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Special Ops: The New Face of War

How do you assure the security of a nation of human beings who consume a disproportionate amount of the world’s resources, habitually live beyond their means and are addicted to all forms of fantasy from Bible-based delusion, to patriotism-based arrogance, to movie special effects that make ordinary human drama seem boring?

What is the most powerful nation in the world with the largest, most expensive, most lethal military in the history of mankind to do when the good times turn bad, the money goes funny and class warfare breaks out on the homefront?

How does modern warfare in a nation-state system that evolved out of feudalism continue to evolve as new communication systems increase? What does modern warfare look like as that nation state system breaks down, to be replaced by a confusing, “globalized” world of power centers and power vacuums?

The answer for the United States seems to be a growing concentration on what is known as Special Operations, which includes Special Forces, Seals and a host of other lethal military forces that emphasize mobility, efficiency, secrecy and unaccountability. Navy Seal Team Six is the showcase unit of US Special Ops warfare; it’s the much-touted force that killed Osama bin Laden in May and on August 6th lost 17 men when their Chinook helicopter was shot down. A total of 38 men were killed in the shoot-down, including pilots, crew and eight Afghans -- plus a dog.

A Chinook and the August 6 wreckage in AfghanistanA Chinook and the August 6 wreckage in Afghanistan

The Seal team was on a mission to aid a Ranger unit trying to capture or kill a Taliban leader. Back in June 2005, a Chinook was similarly shot down, killing 16 special operations soldiers. By now, this kind of focused killing mission by helicopter at night is standard procedure in Afghanistan. Chinooks, I can speak from experience in Vietnam, are loud, lumbering machines that would seem a reasonably vulnerable target for an experienced fighter with a rocket, something the Russians learned. No doubt the Chinooks are accompanied on missions by Apaches and other agile killing machines.

The transition to this kind of secret hunter-killer warfare began with the ascendancy of General Stanley McChrystal to command in Afghanistan following his successes in Iraq at using Special Ops units to identify and kill insurgent leaders. These unaccountable units were described by Bob Woodward as “the secret weapon” of The Surge. They were also called by some “the Salvadoran option,” referring to the death squad aspect of their function. They can arguably be seen as an updated, highly sophisticated Phoenix Program, the notorious US assassination teams employed during the Vietnam War.


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