If the Devil does exist, and man has therefore created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness
Keith Pace, a Sergeant in the Green Berets, was stationed deep in the Philippine bush in a base only accessible after a march through a mangrove swamp and a triple-canopied rainforest. He was keeping something of a busy schedule.
Pace, a medic, and the rest of his Special Forces A-Team had gone to work in the thick mosquito-rich overgrowth rebuilding a mosque and organizing biweekly medical clinics in as many of the local villages as they could, treating everything from trauma wounds to toothaches to malaria to strokes. It was territory Ramzi Yousef and Uncle KSM would’ve felt plenty comfortable in, as it was rife with members of Abu Sayyaf, the fundamentalist militant group with close ties to Osama bin Ladin mentioned earlier when the boondocks were discussed. Those ties are why Sergeant Pace came to be stationed in Basilan, a strategic island thick with Philippine jungle, in the first place.
After the attacks of 9/11 the U.S. military launched Operation Enduring Freedom, which actually had two fronts. Although most Americans were only aware of the more publicized one – removing the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The second front, disrupting the Abu Sayyaf’s operations in the Philippines and severing its ties with Al Qaeda, was run almost exclusively by the American Special Operations Command. The Special Operations Command is in charge of all American Special Forces, and was the command that had ordered Sergeant Pace into Basilan’s dense and sweaty flora.
Unlike the front being opened against the Taliban, the one being run in the Philippines “would be accomplished less by military actions than by an unusual kind of humanitarian assistance program.”1 This same sort of unusual humanitarian assistance program was being integrated in with more regular military action in Afghanistan, but since the Abu Sayyaf had nothing of the Taliban’s centralized authority the American command saw no need for wide-scale regular military action, and planned to use only this type of irregular action in the Philippines.
Another, broader name for this sort of irregular action, usually punctuated by unusual humanitarian assistance programs, is a counterinsurgency. And just as the Green Berets actively built rapport with indigenous warlords in Afghanistan in an effort to make them better trained and more effective at fighting the Taliban in their counterinsurgency there, in the Philippines the Green Berets also sought to serve as a “spine doctor” by trying to “put some backbone into the Manila authorities so they would better take care of their own people.”2
Crucial to the irregular humanitarian assistance program was accurate intelligence. To gain this, the Green Berets first conducted a series of population surveys, unique in that they had a “concrete, cut-to-the-chase quality about them that is uncommon in academia.” The only information about the people of Basilan the Green Berets were interested in was that which would help them kill or drive out the Abu Sayyaf. Because the Abu Sayyaf, operating as an insurgent State Shell on the island, was strongest where government services and infrastructure was the weakest, the first missions for the Green Berets were digging wells and building roads, constructing piers, and clearing airstrips. In a sense, beginning to construct their own State Shell to counter the one being developed by the Abu Sayyaf.
The whole point of this was to leave behind infrastructure that would benefit the civilian population once they left, and for the time being lure the civilian population into closer contact with the Green Berets and the national Philippine army troops integrated with them. And once locals were lured in, they were hooked by the guarantee of free medical and dental clinics. At these clinics the strongest rapport was formed and that the most actionable intelligence was gathered as “villagers casually volunteered information about the insurgents while their children were being treated for scabies, malaria, meningitis, and having their teeth pulled.”3
And it was at one of these clinics that Sergeant Pace was faced with an extremely dire case. A seven-year-old girl had been brought to his clinic with an advanced case of spinal meningitis. Out in the middle of – quite literally – the boondocks, with no modern treatments available to the medic, the girl seemed sure to die. But Sergeant Pace came up with a solution, one which was as practical and American as it was allegorical for the counterinsurgency he was attempting to foment.
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The concept of Special Forces, brought into the modern era by Ned and the Jeds and godfathered by Gideon, has undergone countless permutations since. Many of these developments likely went undocumented by history, as they have been lumped into the framework of the wider wars they occurred within and gone largely overlooked.
