FOLLOWING MONTHS of futile negotiations with the revolutionary regime in Tehran over the fate of the 63 hostages held in US embassy, on April 16, 1980, a briefing was held in the White House for President Carter and his closest advisors, in which Colonel Charles Alvin Beckwith, commander of the elite Delta Force, laid out his plans for freeing the hostages, which his men had been practicing for months. It quickly became clear that the Carter crowd were not altogether familiar with Delta’s way of doing business. When Beckwith stated his intention to “take the guards out,” then–Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher piped up: “Will you shoot them in the shoulder, or what?”

“No, Sir, we are going to shoot each of them twice, right between the eyes,” came the prompt answer.

“You mean you are really going to shoot to kill? You really are?”

“Yes sir. We certainly are.”

The mission was given the presidential go ahead and code named Eagle Claw. On April 24, eight RH-53 Sea Stallions took off from the USS Nimitz carrying part of the task force, while six Air Force C-130 transport planes with the ground element and fuel bladders set off from an island off the coast of Oman heading for the rendezvous point Desert One.

But then things started to go horribly wrong: the instruments on one of the Sea Stallions indicated that its rotor was losing pressure. The helicopter had to be abandoned. In the middle of a dust storm, the gyroscope in a second Sea Stallion started to malfunction, forcing it to return to the Nimitz. And on reaching Desert One, a hydraulic pump in a third had set out. Six being the minimum number required, this meant that the mission had to be aborted. Because of the sandstorms, the decision was made to destroy the helicopters and fly the men out on the transports. Tragically, to make room for the transport aircraft, a Sea Stallion collided with one of the C-130s, setting fire to both. When the C-130 and its gasoline bladders exploded, those inside who had been wounded or died in the collision burned up. Predictably, Iranian propagandists had a field day.

Eagle Claw is among the operations dissected in Mark Moyar’s brilliant history of the United States’s Special Operations Forces (SOF), Oppose Any Foe, which records their triumphs and failures. A theme running though the book is how presidents time and again have resorted to the SOF, fundamentally a tactical asset, as a magic solution to strategic problems, only to discard them when things don’t go as desired. Moyar draws some vital lessons on how to use them and, just as importantly, how not to.

Actually, Eagle Claw was exactly the kind of mission Delta Force had been created for back in the 1970s, in response to the rash of plane hijackings. No one could fault the men’s training and dedication. The problem, says Moyar, lay with the way their transport had been hastily cobbled together, borrowing pilots from the Marines and aircraft from the Navy. Incredibly, says Moyar, the planners had failed to factor in the heat and sandstorms in the Iranian desert. By assigning only two extra helicopters, they had ignored the standard practice of including twice as many helicopters as the minimum required to complete the task.

The review board consequently recommended creating a Counterterrorist Joint Task Force with its own permanently assigned assets. “[Eagle Claw] undermined the prestige of all SOF, even though it was merely the result of poor air planning and operations on the part of an ad hoc task force,” writes Moyar. And it left Colonel Beckwith a bitter and broken man.

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The American Special Operations Forces owed their existence to a gesture of inter-allied cooperation, says Moyar. Winston Churchill, mindful of the terrible losses his nation had suffered in the trenches during World War I, wanted to set Europe ablaze by sabotage actions, with British Commandos attacking the Germans at the edges of the Third Reich. The US Chief of Staff General George Marshall, however, knew that peripheral pin pricks would not dislodge the Wehrmacht — as proved by the disastrous raid on Dieppe, where the Canadian, British, and American attack forces were shot to pieces — and that only a regular invasion of the Continent would do. And yet, bowing to Churchill’s wishes, he approved the formation of elite units of Rangers, Marauders, and Frogmen.

Captain Wiliam Darby, the commander of the Rangers, prized “initiative and common sense,” but ruled out applicants with dentures, as rattling teeth could alert the enemy. Darby’s men included “a lion tamer, a bullfighter, a church deacon, and the treasurer of a burlesque theatre.” In addition, Bill Donovan, a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, whose World War I adventures had made him feel like “a youngster at Halloween,” urged Roosevelt to create a new agency, the OSS, which would engage in sabotage missions and help organize the resistance in occupied Europe. President Roosevelt was not short of swashbuckling instinct, and he listened delightedly to Donovan’s schemes.

