“War, not peace, produces virtue. War, not peace, purges vice. War, and preparation for war, call forth all that is noble and honorable in a man. It unites him with his brothers and binds them in selfless love, eradicating in the crucible of necessity all which is base and ignoble.”
- Steven Pressfield
He had no idea at the time, but as he walked towards the Washington D.C. Munitions Building on a typically gritty October morning in 1943, Jack Singlaub was on his way to forever change the way modern militaries engage in warfare. Singlaub was volunteering for duty. For what duty exactly he wasn’t at all sure. All he knew was that some outfit called the Office of Strategic Services had put out a call asking for volunteers from the armed forces with some proficiency in foreign languages. As Singlaub spoke some French, he decided to have a go at it.
After all, the opportunity seemed to offer something out of the ordinary Army experience, an experience imposed by the Second World War on boys who “had grown up, many of them, without enough to eat, with holes in the soles of their shoes, with ragged sweaters and no car and often not a radio.” Singlaub probably decided that there was “a better way of getting through the Army than hanging around with the sad excuses for soldiers [he] met in the recruiting depots of basic training.”1 So Singlaub sought to join what he figured was an elite unit of some kind.
At that point all Singlaub knew about this particular Office, the OSS, was that it was involved in secretive intelligence and sabotage missions, and was led by the now legendary “Wild Bill” Donovan, a charismatic Wall Street lawyer “with the kind of blue-blood, Ivy League connections” that were common to intelligence work back during its heyday.2
Because of these privileged connections, the setting the OSS’s main training camp – the immaculate and expansive flora of the Congressional Country Club – wasn’t horribly unnerving for most of the OSS’s General Staff. But for Singlaub, at that point a blue-collar airborne lieutenant who’d grown up hunting fishing and camping and who was making his way through the ROTC program at college before the war cut his collegiate education short, the creamy leather chairs and the neck-craning crystal chandeliers of the Congressional Country Club were as unnerving as the unknown secrecy of whatever duty he’d volunteered blind for.
He was soon able to relax on both accounts. Although the highest leadership of the OSS may have drawn heavily upon America’s well-connected upper-crust and many of its officers did come from these rich strata, gathered around him were many men who looked as if they shared the same backwoods country upbringing as himself.
Around him were arrayed a group of men as blue-collar as they were diverse: lumberjacks, cattle-ranchers, whiskey tasters, foundry workers, coaches, even the odd Hollywood stuntman, a tennis pro, and a taxi driver. And the mission Singlaub was presented with couldn’t have appealed to him more.
“You’ve been brought here,” the imposing Colonel welcoming Singlaub and his fellow volunteers began, “to evaluate your suitability for combat duty with resistance groups in enemy-occupied areas… I’m talking about guerrilla warfare, espionage, and sabotage. Obviously, no one doubts your courage, but we have to make certain you possess the qualities needed for a type of operation never before attempted on the scale we envision.”
“Guerrillas,” the anonymous Colonel continued, “move fast, operating mainly at night, then disperse into the countryside and reassemble miles away. The skills required of a guerrilla leader will be the same as those shown by the best backwoods fighters and Indian scouts.”3 This evocation of Indians, the very first forces Americans ever battled against, during a speech meant to open a new chapter of the American military story was probably much more apt than the colonel realized, and spoke much louder of an essential American historical truth than he perhaps intended.
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Whatever the nooks and crannies in the debate over today’s modern American imperialism, America as we know her today was raised and nurtured by the concept of empire. It was “as both a dream and a fact the American Empire was born before the United States4 in the outward push made by an “embryonic nation that hugged the eastern seaboard of North America [that] had found it intolerable that the guns of European powers should be at its rear.” And so it was “small groups of frontiersmen, separated from each other by great distances, making alliances with some Indian tribes and buying the neutrality of others” who consolidated the western territories which had to that point been “nothing less than the imperial possessions of Washington, D.C.”5
These frontiersmen and the Indians they co-opted or confronted “provided just enough weight to turn and keep the balance American” in an unsettled imperialist drama with “delicate equipoises,” which were “constantly oscillating.”6
Imperialism, it has been said, “is but a form of isolationism, in which the demand for absolute, undefiled security at home leads one to conquer the world, and in the process to become subject to all the world’s anxieties.”7 This theory, the events following 9/11 are bearing out, may be as applicable to America’s place in eighteenth-century North America as it is to her place in today’s unsteadily globalizing world. A similarity which creates a parallel that causes the twenty-first century to look strikingly like the middle and latter half of the nineteenth, “when volunteer cavalry and dragoons subdued a panoply of mobile guerrilla forces, composed of different North American Indian tribes, operating throughout the new American empire west of the Mississippi River.” It’s just that today the tribes are no longer Indian, but Afghan and Iraqi. Before the States were United, or even founded, the spirit of what we now know as the American military had a defining moment: Fighting the Indians.8
This legacy is “palpable in the numerous military bases spread across the South, the Middle West, and particularly the Great Plains: that vast desert and steppe compromising the Army’s historical ‘heartland,’ punctuated by such storied outposts as Fort Hays, Kearney, Leavenworth, Riley, and Sill.”9 And today it is remembered well by the soldiers and marines fighting in the far-flung corners of the earth, who all seem well-aware that they’re continuing a conflict that, it appears, has never really stopped so much as put its hands on its knees and caught its breath.