Assasins and Zealots occupy something of a bloody gray-area, since their operations were the actions of one or two individuals – hardly Forces. And because they acted in societies that were so very different from ours in terms of culture and communication, it’s difficult to draw more than loose parallels from their exploits. Besides, they never operated on a modern battlefield, or within the auspices of any regular war, unlike other old-school Special Forces who serve as more direct martial ancestors to our modern equivalent.
At the head of this class was Alexander the Great, who used “speed, leverage, stealth, new kinds of skills and people, all faster, subtler, and stranger as the years went by” in his pioneering of unconventional warfare waged by Special Forces.4 Unconventional warfare, as defined by Tom Clancy – the closest thing to a Homer we’ve got now – “is hard to pin down… [but] primarily involves operations different from the conventional fires and movement of massed troops,” and is “performed by small, highly trained units.”5 Alexander not only developed “mountain units, amphibious siege trains, stone-hurling catapults, and light troops prepared specially against such of the age’s heavy-weapons systems as battle elephants,” but was “one of the most effective captains of commando detachments ever” and excelled in “taking the seemingly impervious mountain redoubt, striking into the worst parts of his enemies’ harshest regions, making a specialty of winter campaigns, and conducting night attacks.”6
He even once used a troupe of delightfully scantily-clad dancing girls to grappa-up a Persian garrison commander, who they then sunk their hidden daggers into before he could sink anything into them.
Taken as a whole, Alexander’s accomplishments are well described as “long-term, long-range special warfare, undertaken by a body of men minute compared to their objectives, rarely larger than the current New York City Police Department, subduing millions.” From his example emerged Hannibal, the Vikings, Caesar, even Cortez – who all used the concept of unconventional warfare and the benefits of Special Forces to force world events down the paths they desired.7
It’s even arguable that the success of modernity’s greatest general, Napoleon, was due to the special nature of his forces. Instead of fighting as large robotic formations, they were arrayed into much smaller autonomous companies that often adopted guerrilla and other irregular tactics when they were outmanned and outgunned. But what most links Alexander to the present character of Special Forces was his novel way of “melding indigenous peoples to his ends,” a practice only formally institutionalized in the past fifty years or so as counterinsurgency.
Although the American military presence in the Philippines following our invasion cum liberation is now considered something of a accidental pidgin counterinsurgency, it happened not as the result of top-down policy decisions but as the sum result of the discrete decisions of many different commanders. And it wasn’t really countering a preexisting insurgency so much as inciting an insurgency against an occupying garrison. The concept of counterinsurgency was both institutionalized and legitimized by the French response to the communist-sponsored attempt at guerrilla war against French colonies in Indochina. It was built on the concepts of resistance fomented by the Jeds during WWII, but it distinguished itself in a few key ways.
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In the years following the Second World War the United States and Britain had their battered hands full trying to contain the expansion of Soviet communism in Eastern Europe, which was also posing a threat to the French colonial possessions in a region that’s now called Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. To stem this threat France dispatched regular troops to Southeast Asia. These regular French troops weren’t met by regular Soviet troops, but by Soviet guerrilla troops who sparked a widespread insurgency against the French occupation.
Guerrilla warfare is the hallmark of an insurgency, as the guerrilla “just about always expects the enemy to come to him and bitterly defends his own turf, where his greatest advantage is an intimate command of his land and people. …He opportunistically hits the enemy where it is weak – killing couriers, obliterating an unwary patrol, perhaps setting off bombs in the street. He avoids decisive confrontation and works with a different sense of time as he compels the enemy to spindle out its resources and patience.”8 And so guerrillas count on the gradual leverage brought when strength is pried away from the enemy by the destruction of soft targets, gradually sapping its strength. You can’t incite an insurgency without first training your own troops as guerrillas, which is exactly what the Soviets did.