The rangers participated both in the landings in North Africa and Sicily, and the subsequent hard slog up the Italian peninsula. Encountering stiffer resistance than expected, and needing every available man, the theater commander General Mark Clark used them as line infantry, a role for which they were much too lightly armed. This became abundantly clear in the battle for Monte La Difensa, dominating the approach to Rome, where German howitzers and rocket launchers took a heavy toll on the Rangers, before the Germans finally retreated, and in the battle of Cisterna, a town near the Anzio beachhead, where, up against the heavy armor of the full Hermann Göring division, 761 out of a force of 767 Rangers were killed or captured. As Moyar notes, actions like these prove that, when deployed in the wrong kind of battle, special ops forces are just as easily wiped out as regular infantry.

But the specialized training of the special ops paid off big on D-Day. Navy Frogmen were tasked with blowing a 50-foot-wide and 350-foot-long passageway through the German mines and underwater obstacles on Omaha Beach. Not all the assignments were met, but they accomplished enough to enable the invaders to establish a beachhead. The rangers, meanwhile, used grappling hooks to climb the Pointe du Hoc promontory overlooking Omaha and Utah Beach, in order to destroy six 155mm howitzers controlling the beaches. Finding only wooden dummies, as the Germans had moved their howitzers inland, the Rangers tracked them down and blew them up.

Many of the same patterns were repeated in the Pacific, where “Vinegar” Joe Stilwell ordered the Marauders to fight as conventional infantry; they were no match against the heavily equipped Japanese. Navy Frogmen did better, as they had very specific missions, such as blasting the way for the landings on the Guam.

At war’s end, since the contribution of the special ops forces to victory in Europe and in the Pacific had been limited, the general opinion among senior army officers was that they were “a wasteful sideshow.” Their training took too long and was too expensive. Most seriously, the argument went, they lured talent away from the regular army: During World War II, it was found, only 25 percent of the troops had fired their weapons, and the army could ill afford losing its most resourceful men. These sorts of objections, says Moyar, have been a regular feature of the debate ever since.

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The president most associated with the SOF was John F. Kennedy. He wanted more options in his dealings with the Soviet Union, so that, if the situation deteriorated, he wouldn’t just be left with the unappealing alternatives of unleashing nuclear Armageddon or doing nothing. This meant beefing up the country’s conventional forces, and, in this buildup, special ops were assigned an important part: countering Soviet and Chinese support for “national liberation” movements in countries like Laos and Vietnam.

The Kennedy brothers were fascinated by the macho mystique surrounding the special ops, though Robert Kennedy betrayed a certain boyish naïveté when he asked, “Why can’t we just make the entire Army into Special Forces?” The president’s plan boosted the special ops to some 10,500 men over a five-year period. But such a rapid increase meant lowering standards. Whereas before, only 10 percent of the applicants were accepted, the figure now rose to 70 percent.

Among the special ops counterinsurgency successes in the Vietnam War’s early phase was enlisting the Montagnards, a fiercely independent tribe, to defend their villages against the Viet Cong. But internal rivalry among the South Vietnamese generals following the CIA supported coup against President Diem weakened the local authorities, says Moyar, and in November 1964 a regular North Vietnamese division appeared in the south, while supplies started flowing in though neighboring Laos on the Ho Chi Minh trail.

The Pentagon needed to choke off this traffic of men and materiel. President Johnson, saddled with Kennedy’s war, desperately wanted to concentrate on his domestic agenda. He definitely did not want to be seen as widening the war by compromising Laos’s neutrality, and he therefore tasked the Rangers with acting as a covert barrier: Operation Shining Brass. But the whole notion of Laos’s neutrality was really a joke, SOF officers argued, since that was precisely what the North Vietnamese were violating. The Rangers particularly chafed at having their activities confined to two areas on the other side of the border. They took to referring to State Department officials by “shoves.” When asked to clarify, an officer quoted here replies, “A cross between a shit and a dove.”

Though badly managed, the war provided no shortage of heroism, as displayed in the October 1966 attempt to rescue Lieutenant Robert D. Woods, who had bailed out over North Vietnam after his A-1 Skyraider was hit by anti-aircraft fire. Unfortunately, Sergeant Dick Meadow’s rescue team was spotted when they were within 100 yards of the spot from which Wood’s emergency radio signal had emanated. Their job was now to evade capture themselves, scurrying back to their two Sea King helicopters, one of which had to be set down on the Gulf of Tonkin after being hit by a shell. They were pulled unscathed from the drink by the destroyer USS Henley. The failed rescue mission came to be seen as “a microcosm of the war as a whole — the struggle of brave and skillful men against overwhelming odds in a place the American nation would eventually write off.”

