- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 26, 2002

The Tom Clancy writing machine has produced the third volume in its "Commanders" series. "Shadow Warriors" is about the special operations forces, and it may be the best to date. Mr. Clancy details the history of the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) from its World War II origins in the Office of Stategic Service through Vietnam, the Cold War and into the post-Cold War world.

The narrative history is intermixed with the personal recollections of Gen. Carl Stiner, whose personal biography parallels that of SOCOM from the Vietnam era, when he joined the Army to his stint as SOCOM commander. I have had the honor and pleasure of meeting Gen. Stiner on several occasions. He is a genuine professional and a gentleman of the old school. And on active duty he was also one of the most innovative and inventive commanders produced by American arms during this century.

The story of special operations has been told previously, most recently in the W.E.B. Griffith's "Brotherhood of War" series of novels that always provide a great read. "Shadow Warriors" is a comprehensive nonfiction account that mirrors the Griffith series. Readers who enjoy either account will be gratified to digest the other, as Mr. Griffith's fictional characters compare with the real-world soldiers who populate the Clancy effort.

The special operators have a long, and sometimes well-deserved, reputation as mavericks. This has made their rise to independent status a long haul in a U.S. military dominated, at least in peacetime, by conventional thinkers. The Special Forces are made up primarily of Army personnel, although Navy SEALS and Air Force special operations air crews now make up a large portion of the SOCOM roster. Nonetheless, the challenges associated with creating the Special Forces are largely a story dominated by turf fights within the Department of the Army until very recently.

The Special Forces have always been led by strong-willed innovators; all of these characters possessed clear vision and equally effective marketing skills. Beginning with "Wild Bill" Donovan in World War II, they pushed a brand of war-fighting that featured a combination of psychological and civil affairs operations combined with a daring willingness to operate deep in hostile territory. Often this did not sit well with conventional soldiers tasked with the linear battles that would characterize a World War III that would never happen.

John Kennedy shared the special operators' vision, and they flourished during his short tenure that coincided with our build up in Vietnam. Kennedy's assassination did not mark an immediate decline in the fortunes of the Special Forces, but their decline did parallel the deterioration of the war effort in Vietnam although their performance there was superb. The '70s marked a nadir in the Special Forces' fortunes, but this was reversed following the debacle of Desert One, the failed 1980 hostage rescue operation in Iran. After that, Congress acted to strengthen our special operations capabilities in the '80s and created a career path for special operators in the Army.

Today, SOCOM is a unique command, in that it possesses characteristics of a separate service while simultaneously serving as a joint command. The post-Cold War world has been custom-made for the special operators, and their performance has been exemplary. They have fed disaster victims in Bangladesh, hunted Scuds in Iraq and snatched hostile factional leaders in Somalia. The last example is portrayed in the motion picture "Black Hawk Down" that accurately portrays the heroics of an outnumbered group of special operators fighting for their lives in a near-impossible situation.

Despite the heroics of Mogadishu, Mr. Clancy accurately points out that most of the best work done by SOCOM is the unglamorous but vital task of nation-building and training allied forces. This is Kennedy's vision writ large, and they are doing him proud in corners of the world never heard of by most Americans. In my last few operational tours with the Marine Corps, I had the privilege of working with special operators on a number of occasions. If anything, the author understates their dedication and professionalism.

If the book has a weakness, it is that it does not portray the struggles of the SEALS and the Air Force special operations personnel to gain recognition within their services as fully as it does with the experience of the Army special operators. However, it remains a definitive account of the development of a capability that was critical to our success in Afghanistan. The book was obviously wrapped up as the events of September 11 were happening and does not include the performance of SOCOM personnel in Afghanistan that have proven to be their finest hour. I suspect the paperback version will remedy that when it is published. Nonetheless, this is a worthy effort.


Gary Anderson, a retired Marine, is director of the Center for Unconventional Thought at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington.



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