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Special Ops: The New Face of War

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How do you assure the security of a nation of human beings who consume a disproportionate amount of the world's resources, habitually live beyond their means and are addicted to all forms of fantasy from Bible-based delusion, to patriotism-based arrogance, to movie special effects that make ordinary human drama seem boring?

What is the most powerful nation in the world with the largest, most expensive, most lethal military in the history of mankind to do when the good times turn bad, the money goes funny and class warfare breaks out on the homefront?

How does modern warfare in a nation-state system that evolved out of feudalism continue to evolve as new communication systems increase? What does modern warfare look like as that nation state system breaks down, to be replaced by a confusing, "globalized" world of power centers and power vacuums?

The answer for the United States seems to be a growing concentration on what is known as Special Operations, which includes Special Forces, Seals and a host of other lethal military forces that emphasize mobility, efficiency, secrecy and unaccountability. Navy Seal Team Six is the showcase unit of US Special Ops warfare; it's the much-touted force that killed Osama bin Laden in May and on August 6th lost 17 men when their Chinook helicopter was shot down. A total of 38 men were killed in  the shoot-down, [1] including pilots, crew and eight Afghans -- plus a dog.


A Chinook and the August 6 wreckage in Afghanistan by unknown

The Seal team was on a mission to aid a Ranger unit trying to capture or kill a Taliban leader. Back in June 2005, a Chinook was similarly shot down, killing 16 special operations soldiers. By now, this kind of focused killing mission by helicopter at night is standard procedure in Afghanistan. Chinooks, I can speak from experience in Vietnam, are loud, lumbering machines that would seem a reasonably vulnerable target for an experienced fighter with a rocket, something the Russians learned. No doubt the Chinooks are accompanied on missions by Apaches and other agile killing machines.

The transition to this kind of secret hunter-killer warfare began with the ascendancy of General Stanley McChrystal to command in Afghanistan following his successes in Iraq at using Special Ops units to identify and kill insurgent leaders. These unaccountable units were described by Bob Woodward as "the secret weapon" of The Surge. They were also called by some "the Salvadoran option," referring to the death squad aspect of their function. They can arguably be seen as an updated, highly sophisticated Phoenix Program, the notorious US assassination teams employed during the Vietnam War.

This type of "dirty" warfare depends greatly on talent, efficiency and secrecy, all qualities General McChrystal was known for. Effective PR is also an important aspect of sustaining a special operations program. So it's noteworthy that before he became famous for special operations, as a one star general during the Iraq invasion, McChrystal was the ranking public relations spokesman in Baghdad.

Secrecy keeps the American people in the dark as to what the Special Ops troops are actually doing on the ground; the PR assures homefront citizens are told only what incredible "warriors" Special Ops soldiers are (which they no doubt are) and what sacrifices they are making for our "freedom" here in "the homeland." Witness any network news show, and you'll see this formula being fulfilled in spades.

A perfect example of the PR-secrecy gap appeared Friday on the front page of  The New York Times  [2] in a story about how the CIA is bragging that its controversial drone campaign in Pakistan has for the past year not killed an innocent civilian. Not even one! Meanwhile, reports from Pakistan tell of rockets and bombs from drones hitting schools, restaurants and houses.

Clearly the CIA is being dishonest. Even proponents of the drone program say zero collateral damage is preposterous. What the CIA seems to be doing is playing the old cruel wink'n'nod used in Vietnam that all US killed corpses are the enemy -- even if it's an 8-year-old boy next to the corpse of his mother in the kitchen of their home. The real problem, here, is that those questioning this kind of blatant dishonesty become "subversives" in the eyes of the War Party.

The point is, Americans are powerfully discouraged from asking what Special Ops and drone units are really doing and what their actions mean in a larger context. Don't ask why in 2011 we're still hunting down and killing Taliban leaders; just believe our modern centurians  out there on the edges of the empire are America's finest men and women sacrificing themselves for a nation of consumers back home.

And whatever you do, don't think of the downing of that Chinook as a legitimate act of war or put it in the context of a previous generation of mujahadeen  fighters in Afghanistan using American rockets to knock down Russian helicopters. To do that, of course, would be to court inclusion into the ranks of the "enemy" itself.

Special Ops Culture Eases Into the System

Two Special Ops admirals have just been named deputy commanders in two critical US foreign commands. Vice Admiral Robert Harward will join Central Command, which covers the Middle East and SW Asia, and Vice  Admiral Joseph Kernan will join Southern Command, which covers Latin America. Both are Navy Seals.

The New York Times  [3] reported that these appointments reflected "a significant shift in military culture, reshaping not only the armed forces but also the executive branch and Capital Hill." Given a reported distrust and tension between conventional military forces and special operations elements -- which tend to operate beyond the control of conventional military leaders -- the ascendancy of these two generals and others is reportedly an effort aimed at better "intermingling" the two distinct operational philosophies.

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I am a 65-year-old American who served in Vietnam as a naive 19-year-old kid. From that moment on, I've been studying and re-thinking what US counter-insurgency war means. I live outside of Philadelphia, where I'm a writer, photographer and a video (more...)
 

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