But not much is really known about these elite soldiers, who call themselves the “quiet professionals.” Special operations exploits rarely make the headlines except when they succeed or fail spectacularly. Military historians, too, tend to focus on conventional forces and battles. U.S. News & World Report senior writer Linda Robinson helps to fill the resulting void with Masters of Chaos, which offers a rare glimpse inside the secretive world of the Green Berets and their recent adventures. The book pieces together stories from such colorful characters as Chief Warrant Officer Randall “Rawhide” Wurst, whose service record reads like a briefing on the last two decades of U.S. foreign policy, to provide a gripping, if sometimes anecdotal and incomplete, history of Special Forces.

The Green Berets patterned themselves after the clandestine and guerrilla forces that operated during World War II, such as the commandos of the Office of Strategic Services (forerunner of today’s CIA) who conducted missions behind enemy lines and fomented insurgencies in places like Greece after the war. Unlike the Army’s Rangers, who trained principally as light infantry “shock troops,” the Green Berets focused on unconventional missions, such as training another country’s military. The Army’s involvement in Vietnam began with the Green Berets, who served as advisers to the South Vietnamese military and later branched out into unconventional warfare missions–the nature of that war making it perfectly suited for such a force. But after America’s military withdrawal in 1973, the Army refocused its attention on Europe and the conventional battle it thought it would eventually have to fight there.

Indeed, the Army turned its back on unconventional warfare almost entirely, which nearly meant the end of the Green Berets. But special forces rebuilt themselves as fighting forces, honing their edge in hotspots like El Salvador and the Balkans. Despite their battlefield prowess, the Green Berets have lacked two things essential for any government program–institutional muscle and political support. The Army’s top generals nearly all come from the traditional branches of infantry, armor, and artillery. Very few “snake eaters” go on to earn the four stars of a full general, although the Army’s current top general grew up in the special forces and once commanded the secretive “Delta Force”–which may explain some of the attention these units command today. Second, the special forces lack a visible political constituency on Capitol Hill, a problem exacerbated by the relative (and necessary) invisibility of their work.

The most valuable parts of Robinson’s book cover the exploits of the Green Berets in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the secret role that a few Special Forces soldiers played in helping the FBI defuse al Qaeda’s millennium attacks on the United States in late 1999 and 2000. That mission, classified until now, paired Middle East specialists from the 5th Special Forces Group at Fort Campbell, Ky., with FBI agents working the case in Los Angeles. In part, this was necessitated by the FBI’s acute shortage of Arabic speakers. The result was the first counterterrorism mission for Special Forces on U.S. soil in history, which put Green Berets into FBI offices to interpret and analyze Arabic-language materials and translate surveillance of al Qaeda operatives. Federal law prohibits military personnel from being directly involved in law enforcement, so the Green Berets never actually participated in surveillance efforts or other field work. An alert guard on the U.S.-Canada border gets the credit for stopping the actual attack on LAX on the eve of the millennium, but the FBI credits the Green Berets with helping to get the intelligence to dismantle the entire operation.

Before the U.S. campaign in 2001, historians called Afghanistan the “graveyard of empires.” Nevertheless, the nation that repelled both British and Soviet invasions fell in just a matter of weeks to a ragtag coalition of Green Berets, Pashtun militias, and Northern Alliance rebels. But the U.S. military also stumbled in Afghanistan, failing both to find al Qaeda’s top leadership and to establish lasting order throughout the countryside. For those tasks, it appears, a more robust force must be used. Robinson ascribes the failure to find Osama bin Laden, at least in part, to the shifting loyalties of Afghan fighters working with the U.S. military, but it’s not clear that this is the full story. The lack of resources, specifically conventional U.S. forces on the ground, played its part in letting bin Laden slip through America’s fingers.

The war in Iraq has entailed the largest deployment of Green Berets since the Vietnam War. Details about some of these missions still remain secret, due to continuing security concerns. But Robinson does go into detail about two of the most important jobs from the major-combat phase of the war–SCUD-busting in the western Iraqi desert and special reconnaissance missions behind enemy lines. It’s clear from her account that the Green Berets saw the writing on the wall much earlier than the Bush administration. In early battles with the Fedayeen and through clandestine contacts with Iraqis, Green Beret officers noted many of the warning signs of a blooming insurgency: the presence of foreign guerrillas, the widespread availability of weapons and explosives, and a fundamentalist Sunni element willing to wage holy war for control of the country. They also recognized early on the need to co-opt existing security forces–like the Iraqi army–rather than disband them; unfortunately, the soldiers on the ground were overruled by American proconsul Paul Bremer and his superiors in Washington.

Indeed, one SF team saw early in April 2003 just what a menace Moqtada al-Sadr would become to the United States, when he had a moderate Shiite cleric working with the Green Berets killed outside a shrine in Najaf. “As the assassination had shown, the bloodshed [of the war] was far from over,” Robinson writes. “Weeks went by and the team had to be ready to turn on a dime from the fence-mending diplomacy to commando-style responses when violence flared.” The volatile situation in Najaf would prove a harbinger of the chaos to come. It’s not clear from Robinson’s book whether the Green Berets’ picture of the battlefield made it back to the Pentagon, but even if it did, the United States paid little attention to the intelligence these men gathered first-hand in Iraq.

Because of their cultural competency and close contacts with the people of Iraq, these men learned what the top leaders of the Pentagon did not learn from satellite reconnaissance or conversations with exiled Iraqis like Ahmed Chalabi–that Iraq was a swirling cauldron of hate and violence, waiting for the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime to boil over.

The Green Berets’ apparent ability to do everything–from improvising a 21st century cavalry charge to gathering intelligence inside Iraq–has made them the force of choice for the Pentagon. Not surprisingly, both the Bush administration and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) advocate the expansion of the country’s special operations forces. Nonetheless, Robinson sounds a cautionary note about expanding these units too quickly, reminding us of the old Special Forces maxim that “humans are more important than hardware.” The capabilities of today’s Green Berets owe, in large part, to the last three decades of development and training. Unlike helicopters, tanks, or conventional soldiers, Green Berets cannot simply be purchased, and increasing their ranks too quickly might dilute their quality so much that the Special Forces are no longer that special.

Robinson also hints that several lessons might be drawn from the last two decades of Green Beret operations. One reason the Green Berets do so well in combat is because they do what the CIA and other agencies do not: They learn languages, work to understand and go into war zones to get the information our country needs. Similarly, they can function well either in war or peace. In that sense, they offer a model for every unit in the U.S. Armed Forces; in the best of all worlds, the military would build such special-operations capabilities into every part of the force, both to conserve the elite units’ manpower and to ensure that any soldier, whether truck driver or infantryman, can perform under fire.

But the United States has also overused the special forces to the exclusion of other forms of national power, as Dana Priest observed in her brilliant book, The Mission. As the military’s abilities and influence overseas have expanded, America’s abilities to act through diplomacy, intelligence work, and economic policy overseas have atrophied. Though the Green Berets may indeed be “Masters of Chaos,” as Robinson writes, the key to U.S. security may be to use all forms of national power–political, economic, military, and moral–to avoid international chaos by helping failed states and reinforcing collective security efforts.

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