To much French dismay, the French soon found out their regular troops were impotent against a Soviet-sponsored insurgency and that hunting down guerrillas in the Indochinese wild was an impossible task. As the guerrilla insurgency drove a violent wedge between the local Southeast Asians and their French Colonial masters by publicly executing tribal chiefs and any other leader or elder who opposed them, “communist influence and support in Indochina grew exponentially and the French government ultimately had to admit that conventional warfare was an inadequate response.”9
So the French begin a new campaign, aimed to counter the threat to their colonies from within. It was a campaign of “training hill tribesmen and religious minorities as intelligence agents, saboteurs, and radio operators” responsible for staging an insurgency that would counter the one sponsored by the Soviets.10 More succinctly put, a counterinsurgency. These men were joined by pirates, gangsters, and other criminals who were trained alongside them and then arranged into groups of about three-thousand and known by the same name as the native French resistance who waged an insurgency against Nazi occupation – the Maquis. The namesake of the Maquis was, of all things, a shrubbery that dwells on the French hills where the native resistance against Nazi occupation first found its roots.
And although they represented a new approach to warfare, training a Indochinese Maquis did not come on the cheap and in fact required a novel source of funding. To finance the Maquis the French occupation confiscated the entirety of present-day Vietnam’s cash-crop, opium, and sold it to the various Indochinese cartels who then refined it into heroin and distributed it to the world markets that stretched from Hong Kong to Chi-town.
Known as Operation X, this project successfully funded the world’s first, albeit unsuccessful, counterinsurgency. But despite this lack of success, the French counterinsurgency in Indochina still set a new precedent, as “counterinsurgency effectively legitimized… the financial support by a colonial power or guerrilla warfare as a means of confronting insurgency, dissent, and subversion.”11 And it’s a precedent that meshes well with the recurrent nature of history, as the poppy seed is again spicing the actions of today’s most robust counterinsurgency. This counterinsurgency makes up the primary part of Operation Enduring Freedom, although now acting not to fund it but against it. In the home of modern-day jihad, Afghanistan, opium presents the greatest impediment to the success of the soldiers operating there. Who also got their name from something French. In this case not a shrubbery, but a hat.
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Although he’s revered and venerated by the general public, grumpy presidential academics are quick – as quick as their wrinkly rheumatic fingers can manage – to point out that John F. Kennedy didn’t really do much other than look pretty, Marilyn Monroe, and perhaps serve to symbolize the death of our national sense of innocence. But in 1961 John Fitzgerald Kennedy enacted an element of policy that’s often overlooked by the general public and geriatric academics alike.
Following a speech to Congress in which he warned that “the free world’s security can be endangered not only by nuclear attack, but also by being nibbled away at the periphery… by forces of subversion” who would use “another type of war… new in its intensity, ancient in its origins – war by guerrillas, subversives, insurgents, assassins; war by ambush instead of by combat; by infiltration instead of by aggression, seeking victory by eroding and exhausting the enemy instead of by engaging him, [requiring] a whole new kind of strategy, a wholly different kind of force,” JFK took the necessary steps to ensure that this novel counterbalancing force would come to be.
He was helped along in this decision by the enterprising and defiant pronouncement of Brigadier General Bill Yarborough and Major General Ted Clifton. Intent on recognizing the demonstrated excellence of their soldiers, they decided – risk to their careers be damned – that during the President’s trip to Fort Bragg their Special Forces soldiers would be allowed to wear their excellence on their heads, despite the fact that official Army regulations forbade any distinctive element of uniform, even for elite troops.
As the dreamy young President toured Fort Bragg, he was surprised by soldiers of “a grand variety of shades and textures” popping out of every possible hiding place to surprise him.12 This personal display of stealth and panache was paired with the “Gabriel Demonstration,” which showcased the irregular, covert, and clandestine, abilities of these specially trained men – from infiltrating camouflaged guerilla bases, to training native forces, through carrying out psychological operations via leaflet and loudspeaker alike. And all these events were tied together by one fact. Or one accessory, really.
