Small Wars Journal

Green Berets: Rebuilding the Guerrilla Leader Identity

Fri, 02/08/2019 - 5:22am

Green Berets: Rebuilding the Guerrilla Leader Identity

David Walton and Joseph Long

Direct Action and Unconventional Warfare - one is in the movies, and the other is in the history books.  Perhaps oversimplified, the differences between these two mission sets are at the heart of the Green Beret’s identity crisis.  Both are clearly doctrinal Special Forces missions, but one dominates our cultural zeitgeist, while the other is relegated to a few weeks in the Q course and knowing glances at Semi-Annual Training Briefs. Nearly two decades at war have forced Special Forces into a corner.  Special Forces has been so busy doing their job that they may have forgotten how to do their job. An entire generation of Green Berets has only known the Global War on Terror (GWOT), and the following generation has been recruited on the promise of door-kicking raids, dynamic entries, and kill/capture methodologies. But the roots of Special Forces are in the OSS, not the GWOT.  These resistance skills will atrophy, from the individual through the institutional levels, if not resurrected and revitalized for tomorrow’s conflicts.  Guerilla Warfare is a perishable skill and left unexercised it will deteriorate. The popular aphorism that an ideal Green Beret is a Ph.D. who can win a bar fight may soon face the stark reality that Green Berets can only win bar fights. To help understand where Special Forces must go, it is important to understand how they got where they are today.

This change in cultural identity did not happen overnight. In the last decade and a half of counterinsurgency-based conflict in multiple theaters, special operations forces (SOF) have led the way in developing successful processes for conducting contemporary military operations. The success of SOF operations has arguably influenced United States (US) political and military leaders to the degree that SOF-like methods are being duplicated in conventional circles as a new way of war. Concepts such as multi-domain operations, regionally aligned forces (RAF) and Security Forces Assistance Brigades (SFAB) with language training and distinctive berets are but some examples of SOFs most recent influence on the American way of war.

However, the increasing influence of the SOF umbrella remains problematic for the Special Forces (SF) branch. Specifically, the use of the term SOF in the media has diluted the input of SF within the SOF enterprise resulting in a disjointed sense of identity in the SF Regiment. News outlets and influential media personalities often confuse the terms SOF and SF to dilute the significance of Special Forces operations against other SOF elements. Consequently, the dilution of the SF-specific identity is increasingly impacting the SF Regiment’s ability to recruit sufficient numbers to maintain the force. Given that SOF refers to all units in the unified US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) and is frequently couched as SF in the media, how can future SF members grasp the specifics of the SF mission? That said, the purpose of this paper is two-fold.  First, the authors endeavor to ignite a conversation within the SF Regiment about its enduring identity and to move toward clarity and union. Second, we propose a framing for the SF identity as a unique "triple threat" of skills that highlights distinctions of the SF branch from other SOF and conventional units, and the rebranding of the Special Forces branch as our most iconic and identifying term: Green Berets.  This discussion serves only to emphasize the unique selling proposition that Green Berets maintain; it does not serve as a call for competition amongst SOF.  The debate about who, what, when, where, and why the US conducts Unconventional Warfare is nearly endless. This discussion is the specifics of how, because only Green Berets are skilled in Guerilla Leadership. And therefore, even if the discussion of the specific future operating environment and accompanying mission set remains unclear, there is little doubt that the most critical Special Forces skillset resides in the ability to identify, analyze, and utilize human networks (Meredith, 2019). Whatever the mission this network-centric mindset is best incubated in the Unconventional Warfare petri dish.

Why Identity Matters

As an organization, identity matters. From a scholarly perspective, building and maintaining identity is a task that must be deliberate from senior leadership on down since it impacts organizational culture across multiple sub-fields. In leadership literature, identity is critical to developing organizational culture by combining the individual identity with social and organizational ones to create meaning for people within institutions (Alvesson, 2011). From a social movement perspective, collective identity is thought to be a critical component for mobilization and collective action (Polletta & Jasper, 2001; Tarrow, 1994). It also plays a role in cross-cultural leadership to underscore relational aspects of identity through understanding divisive cleavages that can prevent unity.

When viewed through the culture and collective action lens, there is little debate that SF is in need of a refresher.  With dozens of widely publicized gaffs from the laughable through the ethically disassociated, to the downright illegal, SF is losing confidence both publically and intrinsically.  From the perspective of a profession-at-arms, Green Berets require absolute confidence amongst themselves and perhaps more importantly, with their partners.  An Ambassador who does not trust an SF Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) – the core SF unit structure – simply will not allow them to do what they need to accomplish under his or her jurisdiction. 

Identity remains increasingly important for understanding both the strategic role in conducting unconventional warfare (UW) and other insurgency-related military operations, as well as how SF fit into the broader Department of Defense across multiple phases of conflict. That said, years of population-centric counterinsurgency operations (COIN) have muddied the waters between the SF-specific mission, SOF, and conventional military forces. Specifically, the interaction between military and civilian forces increasingly blurs the lines between SF missions and other military operations involving civilian influence. This blurred distinction has arguably remained "insufficient for understanding the unique context of indigenous leadership” and unconventional warfare (Long, 2017).