Visiting these outposts you hear the refrain “Welcome to Injun Country” from troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia, and the Philippines. The war the American military is nominally fighting today, the War on Terror, is really about taming the frontier. Whether it is about empire or not, the American military is once again fighting on Injun Country, seeking as often as they can to use “small light and lethal units of soldiers and marines, skilled in guerrilla warfare and attuned to the local environment in the way of the nineteenth-century Apaches.”10
And these small light and lethal units inevitably use tactics which are blandly called “irregular” but are much more fully labeled as “asymmetric.” The history of the American military is inescapably one of asymmetric Special Forces, with the every conflict fought to make any soil American being a highly asymmetric and irregular one. The tactics of our first patriots echoed those used by the natives of Indian Country against them during the generations of conflict that predated the American Revolution. This fascination with Indian Country has been ritualized into a form of reverence – the fact that our modern troops use Indian names as radio call signs is just one indication of this. Another indication brings us back to Jack Singlaub, the OSS, and World War II.
Members of the 101st Airborne Division preparing to parachute into Nazi-occupied France on D-Day all got a rather unique haircut before throwing themselves out of the, now-proverbial, perfectly good airplane. They shaved their heads in the style of a particularly fierce tribe who had once warred against imperialist American troops across the vast, once-fruitful, plains. It’s as tragic as it is telling that the only thing the Mohawk tribe is really remembered for is their hair.
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Back at the Congressional Country Club, the welcoming speech Jack Singlaub and his prospective comrades were receiving was coming to a close. “We aren’t looking for individual heroes, although your courage will certainly be tested in the coming weeks.” What that colonel, and the OSS wanted was “mature officers who can train foreign resistance troops, quickly and effectively, then lead them aggressively.”11
As those weeks came, the colonel’s words held up. Singlaub and his fellow candidates – some of them Harvard-educated Wall Street brokers and some of them good old back-country boys like himself – were trained and tested in every dimension of guerilla warfare. They demolished railway switches, power transformers, sentry posts, bridges, and every other imaginable structure that could possibly provide logistical or communications support to enemy troops. They were trained in every piece of Allied weaponry until they could “handle any of them as instinctively as a major-league ballplayer swing a bat,” and were drilled in hand-to-hand combat with the best instructor in the world.12
Their training distilled everything that would help them persevere while operating deep behind enemy lines, being hunted by the might of the world’s greatest army and with no possible chance for reinforcement. It was designed to be the most physically strenuous and mentally challenging training offered by the United States military, as it sought to filter out only the finest warriors. Fun during these weeks was navigating through “labyrinthine and dangerous obstacle courses, the nighttime crawls through cold, rain-soaked woods to plant demo charges, or the hours practicing encryption and clandestine radio procedures.”13
But the most important part of their testing had nothing to do with their performance in any of these physical tasks. This was a Special Force not meant to inflict damage on their own through their machinations alone, but to harness the local unrest and discontent of a population and turn it against the authority of the land. They were named for the region of Scotland, Jedburgh, where in the twelfth-century the local Scots had conducted a bloody successful guerrilla war against British invaders. Prospective Jedburgh officers were graded most heavily on “how well they could handle what they were up against psychologically.”14 Because once in place, behind enemy lines, they’d be on their own and at times entirely cut off from any outside communication or assistance.
This was a scenario expected by Wild Bill Donovan and the senior leadership of the OSS because they knew it’d happened before. To a man who was the Godfather of this novel sort of Special Force – one inserted into a foreign land and culture and meant to stir-up an indigenous Jedburghesque insurrection – who was his own sort of Godfather in the same way that Gideon was the Godfather of the original commando.