Every man wore a Green Beret. Clifton and Yarborough’s gamble paid off, as after returning from his trip to Fort Bragg, President Kennedy gave his permission for the beret to be worn as a symbol of excellence, sanctioning in headgear what he’d already funded with his pocket – earlier having allocated $19 million to expand the Special Forces from just a few hundred to over 4,000 men as part of a comprehensive counterinsurgency program, which came to be known as Counter-Insurgency Doctrine.
The Green Berets, the most vivid element of Washington’s new Counter-Insurgency Doctrine, were soon involved with operations that spanned three continents and twelve countries, often in conjunction with other elements of the Special Forces and native military elements. And their most powerful weapon was the mirror-image of guerrilla terror: counterinsurgent terror. In the jungles of Vietnam, Colombia, and Central America, the Special Forces soldiers sought to turn conflicts on their head by using the guerrilla tactics of native insurgents against them. Accomplishing this, however, was not a matter of simple violence.
What sets the Green Berets apart from every other fighting force is the fact that so much of their training is devoted to developing a symbiotic relationship with the society they’re deployed in. Their novelty is that they’re not only trained to kill, but trained to help and assist, and in the course of doing this they becoming more efficient killers.
Regardless of whatever assistance the Green Berets provide to one element of society, their goal is invariably to kill as many people as possible who are part of the society’s enemy element. Needing to adapt to incredibly foreign cultures and societies is one of the elements which sets them apart from the Jedburghs. Although the Jedburghs sought to develop a rapport once they were in-country, their training was devoted to developing the tactical skills needed to use against military targets, not to gaining a keener understanding of continental European culture and mores. Which wasn’t really that far from English or American society – at least not as far as any one Western culture is from an Eastern or Eurasian one.
The training the Jedburghs received wasn’t to hone their inter-cultural awareness, but simply to better blow shit up. Any intercultural awareness the Jedburghs had was to be provided by the one Frog who’d usually make up a third of a Jedburgh team, and wasn’t something that was groomed with much intensity during training.
And not only is the relationship of the Green Berets with their target society a symbiotic one, it is mutualistic. Meaning that the Green Berets actively work to aid and assist the society they’re operating in, so the society will in turn aid the Green Berets by making them more efficient tactical operators. It’s mutually beneficial. This mutualism means that, unlike parasites, the Green Berets don’t close themselves off from their target societies but instead integrate themselves within it and make themselves a part of it. In the case of Sergeant Pace this was accomplished when the life of that little girl with spinal meningitis, on the verge of death via dehydration, was saved with a means as asymmetric and American as the mission he and his comrades were carrying out.
Without IVs available, he simply stuck a tube in her tush and re-hydrated her with a Gatorade enema, saving her life.13
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By nature, in a parasitic relationship the parasite keeps itself as separate as possible from its host, seeking only to glean what it wants – with no regard to harming the host nor learning anything about it. Establishing a mutualistic relationship means that the Green Berets invariably learn how a society is put together – what it fears, where its weaknesses lay, the one keystone that when removed will cause the entire society to collapse. Although they do provide improvements and build infrastructure, in the process the Green Berets ultimately seek to learn how to remove any elements within the society which they deem undesirable. How better to kill those members of the society they’re targeting.
In some cases, most of the original ones, this symbiotic relationship occurs as a counterinsurgency at its most literal – countering an uprising which uses guerrilla tactics that’s either of native or foreign inspiration. However, as the opportunities presented themselves, the Green Beret-led insurgencies weren’t countering other insurgencies, but instead countering the established order. Which, for whatever reason, was undesirable to the American administration.
