Relentless Strike: A History of our Special Forces

At the Washington Monthly, we do good book reviews, and we have several in the latest issue. One is by Shawn Brimley, vice president of the Center for a New American Security, who takes a look at a new book on the rise of our special forces as an instrument of power projection:

While any number of “tell all” books by former special operators (or Hollywood adaptations) can give some flavor to this shadowy world, Sean Naylor’s Relentless Strike: The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command comes the closest to providing the complete story of how America’s premier special operations units have grown more effective, integrated, and powerful since their formation in the later decades of the Cold War.

Naylor, a well-known military reporter for the Army Times and now at Foreign Policy, is among the few journalists who have covered special operations forces almost exclusively. His last book, Not a Good Day to Die, explored Operation Anaconda, a defining battle against the Taliban and elements of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in March 2002.

Relentless Strike tells the story of JSOC, the component of the U.S. Special Operations Command that focuses on “direct action” missions—those operations designed to capture or kill terrorists.

One of the more interesting things Brimley gleaned from the book was the way that the mission of our special forces have shifted over time. They really got their kickstart after the failed attempt to rescue our hostages in Iran. The first mission was to figure out how to that type of mission successfully. Then, during the breakup of the Soviet Union, they became more focused on securing nuclear materials and working on anti-proliferation issues. After 9/11, their focus became terrorism and counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Another intriguing fact is that “JSOC. U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) has fairly unique authority, compared to the conventional forces, to purchase commercial technologies quickly, experiment with them, and employ them.” I imagine this can be a double-edged sword, but at least these forces are not as burdened with bureaucracy as our regular military.

Their prolific use of technology, though, could be as worthy of debate as the kinds of missions they are authorized to undertake:

There is much debate about drones and the consequences of the proliferation of advanced robotic systems, but there is less debate about how to use America’s elite forces as the counterterrorism struggles continue in the Middle East and beyond. There are descriptions of what amount to assassination campaigns in Relentless Strike that, if true, feel close to being inappropriate (for instance, employing precise car bombs in Iraq to kill high-level insurgents and terrorists). “It’s a great tool,” Naylor quotes a SEAL on the use of the bombing method, “but as many of us have said—hey, we’re no different than the enemy if we’re just blowing up people with booby traps.” As JSOC and special operations forces continue to be the preferred way to target America’s enemies, a broader discussion about the use of force and thresholds for undertaking what amounts to a perpetual war deserve more fulsome debate.

Personally, I agree that we need more discussion about how we use our special forces, and it sounds like Relentless Strike, by providing us with a comprehensive history, is going to be an indispensable tool in those debates.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.