August 12, 2002
Back from the Brink-After the Vietnam war, the Special Forces got tagged as big time bad guys. There were the usual reasons, the same ones that caused the Special Forces to be so unpopular with the brass. The Special Forces were operators and professionals. They did what they knew had to be done, often while under the command of generals who had an imperfect grasp of the situation. The Special Forces were tough looking characters that didn't say much to outsiders. That worked better in Vietnam, where the Special Forces got results up in the mountains, and the generals didn't really care how the "snake eaters" did it. But in peacetime, the brass considered the Special Forces a potential source of embarrassment. To the media, these green beret guys must have been up to no good. Congress went along with new popular misconception and after the Vietnam war, cut Special Forces strength by over 75 percent (to about 3,000 troops.) Even Special Forces reserve units were destroyed, which was a major loss of talented operators. Most of the World War II OSS veterans also passed from the scene via retirement, time having caught up with them. Only three Special Forces groups remained. Moreover, the Special Forces were still part of the infantry, and many Special Forces troopers who wanted to advance his career moved on to some other kind of army job. The 1970s were not a good time for the Special Forces.
But when Ronald Reagan was elected president, that all changed. Like president Kennedy. Reagan believed in what the Special Forces were up to. By 1982, Special Forces strength was raised to 4,000 troops, by 1985 it was 4,800, plus 800 men in Psychological War units, 250 men in Civil Affairs, and 800 troops taking care of specialized helicopters and aircraft. In 1983, the U.S. Army Institute for Military Assistance (which was the Special Warfare School until 1969) was renamed the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School. In twenty years, a lot had come full circle.
The Special Forces now had more work to do. The U.S. government saw a lot more communist inspired guerilla movements around the world. Many of these rebellions would have cropped up even if the Soviet Union had not existed, for they were feeding off local conditions (dictatorships, corruption and the like.) But the Soviet Union had gotten better and better at assisting, and sometimes instigating, these movements. Even though the Soviet Union was crumbling (economically and politically) and Cold War was coming to an end, the KGB was doing just fine. The CIA had had mixed success countering the KGB activities, so the Special Forces were seen as a slightly different solution that ought to be given a chance. The theory here was that the Special Forces could train the army and police in threatened countries and, it was hoped, drive home the fact that the best way to beat guerillas is the American way. This means using more carrots than sticks with local civilians and getting out in the bush to chase down the armed guerillas. In most of these threatened nations, the army and police tended to attack civilians "suspected of aiding guerillas." These actions amounted to punitive raids, which were now renamed "human rights violations." They were counterproductive. The troops were neither trained or motivated to chase after the guerillas themselves, and the abused civilians became more pro-guerilla.
But success using the Special Forces approach was measured in inches, not miles. As any experienced Special Forces operator will tell you, dealing with a guerilla movement is a long term operation. The media was looking for instant results (as were many American politicians) and the Special Forces were accused of "training foreign soldiers in torture techniques." There was never any proof for these accusations, but they made for great headlines. While this was not good for morale, the Special Forces were professionals and just went on with their work.
There were many other forms of official encouragement for the Special Forces during the 1980s. In 1982, the 1st Special Operations Command was activated. This gave the Special Forces their own controlling organization. Before that, the Special Forces were part of the Infantry, and the establishment of the 1st Special Operations Command began the process of making the Special Forces a separate branch. This continued in 1983, when U.S. Army Institute for Military Assistance (so named in 1969 to replace the more contentious "U.S. Army Special Warfare School") was renamed the "U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School." In 1984, Special Forces was established as a separate career field for enlisted soldiers, instead of just being another infantry specialty. In 1985, Task Force 160 (which contained the helicopters and crews trained and equipped to support Special Forces operations) was transferred from the 101st Airborne Division to the 1st Special Operations Command. In 1986, special signal and support battalions were activated for the 1st Special Operations Command, meaning that Special Forces now had support troops who were trained to meet their special needs. In 1987, a Special Forces branch was established for officers. Now all Special Forces troopers could make a career in Special Forces. Before that, they were expected to transfer out to other infantry type jobs if they expected to get promoted. In 1989 was the transformation was completed when Special Forces was designated an Army Command (like the infantry, artillery, armor, signal corps and so on.)