Special Forces students huddle together loosely in the cool grey light of dawn. Breath hangs on crisp morning air, as the students try to hold back a deep biting chill that fills the dwell time between night and when the sun will finally warm the North Carolina day to a comfortable baking heat. Until then, the temperature forces every hand into unbloused uniform pants pockets, and heads into a variety of unauthorized watch caps.
Pine trees push in on all sides as the candidates wait for the next onslaught of training from their instructors, their murmuring stops in their semi-formed ranks as the Cadre steps from his vehicle and approaches. “Get in here” he says gruffly. The men form around him in a horseshoe shape as he outlines his expectations and the guidelines for the next block of instruction.
An onlooker might describe their interaction as casual, but with an air of formality driven by a respect for the Cadre himself, not just his rank. The students are being trained to become the cutting edge in the application of American foreign policy. Very few will identify as “just a soldier”. They burn with a sense of self-determination and counter-culture rebellion.
This is a scene that can be pulled from any Special Forces Assessment and Selection class. This also isn’t the bearing that most would expect from the most disciplined soldiers in the world.
From the first unauthorized green beret worn by General Yarborough to the gaudy Baathist moustaches of the Iraq war, Special Operations soldiers have demonstrated a capacity to complete the mission despite a penchant for relaxed attitudes towards military bearing and uniform regulations.
How is it that the most disciplined soldiers in the world can outwardly display such contempt towards, and non-conformity to basic military standards? Beyond that, do Special Operations units indoctrinate their ranks with counter culture, or is it that those counter culture individuals are the ones who are drawn to, and are more likely to succeed in the world of Special Operations?
Son, when they made you they broke the mold...
As I was coming through the Special Forces pipeline, a lot of disdain was expressed by my instructors and fellow candidates with a background in the conventional military for some (myself included) who they perceived to want the benefits of being “elite”, but were judged to not be able to appreciate the “work”. There were candidates who showed up to selection with a relaxed grooming standard as their main motivation for wanting to join the ranks of Special Forces. On more than one occasion, I would hear something akin to, “Being SF is a lot more than keeping your hands in your pockets, growing longer hair and not getting yelled at for having your sunglasses on top of your head.” This struck me as hypocrisy because every one of the SF soldiers that we ALL looked up to had idiosyncratic uniform irregularities, took liberties with regulations, and generally disdained most lesser humans. (Most specifically: those of us crazy enough to attempt joining their ranks.)
These uniform irregularities were just the tip of how far from the standard an operator might deviate. Years later, when deployed in Afghanistan, we would cross paths with a special mission unit operator whose kit consisted of KEEN sandals, a gold Rolex President, a Tommy Bahama shirt, yellow Rudy Project sunglasses, and a 7 inch M4.
At the time however, I thought the “you haven’t earned/done shit yet” mentality was just a coming of age ritual. The truth is that it runs deeper than simply existing as a rite of passage. It was, and still is a manifestation of the active counter culture that has lived in SOF since its inception. Join me, as I break down why the best trained and most disciplined soldiers in the military are also the most likely to be yelled at by a conventional Command Sergeant Major (CSM) for a myriad of violations, all of which violations seem petty to the subject of the CSM’s military rage, I.E. Me.
Before we can define a counter culture, we need to discuss the base culture itself. For traditional military culture, the importance of uniformity and blind obedience is foundational. When a large number of individuals are combined into an effective fighting force, they remove the question mark from their immediate response catalogue. This is the only way to establish good order and a high chance of success in a stressful environment. Now, as we say in the business, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat”, but the last thing that the conventional military needs is a battalion sized element of junior leaders sharpshooting endless solutions to the problem at hand. So, through tried and true methods of institutional compliance, true individualism is beaten out of most soldiers.
Most free-thinkers under these commands either leave the military feeling tired, or they grow up to become unicorns. These unicorns are the perfect blend of dumb determination, book smarts, social and emotional intelligence, and risk taking behavior. Couple this with a system that rewards successful free thought and you build a community full of professionals that don’t always fit the military mold.
In any small bar in America you will find a handful of men and women who “would have joined the service, but don’t like being yelled at or all that discipline”. Most of the military HATES this conversation, but you’ll be pretty likely to find the same general feelings in any SOF team room. It wouldn’t be surprising to hear, “This officer was yelling at me for not having my hat on, so I told him, ‘Sir, I’m not authorized to tell you to go fuck yourself. But, this guy is.’ Then I handed him my Commander’s card and said ‘Good day.’” Not shockingly, most guys who gravitate towards high risk work in austere conditions don’t relish being told what to do by people they perceive to be below them in a social hierarchy. Hence, Eric Bana’s famed scene in Blackhawk Down.