A man born on the land the original Jedburghs fought on, and who was known to those who loved him most simply as Ned.
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Ned was delivered by a midwife in a small peat-warmed cottage known as Gorphwyspha, which if not for his birth would’ve passed through history as nothing more than an auditory refugee from a Lewis Carroll poem. From an early age he was notably adventurous, always on the move while exploring and mastering his environment.
Before “Ned” – the name his family used in lieu of his too-formal given name – turned three he’d put his life at risk following his father up into a loft and making his way onto a high window ledge after first intrepidly scaling a sewing machine. And before he’d even hit double-digits he’d become the leader among his four brothers, three of them older, imagining and organizing war games for them to play as the scampered across the Scottish heather. But what set Ned apart from your average energetic and outgoing tyke was the same interest which would eventually lead him far from home, and into, quite literally, the sands of time.
In 1896, when Ned was eight, his family moved to Oxford so all five sons could obtain a proper British education. This was when Ned began his hobby of very amateur archeology, rummaging and excavating, “tearing away at the pews of churches in and around Oxford to find brasses of medieval knights to rub.” His foraging was so prodigious that at one point a local paper published an article complaining of the unusual vandalism of local churches in the area. By the time he was sixteen he’d managed to collapse an entire house on a main Oxford thoroughfare after his excavations undermined its architectural support. And it was this age that he began to view his formal education with some disdain, getting several satirical essays published in the school magazine, and reading voraciously and broadly, instead of necessarily focusing on his formal studies.
One of Ned’s favorite topics to study was war, because, as he told his closest friend, he became “filled with the idea of freeing a people – from what he did not say.”15 To prepare himself for this task, Ned spent nearly every holiday during his college years traveling across France, “always making himself tough, always climbing, always testing the limits of his powers.” While on these trips Ned wrote home bragging about “how lightly he could travel, how little he could get by with eating, and how cheaply he could live in the most meager surroundings.”16
For Ned this time became “a personal preparation, a testing of his body and his spirit for future trials.”17 He learned to cope with dysentery and with broken ribs without complaint. And his time spent pressing his limits, testing his strength, and honing his mind would serve Ned well in the land where he would come to find both his destiny and the name which history remembers him by.
What makes Ned unique in history isn’t that he was determined to free a people, it’s just how he would go about freeing that people. In 1909 as a twenty-three year-old college graduate Ned traveled to Beirut – then thought of not as the capital of a nation but simply as a significant city in a much wider empire – to take part in an archeological expedition.
It was here that Ned’s impact on history would begin. It was an impact shaped by a vast confluence of forces. Some social, some literary, some historical. But Ned’s actions were most influenced by, as it’s argued in a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography about him, a factor that wasn’t all that unusual for the time but still was something he wasn’t at all proud of. And yet it shaped his behavior and imbued him with the ability to accomplish what he’d always known he was born to do. But this task would ferment slowly in the events that were beginning to find their place around him.
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Finally, in December of 1943, Jack Singlaub and the men who’d passed the Jedburgh screener boarded the Queen Elizabeth and sailed across the pond to England. Here their training continued under the British Special Operations Executive, at first focused on tactical exercises such as parachute training and live-fire exercises but then branching out into real-life situations such as clandestine tradecraft and cover stories. And their training bound them together with dedication, both to each other and to their mission.
Singlaub and the other members of the American contingent were bunched into three-man groups, typically composed of one Yank, one Brit, and one Frog. And before they knew it each Jedburgh team would find itself sardined into a modified low-flying British Sterling bomber – piloted by the best men Allied Forces could find – winging over the Massif mountain range of France, below German radar, about to be dropped into enemy-controlled territory.
Although the land wasn’t decisively controlled by the Germans, the Jedburgh teams had been designed to meet up with the indigenous French resistance, known as the Maquis. They presented the one chink in the armor of the Nazi war-machine that had ground its way across well-over half of Europe. World War II was most certainly tilted in German favor, and the Maquis presented the only possible counterweight available to the Allied forces against the mounting Nazi presence in France and the rest of Europe. And because of their irregular approach and the eventual discarding of their uniforms, the Jeds weren’t considered regular enemy combatants by the occupying Nazi forces who were attempting to harness their own native occupying force.
The Milice, the native French security forces allied with the Nazis, were often more brutal and ruthless than the Nazis in their reprisals and meting out of punishment. If the Jedburghs were captured, either by Germans or the Milice, they could be executed on the spot, sans trial, along with anyone found giving them any sort of aid. Which makes sense, since the Jeds weren’t soldiers to the enemy.
