A descent into darkness by our special operations forces

Summary: Only slowly have Americans begun to see the dark thing done in our name during our post-9/11 wars. For years we tightly closed our eyes. We told ourselves that only terrorists were killed, or fighters “on the battlefield” — plus a few civilians as collateral damage. Slowly those lies get debunked and we see the institutionalized assassination machinery created in our military – dirtying our reputation, operationally ineffective, and strategically counterproductive. But it doesn’t matter what we think, for the war has slipped beyond civilian control (as wars often do). {2nd of 2 posts today.}

“Even the sharpest sword rusts when plunged into salt water.”
— Ancient wisdom.

Navy special warfare
Member of Special Operations Task Force Southeast at Base Tarin in Afghanistan, 7 Aug 2012. By James Ginther.


  1. SEAL Team 6: quiet killings.
  2. Elite soldiers become assassins.
  3. Assassination seldom works.
  4. Women can fight and kill.
  5. There are alternatives.
  6. For More Information.

(1)  SEAL Team 6: quiet killings

The New York Times gave a tangible example of our madness, a nice follow-up to Study body counts to learn about our wars: how we fight, why we lose:  “SEAL Team 6: A Secret History of Quiet Killings and Blurred Lines“, 6 June 2015 — “The unit best known for killing Osama bin Laden has been converted into a global manhunting machine with limited outside oversight.”

Once a small group reserved for specialized but rare missions, the unit best known for killing Osama bin Laden has been transformed by more than a decade of combat into a global manhunting machine. That role reflects America’s new way of war, in which conflict is distinguished not by battlefield wins and losses, but by the relentless killing of suspected militants.

… Afghan villagers and a British commander accused SEALs of indiscriminately killing men in one hamlet; in 2009, team members joined C.I.A. and Afghan paramilitary forces in a raid that left a group of youths dead and inflamed tensions between Afghan and NATO officials. Even an American hostage freed in a dramatic rescue has questioned why the SEALs killed all his captors.

Let’s hold the applause for a few minutes and consider what this means for our wars, for our military, and for America.

New CIA Logo

(2)  Turning our elite soldiers into assassins

“I’ll be the good guy.  You will be the American special ops assassin.”
— Children at play around the world.

Assassins are not heroes. Assassination is not heroic. We close our eyes to this in vain. For details see The men of US Special Operations Command are heroes. But are their deeds heroic? It tarnishes the reputations of those who use it, as described in The biggest re-branding exercise in the history of the world,

Worse, as I wrote in 2013 we are Expanding the size and scope of our Special Operations Forces, an alternative to learning from our failed wars. Opportunities for effective assassination are rare. Instead we’re employing — even expending — our elite troops to no great effect. From the NYT article…

Waves of money have sluiced through SEAL Team 6 since 2001, allowing it to significantly expand its ranks — reaching roughly 300 assault troops, called operators, and 1,500 support personnel — to meet new demands. But some team members question whether the relentless pace of operations has eroded the unit’s elite culture and worn down Team 6 on combat missions of little importance. The group was sent to Afghanistan to hunt Qaeda leaders, but instead spent years conducting close-in battle against mid- to low-level Taliban and other enemy fighters. Team 6 members, one former operator said, served as “utility infielders with guns.”

The cost was high: More members of the unit have died over the past 14 years than in all its previous history. Repeated assaults, parachute jumps, rugged climbs and blasts from explosives have left many battered, physically and mentally.

Special Operations Command

(3)  Assassination seldom works

Mass assassination programs have worked in the past. Palestine has been shaped into its current pitiful state by generations of assassination on its leaders, especially moderate mayors — by groups from the Gush Emunim (right-wing Jewish settlers) to radical Palestinian groups. But assassination seldom produces constructive results. Even the gullible journalists at the NYT, usually applauding even the most feckless wars of the US, have doubts…

Like the C.I.A.’s campaign of drone strikes, Special Operations missions offer policy makers an alternative to costly wars of occupation. But the bulwark of secrecy around Team 6 makes it impossible to fully assess its record and the consequences of its actions, including civilian casualties or the deep resentment inside the countries where its members operate. The missions have become embedded in American combat with little public discussion or debate.

Assassination arouses even more antipathy than other forms of war, whether done by spec ops or drones. We’re goading our enemies to attack America. Eventually we’ll succeed, and they will.