Building A Winning Team
SOF is a high risk/high reward world, where soldiers are expected to operate with a high degree of independence. The selection process for any branch revolves around identifying people who can sense their operational environment and adapt to obtain the commander’s desired end state. While we say that SOF guys are team players, they are actually very divergent and highly individualistic competitors who are able to put their differences and competing egos aside to accomplish something they have decided is bigger than themselves as individuals. Over the years I have noticed that the best members of any team are both high performers as individuals and are willing to place their own desires second to achieve greater results. This goes against most common sense on the building of teams, but shouldn’t be forgotten by leaders who are looking to take their cohort to the next level.
Subverting self for mission success doesn’t mean that you must lose yourself. While the identity one acquires as a member of a select community is important to self, it doesn’t define who that person is. Take Jason Everman as a prime example. This guy played with Nirvana and Soundgarden, was a Ranger at 2nd Ranger Battalion, got out of the Army and studied at a Buddhist monastery in Tibet, got back into the Army and earned his green beret and then went on to earn a philosophy degree at Columbia University. His free spirit and drive are not an exception in the SOF community, they are the rule. Breaking this spirit would be counter to everything that drives the excellence of SOF.
Many conventional professional soldiers see a lack of grooming standards as a negative indication about a SOF unit’s discipline. However, the best units in any military are masters of the basics. No one becomes elite at anything by ignoring the fundamentals. These tasks become so ingrained that they occupy less and less mental bandwidth. In order to perform at a high level in more advanced tasks, all high performers have to make snap judgements on what is and what is not important. The faster a person categorizes unimportant details as unimportant and moves to the critical task, the better they perform in any measurable individual task. Pockets were made to keep hands warm, the right kind of facial hair builds rapport in many cultures, cuffed sleeves maintain a lower core temperature, and sunglasses rest easily on top of the head when they aren’t on the bridge of your nose. While it is important for SOF guys to understand where this is acceptable and where it is not, the practice of breaking military standards in these ways is usually a process of streamlining, not intentional disarray.
All the rope you need to hang yourself
In Special Forces we often refer to “big boy rules” where a service member is given wide latitude to accomplish a mission, but with the understanding that if they stray too far off the path of acceptable behavior there will be monumental consequences. Situational Awareness is literally the most crucial element any SOF service member can cultivate. Without this ability to discern the right moment for the right act, the road is long and painful. It’s also conveniently the hardest skill to acquire if you don’t already have it.
SOF mission success is never accomplished without a host of coordinating units playing their part. Sometimes younger guys lose track of how much the “tip of the spear” needs the rest of the blade to drive it home. Successful people in any field must learn when it is acceptable to display disregard for the rules and push hard, fast, and loose at the jagged edge and when they must play nice, bend their knee, and appeal to common sensibilities to consolidate the help needed to push the ball into the end zone. Most media is focused on the SOF personnel that have long beards and are engaging with tribal war lords and closing with the enemies of the state on the plain of battle. This narrow view doesn’t show the true flexibility and value of special operators. The portrait of a successful SOF effort changes greatly when the camera zooms out to show the same soldiers clean shaven, in proper uniform (and often times suits), courting the cooperation of generals and diplomats the world over.
In any career field, no matter how high we climb professionally, remember that the most unconventional and successful approach is often the most conventional. This is the social application of Occam’s Razor.
Rebels with a cause
The fire that drives Special Operations’ commitment to mission success through personal discipline is also the motivation behind a strong sense of self-determination that eschews conventional methods and mores. The importance of the people to the right and left in the fight and the protection of those less fortunate from the predators of the world is a strong motivator to perform at the highest level to ensure success. The skills needed for this are built over a lengthy career of training and experience, but these experiences also forge a confidence and insouciance that is only effective with the accompanying life wisdom born of experience.
I am a much more effective soldier now than I was as a student in the Special Forces Qualification Course. Have I matured? Of course, but the core rebellion that drove me to great privation to pursue a patch of cloth for my shoulder and a wool hat, is the same rebellion that prefers civilian clothes and baseball hats. I now get what rubbed my “Been There Done That” mentors the wrong way about those who try to talk the talk, but haven’t walked the walk. I now realize the dangers of the easy path, and the folly of wanting people to look up to you without the substance to support that status. Don’t be all hat and no cattle. It will catch up with you.
De Opresso Liber