Conflicts since 9/11 have given special forces new prominence. They may fare less well as politicians prepare for the wars of the futureby Robert Fry / October 17, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
The Long Range Desert Group of the SAS after months behind enemy lines, north Africa, 1942
The former US Navy SEAL writing under the pseudonym Mark Owen provoked an extraordinary range of responses with the publication of his account of the operation to kill Osama bin Laden, No Easy Day. Originally slated for release on the symbolic 11th September, it was rushed out early to meet a demand that had already placed it at the top of the Amazon and Barnes & Noble online bestseller lists; in the case of Amazon, displacing Fifty Shades of Grey.
Owen’s book raised issues of the legality of the bin Laden raid as well as the opportunism of the politicians who ordered it and have subsequently milked its success. It also highlighted the rights and responsibilities of special forces operators seeking a public voice. But perhaps more than anything else it was a public discourse on the role of special forces in contemporary iconography—on the unique place they have won on the battlefield, in politicians’ reckoning of national assets and in the public imagination.
It has been a long romance, which began with the creation of these shadowy elite forces more than 70 years ago, a process led by Britain and which others have followed. The Special Air Service, or SAS, erupted into the public consciousness with the end of the 1980 Iranian embassy siege in London, relayed live on primetime television on the May Day bank holiday to an audience of millions. Its motto, “Who Dares Wins,” has lodged itself in the public mind. But it is the wars of 9/11—confused, episodic and offering only fleeting opportunities to engage an elusive enemy—that have seen special forces lead the military response ahead of more deliberate conventional military units. Public celebrity has attended success and Mark Owen’s account has fed a keen popular demand for insight into these enclosed military orders. However, strategic challenges change and as the 9/11 era draws to a close special forces will have to re-cast themselves for different conflicts where their unique qualities may have to share a stage with other, more prosaic, military capabilities.