While the SOF in Vietnam had some early successes, once the North started committing regular troops, special ops were not able to stop the flow, and neither would the heavy bombing of Laos and Cambodia under Nixon. That could only have been achieved through the commitment of regular forces and lots of them, and with public opinion running strongly against the war, that was not in the cards. In the postwar blame game, writes Moyar, army critics accused the SOF and their counterinsurgency efforts of having wasted resources, while the SOF blasted the regular army for having hopelessly clung to the World War II/Korean War playbook when they were up against an unconventional enemy. “That both of these interpretations were erroneous,” writes Moyar, “did not prevent them from proliferating.”

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After the trauma of the Vietnam era, the first cautious steps toward reasserting American military power were Ronald Reagan’s Grenada mission and George H. W. Bush’s invasion of Panama, followed by a big step: Bush’s liberation of Kuwait in the Gulf War. In the latter conflict, Commander-in-Chief General Norman Schwarzkopf had initially ruled out any role for the SOF — until Saddam Hussein started raining Scuds on the Israelis, and Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney forced him to reconsider. To prevent the Israelis from entering the war, which would have caused problems for the Arab members of the coalition, 400 US special operators and teams of British commandos were sent into the desert to find the Scuds. Thanks to them, Scud attacks on Israel fell from five a day to one a day.

But two years later, SOF suffered another setback. Warring clans in Somalia had been using starvation as a weapon and some 300,000–500,000 people had died as a result. In the final days of his administration, President Bush committed 28,000 troops to take part in a UN mission to restore food distribution, though he regarded the UN’s ambition of disarming the clans and holding elections as pie in the sky. The Clinton administration, however, seemed more optimistic, with then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright declaring: “We will embark on an unprecedented enterprise aimed at nothing less than the restoration of an entire country as a proud functioning and viable member of the community of nations.”

After four US soldiers were killed by a bomb, the administration placed a priority on capturing or killing Mohammed Aidid, the warlord who controlled Mogadishu. Wishing to keep a low profile, Clinton assigned the mission to Delta Force. While some special operators welcomed this as a chance to exorcise the memory of Desert One and to prove what they could achieve on their own, the head of US Central Command, General Joseph P. Hoar, only gave the mission a 25 percent chance of success. Only a major counterinsurgency effort involving conventional forces, Hoar argued, could suppress Aidid and his clan — and Congress had no appetite for such a commitment.

Despite Hoar’s warnings, operation Gothic Serpent got under way. Disaster struck when two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down by rocket-propelled grenades, and thousands of armed Somalis converged on the crash sites. Rescue missions were organized, but the rescuers lost their way in Mogadishu’s maze; they didn’t have the vehicles to negotiate the roadblocks barriers the locals had thrown up. They only got through after borrowing four UN tanks and 22 Bradley fighting vehicles from the Pakistanis and Malaysians.

The television images of the bodies of dead Americans being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu made Clinton pull the plug on the American commitment in Somalia. Far away, Moyar says, Osama bin Laden took notice. In the inquest, it came out that the Pentagon had nixed the request for AC-130 Spectre gunships and for four M1 Abrams tanks and 14 Bradley fighting vehicles, as this would have clashed with the administration’s desire for a light footprint. As a consequence, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin had to resign.

“For most observers,” noted Moyar, “the events of October 3–4, 1993, and the ensuing US withdrawal discredited the idea that special operations forces could decide strategic outcomes. That idea would lie in hibernation for nearly two decades, until Gothic Serpent had faded from the consciousness of political and military leaders.”

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Moyar devotes the final third of the book to the contribution of the special forces in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Green Berets on horseback helping the Northern Alliance by targeting the Taliban forces provide striking images — “as if the Jetsons had met the Flintstones,” as one officer put it — and the quick collapse of the Taliban regime must count as an all-time great success. Less impressive, however, was the aftermath, when fleeing Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders managed to escape from the Tora Bora caves to Pakistan. There was no light US infantry to block them, and the local militias in the South were highly unreliable.

