- 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
The inability of conventional U.S. and South Vietnamese forces to come to the aid of the CIDG camps led Special Forces to create its own battalion-sized mobile reaction units, made up of indigenous troops. Called simply “Mike” forces after the letter M for mobile , they were increasingly used in missions in support of conventional operations. As the war developed, some Mike-force actions, such as the 10-day battle for Nui Goto Mountain in 1969, took on increasingly Ranger-like characteristics and demonstrated the need for the specialized units that the Army had abandoned nearly a quarter-century earlier. The next year most of the divisional reconnaissance companies in Vietnam were upgraded to Vietnam Army Ranger status. By 1974 the Army had filled the gap by reactivating two Ranger battalions in the United States.
TRIBESMEN FORMED CLOSE BONDS WITH THE GREEN BERETS, WHO RESPECTED LOCAL CUSTOMS AND ESTABLISHED MEDICAL CLINICS AND SCHOOLS IN REGIONS IGNORED BY THE SAIGON GOVERNMENT.
Meanwhile, Special Forces began the slow process of turning its CIDG camps over to the Vietnamese Army, as part of President Richard Nixon’s “Vietnamization” policy. By now the threat from the Vietcong’s revolutionary cadres was steadily diminishing, thanks to a highly successful effort to keep the insurgents from rebuilding their ranks after the terrible losses they suffered during the 1968 Tet Offensive. The well-trained CIDG tribesmen were given the option of either reverting to civilian life or becoming members of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, and more than 14,000 stayed on to form light-infantry Ranger battalions.
The Green Berets finally left Vietnam in March 1971. Before their departure, the retired Special Forces captain Shelby Stanton writes, “Special Forces turned over its medical and dental treatment programs to native CIDG political warfare team medics.” The Green Berets had not only built hundreds of bridges, schools, and dispensaries, Stanton noted, but also had “used close personal assistance and self-help methods to elevate agriculture, animal husbandry, and community living standards among the peasants.” Ultimately, though, much of this work was destroyed or allowed to disintegrate after North Vietnam’s decidedly conventional cross-border blitzkrieg pummeled its way to Saigon in 1975.
ONE RESULT of the Vietnam War was that the U.S. Army gained a broad understanding that the dirty work of fighting guerrillas must be accompanied by genuine reforms if an insurgency was to be defeated rather than temporarily checked. The Army also learned that if another nation’s people lack the will to persevere, you cannot expect to win a war for them. Consequently, the lessons of Vietnam led to now almost forgotten successes in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras. Right from the beginning of the decade-long U.S. effort to help El Salvador fight its insurgency, both governments made—and stuck with—a decision not to encourage a “gringoization” of the war.
Army Special Forces reached its peak of visibility in the late 1960s, at the height of the Vietnam War, and its glamour and novel tactics attracted a degree of press coverage out of all proportion to its numbers. Much of the Army’s leadership, already distrustful of the elite formation’s siphoning off of conventional units’ best personnel, viewed Green Berets as publicity-seeking mavericks often lacking in “good order and discipline.” After the last American Special Forces troops had left Vietnam, in 1971, Special Forces’ enemies moved in for the kill, and the worldwide total of seven regimental-sized groups was slashed to just three, based mainly at Fort Bragg, in Panama, and at its original European headquarters in Bad Tolz.
Throughout the 1970s the remaining Green Berets kept their heads down; the Special Warfare Center’s change of name to the more bland Institute for Military Assistance was a sign of the times. But A-teams continued to train foreign militaries around the globe, and at home the Green Berets established the SPARTAN (Special Proficiency At Rugged Training And Nation-building) program to help maintain its unique skills. Under SPARTAN, personnel provided medical treatment to Indian tribes in Florida, Arizona, and Montana and to impoverished North Carolinians.
The sad exception to Special Forces keeping its low profile came in April 1980, when an operation mounted by its newly formed counterterrorist unit, popularly known as Delta Force, failed spectacularly—and publicly—during the attempted rescue of U.S. Embassy hostages in Iran. The debacle at Desert One in April 1980, when a Marine helicopter and an Air Force tanker plane were destroyed during a refueling accident, laid bare extreme deficiencies both in equipment and in cooperation between the armed services. Over the next few years all the branches worked hard to remedy the flaws, and they managed to do so quietly and without attracting much attention beyond military circles. Special Forces had even expanded back up to five regular Army and two National Guard groups by the early 1990s, largely outside the public eye.