In addition, recent conflicts continue to underscore the distinct complexity of an interstate conflict that impacts more than American military forces.  These conflicts challenge the understanding of the future of armed conflict and the security dilemma for people in both powerful and developing states. Classic models for sustaining global military and economic equilibrium are being challenged by emerging dynamics and self-organizing structures (Boulton, Allen, & Bowman, 2015; Griffin & Stacey, 2005; Stacey, 2012). Thus, leadership in such complex environments must be reexamined to understand the challenges to the Westphalian world order and the role of military forces in driving strong-state behavior. Previously understood linear models are fast becoming insufficient for understanding concepts of equilibrium and balances of power in favor of complexity and “rapid organizational transformation” (Chiles et al., 2004, p. 501).   

With complexity in mind, the uniqueness of the SF mission must remain the centerpiece of the SF identity as distinct from other military organizations. A unified identity will help clarify future combat roles so that the most impactful units will be chosen for the most appropriate missions, and so that the SF role within larger DoD responsibilities remains clear. Other organizations do not have to deal with challenges to identity: the maneuver branches role in the US Army “has remained constant since the earliest days of American military history: to close with and destroy the enemy” (“U.S. Army Infantry School Official Website,” n.d.). However, SF’s unique history can blur the lines and create destabilizing competition between conventional missions and other SOF units.

Understanding the SF Identity

As a branch, SF units have similarities to other units within the broader US military, yet its distinctiveness must also remain clear. SF Soldiers mostly come from the US Army infantry where they derive much of their history, culture, and training. The close association with SF and the Army Ranger School affirms this shared identity based on core skills of patrolling and small-unit tactics. Likewise, SF units share a “joint side” focus on very high-profile direct action missions, as well as information and population-oriented branches such as Psychological Operations (PO) and Civil Affairs (CA). Yet, what do Special Forces do that make them truly special?

To begin with, there must be consensus on what does not make SF unique compared to other units. One of the first claims is that SF is the force that works with foreign personnel or partner forces. However, conventional units also historically work with partner forces and have the primary role in the DoD’s Security Force Assistance mission. Although this claim is often supported by SF language requirements and cultural awareness training, the Soldiers assigned to CA, PO, and the SFA brigades are also trained in language and culture, and many of the members of the joint special operations community also receive similar training. Likewise, SF cannot claim to be the only force that conducts unconventional warfare, as CA and PO again have missions steeped in UW, as do several joint SOF and Special Mission Units (SMU). That said, SF is not unique for working with foreign forces, for learning languages, or for conducting UW, but for their unique mission of conducting special operations across the range of military operations to “disrupt or eliminate threats unilaterally, with partners or friendly indigenous forces” (Army Doctrine Publication 3-05: Special operations, 2012, p. 7).

What makes the SF branch unique is less of a specific role than a unique capability. Although SF units are not the only DoD force that works with foreign countries, SF units are the only force that works with “indigenous forces.” Often called guerrillas, indigenous forces are defined as “irregular, predominantly indigenous personnel organized along military lines to conduct military and paramilitary operations in enemy-held, hostile, or denied territory” (Joint Publication 3-05: Special operations, 2014). This is the essence of the Green Beret distinction: SF is the only force that is specially selected and trained to lead indigenous forces in “activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary, and guerrilla force…to influence the indigenous population to support the resistance movement or insurgency” (Army Doctrine Publication 3-05: Special operations, 2012, p. 9).

This understanding of Special Forces is not unknown to the members of the Regiment and serves as the critical distinction between Green Beret formations and conventional and other SOF units. In capitalizing on the uniqueness of SF, we propose reframing the unique SF identity as a triple threat of maneuver, Direct Action, and information operation capability through the application of indigenous leadership. Like the infantry, SF units conduct maneuver operations either independently as part of an unconventional warfare campaign, or as part of larger combined arms coalition operations such as Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan in 2002. However, as the first tier of the triple threat, SF is the only unit that conducts maneuver operations in combat while in the direct leadership of indigenous forces.

On the second tier of the triple threat, Joint SOF, SMUs, and SF units each conduct Direct Action and other raid-like operations. However, SF operations are unique to other SOF units because they are conducted with indigenous forces on their right and left rather than other highly trained SOF forces. This provides the same operational challenge as more dedicated raiding units, but also adds the significant leadership challenge of operating with and through indigenous forces. Lastly, SF conduct information operations and interact with foreign populations in similar ways as CA and PO units do, but SF detachments do so in the context of UW and indigenous leadership at the point of greatest impact on the battlefield. This military and leadership challenge represents the ultimate in complexity and remains the sole domain of the SF Regiment.

