The Legacy of Infinite War
Special operations, generational struggle and the Cooperstown of commandos
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 Rep. Jim Saxton, a New Jersey Republican and chairman of the Terrorism, Unconventional Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee, pointed out in 2006, referring to Special Operations Command: “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 percent 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, around 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 continue to rise. In 2006, for instance, 85 percent of Special Operations Forces 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, Europe and Latin America. Just one percent of them were then conducting missions in Africa.
Today, the lion’s share — 56 percent — of those commandos still operate in the Greater Middle East, according to figures provided 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 percent of America’s overseas commandos, European Command 13.9 percent of them, the newly renamed Indo-Pacific Command 8.6 percent and Southern Command 4.5 percent.
At top — coalition commandos train Afghan troops in 2012. David Axe photo. Above — U.S. Navy special operations boats train with Jordanian forces in 2017. Navy photo
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,” Lt. Gen. 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. His path to that post might be thought of as the military equivalent of working one’s way up from the mail room. 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,” outgoing commander Col. Guillaume Beaurpere said at a July change of command ceremony.
Beaurpere himself is a model of the long-war SOF experience in multi-theater warfighting. A French immigrant commissioned as an officer in 1994, he served in South Korea, Kosovo and sub-Saharan Africa.
In 2007, he commanded a Special Forces company in Iraq. In 2008, he was back in Iraq as the executive officer for a special operations task force in Baghdad. In 2010, he served as the deputy chief of staff of a SOCOM joint task force and the task force deputy operations officer during the lead-up to NATO’s war in Libya. In 2011, he took command of a special forces battalion and supervised its operations in West Africa.
He also played a role in establishing a special ops presence in Central Africa to aid local proxies fighting Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. In 2012, he served as the chief of a special operations command and control element in the Horn of Africa. Beaurpere is now assigned to Special Operations Command in Tampa, Florida, where he serves as executive officer to the commander.
In the spring of 2018, Pres. Donald Trump tapped Lt. Gen. Scott Howell to be the first Air Force officer to head Joint Special Operations Command, SOCOM’s secretive “hunter-killers,” which include the Army’s Delta Force and the Navy’s SEAL Team Six.
A longtime special operator, Howell has hopped back and forth between combat zones and stateside posts while steadily climbing the special ops ladder with back-to-back assignments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For a grimmer look at the special ops experience in these years, consider the biographies of some of the commandos recently killed overseas. They offer a unique window on the operations tempo, scale, and scope of America’s never-ending wars.
Take Chief Special Warfare Operator William “Ryan” Owens. He completed his Navy SEAL training in December 2002 and then deployed 12 times, carrying out perhaps 1,000 missions or more, including assignments in Afghanistan and Somalia, before he was killed in Yemen in January 2017.
Similarly, Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator Kyle Milliken, who enlisted in the Navy in 2002 and joined the SEALs a short time later, survived tours in Iraq — in 2007 alone, he took part in 48 combat missions there — and Afghanistan only to be killed in Somalia in May 2017.
Staff Sgt. Logan Melgar, a Green Beret who was reportedly strangled to death by two fellow special operators in Mali in June 2017, was a veteran of two tours in Afghanistan. Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright, one of two Green Berets killed in an Islamic State ambush in Niger in October 2017, was reportedly on his second deployment to that West African nation.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Mihail Golin — the victim of a New Year’s Day 2018 attack in Afghanistan — enlisted in the Army in 2005, a year after emigrating to the United States from Latvia, serving in Iraq in 2006 and 2007 and Afghanistan in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 and again in 2017.
Staff Sergeant Alexander Conrad, a 26-year-old assigned to the Special Forces, served two tours in Afghanistan — in 2012 and 2013 and again in 2014 — before losing his life in a June 2018 attack in Jubaland, Somalia.
U.S. Air Force CV-22 special operations transports over Florida in 2017. Air Force photo
Today, who remembers Dan Brouthers or the Troy Trojans and Buffalo Bisons, the professional baseball teams he played for? The same could be said of William “Judy” Johnson of the Hilldale Daisies, Mike “King” Kelly of the Boston Beaneaters, and Charlie “Old Hoss” Radbourn of the Providence Grays who, in 1884, pitched 73 complete games and won 59 of them. Those men are nonetheless immortalized in bronze forever — or at least as long as the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum stands in Cooperstown, New York.
Philip Cochran, Leroy Manor and Aaron Bank might be even less well known to the rest of us, although they’re enshrined in the equivalent institution for their line of work. They are among the 69 members of the Commando Hall of Honor at SOCOM headquarters, MacDill Air Force Base, Florida.
Cochran is best known for his service as the chief of the 1st Air Commando Group in the China-India-Burma Theater during World War II. Manor commanded the Air Force Special Operations Forces and headed the Joint Task Force responsible for the unsuccessful 1970 Son Tay prison compound raid to rescue American prisoners of war in North Vietnam.
And Col. Aaron Bank, known as ”the father of Special Forces” for his role in creating the Army units that became known as the Green Berets, conducted small-unit operations with resistance fighters in Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II.
This year saw six new inductees to that Hall of Honor, including Maj. Gen. James Rudder, who led three companies of Rangers during the 1944 D-Day landings in Normandy, France, and Air Force colonel William Kornitzer, who took part in both the Son Tay prison raid and the even-more-disastrous Operation Eagle Claw, the failed special ops mission to rescue U.S. hostages in Iran that cost eight military personnel their lives in 1980.
