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Special Forces

June 2024
17min read

The least-understood branch of our military was born 60 years ago but today is coming into prominence as never before

“BUT, DAD, THOSE DON’T LOOK LIKE American soldiers.” My son was right. The bearded young men leaping from a white pickup truck in a TV news clip were dressed in an curious assortment of Western and Afghan garb. Yet even in the few seconds of broadcast images, one could see by their quick, purposeful movements that the newsman’s call was correct: The men securing a forlorn Al Qaeda safe house were U.S. Army Special Forces “Green Berets,” part of the major special operations forces deployment to Afghanistan, which also includes the Navy’s Sea-Air-Land teams—SEALs —and specialized Air Force elements.

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.

FACED WITH a stalemate in New England and the Middle Atlantic colonies during the American Revolution, the British captured Charleston, South Carolina, in 1780. The enterprise looked like a complete success until a trio of large guerrilla bands coalesced under Thomas Sumter, Andrew Pickens, and Francis Marion. Although Marion would become the best known of the commanders—it helps to have a catchy nickname—all three greatly disrupted British operations, and they worked in varying degrees of cooperation with the conventional Continental Army under Gen. Nathanael Greene.

The British never succeeded in establishing a solid base of operations in the Southern colonies, and as they plodded north toward their final defeat at Yorktown, Virginia, they were closely beset by even more guerrilla bands under William Davie and William Lee Davidson in North Carolina. But despite the activities of Sumter (who had a fort in Charleston Harbor named after him) and the other guerrilla leaders, Marion is generally acknowledged as the father of the Green Berets.


Modern Special Forces, however, can be traced directly to organizations formed during World War II. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the American Army was strictly a conventional force. Highly trained, specialized units like those of the British Special Air Service had to be built from scratch, with no established doctrine, let alone such things as field manuals, to help them. The crush of events inexorably channeled the evolution of American special operations into two general categories: raids behind enemy lines by large battalion- or brigade-sized units that Major Rogers would have felt at home with and “unconventional warfare” performed by small, specialized teams that, like the Swamp Fox, either gathered intelligence or organized guerrilla forces in enemy territory.

Particularly effective raiding units included the 5307th Composite Group (Provisional), better known as Merrill’s Marauders; a joint U.S.-Canadian brigade called the 1st Special Service Force; the 1st Ranger Battalion, which scaled the sheer cliffs at Pointe du Hoc during the Normandy invasion; and the Alamo Scouts, who aided the Rangers in the liberation of more than 500 POWs from a Japanese prison camp in the Philippines. As for the unconventional warfare category, it was the exclusive province of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), organized 60 years ago, in 1942.


Burmese tribesmen formed into the Kachin Rangers by OSS Detachment 101 protected the flanks of Merrill’s Marauders and conducted devastating raids and ambushes that peaked during the Japanese retreat from northern Burma. They ultimately killed 5,428 Japanese soldiers at the cost of only 22 Americans and 184 Kachins dead. (How was such an exact figure obtained? In part from counting Japanese corpses on the battlefields, but also from the long bamboo tubes filled with ears that the tribesmen would bring in after their attacks on isolated Japanese patrols. The OSS soldiers spent months trying to get the Kachins to abandon the practice, but it was never fully curbed.)

Operations in France also generated spectacular results and were especially impressive considering the remarkably small number of troops committed. Twenty-two OSS Operational Groups of 15 men each parachuted into France to conduct specific sabotage and intelligence operations, sometimes in conjunction with the Underground, while 87 threeman Jedburgh teams linked up with existing partisan groups to give them training, arms, and guidance. Even before the Germans were driven from France, the exploits of the Jedburgh and French guerrilla bands, especially their operations against the railroads, had become famous. (The “Jeds” were named after Scottish guerrillas who had fought against the English in their country’s Jedburgh region during the twelfth century.) The OSS was disbanded after the war, but its intelligence personnel and techniques became the foundation of the new Central Intelligence Agency, established in September 1947. The unconventional warfare mission of its highly successful guerrilla operations, meanwhile, was left unclaimed. Many former OSS officers and their men thought this was a grave mistake, but the Army was undergoing its inevitable postwar contraction, and the matter was out of their hands.

