Leadership: July 7, 2003

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The U.S. Army Special Forces are having morale and recruiting problems, and they are largely self-inflicted. Special Forces units are already some 20 percent understrength and the situation is getting worse. The first visible signs were seen in Afghanistan when the brass "cracked down" on the Special Forces use of local dress and appearance (beards.) They were ordered to shave and wear their uniforms. Aside from the fact that this went against practical experience (going back to World War II), and put Special Forces troops lives at risk, it demonstrated a callous disregard for the expertise and professionalism of the Special Forces. The tradition continued in Iraq where Special Forces troops were threatened with punishment for having a beer or possessing "pornography" (a copy of Playboy magazine.) Again, the Special Forces troops, professional as ever, stood to attention, saluted and followed orders. But the number of senior men who choose to get out is increasing. Being expected to perform extraordinary mental and physical feats on the battlefield, and then being treated like a wayward child has not gone down well with the troops.

The troops see the "Mickey Mouse" (mindless attention to useless regulations") as symptomatic of larger leadership problems. The troops have noted that as Special Forces officers rise in rank, and leave the A Teams, they become more career minded. That, unfortunately, means responding to the demands of the system that puts great  emphasis on "zero defects" and not doing anything that would embarrass a commander. This makes the battalion and group commanders tend to be looking over their shoulders rather than paying attention to what is happening out front and what their troops need. These problems were played down in peace time, but have become major sources of tensions because of problems in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

There are still problems with senior commanders in understanding what Special Forces do, how they do it and how important it is. Especially in Iraq, Special Forces would often uncover choice targets and soon find that the brass were not interested, or didn't understand the importance of what the Special Forces had in their sights. This goes back to the situations in Afghanistan where the Special Forces literally had Osama bin Laden in their sights, but had to get clearance, which sometimes was withheld, to pull the trigger. Similar situations were encountered in Iraq.

The personnel shortages have been made up, in part, by calling up men of the two National Guard Special Forces groups. But some of these men were kept on active duty for over a year, causing personal hardship for the troops involved. Using lots of National Guard Special Forces also brought another problem to the surface. Promotions in the National Guard are often heavily influenced by state politics. Apparently this disastrous (for battlefield performance) practice resulted in some Special Forces promotions of less-than-qualified officers who were well connected politically. The Special Forces troops felt the loss in the field.

Speaking of losses, Special Forces officers are smoldering over the policy of giving the sergeants and warrant officers the Special Forces Duty Pay of $225 a month (when in a combat zone), but not the officers that lead the teams.  Officers don't like to complain, as it will mark them as a "troublemaker" and hurt their career prospects.

And it's not just the special pay, but the general lack of attention to living conditions for Special Forces in the field. Many Special Forces troops are embarrassed when they set up shop in the field near foreign commando units, who receive more generous financial allowances for field quarters. In such situations, the shabby quarters of the Special Forces reflects poorly on the United States, but is typical of the attitude the senior generals still have for Special Forces.

While the generals at the very top may say they appreciate the edge Special Forces provides American forces, many other senior officers in the chain of command do not, or simply look on the Special Forces as a bunch of hot shot troublemakers. And treat them accordingly, trying to impose "discipline" where it is not needed. The Special Forces know they are good, but they are often lions led by donkeys. The careerism of senior Special Forces officers results in lack of support for the A-Team level troopers who actually do the work and the intense Special Forces operations of the last two years have forced these long standing problems to the surface. At the moment, the Army is spending more energy trying to keep a lid on the problem than in fixing it.

 


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