military – at the right time – to gain experience in different industries, engaging with alternative and varying mechanisms and cultures, may be an innovative way of retaining and motivating personnel. They will explore and grow beyond the confines of the military system; exposed to other cultural and technological trends, and then return with the benefit of alternative organizational insights. If doing so is punished by the system, perhaps there is cause to rethink the system; especially for organizations who must be agile, adaptive, and anticipative in a rapidly changing world.
The SF Mindset
A cautious word on the SF mindset/attitude. There is a tendency of believing that the SF job is a specific set of tasks, that its utility is limited to these tasks. This then provides an expectation that decision-makers should provide operators with what they want and/or were trained for. It has commonly been said by individuals in recent years that “they didn’t come to the SF to do these things”, this mentally is truly the result of “good times” creating a certain sense of entitlement that a soldier should never have, especially an SF operator.
Note: Though, understandably the feeling of being “fire-fighters” (operator), selected and trained to do so, only to have decision-makers demand SF units to also run away from almost every fire (with everyone else); does weigh heavily on motivated soldiers who feel like their raison d’etre to their nation is in fact just window dressing. Eventually it hard to remain proud of what one does – because one does not do it. Even the population starts to wonder why “you” exist. I fully understand and sympathize with this sentiment; and I do not want to minimize its impact on retention of personnel and recruitment.
More generally - speaking of the “SF mindset” a term that does not have clear currency. It is often spoken about as though the meaning is self-evident. It is used broadly, by those who are badged SF operators and those who aren’t. The mindset should be defined clearly and understood, so as to align it to the culture SF organizations wants to strive towards. The SF mindset, for most, is related to agility, flexibility, getting things done, and not being hung-up by procedures. However… (The following is a personal reflection on the meaning and where it all begins).
Plainly speaking, and excuse the redundancy, the SF mindset begins at the beginning. It is forged during the Q-course, when conventions are put aside from previous military “ways” and manners (first thing that happens: ranks and badges are removed). Status and “worth” is temporarily reset; now one must build oneself up with demonstrated capabilities; with what you bring to the team (good and less good), as opposed to that which was granted by an institution that has a different purpose (not better nor worse). Merit, for these months, sources as a direct result of the realized potential you bring to the team mentally and physically. Nothing is more motivating for driven individuals as institutional barriers are temporarily removed.
Prominently, the idea of “team” is built in the Q-course, where followership and leadership are equal arts. This is because the effectiveness of leadership during the Q-course (where everyone is new in the context) depends tremendously on the team. Here, in the Q-course, leadership positions no longer follow military convention – as an SF team has an unconventional purpose requiring unconventional approaches. Please allow me a quick divergence:
It is impossible to separate form from result. “Standard” form and culture will lead to “standard” result. The more a team is structured conventionally, the more its results will be conventional. Every start-up attempts to have a form that aligns with a desired result. Creative companies, tech companies, adventure companies, logistics companies – their form will determine their result. What is the sought after result of an SF team – what must it be able to do? The form (structure) then must align with the desired result. One cannot expect unstandard results from standard structure.
In SF teams during the Q-course decisions are negotiated, with open disagreement, but equal commitment when decisions are made. Above all, the SF mindset is an idea of “team”. All working towards a goal, finding imperfect solutions (understanding this provides the cognitive space for rapid adaptation). Pulling individual weight is basic while collectively making up for the shortfalls of others is advanced. There is trust because there is real exposure, as it is impossible to hide behind a title. What you are is what you bring. There is a very high level of shared reality and context (proximity), naturally creating connection (the building block of effective communication). A good team makes the individuals better, physically and mentally. Thinking beyond the confines of convention is of course a key characteristic in a team that must perform tactically in all circumstances.
In short, the SF mindset is the characteristics of a team that must be able to accomplish any given task. In other words, a mindset that makes everyone around you the best that they can be towards accomplishing a goal (leader to follower, follower to leader). A great team is defined by high levels of proximity which generates trust while breaking down back-door communication. “Team” is the SF mindset – all the things that make a team greater than its parts – where the key to this emergence is making up for the shortfalls of one another.
This essay is on the identity (culture), training and education of special forces. Admittedly every nation has its particularities, but many special forces throughout the world have common concerns and difficulties when it comes to setting a culture that matches a clear identity. Not in terms of tasks like specialized forces, but in terms of purpose like special forces (ref mechanic metaphor). Struggling to find a balance between too much or too little “unconventional” is also a universal phenomenon. It should be clear that there is a time for structure and optimization and there is a time for creativity and momentum. Knowing what to be in which circumstances is exactly the educational foundation of special forces: analytical acumen. Form (structure) and result are difficult to separate: standard or conventional structure equals standard or conventional results. The SF needs diversity as central to its being, it needs to embrace the edges of normality and slightly beyond. It needs more of General Carter’s principles for thinking beyond the cleverness of the adversary. The wider defense needs to also understand the importance of having an organization like the SF. It needs to see the SF through different lenses; as unusual purpose requires unusual process (in material and human management). Being able to analyze and adapt behaviour and processes to any given operational environment is the beating purpose of special forces. They must see themselves more as a concept than a multi-tool. A concept that solves or regulates problems outside the scope of specialized conventional capabilities. Tools should never determine who we are or how we think. And finally, for far too long we have been training to fight and not to win. This must change.