One highly regarded officer had other ideas. Eisenhower’s former psychological warfare chief, Brig. Gen. Robert McClure, had seen how unconventional warfare could support wider strategic objectives, and he bided his time until he was in a position to renew that capability within the Army. The invasion of South Korea in 1950 provided that opportunity. McClure vigorously pressed for the establishment of a separate psychological-warfare staff reporting directly to the Army chief of staff, all the while keeping quiet about his plans to develop an unconventional-warfare element within the proposed headquarters until it was too late for any traditionally minded officers to mount an opposition.

Strong support from Secretary of the Army Frank Pace got the proposal adopted in September 1 950, and to no one’s surprise, McClure was chosen to lead the new organization. The next spring he moved quickly to fill his headquarters’ small Special Operations Section with veterans who had served with the OSS, Merrill’s Marauders, and other such units. The most senior positions went to Colonels Wendell Fertig and Russell W. Volckman, who had commanded guerrilla operations against Japanese troops in the Philippines, and Aaron Bank, who had led three Jedburgh missions into France and one into Indochina, where he worked with Ho Chi Minh.

Responding to high-level Army dissatisfaction with the Rangers’ lack of foreignlanguage ability and limited training, McClure and his staff pressed for the establishment of more highly trained Special Forces Ranger Units. But unlike the Rangers, whose duties were confined to raiding and patrolling close to the front lines, these soldiers would operate—some in uniform, some not—with indigenous guerrilla groups deep in enemy rear areas.

All the Ranger companies were deactivated in 1951, and this opened 2,300 manpower slots within the Army. McClure managed to have many of these assigned to his newly created empire at Fort Bragg, North Carolina: the Psychological Warfare Center and its Special Forces School, whose graduates would fill the regimentsized 10th Special Forces Group. McClure tapped Bank to command the group. There was no reference to the Rangers in either the school’s or the group’s title; not only was the Special Forces’ mission to be “entirely different,” Bank explained, but the Army held that “all reference to Rangers should be deleted because Special Forces would be involved in subversive activities.”

Airborne soldiers and former Rangers made up most of the early volunteers. Men with OSS experience got unit commands and important training jobs, and Army personnel from Eastern Europe were included in every A-team of 2 officers and 13 seasoned noncommissioned officers (sergeants), built on the OSS model. The basic pattern for today’s Special Forces training can be clearly seen in the original routine established at Fort Bragg: intensive instruction in clandestine activities, survival methods, and techniques for training guerrillas. The course was made even more demanding by its focus on cross-training. Every man had to master more than one duty, so that troopers could work independently and a unit would not be incapacitated if it lost specialized personnel.

No sooner had the new Special Forces outfit completed its initial training session, in the summer of 1953, than East Berlin exploded in a revolt that was bloodily suppressed by Soviet tanks. The U.S. Army immediately sent overseas its one unit capable of controlling and directing resistance movements that might develop in Eastern Europe. Fully half the 10th Special Forces Group was deployed to Bad Tolz, a former German officers’ training center south of Munich; the rest of its men stayed behind to form yet another Special Forces group, the 77th, at Fort Bragg.

At first the staff officers planning for World War III in Europe weren’t sure what to do with the newly minted outfit. Planners would ask “how many men the 10th Special Forces Group would put on the line on D-day,” in the words of Col. Charles M. (“Bill”) Simpson. “The answer, of course, was ‘none.’” Special Forces had to educate the planners and make them understand that these soldiers were not some kind of super Rangers, that if Soviet divisions smashed their way into West Germany, the job of the 10th was not to fight in the streets of Berlin but to parachute teams far behind Soviet lines and link up with contacts that the CIA had developed before hostilities broke out.


SPECIAL FORCES was—and still is—designed to work toward long-term objectives rather than quick battlefield fixes, because the personal trust necessary for partisan networks to fight effectively takes time to develop. Simpson wrote that “It would be months before effective guerrilla operations could start.”

