WELL, if there’s some quarter in which SEAL Team Six isn’t perceived as the “it” special ops team, it’s not for lack of trying on their part. I draw your attention to a 2011 Washington Post piece in which an anonymous member of ST6 describes his cadre as follows:
“We’re the dark matter. We’re the force that orders the universe but can’t been seen.”
Whatever aura currently surrounds the SEALs, I’d suggest, can be traced to the kind of identity cultivation on display here, this macho-mystique thing that American audiences seem to love reading about and reporters seem to love perpetuating and for a group of closed-mouthed toughs, ST6 members can display an impressive capacity for self-promotion.
One former SEAL who wrote a book about the bin Laden raid, for instance, wound up having to forfeit $6.8 million in royalties and appearance fees because he forgot to ask his supervisors for approval.
The story the Post was reporting, meanwhile, is the bigger deal here: how special-operations forces like the SEALs are increasingly relied on to fight America’s wars. In places like Iraq and Afghanistan, what we’re up against aren’t traditional armies but extremist ideologies, represented by decentralized bands of non-state actors who aren’t exactly wild about the Geneva Agreements.
Though Team Six may get the marquee coverage, there are in fact, as you suggest, a bunch of special ops forces in the field today, from all branches of the military—the Army’s Special Forces regiment, aka the Green Berets, helped Afghans topple the Taliban, for instance.
Special operations forces gained a foothold in the U.S. military in the mid-20th century, as leaders realized that increasingly unconventional wars—think Korea and Vietnam—would require unconventional techniques. The Green Berets were organized in 1952; the SEALs—named and trained for effectiveness on sea, air, and land—were established in 1962.
Special operations assignments fall into two main categories: direct action, including behind-the-lines combat, manhunts, hostage rescues, etc.; and indirect action, which covers (e.g.) coaching foreign forces on fighting their own wars. Through the ‘70s, the various units constituted a loosely organized mosaic, each accountable to its own chain of command.
Two events help explain what’s changed. First was the failed attempt to rescue the U.S. embassy hostages in Tehran, during the Carter administration—for the military, an unthinkable black eye. Its response was to gather all special forces under one operational umbrella, the U.S. Special Operations Command, or SOCOM.
Under that umbrella, you’ll find the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, which includes elite groups like SEAL Team Six, its Army counterpart Delta Force, and the Air Force’s 24th Special Tactics Squadron.
The second event was, perhaps, needless to say, 9/11. The budget for special-ops forces has quintupled since 2001, and the troop count at JSOC’s disposal has ballooned from around 1,800 to more than 25,000. As we got into Afghanistan, Donald Rumsfeld basically gave JSOC carte blanche, pre-approving them for a laundry list of operations in 15 countries.
Barack Obama relied heavily on special forces; like drone assassinations, they jibed with his preference for keeping military action small and containable. (And free from meaningful oversight, not to mention legally questionable and morally troublesome—however one may miss the guy, his record here is no snap to defend).
We note, however, that the intellectual seeds of this shift were planted back in the Clinton administration. At some point following the U.S. embassy bombings of 1998 the president was heard to speculate, “You know, it would scare the shit out of al-Qaeda if suddenly a bunch of black ninjas rappelled out of helicopters into the middle of their camp.”
Cue the SEALs. Created after the 1980 hostage debacle, Team Six wasn’t, in fact, the sixth SEAL outfit to suit up, just the third; the nickname was chosen to psych the Soviets into thinking we had more specialized forces than we really did.
The team was conceived as an agile, fast-moving counterterrorism unit—athletes who rappelled out of helicopters, basically, and with the war on terror their moment had clearly arrived. That moment hasn’t been without some complication; various news accounts have raised alarm over alleged extrajudicial killings, unaccountability, abuse of authority, etc. But the omelette-egg ratio, apparently, is one the U.S. government can live with.