This paper should be read as a food-for-thought, as reflections of a soldier in a relatively small Western army. Clear definitions, followed by resulting implications, helps to orient identities (what is SF, what is its purpose) and constantly reorient training and culture to enhance this unique identity. It also serves to bring back into focus an increasingly blurred identity in what some would call a conventionalization and/or commercialization of special forces.
We have many sayings like who dares wins, each man an emperor, if there is no way, make one etc. But in fact, these maxims were forged in a context of war. In peace, men and women exemplifying daringness, autonomy, and making a way no matter what are considered unpredictable, uncontrolled, mavericks – the very things you do not want in a peace-time army. The SF and the wider organization need to start thinking in two modes – a peacetime mode and wartime mode. Understanding this has an impact on culture as well; as in the SF we train for war; but we live in peace. The characteristics of thriving in one are arguably polar opposite to the other. This dichotomy must be integrated into military leadership and management. Some individuals you want for peace, some for war. But ultimately, we, the army exist for war.
 A multitool is limited by its items; and inevitably gets defined by these items. In the case of SF the items are military assistance, special reconnaissance, direct action, and variations on these items (FID, IDAD, SFA etc.).
 See the section on selective pressure in the essay ‘The Building Blocks of a Special Forces Organism: Variation, Selective Pressure, and Replication’ in Small Wars Journal (TBC).
 If anything special is more accurately understood in the context of “special” needs. This will be unpacked further on in this essay.
 From sympathy, to empathy, to rapport building, to influence, to persuasion, to inducement, to threat of force, to use of force. See the localization strategy (published in Small Wars Journal) for a more thorough description of this spectrum of force/power.
 Abiding by our nation’s values must – without question – be our moral compass. I hope this goes without saying.
 See article ‘The Building Blocks of an SF Organism: Variation, Selective Pressure and Replication’ by the same author in Small Wars Journal.
 The over-famous aphorism reformulated – to a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
 Tactical training should concentrate on developing cunning and guile. They are the true pillars of the tactical mastery.
 Michael Dietrich and Robert Skipper, “A Shifting Terrain: A Brief History of the Adaptive Landscape,”in Erik Svensson and Ryan Calsbeek (eds.), The Adaptive Landscape in Evolutionary Biology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 3-14.
 Chris Langdon and Nik Gowing (2018), Thinking the Unthinkable, p. 181
 A term commonly used to describe a fully-badged special forces soldier of any rank who remains operational. (It is as much a verb as it is a noun.)
 For the purposes of this paper, I have chosen to stick with SF as my experience does not allow me to speak about the broader – and nation dependent – notion of SOF.
 Qualification course for special forces operators. It is generally a lengthy selection process where candidates who succeed becomes team operators.
 Though evidently followership is a less popular art as it bestows less alpha-ness – an aspect of the SF world that continues to be a cultural shortcoming. Creating a culture where leadership equals success, where “good guys” become leaders, sets the conditions for an unhealthy backdoor competitive culture.
 It is important to recall that if one cannot follow, one cannot lead.
 There are unit’s that define teams by the team leader’s name. This practice, though seemingly innocuous, is surprisingly dimwitted. It furthers the status and importance of the leader, when a team is much more than the sum of its leadership; therefore, the team should not be defined by an individual. This tendency allows for failure or success to not be that of a team, but of an individual. Furthering individual glorification which cannot be part of a team-centered organization. We, the team, fail and succeed together, as one. Language must reflect what we want as a culture.
 E.g., A private can be the team leader of non-commissioned and commissioned officers.
 The desired result for an SF team in peace time is likely very different than the desired result of an SF team in war time. In peace, dominating characteristics will be stability and predictability. In war, dominating characteristics will be daring, courage, and innovation.
 According to the Belgian SF Gp’s former regiment sergeant major, ‘real teamwork does not come from enhancing one’s qualities, but in making up for everyone’s shortcomings’.
 Making everyone else around you (understanding that energy) the best that they can be towards accomplishing a goal.
 A multitool is limited by its items; and inevitably gets defined by these items. In the case of SF, the items are military assistance, special reconnaissance, direct action, and variations on these items (FID, IDAD, SFA etc.).
 See the section on selective pressure in the essay ‘The Building Blocks of a Special Forces Organism: Variation, Selective Pressure, and Replication’ in Small Wars Journal (TBC).