They never had to start, of course, because the war didn’t come. In the years following the East Berlin revolt, direct confrontation with the United States grew less attractive to the Soviet Union and China, and they increasingly turned to “wars of national liberation” as a means of expanding their influence while minimizing their own risk. Special Forces soldiers had always thought of themselves as resistance fighters—indeed their motto remains De oppressa liber (to liberate the oppressed)—and in the new environment, who better to fight guerrillas than one who is trained to be a guerrilla?

Few Americans had a firm grasp of what was transpiring during the alarming days of Sputnik , the Berlin Wall, and insurgencies seemingly appearing out of nowhere, but John F. Kennedy did. In 1962 the man who launched the space race told the graduating class of the U.S. Military Academy: “In light of this situation, we need to be prepared to fight a different war. This is another type of war, new in its intensity, ancient in its origin, war by guerrillas, subversives, insurgents, assassins; war by ambush instead of combat, by infiltration instead of aggression, seeking victory by eroding and exhausting the enemy instead of engaging him. It requires, in those situations where we encounter it, a whole new kind of strategy, a wholly different kind of force, and therefore, a new and wholly different kind of military training.”

The Psychological Warfare Center had been renamed the Special Warfare Center in 1956 and had activated a third group on Okinawa in 1957, but Special Forces was hit by the same budget and manpower cuts as the rest of the Army’s nonnuclear elements in the years before Kennedy became President. And as inspiring and farsighted as JFK proved to be, Special Warfare Center Commandant Brig. Gen. William Yarborough later said that it was not easy to “prod the Armed Services into changing their conventional warfare orientation in any significant way.” Kennedy found that “service apathy and even opposition” to Special Forces still ran strong and he decided to let senior leaders know about his concern. Said Yarborough: “The President took the unusual step of arranging a private session with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the hope that they would urge support for the ambitious training programs that were laboring to get off the ground at Fort Bragg.”

With the President’s vehement personal support, men and funds flowed into the organization. By the time of Kennedy’s Military Academy speech, a fourth Special Forces Group had already been added. Three more were formed in 1963, raising the number of operational groups to seven (most, however, never came close to reaching full strength because of the Army-wide shortage of sergeants precipitated by the Vietnam War). The President even supported the adoption of green berets as the official Special Forces headgear, a proposal that the Army’s leadership had strenuously opposed for years.

Special Forces activities expanded in Africa, Asia, and, much closer to home, Latin America, where many countries were battling guerrillas inspired by Fidel Castro’s Cuba and frequently backed by the Soviet Union. Special Forces A-teams worked closely with Latin American armies. Their involvement in Bolivia is well known because of the tracking down and capture of the communist revolutionary Che Guevara, but some 450 missions were carried out by the 8th Special Forces Group in other countries such as Guatemala, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic in the mid-1960s, with Colombia, strategically located near the Panama Canal, receiving the highest number of training teams.

Direct U.S. involvement in Vietnam began in 1957 with the deployment of the 14th Special Forces Operational Detachment and was rising steadily long before Kennedy entered the White House. U.S. advisers trained the Army of Vietnam in counterinsurgent tactics and worked hard to deny the Vietcong guerrillas free movement in the countryside by very quickly forging the many outlying tribes, which were not ethnically Vietnamese, into competent anticommunist forces.

Tribesmen formed close bonds with the Green Berets, who scrupulously respected local customs and established medical clinics and schools in regions ignored by the Saigon government. By the late 1960s some 45,000 tribesmen had been actively involved in the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG), operated by 3,500 Special Forces troops per year in a total of 249 village outposts beyond the easy reach of conventional U.S. and South Vietnamese units.

Countless skirmishes and dozens of pitched battles were fought during the nine years of the CIDG program. The Green Berets’ activities with such tribal allies as thé Nungs, Montagnards, and Khmers remained the main focus of Special Forces efforts, but the Ho Chi Minh Trail supply network, running from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia to South Vietnam, also saw extensive longrange patrolling. Teams of Green Berets and tribal soldiers often spent weeks at a time in the contested jungles and severely disrupted communist operations.


