This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
It looks like TomDispatch may have a few less readers from now on. Perhaps it will surprise you, but judging by the mail I get, some members of the U.S. military do read TomDispatch -- partially to check out the range of military and ex-military critics of America's wars that this site publishes. Or rather they did read TomDispatch. No longer, it seems, if their computers are operating via Department of Defense (DoD) networks. The DoD, I've heard, has blocked the site. You now get this message, I'm told, when you try to go to it: "You have attempted to access a blocked website. Access to this website has been blocked for operational reasons by the DOD Enterprise-Level Protection System." Oh, and the category that accounts for it being blocked? "Hate and racism." Mind you, you can evidently still read both Breitbart and Infowars in a beautifully unblocked state via the same networks.
On consideration, however, I've concluded that the Department of Defense might have a point. Since this site was launched as a no-name listserv in October 2001 soon after the Afghan War started -- you know, the war that the DoD is still pursuing so successfully almost 17 years later with its 17th commander now in the field, 15,000 American troops still fighting and advising there (and still dying there as well), and the enemy, the Taliban in particular, in control of yet more territory in that country -- TomDispatch has always hated America's never-ending, ever-spreading, refugee- and terror-producing wars that now extend from South Asia across the Middle East and deep into Africa. So perhaps this site is, after all, a must-block "hate" site.
And among the authors who have spread TomDispatch's antiwar gospel of hatred -- now so judiciously cut off by the Pentagon -- Nick Turse, in particular, has long grimly tracked the growth and spread of Washington's forever wars and of the Special Operations forces, the semi-secret military that has become, in these years, their heart and soul. He returns to this sorry tale again today, this time in a unique fashion -- by tracing the careers of those in the military, commanders and commanded, dead and alive, who returned to America's official and unofficial war zones again and again and yet again. Maybe someone should suggest to the Pentagon that there's something else out there to block, so that another website, 17 years from now, won't be writing about Washington's 34th commander in the field in Afghanistan. Maybe it's time to block those wars. Tom
The Legacy of Infinite War
Special Ops, Generational Struggle, and the Cooperstown of Commandos
By Nick Turse
Raids by U.S. commandos in Afghanistan. (I could be talking about 2001 or 2018.)
A U.S. drone strike in Yemen. (I could be talking about 2002 or 2018.)
Missions by Green Berets in Iraq. (I could be talking about 2003 or 2018.)
While so much about the War on Terror turned Global War on Terrorism turned World War IV turned the Long War turned "generational struggle" turned "infinite war" seems repetitious, the troops most associated with this conflict -- the U.S. Special Operations forces -- have seen changes galore. As Representative Jim Saxton (R-NJ), chairman of the Terrorism, Unconventional Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee, pointed out in 2006, referring to Special Operations Command by its acronym: "For almost five years now, SOCOM has been leading the way in the war on terrorism: defeating the Taliban and eliminating a terrorist safe haven in Afghanistan, removing a truly vicious Iraqi dictator, and combating the terrorists who seek to destabilize the new, democratic Iraq."
Much has changed since Saxton looked back on SOCOM's role in the early years of the war on terror. For starters, Saxton retired almost a decade ago, but the Taliban, despite being "defeated" way back when, didn't do the same. Today, they contest for or control about 44% of Afghanistan. That country also hosts many more terror groups -- 20 in all -- than it did 12 years ago. "Vicious Iraqi dictator" Saddam Hussein is, of course, still dead and gone, but in 2014, about a third of "the new, democratic Iraq" was overrun by Islamic State militants. The country was only re-liberated in late 2017 and the Islamic State is already making a comeback there this year. Meanwhile, Iraq is beset by anti-government protests and totters along as one of the most fragile states on the planet, while the Iraqi and Afghan war zones bled together -- with U.S. special operators now fighting an Islamic State terrorist franchise in Afghanistan, too.
In spite, or perhaps because, of these circumstances, SOCOM continues to thrive. Its budget, its personnel numbers, and just about any other measure you might choose (from missions to global reach) continue to rise. In 2006, for instance, 85% of Special Operations forces (SOF) deployed overseas -- Army Green Berets and Rangers, Navy SEALs, and others -- were concentrated in the Greater Middle East, with far smaller numbers spread thinly across the Pacific (7%), Europe (3%), and Latin America (3%). Only 1% of them were then conducting missions in Africa.
Today, the lion's share -- 56% -- of those commandos still operate in the Greater Middle East, according to figures provided to TomDispatch by SOCOM, but all other foreign deployments have grown at that region's expense. Africa Command has leapt from last to second place and now hosts 16.5% of America's overseas commandos, European Command 13.9% of them, the newly renamed Indo-Pacific Command 8.6%, and Southern Command 4.5%.
In the Zone
As deployments have shifted geographically, the number of special operators overseas has risen dramatically. In any given week in 2001, an average of 2,900 commandos were deployed abroad. By 2014, that number had hit 7,200. Today, according to SOCOM spokesman Ken McGraw, it's 8,300.
A generation of commandos have spent their careers fighting on the proliferating fronts of Washington's forever wars, hopping from one conflict zone to another or sometimes returning to the same campaign again and again. Some have spent much of their adult lives at war and a number have lost their lives after multiple warzone tours, still without a victory in sight. "At this stage in the ongoing counter-violent extremist type of fight, it is not a rare exception for airmen to be on their 12th, 13th, or 14th deployment," Lieutenant General Marshall Webb, the chief of Air Force Special Operations Command, told the Senate Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities earlier this year. And when it comes to serial deployments, special ops airmen are hardly unique.
Consider, for example, Green Beret Colonel Owen Ray who recently took command of the 1st Special Forces Group (1st SFG). His path to that post might be thought of as the military equivalent of working one's way up from the mailroom. He has, in fact, held a command at every level of the 1st SFG. In 2003, he served as a detachment commander in Afghanistan. By 2011, he was back there as a company commander. In 2013, he returned as the chief of the 1st Special Forces Group's 4th Battalion. Now, he heads a unit whose members have spent the last years deploying to hotspots across the planet. "I stand in absolute awe at the service rendered and the impact this unit had on multiple theaters," said outgoing commander Colonel Guillaume Beaurpere at a July change of command ceremony in which he handed over the reins to Ray.
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