Big Pyramid Kills Special Forces

— The spirit of Special Forces remains the same and, for the most part, so does the organization. However, minor changes have had far-reaching effects and serve as brilliant examples of the Law of Unintended Consequences. As in algebra, when you change one factor in an equation, you change the entire equation.

Removing the first lieutenant as second-in-command from the A team, the Operational Detachment Alpha, and putting in a warrant officer is usually hailed as a good change. A warrant officer is a kind of officer/specialist, usually an expert in some technical field. They are not commissioned officers. They have officers' privileges, but are outside the usual lieutenant-captain-major-colonel-general officer's rank structure. The warrant officer is more seasoned than a young lieutenant and knows a hell of a lot more about Special Forces.

My concern would be that now officers enter Special Forces as captains, a higher rank than either lieutenant or warrant officer. The commander of an A team is a captain, which means that the commander of the A team is always the new guy. Sure, he's a seasoned officer, but SF is different. If he's not assertive, he runs the risk of becoming the operations sergeant's liaison with the officer's corps. If he's very assertive, he runs the risk of issuing a lot of stupid orders, which will make 11 smart guys hate his guts. If that happens he won't survive.

Relations in SF between officers and NCOs are different from the rest of the Army. For one thing, if a seasoned SF NCO isn't an officer, it's because he doesn't want to be. The NCOs are as smart as the officers and know their jobs as well or better than the officers know theirs. They've just made a decision to avoid the politics that is inherent in being an officer.

The whole time I commanded an A team I never gave an order. We just sort of discussed how we wanted things to work, over dinner, or inspecting the camp. A loose rein is best with ten prima donnas and one lieutenant. If these young commanders stay out of their teams' way, they'll do fine.

But they won't be the guiding light of the team. The team sergeant is all about the team, but the CO should be all about the mission: His analysis of the operational area, his assessment of the enemy, his concept of operations. That should be the framework.

With the captain being the new guy, and communications with the next-higher headquarters so good, the captain ceases to be an entrepreneur and becomes a manager.

My former medic, now an officer and friend, describes it thus. "The death of us has been the creation of a full-blown command, with concomitant layers of official bureaucracy, which has killed a lot of initiative. There is an overbearing burden of risk assessments and pre-approval requirements, by everyone, before anything can get done. This snuffs even the simplest of training plans before they can leave the team room. And operations? Fergitabowtit! If there's a hint of risk, the aversion is like the black plague.

"As for the warrant thing, a double-edged sword. They often compete with the captain for power, and the entire warrant program has been downgraded by the fact that a guy can now apply straight out of the 'Q' [qualification] course and get fast-tracked through courses without the benefit of commensurate experience. In other words, just like a lieutenant, who, if selected, put through the basic schools, and then through the 'Q,' brings the same as the warrant officer, with a few bennies. A major bennie is that when he does become captain/team commander, he's vetted, experienced, and clued in!

"As for NCO/officer relations -- the officers average 12-15 months on a team, before they move to staff where they spend two to three years telling team guys what/how to do things. And so, there is a big rift right now between the officers and NCOs, all easily resolved if lieutenants are let in and then groomed by the NCOs, which would endear both to each other instead of the enmity that exists now."

That's pretty much how it was when I was a team second-in-command. I was a senior lieutenant when I joined the team. It was very much an apprentice situation. By the time I got my own team, I was ready to command it. Not by giving orders, but simply by having a fully formed idea of what we wanted to accomplish in the time available and making it clear what that idea was.

I had great NCOs, and they did the rest. Other than that, I made sure their pay wasn't messed up, and, oh yeah, I led by example in the field.

The other major change will probably make no sense to a civilian. It is the creation of the Special Forces branch. When I was in SF, my branch was infantry. My records were held at the infantry branch, and I was considered for promotion against other infantry officers. Other SF officers came from different branches.

Under that system, staying too long in Special Forces was career suicide. An officer pretty much gave up any chance of retiring higher than lieutenant colonel. Many made that choice because they believed so much in Special Forces and its mission. And with little or no chance of promotion to higher rank, the commanders were willing to take huge chances and break a lot of rules to accomplish the mission.

I once said to Lieutenant Colonel "Pappy" Shelton that commanding the team that trained the Bolivian rangers who got Che Guevara must have done wonders for his career. He laughed and said, "If it hadn't been my last assignment before retirement, I would have never had the guts to do what I had to, to get the job done."

When the first Special Forces Group was formed in 1957, it was put on Okinawa, with an operational area that included the entire Far East. Its first commander, Colonel "Mad Jack" Shannon, had been with OSS Detachment 101, fighting with guerrillas in Burma, in WWII. He was used to complete autonomy and had a puckish sense of humor. He once dropped six teams into South Korea, without notifying the Koreans or the U.S. Eighth Army. The result was that the South Koreans thought his teams were North Koreans and were out hunting them with live ammunition. That was what Shannon wanted. Good training.

Another time he called two senior NCOs into his office and told them to report to room 433 in the Erawan Hotel in Bangkok on Friday. The senior of the two replied, "Yes, sir. Where do we pick up our orders."

"Don't bother me with your problems," he said. "I have problems of my own."

They went to the adjutant and the group sergeant major and got the same story. Knowing they'd be in a world of hurt if they didn't get to the Erawan, they corralled a clerk, made up a phony set of orders, forged the adjutant's signature, and went to Kadena AB to catch a hop to Bangkok.

When they reported in, there was Shannon. "Just wanted to see if you still had it," he said. "Have a good time this weekend. See you on Oki Monday."

The chances of anything like that happening in today's Army are precisely nil. You may think that's a good thing. I don't.

With the creation of the Special Forces branch and USSOCOM, an SF officer now has a big pyramid he can climb. A former senior NCO, who worked on Army staffs at very high levels and is friends with generals making these decisions, puts it this way. "The reasons people didn't get promoted in the old days was that the Army didn't like Special Forces. Steiner was the first to break that mold.

"Two generals with seven stars between them told me that the reason they came out with the Special Forces and Aviation branches was because the Special Forces officers and the Aviation officers were getting a disproportionate number of promotions in the infantry, artillery, etc. Those branches demanded the Special Forces and Aviation officers go elsewhere. One of the problems I see now is that with SF as the place to be in the Army, a number of ticket-punchers will inevitably sign on."

And therein lies the danger. Ticket-punchers are concerned with their careers. Their tendency is to micromanage. With inexperienced A team commanders, that tendency is almost irresistible. To me this seems like one doctor telling another how to do a heart transplant, over the phone, while watching the operation on television.

A friend from the 101st Airborne in Vietnam has a story that illustrates perfectly what I mean. He was a line company commander but had a background in Special Forces. He had a standing order with his radio-telephone operator not to put the battalion commander on the horn if he was in contact with the enemy. He was busy.

His regular RTO, a car thief from Jersey who once killed three NVA with an entrenching tool, got an infected foot. For one operation he was replaced by a blond California surfer dude. This kid got the same instructions, but he just didn't have the guts to tell a lieutenant colonel that he couldn't speak to the captain.

My friend took the call, got rid of the colonel, and went back to work. He knew he wouldn't use the surfer again, so he didn't even chew him out.

Not so the car thief, who hunted the surfer dude up when he heard the story. "Listen," he said, "they probably don't tell you California cocksuckers this shit. But, don't never bother the man when he's killin' people."

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