As the war grew to be more and more a “big unit” fight in 1965, with the advance of North Vietnamese formations into the South, the isolated CIDG posts became increasingly vulnerable, particularly to artillery, which the North Vietnamese used against them with devastating effect. Camps Due Co and Cai Cai underwent prolonged sieges, and others like Song Be and Bu Dop fell in vicious fighting. Just before its Ia Drang Valley battles, one of which was depicted in the recent film We Were Soldiers , the 1st Cavalry. Division forced the North Vietnamese to lift their siege of Plei Me, but this was hardly the norm, since large conventional units could seldom be spared to dash from one beleaguered site to another.


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.


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.

RENEWED interest in unconventional warfare during the Reagan and first Bush administrations spurred some long-needed changes within the Army, changes that made becoming a Green Beret no longer the career-killing decision it had so often turned out to be. Slowly—almost grudgingly, in some cases—the Army was coming to recognize Special Forces’ unique capabilities and the value of having units trained in the customs and language of a contested region. Finally, in April 1987, Special Forces became a separate Army branch, on equal footing with Armor, Infantry, Ordnance, and all the other major components. The change came just in time for America’s first major conflict since Vietnam.

During the Persian Gulf War of 1990–91, a large number of Middle Eastern nations joined the coalition forces arrayed against Iraq. The Egyptian Army had been conducting extensive exercises with its U.S. counterpart for nearly a decade, but most Arab armies knew little of American military procedures, and language problems were as vexing as ever. Because of this, virtually every available Green Beret was committed to serving as a liaison with the Saudi and Qatari units, training Kuwaiti resistance forces, or conducting reconnaissance missions. Manpower was in such short supply that even Delta Force was pulled into the show to perform standard Special Forces missions after Saddam Hussein’s release of Iraq’s Western “guest workers” made it clear that Delta would not be needed for hostage rescues.

The Delta counterterrorists were principally given the task of finding and destroying mobile Scud missile launchers. Saddam Hussein believed that targeting Israeli cities would push Israel into an assault against his country, almost certainly driving a wedge between the United States and its Muslim allies. The deployment of American Patriot antimissile batteries, a lavish (and usually frustrating) “Scud hunt” by Air Force F-15s, and Special Forces efforts deep in the Iraqi desert persuaded the Israelis to cancel two planned invasions. Because the Scuds were being aimed deliberately at civilian and not military targets, it is, if not an irony of history, at least a foreshadowing of it that the Delta troops found themselves fighting a new form of terrorism—one that they and the other U.S. Special Operations Forces may again confront.


Before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, roughly 2,000 Green Berets were engaged in training missions around the globe at any given time. These continue, but Special Forces has shifted its main efforts to the war on terrorism, and the high degree of integration that has developed with the Special Operations Forces of America’s other armed services has paid remarkable dividends in the early stages of the fighting. The image of horseback-riding supercommandos directing B-52 strikes with laser designators became a media staple, but the Green Berets’ greatest contribution to the campaign in Afghanistan occurred unseen during the two years before the terrorist attacks.


In 1999 President Bush’s Middle East envoy Anthony Zinni—then the four-star Marine general also responsible for the former Soviet republics in Central Asia—directed his Special Operations Forces in the words of Brig. Gen. Frank Toney, Jr., to use their “military-to-military peacetime engagement techniques to open up |the new Asian nations] for training with U.S. forces.” At a time when U.S. businesses and many diplomats viewed the region as a dangerous place best left to its own devices, Army Special Forces teams were conducting training missions in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, where they developed personal relationships that remain critically important in that part of the world.


When war came, the Uzbeks immediately offered their assistance. American transport aircraft were touching down on their soil barely a week after September 11, and a major base was quickly established at Khanabad, 130 miles north of the Afghan border. By mid-November the Tajiks had made available three bases from which offensive operations could be launched (of which the Pentagon chose one), and they were soon followed by the Kyrgys. Special Forces’ familiarity with each nation’s culture and topography, along with the mutual trust developed between the Central Asian and American soldiers, allowed combat operations to be conducted with stunning rapidity and effect.

In Afghanistan the Green Berets demonstrated that they have learned well the lessons of their past. In the new war against global terror networks they will need all their hard-won experience and skills to bring the fight to those who would harm America.


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