Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
2013-077
27 September 2013
Review article by Eyal Ben-Ari, Kinneret College on the Sea of Galilee
Special Forces from World War II to the Navy SEALs
Descriptors: Volume 2013, 20th Century, World War II, War on Terror, Special Forces, Memoir Print Version
Skorzeny's Special Missions: The Memoirs of Hitler's Most Daring Commando
By Otto Skorzeny
Minneapolis: Zenith Press, 2011. Pp. xi, 223. ISBN 978–0–7603–4034–9.
SEAL Team Six: Memoirs of an Elite SEAL Sniper
By Howard E. Wasdin and Stephen Templin
New York: St. Martin's, 2012. Pp. xx, 331. ISBN 978–1–250–00695–0.
SEAL Target Geronimo: The Inside Story of the Mission to Kill Osama Bin Laden
By Chuck Pfarrer
New York: St. Martin's, 2011. Pp. x, 225. ISBN 978–1–250–00635–6.

Special forces in one form or another have existed for a long while. "Pathfinders," "scouts," "rangers," and "commandos" figure in military histories, the memoirs of commanders and operatives, global or unit histories, prescriptive handbooks and manuals, and reports about specific operations. The past decade has seen many publications devoted to this ostensibly secret world. The three books under review here take us inside two units—the Wehrmacht commandos in World War II and the present-day US Navy SEAL (Sea, Air, Land) Teams. Two are memoirs—one by a commander and one by an operator; the third, by a former SEALs member, focuses on the successful operation to kill Osama Bin Laden.

*  *  *

Otto Skorzeny's book appeared first in 1957. Nazi Germany's most famous commando, Skorzeny recounts his life from childhood to his postwar incarceration by the Allies. Growing up in Vienna, he opened an engineering business in the early 1930s and joined the Nazi Party about the same time. When the war broke out, he wanted to join the Luftwaffe but was turned down because of his excessive age (thirty-one) and height (six feet four). He was assigned to Army communications, but later joined the Waffen SS and became an officer. A Vienna friend recommended him to the head of SS foreign intelligence, who asked him to set up training schools. Later, Hitler charged him with establishing a special operations force to undertake actions that regular formations could not.

The book's tactical chapters make for riveting reading. Although much information is still classified, the details of the raid against Bin Laden, as Pfarrer describes it, seem plausible. Upon entering their target's third-floor bedroom, the SEAL team members saw

Osama … standing by the back wall. He dived across the king-size bed to get at the AKSU rifle he kept by the headboard. The room smelled like old clothing, like a guest bedroom in a grandmother's house, a place sort of frozen in time. Pinned in the light [of the rifles], Amal [Bin Laden's wife] lifted her hands to her eyes. She said, "It's not him" in Arabic, and then something else the operators could not hear. Four suppressed shots were fired, two rounds and two rounds. Both SEALs discharged their weapons in the same second and the reports all seemed pushed together into a single phrase. The first round sailed past Osama's face and thudded into the mattress. Osama shoved Amal as he clawed across the bed. A second bullet, aimed at Osama's head, grazed Amal in the calf. SEALs do not shoot to wound; they are trained to shoot to kill. Amal was hit because Osama placed her between himself and the men who entered his bedroom. As his wife crouched forward wounded, Osama's hand reached for his AKSU. He never made it. Two U.S. Navy M855 5.56 mm Predator bullets slammed into him. (192)

The volume includes a useful glossary, two photos facing the title page (both unrelated to the raid) and a photo of the author in the "field" with a rifle and talking on a wireless radio. No maps even of the complex where Bin Laden hid are provided nor does the book contain an index.

Pfarrer is a man with missions—to write a "true" account of the Osama Bin Laden raid and to refute claims that no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. He contends that Saddam Hussein had such weapons until his fall from power and that, after the invasion of Iraq, Bin Laden procured some of them. He believes that cowardly political leaders and the acquiescent media concealed or downplayed these facts. Not a shred of evidence is cited for such assertions. Pfarrer also seeks to counter a New Yorker article which argues that the SEALs assassinated Bin Laden. He is more convincing here, showing that Bin Laden in fact reached for a weapon and that the SEALs did not kill women and children during the raid.