They were terrorists.18
Churchill and Eisenhower had agreed that this approach, integrating their own irregular forces with the native Maquis resistance, was the best way to soften Europe up for the impending D-Day invasion, the failure of which would likely mean the eventual loss of the war. It was the Jedburghs who would be that Churchill called his “specially trained troops of the hunter class who can develop a reign of terror down these coasts,”"19 softening them up for D-Day. Whether or not the invasion following D-Day would’ve succeeded without the terrorism of the Jedburghs is, like almost all matters of history, open to debate.
But even if the view is taken that they didn’t actually sway the outcome of the war, this doesn’t contradict the fact that the Jeds were considered terrorists, both by the men who commanded them and the men they fought against, while pounding out with their courage and their lives the mold for another group of men who would not only echo their approach, but refine and perfect it.
The Jedburghs mark the first time “nations institutionalized a uniformed military force organized, trained, and equipped to rally and direct the operations of irregular partisans deep in enemy territory.”20 The advent of the Jeds marked a dramatic shift in the way modern nations engaged each other in warfare, it wasn’t until after them that the idea of the unconventional become permanently established in Western militaries. Before the Jeds there were no Green Berets, Navy SEALs, or CIA black ops – each of those institutions owe a large part of their heritage to the foundation laid by the Jedburghs during WWII. However it should be pointed out that the Jedburghs weren’t necessarily novel in their tactical modus operandi.
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Once on the coasts of the Mediterranean, Ned was put to the meticulous work of an archeology dig. In his free time he continued his boyhood habit and made impromptu journeys across the surrounding land. Often he stayed with the poorest families, warmed by the hospitality of people who gave so much even though they had so little. And Ned began to “observe each aspect of the unfamiliar world surrounding him with such exquisite care that it seemed to become his own, and he, as a consequence, to belong to it.”21 Through these travels and writings he gained “a through introduction to many of the habits, mores, fears, and superstitions” of the native peoples.22 Ned was so drawn to this foreign land and felt so content and at peace there that he returned as soon as he could after traveling home only briefly to England.
His return only deepened the affection and bond he felt with the people and the culture he’d first encountered in Beirut. And even more than merely documenting the culture around him, he began to become a part of it. Learning its language as well as its customs. Ned not only became tuned to the peoples around him, he began to move out of his own cultural framework and into theirs. This ability to shift out of his own cultural frame-of-reference, to see the world through the eyes of someone raised in another culture, was paramount to the task he’d been “converting himself into an instrument of achievement” for since his youth.23
Ned began to understand the Arabs in the same sense that he understood his own people. He spoke their language, knew how they ate, how they behaved in every situation, the perspective from which they saw the world. He became one of them, and as one of them would become able to lead them – both against foreign occupiers and against each other. Ned’s transformation was so complete that he soon gained a moniker that would become the name history remembers him by and that you know him by.
Ned was able to achieve that “great future task” that he’d always felt he was born to achieve not only because he understood the natives of Arabia so fully and was able to empathize with them completely, but because of his creativity and originality. He had a “capacity to remain outside conventional ways of thinking” proven by his invention of the improvised explosive device, the roadside bomb, and the earliest manifestation of an approach to military combat copied first by the Jedburghs and later by the Green Berets.24
Just how much impact Ned really had is also open to plenty of debate. The insurgency he stirred up probably didn’t win the war, if there is a status quo it’s that he at most stirred up a troublesome distraction on a secondary front. However the fact of the matter remains that he did tie up tens of thousands of enemy troops and kill at least a few thousand. Pound-for-pound and dollar-for-dollar, all five-foot six-inches of Ned Chapman caused more personal carnage and destruction than any other Allied officer. And yet the resources he used and most of the lives he risked weren’t Allied ones, but ones won over from the native society. Ned, you must remember, acted outside of the chain of command, alone in terms of military support. The capacity for one man to impact a war which he harnessed by rallying of indigenous foreign troops and forces using novel and previously unheard of tactics was unseen in modern military combat.
It was a capacity derived from the fact that Ned “Lawrence of Arabia” Chapman was a bastard.25
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You don’t think of American Special Forces or Lawrence of Arabia as terrorists. To us, they’re commandos. Which is only because you’re on the side they were fighting for, and from our perspective they were just more ingenious, wily, and brave than the foreign enemies they were waging war against. But then it was Lawrence of Arabia who developed the roadside bomb – the Improvised Explosive Device – to be used by native forces against an occupying army. A device which has claimed more American lives in Iraq than any other. A device, we are told, which is employed by the terrorist forces we’re fighting against… as we, an occupying army, attempt to control Iraq.