For a while, the Taliban forces lay low, notes Moyar, but they returned with a vengeance in 2005, taking control of large areas of the countryside. Colonel Edward Reeder, the officer in charge of the Joint Special Operations Task Force in 2006 and 2007, noted, “It seems like every time I come back here, the security situation is worse.” Upon becoming president in 2009, Barack Obama appointed General Stanley McChrystal to command US forces in Afghanistan; McChrystal, Moyar points out, was the first special operator to oversee a war. To remedy the situation, the general requested 40,000 troops for five years. He got 30,000, but only for 18 months.

Mindful of the lessons of Vietnam, where Americans troops had ruled by day and the Viet Cong by night, McChrystal deplored the way the United States and its allies isolated themselves in large forward operating bases. Instead, he instituted the Village Stability Operations program, according to which the special operators would live among the people they were defending and recruit young Afghans to assist them as the Afghan Local Police. When Obama fired McChrystal over comments in a Rolling Stone article, his successor, David Petraeus, who had had similar success with the far larger Sons of Iraq program, wanted a major increase in the Afghan Local Police; US planners had hoped for 100,000 members, but, owing to resistance from President Karzai, the number only reached 30,000, a figure “too small to hold ground on a strategic scale.” As Moyar stresses, holding ground is essential in counterinsurgency.

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Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld dispatched 10,000 SOF to Iraq, “the largest Special Forces contribution to any war in US history.” Trouble started when the war turned into an insurgency in 2003 and Rumsfeld became obsessed with the manhunt for the people on the famous deck of cards. The special ops, write Moyar, were stuck with the narrow mission of counterterrorism, rather than the larger task of counterinsurgency. He cites retired special forces Lieutenant Colonel Mark Haselton: “If we spend the rest of our lives ‘capturing and killing’ terrorists at the expense of those SF missions that are more important — gaining access to the local population, training indigenous forces, providing expertise and expanding capacity — we’re doomed to failure.” The two approaches should be regarded as “mutually reinforcing,” says Moyar: you need to capture or kill the terrorists that threaten the lives of the locals and of your own troops, and at the same time engage the population in its own defense.

By 2006, it became clear that manhunting alone was not working, and that things were spinning out of control. Petraeus, the new commander who led the 2007 surge, understood the dual nature of the challenge very well: hitting the terrorists hard, while involving the population through the Sons of Iraq program, the Sunni counterinsurgency militias. Unfortunately, the Shia prime minister, Nouri Al-Maliki, took advantage of the improved situation and started pushing Sunni elements out of the government, which led to a resurgence of Sunni extremism. After Obama had pulled out all US forces in 2011, al-Maliki became even more self-willed, with the result that Obama suddenly had to rush several thousand troops back in to prevent Bagdad from falling. Obama’s main interest had always been with US domestic politics, and not so much with what happened abroad.

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Without a doubt the single most spectacular SOF success of the Obama years was Seal Team Six’s Abbottabad raid in Pakistan, which took out Osama bin Laden. Almost perfectly executed, the mission demonstrated precisely what special ops are for. But the very success of that mission had some unfortunate consequences — the most important of which being that President Obama now seemed to believe that the United States’s future defense needs could be met by relying solely on a combination of SOF and drone attacks. The president deemed that the regular forces could safely be cut by 100,000 men, and the defense budget reduced by half a trillion dollars.

That was an erroneous assumption, claims Moyar, partly because great powers like Russia and China were busy building their conventional forces, and partly because relying on special ops alone won’t do the trick. The latter fact was proved by events in Yemen, where American reliance on precision counterterrorism resulted in dismal failure: Houthi rebels kicked out the government of President Hadi, and all US personnel had to be evacuated in 2015. Hadi, with Saudi help, today tries to reestablish his regime from the port of Aden.

As Captain Robert A. Newsom, commander of the US Special Forces HQ in Yemen from 2010 to 2012, had warned in a clear, if somewhat geographically misplaced metaphor: “You cannot hold the jungle back with a weed whacker.”

Moyar himself warns that, in the future, there will likely be no shortage of failed states like Yemen and Afghanistan, from which devastating attacks on the United States can be launched. To prevent this, we would need proper counterinsurgency, involving both special forces and regular troops. Anything else would be wishful thinking. Ultimately, Moyar’s point, no matter how you look at it, is that war can’t be won on the cheap.

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Henrik Bering is a graduate of Oxford University (Pembroke College) and has been a Professional Journalism Fellow at Stanford. He is the author of Outpost Berlin: The American Forces in Berlin, 1945-1994 and of Helmut Kohl, an authorized biography. His reviews have appeared in Policy ReviewThe Wall Street Journal, and The New Criterion.