Trump and The Special Forces: Understanding Unconventional Warfare


Controversy has grown over President Trump’s pardons, commutations and restoration of rank to several outstanding servicemen – veterans of special operations. Each case was different, but each shared the opprobrium heaped on them for acts deemed “un-American.” A more absurd statement cannot be imagined.

The basic problem is the lack of understanding of some observers of the nature of combat required against rabid, unconventional and often radical Islamist terrorist partisans. The well-recognized Western rules of warfare, as applicable to conventional wars, just do not apply. The question is who the best individuals are to fight this complicated and often bloody war in which the anti-Western carry no hesitancies in their attempts to destroy those who do not follow their fanatical path. The men (and some women) who are chosen and trained to fight these unique enemies must have special characteristics to engage in these special operations.

To begin with, the personal and physical requirements are tested in all forms of individual and group settings. Importantly, the psychological aspects of such a volunteer are tested and challenged before and during this period of assessment and assignment. In other words, the importance of stability is judged against necessary initiative and balanced speed of decision-making. These and other basic issues are determined in a wide context. Of course, mistakes can be made, but multiple crossover assessments work to reduce these potentialities.

Special operations require dependable yet versatile personnel. Ultimately each operator must have a physical and mental toughness that defies normal limitations.  This sounds extravagant, even perhaps exaggerated, but the reality is that it’s all attainable with perfectly normal and even “ordinary” people. Yet these ordinary people have a motivational level far above “normal.” It’s the drive and commitment of these special operators that separates them from the ordinary. Yes, they also evolve through training into outstanding physical individuals, but the same training simply places the physical into the high-functioning tool of the psyche.

There really isn’t anything new in this choice and training of intelligent, talented and courageous warriors. Julius Caesar and other great soldiers developed such cadre. These “special” fighters have existed through history. One doesn’t have to go that far back for examples: (As mentioned in a previous article) Ethan Allen and his Vermont – New Hampshire  “Green Mountain Boys”  held their New England homeland against larger numbers of British regulars and afterward were incorporated in General George Washington’s Continental Army as his first Ranger unit.  Fast forward to the heroes of the 2nd Ranger Battalion of WWII that climbed ropes hand over hand to scale the German controlled heights of Cap du Hoc that held a commanding position over Normandy Beach.

These feats can be and are done by special personnel of all American services as well as unsung “shadow” covert units behind the lines. They are hard in every meaning of the term, but they are also well above average intelligence, though not by traditional standards. This does not protect special operations from making mistakes, but it does ensure maximum intelligent effort. These are not your neighborhood toughs; they are the best of the best and are willing to die to prove it.

In the end the ultimate test of special operations as an arm of defense is a combination of unit and also national commitment! The latter is challenged by the traditional and even faith-based instinct of the American people to fight hard but fair. The latter character does not necessarily fit well into Special Operations methodology. Simply stated, the American civilian world is proud of its reputation and belief in a “fair fight.” The problem is that by definition, spec ops is not “fair.” The driving force of this form of warfare is that it is unexpected, out of character, and possibly even cruel by civilian standards.

These days our special units have to be trained to fight in this manner. To the surprise of very few, the talent is within the American spirit. Frankly, this is how the nation was built. Special Operations was learned from the Native Americans. It is a lesson we forget at our peril.