Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Green Berets should take over Army some day soon

Nearly 10 years after U.S. special operations troops rode horses into battle on the Afghan plains, one might think that the brass hats at the top of the Army would include a Green Beret.

But one would be wrong, as a military friend pointed out to me today. It’s true that Gen. David Petraeus and his two top guys in Afghanistan, generals David Rodriguez and William Caldwell, are career airborne officers — the jumping-off point for a career in the Rangers and Special Forces.

But back in the E-Ring, as well as in Korea, Europe and now Africom, it’s the straight legs, mostly tankers and mechanized infantry guys, who are still running things. Army Chief of Staff George C. Casey; his vice chief, Peter Chiarelli; Chiarelli’s named successor, Martin E. Dempsey; and the major theater commanders, except for Petraeus, are all heavy-equipment guys.

What got me to thinking about this was Tom Ricks’s always-interesting blog at Foreign Policy.com, “The Best Defense.” Ricks dug up the Army’s 1973 oral history interview with Gen. Harold K. Johnson, chief of staff in the waning days of the Vietnam War, in which Johnson essentially called the Green Berets out of control.

“The Special Forces...were what I would describe as consisting primarily of fugitives from responsibility,” Johnson said. “These were people that somehow or other tended to be nonconformists, couldn’t get along in a straight military system, and found a haven where their actions were not scrutinized too carefully, and where they came under only sporadic or intermittent observation from the regular chain of command.”

As Ricks pointed out, “Of course, Johnson was speaking a few years after the biggest scandal in Special Forces history, when Col. Robert B. Rheault, the commander of SF in Vietnam, was charged by the Army with murder, only to get the charges dropped because the CIA said it would not allow its people to testify against him. (Rheault supposedly was one of the inspirations for the Marlon Brando character in ”Apocalypse Now.”).”

That caught my eye because in 1992 I wrote a book about the Col. Rheault case, “A Murder in Wartime: The Untold Spy Story that Changed the Course of the Vietnam War.” In that tragic episode, a suspected Vietnamese double agent was wrongfully shot in the head and dumped in the ocean. Careers were ruined. For decades now, many bitter Special Forces veterans have accused the top general in Saigon, the late Gen. Creighton Abrams, of ordering the investigation out of hatred for the Green Berets.

It’s true that Abrams was a tanker, and a legendary one at that, for his service under Gen. George S. Patton in World War II. And it may be true, as retired Special Forces officer Bob Seals pointed out in his excellent review of the Green Beret affair a few years ago, that Abrams “disliked paratroopers," according to his former top intelligence officer.

I disagree that Abrams acted out of hatred for the Green Berets. While the cigar-chomping Abrams did believe that "battles should be fought with feet planted firmly on the ground and that making a fetish out of jumping out of airplanes is puerile," as Newsweek correspondent Kevin Buckley put it, he most of all despised lying. And he was enraged that the well-to-do Col. Rheault would lie to him in a face-to-face meeting when he tried to find out what was going on.

I suspect that most of today’s “legs” would think the same. There is the occasional quirk, however, that keeps the anti-Special Forces paranoia alive.

In 2007, a Special Forces sniper and his commander were charged with premeditated murder after their unit took out an Afghan national on the approved terrorist target list. Rightfully so, the general in charge of Special Forces at Ft. Bragg, N.C., stepped in and dismissed the charges.

Such incidents keep alive the special ops’ persecution complex. But the fact is, as my military friend put it, “Relations between the conventional forces and the [spec ops] community tend to swing like a pendulum.” After the Green Beret case, they weren’t so good. In the late 1980s, “when Special Forces became a separate branch, the community was seen in a good light,” he said.

“Post-Gulf War,” he continued, “things cooled a bit as officers in the conventional forces — and particularly mechanized infantry and armor — began to be selected over their Airborne and SF peers for senior leadership positions.”

But the pendulum should swing back, when David Petraeus and his pals come home. With no end in sight for “the long war” against al-Qaeda, there should probably be a pair of jump boots on the chief of staff's desk.


Yeah, that was the day all the sniper blogs went under.


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