Friday, June 01, 2012

Andrew Bacevich on the problem of Special Forces secret war

Andrew Bacevich takes a look at the problems presented by President Obama's current approach to secret war by Special Forces in Unleashed: Globalizing the Global War on Terror TomDispatch 05/29/2012.

Bacevich doesn't try to tiptoe around the right wing's hissy fits over Patriotic Correctness. For instance, he writes:

The displacement of conventional forces by special operations forces as the preferred U.S. military instrument -- the "force of choice" according to the head of USSOCOM, Admiral William McRaven -- marks the completion of a decades-long cultural repositioning of the American soldier. The G.I., once represented by the likes of cartoonist Bill Mauldin’s iconic Willie and Joe, is no more, his place taken by today’s elite warrior professional. Mauldin’s creations were heroes, but not superheroes. The nameless, lionized SEALs who killed Osama bin Laden are flesh-and blood Avengers. Willie and Joe were "us." SEALs are anything but "us." They occupy a pedestal well above mere mortals. Couch potato America stands in awe of their skill and bravery.

This cultural transformation has important political implications. It represents the ultimate manifestation of the abyss now separating the military and society. Nominally bemoaned by some, including former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and former Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen, this civilian-military gap has only grown over the course of decades and is now widely accepted as the norm. As one consequence, the American people have forfeited owner’s rights over their army, having less control over the employment of U.S. forces than New Yorkers have over the management of the Knicks or Yankees.

As admiring spectators, we may take at face value the testimony of experts (even if such testimony is seldom disinterested) who assure us that the SEALs, Rangers, Green Berets, etc. are the best of the best, and that they stand ready to deploy at a moment's notice so that Americans can sleep soundly in their beds. If the United States is indeed engaged, as Admiral McRaven has said, in "a generational struggle," we will surely want these guys in our corner. [my emphasis]
He also reminds us that the fact that secrecy hides much of what they do doesn't at all mean that we should assume everything is going alright. If anyway, we should assume the opposite. Bacevich writes, "From a president’s point of view, one of the appealing things about special forces is that he can send them wherever he wants to do whatever he directs. There’s no need to ask permission or to explain. Employing USSOCOM as your own private military means never having to say you’re sorry." Or, more to the point, with no need for "notification or consultation" with Congress, much less accountability to the public.

As U.S. special ops forces roam the world slaying evildoers, the famous question posed by David Petraeus as the invasion of Iraq began -- "Tell me how this ends" -- rises to the level of Talmudic conundrum. There are certainly plenty of evildoers who wish us ill (primarily but not necessarily in the Greater Middle East). How many will USSOCOM have to liquidate before the job is done? Answering that question becomes all the more difficult given that some of the killing has the effect of adding new recruits to the ranks of the non-well-wishers.

In short, handing war to the special operators severs an already too tenuous link between war and politics; it becomes war for its own sake.
Bacivich links to this article by David Isenberg, The Globalisation of U.S. Special Operations Forces Inter Press Service 05/24/2012, which reports:

It was recently reported that U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) commander Adm. Bill McRaven and Deputy Director of Operations Brig. Gen. Sean Mulholland want to establish a worldwide network linking special operations forces (SOF) of allied and partner nations to combat terrorism. ...

This plan may seem ultra-ambitious but given the demand on and pace of U.S. SOF activities in recent years it hardly comes as a surprise. The forces will be conducting missions in 120 countries by year's end, up from about 75 currently. And while they account for only three percent of the military as a whole, they make up more than seven percent of the forces assigned to Iraq and Afghanistan. [my emphasis]
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