And the Special Forces who battled in WWII are immortalized on our television and movie screens as heroes – whether they were Saving Private Ryan or a Band of Brothers – however to the army they were waging war against they were described as terrorists and treated as such under German military law. And yet when commandos attack our interests and our soldiers – suddenly they’re terrorists. The explosion which has again and again been described as the most deadly terrorist attack until 9/11, the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing, was carried out by men who were trained as commandos by two armies and used a martial tactic adopted directly from the Iran-Iraq war. Such is the aura surrounding acts of terrorism that if it looks like a commando, walks like a commando, and talks like a commando – it’s a damn terrorist if we don’t see it coming and it knocks us on our ass.
Which is an incredibly misleading, but all too common, mistake to make. Modern terrorism has followed the lead set by modern warfare, adapting tactics and strategies pioneered by our earliest special forces and turned them against our own societies. Chief among these is the practice of infiltrating a society and then ultimately subverting its members, turning them against their own society.
That’s the ultimate goal both for special forces and modern terrorists – to get members of a targeted society to turn against their fellow countrymen, and through a combination of persuasion and training convince and enable them to do the dying and killing for them.
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One man perfectly embodies this link between the commando and modern terrorism, serving as a singular human channel the asymmetrical forces perfected during WWII flowed through on their way to modern terrorism.
Ali Mohammad made his first appearance on the radar of US Intelligence in 1984, where he walked into the Cairo CIA station and volunteered his services. Although the Agency suspected he was a plant, they sent him to work out of their Frankfurt station in German to infiltrate a mosque that was suspected to have ties to Hezbollah. As soon as he was in the mosque’s door he declared he was an American spy, not realizing that the mosque had already been penetrated by the Agency. His attempt at being a double-agent was immediately blown.
But before the CIA could even place him on the State Department’s watch list to prevent his entry into the United States, he had already traveled to California on a visa-waver program. A year after arriving in California, Ali entered the United States Army and soon managed to get himself placed at Fort Bragg’s John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center – the very place American Special Operations had been born. The information he stole from Fort Bragg and later passed on to bin Ladin would prove invaluable to al-Qaeda, and serve as their operational backbone.
It was this facility that Ali Mohammad, working for al-Qaeda at the time, penetrated to absorb its teachings. He used its training manuals to write the training guide that would become “al-Qaeda’s playbook.” This playbook provided instruction on everything from creating secure cells of terrorists that mimicked the small units that Special Forces deployed in, to the asymmetric tactics of unconventional warfare. And alongside these combats tactics were the more delicate instructions on how to subvert members of an enemy society, and turn them against the parts of that society it was your mission to destroy. From their very start, before the Green Berets were even institutionalized, American Special Forces were a component of the Army’s Psychological Warfare Branch. Special Forces, the Green Berets included, were meant to be used from the start to inflict psychological damage. To instill fear in the enemy. To terrorize him.
Passing on this information would also make Ali Mohammad both a Maven and a Connector in the spread of modern fundamentalist terror, as he later not only became an intimate member of al-Qaeda who not only provided an incalculable amount of information – even training bin Ladin’s personal bodyguards – but would also be tied to each one of their attacks.
Ali Mohammad, who did everything from take the original surveillance photos of the US Embassies in Africa to train al-Qaeda’s earliest members in hijacking tactics, espionage, and all means of unconventional warfare, provides perhaps the clearest modern link between the terrorism we face now and the warfare it can find its origins in. However the precise nature of that information is so important and so telling that it deserves the focused and undistracted context of its own chapter.
The use of guerrilla tactics wasn’t pioneered by T.E. Lawrence or the Jedburghs. Their warfare was pioneering because it marks the first time in modern history that troops were trained by a national army to do their damnedest to make themselves as native to a country as possible so that they could best wage violence against those in it who opposed them. For Lawrence of Arabia it happened naturally, he started to become Arab long before war broke out simply as a result of his own nature – much like it was another intrinsic facet of his nature, his dubious paternity, that helped him create the novel tactics of the modern guerrilla warrior. For the Jedburghs it came as a result of months, sometimes years, of the concentrated training and indoctrination that would equip them to think and act as a native would.
Because when you can think and act like a native, you become equipped to turn their strengths into weaknesses. You learn where and when they gather, how they react, and the most important fact of all.
What they fear.