A brief history of special-forces units, examining how they have altered the ways in which governments approach difficult military problems.
Special-forces units are small, highly skilled groups of soldiers trained for secret operations outside the parameters of traditional military forces. Some of these have connections to organizations such as the Central Intelligence Agency, the United Kingdom’s Special Air Service or Israel’s Mossad. Ex-soldier and Guardian contributor Geraghty (Soldiers of Fortune: A History of the Mercenary in Modern Warfare, 2009, etc.) looks at their post–World War II origins. During the Cold War, special-forces units allowed governments to carry out espionage-related military missions without full-scale war. Similar elite forces developed as an effective way to take on guerrilla warriors and terrorists, particularly in Ireland, Vietnam and Israel. The author entertainingly narrates the tales of various forces and their missions, but he never shies away from the morally gray areas that such units often inhabit. “Much of the history of Special Forces—anyone’s Special Forces,” he writes, “is a story of dirty, morally reprehensible—if effective—work.” Sometimes special-forces operations have failed spectacularly, as when an aborted 1980 attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran led to the deaths of several American soldiers. But there have also been impressive successes, including the famous rescue of terrorist-held hostages by Israeli soldiers at Entebbe Airport in Uganda in 1976. Geraghty effectively shows how the precision allowed by special forces is now being used as part of the U.S. military’s strategy in Afghanistan. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, chosen by President Obama to lead the forces in Afghanistan, is a special forces veteran, and the president, in a landmark speech on Afghanistan military strategy, said that the military will have to be “nimble and precise” to be effective. “For ‘nimble and precise’ read ‘Special Operations Forces’ ” Geraghty writes.
An engaging overview bolstered by intriguing appendices, including the August 2009 “McChrystal Report on Afghanistan.”