- Historic Sites
The least-understood branch of our military was born 60 years ago but today is coming into prominence as never before
November/December 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 6
Nor were their looks the only unconventional thing about them. All Green Berets are dauntingly adept fighters, but they also know how to build and run field hospitals, train foreign troops and guerrillas, speak foreign languages, and spend long, patient months behind enemy lines. Right now they might be the most crucial part of our military establishment. Certainly they are the least understood.
Every Green Beret belongs to either the U.S. Army Special Forces Command, at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, or one of 7 three-battalion “groups,” each approximately 1,400 soldiers strong. Each of these groups (five of them active and two in the National Guard) is trained to operate in a special region. Some of these are traditional areas of our national interest —Central and South America, Europe, the Pacific—while others—the Middle East and Central Asia—have more recently drawn America’s attention. The 5th Special Forces Group, based at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, is responsible for operations in the latter areas. Its members are the young men who fought the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and today are training that country’s new army. Many Green Berets in the 19th Special Forces Group (National Guard), based in Salt Lake City, Utah, are also specially trained for operations in the Middle East.
Until recently Army Special Forces units had five primary missions: unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense, special reconnaissance, counterterrorism, and direct action. Two new missions, information operations and counterproliferation, were added only months before the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Green Berets also are called on to carry out collateral activities beyond the primary missions: combat search and rescue, security assistance, countermine and counterdrug operations, peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, and serving as liaisons between U.S. and foreign troops during combat operations.
Foreign internal defense is the main focus of Special Forces activities in regions where the United States is not at war. Green Berets teach the military forces of friendly developing nations how to fight more effectively, while stressing human rights issues and the value of conducting humanitarian projects in areas threatened by insurgents.
In short, these people must be diplomats, doctors, spies, cultural anthropologists, and good friends—all before their primary work comes into play. The personal and professional links developed between Green Berets and the militaries of other countries often pay great dividends in increased understanding and cooperation during times of crisis, when Special Forces takes on its core mission, which is conducting unconventional warfare.
More than at any time since Vietnam, the war on terrorism has thrust the Green Berets into the media spotlight. There remains, however, little public comprehension of exactly what Special Forces soldiers do and where they come from. In fact, these highly specialized modern warriors have a heritage that reaches back both to the deep-penetration raids of His Majesty’s Independent Companies of Rangers—“Rogers’ Rangers”—during the French and Indian War and to the prolonged guerrilla campaigns of Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox,” in the American Revolution.
In the late 1750s Maj. Robert Rogers of New Hampshire formalized certain standing orders for his men. Commonsense directives, such as marching spread out “so one shot can’t go through two men,” posting sentries when the men stop to eat, and acting “the way you would if you was sneaking up on a deer” when on the march, were considered radical—even dangerous—by Rogers’s British superiors. Yet they proved sound practices when confronting an enemy in the forests of New England, and they are just as relevant for Special Forces soldiers in the mountains of Afghanistan or the jungles of the Philippines. Because Rogers’s men frequently fought as light-infantry shock troops in direct support of larger conventional forces—much as today’s U.S. Army Rangers are trained to do—while also engaging in the long-term, largely independent missions that generally characterize Special Forces operations, both modern-day organizations lay claim to them as predecessors.
Time and time again Rogers’ Rangers saved the scalps of the king’s scarletcoated soldiers during the confusion of wilderness warfare. The value of their techniques soon became so clear that in spite of what the British historian J. W. Fortescue called a “bigotry in favour of European methods,” a few British officers, chief among them Col. Henry Bouquet, were allowed to experiment with similar tactics. Inspired by the colonial outfit’s unorthodox ways, Bouquet’s soldiers won victories against the French and Indians, yet after the war the British reverted to the parade-ground maneuvers that would cost them so dearly at Bunker Hill barely a generation later. Americans, however, living in their frontier society, did not forget the value of stealthy movement and the efficacy of sudden attacks at unexpected points.