Worse, our serial executions of our foes’ leaders is the equivalent of long low doses of antibiotics — not only insufficient to destroy their cohesion, but also eliminating the slow and stupid so that only their best survive. It creates a Darwinian Ratchet forcing improving of our foes. For details see Our tactics are an obstacle to victory in the Long War, as the Darwinian Ratchet works against us and Why a decade of assassinations hasn’t helped America.

There’s a large literature about the risks and often meager rewards of assassination.

Lyudmila Pavlichenko
Lyudmila Pavlichenko: 309 kills.

(4)  Proving that women can fight and kill

The case for admitting women becomes stronger as assassination becomes a major role of our special operations troops. Women have a long and storied history of not just participating with insurgents and guerrilla, but also acting as assassins in many capacities — from covert to military. For example, consider the 2,000 women snipers of the Soviet Union during WWII — including such stars as Lyudmila Pavlichenko (309 confirmed kills) and Nina Lobkovskaya (commanded a company of snipers).

Special Forces
Image by Eric A. Hendrix.

(5)  There are alternatives

There are alternatives on all levels to the easy boldness of staging hits. See the strategic significance of bin Laden’s execution, and the road not taken. For a more tactical perspective, see this by Pat Lang (Colonel, Special Forces, retired) on our fight harder not smarter approach to 4GW — a conflict of approaches within the special operations forces. This explains why we’ve lightly used effective tactics and increasingly relied on less effective tactics. People are policy.

The US Army Special Forces (Green Berets – I am one such) of the pre-antiterrorist commando era were men specially selected and trained to work with culturally alien peoples on a non-judgmental basis.  They (we) were very good at that.

To some extent that skill set persists but it has been submerged under the “door kicker” mentality of men like; McChrystal, McRaven, Schoomaker, Boyden, Beckwith et al.  The original “model” Green Berets were purged (and this has been noticed by the young) or paid high career prices for their tolerant attitudes.

The US Army also tried hard in the 20th Century to develop a small cadre of officers who had a deep knowledge of particular groups of human aliens.  This program still exists in the “Foreign Area Officer” career field, but while it once produced culturally sensitive political-military officers, skilled in the languages needed who worked out in the field as trainers, attaches, intelligence collectors, etc., it now produces officers often relegated to high level staffs as advisers to generals who feel obliged to have them but who do not take their advice.

Kill Chain
Available at Amazon.

(6)  For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about assassination and about special operations forces.

See these articles about our special operations assassins.



15 thoughts on “A descent into darkness by our special operations forces”

  1. Reblogged this on Centinel2012 and commented:
    I am a former Green Beret of the Vietnam era where I spent 4 months in Vietnam as the XO of A-341 Bu Dop on the border of Cambodia in ‘67 until I was wounded and sent back to the states (the World as it was known back then). My total service was 4 years with the final rank of Captain. Some 20 years after getting out and now with some time on my hands I joined several military association one of which was the Special Forces Association mostly comprising Vietnam era vets (all Green Berets) with only a few from the WOT, or whatever they call it now.
    A few years ago we had a current SF officer (field grade) attended a meeting and he gave us a briefing (unclassified) on the current situation with the current wars. I was shocked when he told me, when I talked to him, that he didn’t care who he was going after, he was only glad that he was “able to practice his art.” That maybe but when conducting unconventional warfare it must be done very cautiously as it is way too easy to get out of hand, and it has.
    I don’t blame the military as much as the politicians in particular the commander in Chief the President. Without a clear and achievable mission the results are never good and the ROE (Rules Of Engagement) make for very difficult missions that are micro managed from the very top. As this post explains we are using our military as assassins and with a few exceptions that is wrong. What is also wrong is using Drones as assassination platforms especially when they really never know whom they are killing.
    Two things led to this situation the first is the elimination of the draft and the second was outsourcing much of the military labor to sub contractors. The elimination of the draft produced a professional military which is not good and the second created paramilitary of private companies that recruited special operations and other highly training operators who became an under the table US military, without much oversight. Both of these have allowed the politicians to conduct operations that may seem legitimate but are not. The result of this will be a military that will not see anything wrong with conducting operations in the interior of the country.

