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The Golden Age of Special Operations

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Posted on May 29, 2012
Hans J E (CC BY-ND 2.0)

A member of a commando unit unfurls an American flag after parachuting from a plane at a military show in Georgia.

By Andrew J. Bacevich, TomDispatch

This piece originally appeared at TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction here.

As he campaigns for reelection, President Obama periodically reminds audiences of his success in terminating the deeply unpopular Iraq War.   With fingers crossed for luck, he vows to do the same with the equally unpopular war in Afghanistan.  If not exactly a peacemaker, our Nobel Peace Prize-winning president can (with some justification) at least claim credit for being a war-ender.

Yet when it comes to military policy, the Obama administration’s success in shutting down wars conducted in plain sight tells only half the story, and the lesser half at that.  More significant has been this president’s enthusiasm for instigating or expanding secret wars, those conducted out of sight and by commandos.

President Franklin Roosevelt may not have invented the airplane, but during World War II he transformed strategic bombing into one of the principal emblems of the reigning American way of war.  General Dwight D. Eisenhower had nothing to do with the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb.  Yet, as president, Ike’s strategy of Massive Retaliation made nukes the centerpiece of U.S. national security policy.

So, too, with Barack Obama and special operations forces.  The U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) with its constituent operating forces—Green Berets, Army Rangers, Navy SEALs, and the like—predated his presidency by decades.  Yet it is only on Obama’s watch that these secret warriors have reached the pinnacle of the U.S. military’s prestige hierarchy.

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John F. Kennedy famously gave the Green Berets their distinctive headgear.  Obama has endowed the whole special operations “community” with something less decorative but far more important: privileged status that provides special operators with maximum autonomy while insulating them from the vagaries of politics, budgetary or otherwise.  Congress may yet require the Pentagon to undertake some (very modest) belt-tightening, but one thing’s for sure: no one is going to tell USSOCOM to go on a diet.  What the special ops types want, they will get, with few questions asked—and virtually none of those few posed in public.

Since 9/11, USSOCOM’s budget has quadrupled. The special operations order of battle has expanded accordingly.  At present, there are an estimated 66,000 uniformed and civilian personnel on the rolls, a doubling in size since 2001 with further growth projected. Yet this expansion had already begun under Obama’s predecessor.  His essential contribution has been to broaden the special ops mandate.  As one observer put it, the Obama White House let Special Operations Command “off the leash.”

As a consequence, USSOCOM assets today go more places and undertake more missions while enjoying greater freedom of action than ever before.  After a decade in which Iraq and Afghanistan absorbed the lion’s share of the attention, hitherto neglected swaths of Africa, Asia, and Latin America are receiving greater scrutiny. Already operating in dozens of countries around the world—as many as 120 by the end of this year—special operators engage in activities that range from reconnaissance and counterterrorism to humanitarian assistance and “direct action.” The traditional motto of the Army special forces is “De Oppresso Liber” (“To Free the Oppressed”).  A more apt slogan for special operations forces as a whole might be “Coming soon to a Third World country near you!”

The displacement of conventional forces by special operations forces as the preferred U.S. military instrument—the “force of choice” according to the head of USSOCOM, Admiral William McRaven—marks the completion of a decades-long cultural repositioning of the American soldier.  The G.I., once represented by the likes of cartoonist Bill Mauldin’s iconic Willie and Joe, is no more, his place taken by today’s elite warrior professional.  Mauldin’s creations were heroes, but not superheroes.  The nameless, lionized SEALs who killed Osama bin Laden are flesh-and blood Avengers.  Willie and Joe were “us.”  SEALs are anything but “us.”  They occupy a pedestal well above mere mortals.  Couch potato America stands in awe of their skill and bravery.

This cultural transformation has important political implications.  It represents the ultimate manifestation of the abyss now separating the military and society. Nominally bemoaned by some, including former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and former Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen, this civilian-military gap has only grown over the course of decades and is now widely accepted as the norm.  As one consequence, the American people have forfeited owner’s rights over their army, having less control over the employment of U.S. forces than New Yorkers have over the management of the Knicks or Yankees.

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