But not all of 2018’s honorees harkened back to the hazy past. The war on terror has been going on for so long that two of this year’s inductees played roles in it, one of them perhaps the most famous commando of his generation.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, reads an Army news release about his induction ceremony, “served more than 34 years where he commanded both Joint Special Operations Command and … is credited with changing the way special operations forces are employed and how the nation views those forces in a positive way.”
The article, however, says nothing about how the “runaway general” lost his job as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2010 after the publication of a Rolling Stone exposé in which his staff criticized Obama administration officials in his presence.
Nor does it mention that, despite the widespread credit he’s received for defeating Al Qaeda in Iraq through relentless “man-hunting” missions back in the 2000s, that group nonetheless evolved into the Islamic State. It then swept across that same country in 2014, seizing town after town that JSOC and other U.S. troops had spent years clearing.
Similarly, the article fails to note that the war in Afghanistan that McChrystal was sent to win has ground on for the better part of a decade since his departure. Instead, it says that he is “recognized” for having “directly contributed to the nation’s success in the global war on terrorism.”
His inclusion offers a clue about where SOCOM’s Hall of Honor sets the bar for success in this century and suggests that many veterans of the forever war, perhaps for generations to come, could join McChrystal in the Cooperstown of commandos.
At a recent Pentagon press briefing, reporter Jeff Schogol asked Gen. Joseph Votel, former SOCOM commander and the current chief of U.S. forces in the Greater Middle East, if “a new generation of children will grow up to have to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Votel largely punted on the issue of how generational the war on terror might prove to be, but his answer was still a telling one. “I do recognize we’ve certainly been in Afghanistan for a long time — and of course, we’re back in Iraq for a second [or] third time addressing some of these problems,” he replied. “I think this is a reminder that these things often take time.”
The idea of Washington being engaged in a “generational war” was front and center earlier this year when Army general Austin “Scott” Miller, a career special operations soldier, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
As a young infantry officer, he had led elite Army Delta Force soldiers during the infamous “Black Hawk Down” Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia in 1993 and has since charged up through the ranks. He first deployed to Afghanistan as a lieutenant colonel in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks.
Then came a combat tour in Iraq and a return to Afghanistan as a brigadier general in 2010 to command the Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan. In 2013 and 2014, he was back in Afghanistan again, this time as a major general in charge of NATO Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan/Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan.
At Miller’s confirmation hearing in June, Arkansas senator Tom Cotton, a Republican, raised an uncomfortable question that even a cursory examination of the general’s biography should provoke. “Did you imagine in 2001 that you would be deploying … to Afghanistan in 2018?” he asked.
]Miller replied that he had not. “Senator, I actually recall conversations of people who were out over Christmas in 2001 talking about they were doing this so their kids did not have to.” That response led Cotton to call attention to a soldier seated just behind Miller. A young Army 2nd lieutenant with the 82nd Airborne Division who just happened to be the general’s son, Austin Miller.
“If Lt. Miller does his job well and stays as a platoon leader at the 82nd Airborne into next year, 2019, he is going to have a private report to his platoon in all likelihood who was born after the 9/11 attacks. That is a pretty shocking fact. Is it not?”
“Yes, Senator,” Miller agreed.
It’s likely as well that the members of the 82nd Airborne, perhaps even Lt. Miller and one or more post-9/11 privates, will deploy again to Afghanistan in the coming years. As the core of the military’s Global Response Force, the 82nd Airborne Division is on-call to react anywhere in the world within 18 hours.
It’s a globe-trotting, rapid-response light infantry force that has seen recent service in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and the Horn of Africa and shares its home, Fort Bragg, with U.S. Army Special Operations Command.
It’s also likely that an increasing number of Special Operations forces from Fort Bragg and elsewhere will be spread ever more equally across the planet, while deployments to perpetual hot-spots like Afghanistan and Iraq continue.
A generation of special operators has already deployed repeatedly to South Asia, the Middle East and increasingly Africa. Some of them are now entering the special ops hall of fame despite the fact that not one post-9/11 war has been definitively won, the number of terror groups aligned against the United States has markedly increased, and the number of special ops battle fronts — from Afghanistan to Cameroon, Iraq to Tunisia, Yemen to Somalia, The Philippines to Niger, Libya to Syria — in this country’s forever wars has only grown.
Tactical successes have been many — battles won, territory taken, foes killed, enemy leaders eliminated. But failures have been far greater, including ill-conceived deployment policies that neglect to link SOF missions to strategic outcomes, man-hunting being substituted for strategy, and commanders leaning on Green Berets and Navy SEALs to solve national security problems — issues that ought to be addressed by policymakers, not commandos.
In his confirmation hearing, Miller shined a spotlight on one of the most critical shortcomings of Washington’s “infinite war,” one that has afflicted every level of the U.S. establishment from the White House and the Pentagon to the special ops community: a failure of imagination. After acknowledging that the war in Afghanistan — the one he has been fighting on and off for almost two decades — was “generational,” the four-star general admitted what he had failed to consider 17 years before as a lieutenant colonel.
“This young guy sitting behind me,” he said, referring to his uniformed son, “I never anticipated that his cohort would be in a position to deploy as I sat there in 2001.”
Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch, a fellow at the Nation Institute and a contributing writer for The Intercept. He recently covered ethnic cleansing by government forces in South Sudan for Harper’s Magazine and the Columbia Journalism Review. His latest book is Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan. His website is NickTurse.com. This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.