    1. Centential,

      Thank you for your comment, and sharing your experience. I agree on all points. Especially the need for leadership from the top. Our successful wars, especially the Civil War and WWII, had strong leadership at all levels with the military. Lincoln reviewed all death sentences by Courts Martial — in detail, often reducing the sentence. FDR was highly involved with military operations.

      Nothing substitutes for leadership. No amount of money, or advantage in technology or numbers.

    2. I served in II Corps in B-51 in ’71-’72, spent 4+ years in Special Forces out of 6+ years of active duty, and also finished as a captain. I did not join veterans associations; but kept contact with colleagues until Clinton became president.

      One of my colleagues in SF ran away to join the Army, with his mother’s blessing before he was 17. Through the years, he rose from private to full colonel and was on this list to make Brigadier General. But when the country elected Bill Clinton as president, he immediately resigned, rather than serve under that man as Commander-In-Chief. “Art,” he told me, “by the time that man is finished with his presidency, most of our generals will be caring more about the stars on their shoulders than the stars on our flag.” Looking back, I can see where he had men like Petraeus, McChrystal, and Odierno in mind. Bill Clinton was seen at times openly carrying “The Prince” by Machiavelli; and at other time he would be seen carrying The Bible.

      Enough said.

      1. Arthur,

        That’s an interesting idea. However, much of the military reform literature points to an origin of this problem in the transition from the WWII-Korea leadership in the laet 1950s and 1960s, and especially the purge of good officers during the Vietnam era. It’s slowly grown worse over time. I don’t believe something with such deep institutional roots can be blamed on Clinton, especially consider how disengaged he was with the military.

        It’s an excuse, IMO, for the military’s own institutional failings.

    3. I meant to say: “Art, by the time that man is finished with his presidency, most of the generals will be caring more about the stars on their SHOULDERS than the stars on the flag.” (Big difference!)
      Editor: Fixed!

  2. In a reply to an article on the same subject, which was posted on this website some time ago, I lamented that we have turned our samurai (special forces) into ninja (navy seals). Anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of the warrior traditions of the samurai would know that it was founded on a code of ethics (bushi-do) that closely resembled the European code of chivalry. Such a person would also know how much the samurai loathed the ninja, much like the lion loathes the jackal.

    Like the ninja, seals are highly trained killers. They are physically tough. But -I don’t think that I am being too harsh- they show themselves to be morally bankrupt when they choose “Kill” over “capture”, and when they are used in darkness to kill rather than in the open to defend a community within a country, to terrorize the oppressed rather than to free them.

    To hold such men in such high regard for such deeds, says so much about calloused nature of the American public. Most of us have gloated over the murder of a helpless sickly man, and supported torture and indefinite incarceration of those who have been captured inside the hell-holes of Abu-Graib, Guantanamo, and lesser-known places. We are worse than “the good Germans”, because unlike the Germans we have been told what is being done in our name; and too many of us seem to like it.

  3. Fabius Maximus Editor:
    Of course, you are right. It did not start with Bill Clinton. But my friend said what he said, when he said it; and I think he saw all this coming years before most of us did.

    As an adjunct:
    Lt.General Ricardo Sanchez was commander of ground forces in Iraq from 2003 to 2007. He was so concerned about the flagrant violations of human rights and the Geneva Conventions regarding the treatment of civilians and irregular combatants by US troops that he twice commissioned studies by the Army Medical Corps in an effort to uncover the reasons for the moral decay among our officers and NCOs, who actually supported these violations. He (along with Representative John Murtha among others) was so alarmed about what these psychologists uncovered, that he felt that the US Arny and Marine Corps should be withdrawn from Iraq and given a chance to re-establish moral discipline and to re-discover their moral compass. George W. Bush relieved him instead.

    1. Arthur,

      Thanks for the info about Lt General Sanchez. I knew some of his story, but not about that! This goes to something often discussed among civilians in the military reform community — the ability of the military to reform its own culture. Sanchez provides a good example of what’s possible, even though his story didn’t end well.

  4. They are just another embodiment of a policy that has been used for many years. One example is a telgeam to Indonesia gicing names of people to kill for just thinking differently. Pinochet who got support from US did the same in his time in Chile. List of this behavior includes more examples

  5. Americans appear not to realize (but will learn to their terrible cost) that any regime which sanctions the assassination and torture of impoverished foreigners by elite death squads operating outside the law eventually winds up using those same methods against its own citizens in the end.

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