“Wow!” That may be the one word to use to sum up my reaction to reading Michael Smith’s fascinating work of America’s most elite Special Operations Forces. If I were to expand my commentary into say, three words, I would pick: Complexity, Creativity and Resistance.
Starting with the failure of the EAGLE CLAW mission of 1980 and running right up to the present day (2006-2007 when the book was published), this book is a page-turner. It is a chronicle of all of the major world conflicts that feature threats to American citizens and her interests abroad. Take any conflict that we see today, and the chances are good that the root causes for them reach back to the 1970’s when the cast of usual suspects set things into motion. The book covers in equal parts the fascinating job of “the shooters” and the teams that are tasked with providing the intelligence for the men executing the plan and the decision makers.
The guys keeping everyone in-the-know are referred to the book as “the Activity” which is an innocuous enough sounding name for a very small team of people tasked with such an enormous, undefined and life-threatening job. Yet despite the name, their work is truly one of a kind and can never be underestimated even though you probably never heard about them.
Based largely on the successful model of the British SAS and SBS models, these American counterparts are to be commended for dealing with the enormous complexity of world conflicts, their creativity to find solutions and their diligence in meeting the resistance that they faced from the brass at home. If you were to think of a short list of world conflicts from 1980 until now and then wonder if these guys had anything to do with the outcome of those conflicts, all your questions would be answered in shocking detail in this book. Taking down narco drug lords? Somali war lords? Bringing the butchers of the Eastern Europe ethnic cleansing massacres to justice? Finding Saddam Hussein? Yes, yes, yes and yes—but you would be floored at how the complexities of doing any of these tasks weaves a labyrinth of possibilities for failure; however these guys always get the job done. Most notably in the more recent news (that post-dates the publishing of the book) would be the successful capture of Captain Richard Phillips at sea (with three head shots [simultaneously] from a moving ship mind you) or the successful capture of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan—none of these scenarios mentioned are anything like each other, and yet a very small group of guys get these impossible missions done in spades.
The creativity that these men show in their solutions to intractable problems is worthy of mention all on its own. Michael Smith does not give away the store, but there are certainly things that made me pucker at how some of those details ever made it to print. If you are someone who cheers when the good guys win, then this is a book for you. This book most clearly shows that the conflicts are truly a battle of ideas—more on that in future blogs.
The resistance that these teams had to face from the entrenched bureaucracy structure is a story all on its own. These men were certainly not rogue come-and-go-as-they-pleased teams. Their tradecraft and professional manner were top notch quality and yet somehow the enigma of the resistance to America having a special operations capability is very hard to believe if it were not so well documented in the book. The specific resistance came in many ways such as putting up bureaucratic road blocks, to denying funding, to not allowing air lift assets to be released or flat out prohibiting the capability for the job to be done in an outside-the-box manner. My summary would not be nearly as good as this first person quote (from the author) on page 130 regarding the debriefing from Beirut:
“Gentleman, we should all be embarrassed by the failure we have just struggled through. In my mind, the consequences of failure of this nature are just as devastating as losing a major battle, especially politically. We ought to be able to figure out that the terrorists understand better than we do the timing of the decision-making process here in Washington and the time required for launching and getting to where they have perpetrated their action. We are the most powerful nation in the world and if we cannot give this mission the adequate priority—with dedicated lift assets—then we ought to get out of this business and quit wasting the taxpayer’s money (Smith, 2007).”
And less than four months later the world watched Leon Klinghofer, an American wheelchair bound passenger on the Achille Lauro, be thrown over board by terrorists as America’s best solution stood by waiting for a ride. Fortunately the situation changed for the much better, separate systems were worked out for funding and oversight and the rest is a heroic history captured so well in this book. The quote from President George W. Bush on page 241 highlights this paradigm shift so clearly, “The president did not talk specifically about Iraq but he did warn that the War on Terror was about to get more difficult. ‘Inaction is not an option,’ he said. ‘Men with no respect for life must never be allowed to control the ultimate instruments of death.’ No one had any doubt who he had in mind (Smith, 2007).”
Well done Gentlemen! We salute you.
-Pro Deo et Patria
Smith, M. (2007). Killer elite. (p. 130). New York: St Marten's Press.
Smith, M. (2007). Killer elite. (p. 241). New York: St Marten's Press.