For Vietnam this meant the communist-backed but native-led regime of the North, in other cases it has been governments that were nominally democratic. In post-9/11 Afghanistan it was the Taliban regime, which had itself first risen to power in its own insurgency less than a decade earlier and ruled with a relatively loose grip on power. Counterinsurgencies, then, are best thought of not only countering other insurgencies but also countering whatever administration or regime happens to be in power by inserting themselves into that target society and seeking as much as possible to become one with it.
Granted, there is the obvious benefit that a host is much less likely to try to expel an entity that is not just parasitically feeding off it but providing one benefit or another while extracting just a little bit from the host. Nature is replete with examples of this, from shark-hitchhiking remoras to the billions of individual bacteria currently infesting your intestines – at once feeding while also servicing and protecting your intestines.
Central to the success of Special Forces is the ability to integrate themselves into local culture and custom, and “walk a very thin and risky line… act toward the local government with great care and finesse… while developing a more than skin-deep rapport with the indigenous peoples. ” Special Forces soldiers “might be required to deliver babies, extract teeth, or design a bridge and supervise its construction.” These men must posses “the judgment, maturity, self-discipline, and ability to work harmoniously” with alien cultures – while simultaneously pursuing the enemy.14 Not even one-hundred Green Berets were able to catalyze approximately 31,000 enemy deaths in Afghanistan because they forged a mutualistic relationship with their host nation – as both the troops and the locals benefited from each other’s presence.
What sets mutualistic forces apart is this effort to forge a rapport with the indigenous peoples with whom they are fighting. In Afghanistan the Green Berets regularly treated the locals fighting alongside them with their own limited medical supplies – this plus the combination of “language, cultural awareness, living under the same conditions, sharing common goals, war-fighting skills, and the fact that the teams care for their comrades, their families, villagers, and even captured enemy soldiers,” is crucial to their effectiveness, and separates them from any other fighting force.15
Humanitarian aid efforts were originally given value by American forces in Vietnam, and the distribution of medical, edible, and infrastructural aid secured the winning of hearts and minds in Afghanistan by deepening the contrast between them and the oppressive Soviet army. Similarly, the al-Qaeda terrorists in charge of the Madrid bombings recruited the locals, who were in charge of “large-scale operations on the ground,” based on “neighborly relations, friendships struck up at the mosque, or family and tribal ties.”16 This effort to reach into the community and harness the knowledge of the locals within is vital to distinguish mutualistic groups from their parasitic counterpart.
Parasitic terrorist groups are designed to accomplish the same mission Special Forces are: to attack “strategic and operational targets” of economic, psychological, or physical importance “that can’t be attacked any other way.”17 They parallel mutualistic forces in that they seek to be chameleons within their host nation: as Green Berets grew beards and donned local dress to blend in with their Afghani allies, and the members of the Madrid cell had been blending into society as productive and innocuous for years – members of al-Qaeda shaved theirs and de-robed to blend in while operating within America. And yet differences abound.
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Unlike the goal mutualistic groups have, of creating and strengthening a bond between themselves and indigenous troops, parasitic groups seek to avoid detection and have little or no interaction with the locals beyond that which will give them the skills necessary to destroy their host. The members of the 9/11 cell were, at best, poor English-speakers – even if they had wanted to interact, those interactions would’ve been limited. Their cloaking wasn’t to foster trust but to evade detection. Whereas Green Berets branch out from their team to make relationships with the locals they’re working with, al-Qaeda members were isolated from outsiders almost the entire time they were in America.
They trained at Gold’s Gym together, would play soccer among themselves, and lived quietly and unobtrusively in apartments together, interacting with the neighborhood as little as possible. Although they did receive training at terrorist camps, likely in Afghanistan, they learned the unique training of piloting jetliners that allowed them to carry out their attacks from their host nation, exemplary of how a parasite feeds off the host. The memoirs of Mohammad Atta and other members of parasitic groups are replete with disdainful comments about the culture that was unwittingly hosting them – displaying disregard for, and no curiosity towards its people, practices, or beliefs.