Finally, Pfarrer wishes to correct the misimpression given by the film Zero Dark Thirty (2012; dir. Kathryn Bigelow), which credits the CIA with finding Bin Laden, while minimizing the role of the ground forces that carried out the raid. His case is damaged by the vitriol directed against all actors besides SEALs, whether other special forces or security services; he notes, for example, that Joint Special Operations Command planners refer to the NSA, CIA and FBI as the "three stooges." The book is rife with egregious errors, such as locating Al Qaida's Kenyan attack in Mombassa rather than Nairobi and declaring that there is no indigenous cinema in Arab countries (Egypt is home to one of the world's largest motion picture industries). Nor does the author make it clear just how many individuals within or apart from the SEALs he interviewed, whether in casual conversations or formal investigations. In short, much in the book simply cannot be taken seriously.

*  *  *

These three volumes together provide fascinating insights into the character, dynamics, and organization of special forces in general. Five common attributes are evident. First is the presence of a charismatic founder and an institutionalizing commander. Otto Skorzeny, for instance, through his forceful personality, leadership abilities, and acquired mastery of military politics succeeded in setting up a unit of loyal commandos within an existing military hierarchy. Cdr. Richard "Dick" Marcinko played the same role during the initial stages of creating the SEALs. Both leaders also built coalitions outside their units, recruited troops based on personal connections, and were succeeded by leaders who consolidated their successes in administrative and doctrinal terms.

Second is the deliberate fostering of brand recognition. As Pfarrer observes, such branding is achieved through effective early missions, official and especially unofficial marketing, and the steady enhancement of the unit's reputation. Once recognized by their brand, special forces are trusted with the testing of the latest equipment, the newest technology, and innovative tactics; they are the source of novel methods that spread into more conventional armed forces. Branding also requires the designing of missions that will ensure the continued good name of units. Pfarrer stresses the effect of political intrigue and the concern for proper images in the mounting and execution of special forces operations. Thus the actual killing of Bin Laden was not filmed through helmet cameras, because the SEAL operators, not being "politically naïve," did not want Washington "armchair commandos" to spend weeks critiquing split-second decisions made in the heat of the action (195–96). The intent is always to forestall external meddling and second-guessing in order to keep control of the final narrative after any given mission.

Third is that the "special" quality of the forces consists in their position "outside" the regular military hierarchy, resourcing, and procedures. This distinction has advantages and disadvantages. Skorzeny and Pfarrer both document the benefits of direct funding and access to senior commanders and top political decision-makers. And, too, special units often enjoy longer planning cycles, away, as Skorzeny puts is, from prying eyes. A disadvantage is the frequent side-stepping of special forces in more conventional operations. Wasdin, for example, believes the SEALs should have been in charge of protecting the oil fields of Kuwait during the first Gulf War, but senior allied commanders chose not to use them. And Skorzeny's plans for deploying his unit in the Ardennes foundered because it was hard to integrate into the wider offensive.

Fourth is that the political maneuvering typical of any large-scale organization, including the military, is heightened in the case of special forces by fierce competition for status and reputation. The SEALs initially served under Army officers and were not particularly valued by the Navy, but eventually their successes secured their prestige and priority in the procurement of resources. The same was true of Skorzeny's commandos. This competition for status plays out on both the national and international levels. Wasdin notes that the SEALs often train with and learn from rival European special forces, though their most serious challenger is the US Army's Delta Force. Symptomatic of this competitive spirit is Pfarrer's blatant championing of the SEALs and denigrating of all other special force organizations.

Fifth is that the successful branding of special forces depends on popular culture to reinforce the image of specific units. The very aura of mystery surrounding these supposedly secret organizations has made them attractive subjects for many popular books and films; in Hollywood, Delta Force and SEALs Team members are known as "Jedis." The three books reviewed here are best seen as part of this process of creating and recreating the "specialness" of special forces.

[1] Enhancements include some photographs and a list of German abbreviations, but not maps, a bibliography, or index.

[2] The text comprises seventeen chapters arranged chronologically, with a helpful glossary, references, index, maps, and photographs.

[3] This battle was the subject of Mark Bowden's bestselling Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War (NY: Atlantic Monthly Pr, 1999) and the 2001 film of the same name directed by Ridley Scott.

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