The Men In The Shadows
Why Special Forces are providing the model for a new kind of war
On the first day of the war, the major and his 10-man command staff rolled forward in their desert mobility vehicles, known as dumvees, to Basra in southern Iraq. Nothing went according to plan. The British were to have seized the city, but instead Saddam's soldiers stripped off their uniforms and began fighting guerrilla style. At a bridge that came to be known as Ambush Alley, the Special Forces convoy encountered armed men in the gathering gloom. When they refused to drop their guns, the chief warrant officer, a veteran 50-year-old warrior, fired his 9-mm pistol over their heads. The Iraqis dropped to the ground but refused to release their weapons. The captain of an American civil affairs unit jumped out and shouted in Arabic: "Get up and run away right now, or we'll put a bullet between your eyes!" The Iraqis ran.
After three days on the run, the Special Forces company set up camp at the Basra airport, in the maintenance buildings. The offices were trashed, windows, wiring, and plumbing destroyed, but it would turn out to be the least primitive--and unhealthful--of all the camps the roving commandos pitched. They set up generators. A concrete wall served as a makeshift movie theater. Gladiator was one of the more popular films shown.
GUNSLINGERS WHO KICK BUTT
One night a captain and his A-Team were assigned to capture two Baath Party members. They planned the raid minutely. On the final dry run, the captain opted for a soft takedown, in daylight. He knew his men would be disappointed. They specialized in direct action and had been outfitted with an unmanned aerial vehicle, mortars, and other weaponry. But these suspects had been lured out of their house readily during a reconnaissance mission earlier in the day. The captain's judgment was vindicated. The team fanned out; one knocked on the door and got the suspects outside on a pretext, then hustled them into waiting vehi- cles. When the soldiers searched the house, they found an infant in a downstairs bedroom--exactly the scenario that the captain had feared. "I have young children," he said, "and I would've run to their room at the first sound of intruders." The child was safe. No one was hurt.
That's called fire discipline. It's a big reason Green Berets are entrusted with risky missions. The company's warrant officer, "the Chief," praised the young captain's restraint. "All Special Forces operators are gunslingers," the Chief said, "and they all want to kick butt. But they are mature enough to know that it is the solution only 10 percent of the time."
A veteran special operator, the Chief personifies the type. Once featured in Green Beret promotional brochures, he can outshoot his Delta Force buddies and fire and repair 84 different weapon systems. In Tora Bora, Afghanistan, he spelunked into mountain caves hunting for al Qaeda terrorists alongside soldiers almost half his age. The Chief, who grew up with horses on ranches in California and Wyoming, says the secret of the Special Forces' effectiveness is simple: Go in bristling with firepower but use it surgically against only the intended target. The commandos' look can often avoid the use of any force at all. They rely on psychology as much as force. As one sergeant put it: "Other special ops guys go in and kill all the snakes. We go in, kill two snakes, then recruit two more to convert or kill the rest." This is the essence of precision warfare, writ small.