Their organizational and tactical approach was based on the documents stolen by Ali Mohammad from Fort Bragg which were then conveyed to al-Qaeda and incorporated into it’s How-To manual, but as a terrorist cell they weren’t quite a Green Beret A-Team. Their approach to violence and conflict was loosely modeled on the Green Berets, but the 9/11 terrorists didn’t fully incorporate all of their elements. In Afghanistan, when a Green Beret stomped the kite of a young boy which had landed on top of the roof he was patrolling, he was recalled home the next day.19
Al-Qaeda in America was in the practice of regularly “kite-stomping,” having no urge or perceived need to value their host’s culture due to feelings of superiority. This detachment likely made their murderous actions much more palatable, since “regarding oneself as a superior being allows one to disregard the rights and well-being of others.”20
Special Forces’ soldiers have been described as “handpicked men with demonstrated special maturity, courage, inner strength”21 – a title which could also be bestowed, so long as you were willing to blindfold morality, upon their terrorist counterparts. The unsettling but all-too evident reality is that the same forces which make Green Berets efficient military operators also make for the best terrorists. It is no coincidence, more than that – it is supremely telling that where the Green Berets were begat, the Special Warfare Center and School, started off as an adjunct to the Psychological Warfare Center.
The origins of the commando, the terrorist, the assassin, and the Special Forces soldiers are tangled in a Gordian knot that cannot simply be cut with morality’s blade. They all share the same irregular and asymmetric modus operandi, and cannot be spliced simply by arguing, in one fell stroke, that the morality behind their actions splits them into distinct strands. What differentiates them isn’t morality – but historical, cultural, and organizational factors.
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The thing about 9/11 is that it wasn’t Terror at its awful finest. 9/11 never meant to collapse American from the inside, it was never meant as a mutualistic counterinsurgency, but to rally the Muslims of the world to bin Ladin’s side. Once rallied, however, the possibility arose for a mutualistic counterinsurgency. Not in America, but on the world stage. 9/11 sought to bring the Muslims of the world together and strengthen their common identity in the most effective way possible. As all members of a group being persecuted by an outside force, in this case the West – with America as the helm.
Just as the ancient Sicarrii rallied the Jews to a common cause against Roman occupation of their lands by killing the statesmen who symbolized Roman rule in suicide attacks, on 9/11 bin Ladin sought to rally Muslims against American occupation of their lands by felling Twin statesmen in suicide attacks. Just as the People’s Will, through dramatic violence, sought to free the Russian peasantry from their manacling to false social assumptions both in terms of what is possible and what is Right, bin Ladin meant 9/11 as propaganda by deed.
And so on March 11th it began in Madrid. Men who had lived in Spain for years were co-opted to violence, which was more Tactical Terror than Symbolic as it targeted transportation infrastructure and was enacted over barely half a year. Those men understood Spain and were able to operate with a comfort level the 9/11 hijackers didn’t have. The same thing happened in London a few years later, as native Londoners struck out on 7/7 lethally and effectively against their host society, using plans that had been formed only over the course of just a few months.
Across the European continent other plans began to take shape, but were undone either by their plotters ineptitude or by the concentrated efforts of law enforcement officials. Had al-Qaeda integrated more fully with American society in the time leading up to 9/11, their attacks would have been much more lethal, and they would have been able to carry them out with much less time devoted to planning.
Their virulence was constrained by their unwillingness to associate and their superior, isolating attitude which prevented them from fully exploiting the vulnerabilities – such as the small amount of manpower needed to hijack an airliner – of their host culture. A good deal of this constraint was likely because of the lack of immigrants or naturalized Muslims in America who would want to attack their new home, if they looked they would have been hard-pressed to find any naturalized immigrant Muslims willing to help them. So they kept to themselves. There are few Muslims in America to begin with, and those who have immigrated here tend to mesh well with society and harbor little motivation to attack Americans.
In America, it’s not our immigrants we need to worry about.