In summary, the comparison of the SF triple threat serves to solidify the distinct and complex nature of SF operations against the backdrop of other related but differently sourced and utilized units. This observation is particularly salient now as the recent decision of the Army to develop regionally oriented SFABs has many members of the community concerned that the SF mission is in decline. The reality is that such fears are the farthest from the truth since the ability to work with indigenous, rather than partner-nation and foreign military forces, remains the core task of Special Forces, and Special Forces are the only units capable of completing it. In this context the difference between indigenous and partner-nation forces is the inherent unorganized nature of the force upon initiation of operations.  Indigenous forces are raised whole-cloth from the general populace while partner-nation forces assume that the forces are already organized for action upon US intervention. As a result, the three lightning bolts on the SF patch more accurately represent the guerrilla leadership of maneuver, Direct Action, and Information Operations as much as land, sea or air. Unfortunately, poor identity and media branding continues to dilute and limit the distinct Green Beret identity.

Reframing the Special Forces

Empirical data shows that SF remains the most well-known branch of the Army SOF enterprise compared to CA, PO, Special Operations Aviation, and the 75th Ranger Regiment. However, the use and misuse of the term “Special” in media makes discerning the value of SF against other units increasingly difficult. Studies of media framing show a high likelihood that the terms SF and SOF get congealed at significant rates such that the use of the term “Special Forces” is essentially indistinguishable from “Special Operations Forces.” That said, SF loses out on the specific framing that drives recruiting, funding, and even operational assignments. Senior DoD decision makers are less likely than the average citizen to be confused about what Special Forces is capable of, but in a business where risk mitigation is part of the charter, Special Forces should work towards clarity and developing a deeper understating of what they are best suited for, not just capable of.

In contrast, other formations under the USSOCOM umbrella are branded in more specific terminology. SEALs and Rangers have a particular brand that is less confused with other SOF units, as does Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations. That said, the SF branch's use of the term “Green Beret” remains a similarly identifying brand associated with this distinct history and storied reputation. In fact, when reports are specifically oriented to SF units, the term “Green Beret” is used to avoid confusion with other forces. However, the opposite has happened, and the SF regiment should promote rather than degrade the unique distinction of the title “Green Beret" to describe themselves and their unique capabilities.


The formation of an organization’s identity is a critical function of leadership and must be approached as a deliberate activity with a known end state. As a Regiment, Special Forces have an interest in acknowledging their uniqueness among fellow maneuver, Direct Action, and Influence Operations units. Unfortunately, nearly twenty years of indigenous leadership has been diluted by the similarities between the SF and SOF terms, and competition for budgets and missions has incentivized all branches to compete for relevance.

For these reasons, the time has come for the Special Forces Regiment to relook its identity and reframe Green Beret skills to be as valuable and special as they truly are. The ability to function as a strategic triple threat in indigenous-based military operations should be embraced with pride, even against more fashionable emerging aims such as Security Force Assistance and regional orientation. Even when SF conduct unilateral operations without indigenous forces, it should remember that their true strategic value stems from the ability to lead guerrillas, and the strategic effects of those indigenous forces will always be greater than SF acting alone.

Likewise, while Special Forces ties to indigenous forces can come at the expense of other combat forces gaining operational experience or accomplishing vital tasks, the SF function helps the entire US military win wars as part of a team. When they are the main effort, SF must demonstrate the capabilities of this triple threat, and likewise remain adaptable to being useful when in support of other units. Uniqueness is not an excuse for a “super soldier” mentality though. When SF train to look, act, and perform differently from other units, they must ensure that they see the big picture and avoid divisiveness with other branches. The ability to lead combined teams of SF Soldiers, guerrilla, auxiliary and underground forces, and indigenous populations of mostly developing countries suggests that SF should remain the most capable team players when working with other DoD units. The unique SF jargon of “G chief” and “getting in the G base” applies in almost everything they do. SF must embrace the ability to treat every situation with the care and cultural savvy of a UW operation.

Lastly, the strategic nature of the SF branch is seen as they are often called to serve at the political level of conflict, and often where indigenous forces matter greatly. However, if SF fail to solidify the core identity of unique leadership of those forces, then US political decision makers will remain hesitant to send them into the fight. This is especially salient given the networked and unconventional nature of adversarial efforts to build their own friendly government-like structures amidst competing political and social groups. They are using “special forces” to undermine US interests, and it is high time the US pushes back with its own Special Forces, a job specifically designed for Green Berets and their triple threat capabilities.

The views expressed are the authors’ and do not reflect official NDU, DOD, or USG positions.


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About the Author(s)

Dr. Joseph E. Long is a retired Green Beret and Faculty Member at the Joint Special Operations University’s Center for Irregular Warfare. His research interests include Irregular Warfare and ethical decision-making in Special Operations.

Dr. David Walton is a professor of national security strategy at the National Defense University. As a retired Green Beret officer with extensive operational experience in Latin America and the Middle East, his work and research focus on operationalizing great strategy for better results.