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July 28, 2008

’Chosen Soldier’: Time and Prudence

Chosen_soldier_2Time, of course, is a valuable commodity for Army Special Forces (SF). Being a Green Beret requires a man to spend a lot of time on deployment—in turn, taking a lot of time away from family. And although there are five active groups compared to two National Guard groups within SF, the “Guard groups . . . are very busy. [They] are spending a great deal of time overseas and a great deal of time in harm’s way.”

And though you may have heard about animosity between active-duty soldiers and so-called “part-timers” (National Guard), the “active groups have no problem integrating their guardsmen into their deploying units. In reality, they’ve no choice. Since 9/11, SF soldiers in the active groups are deployed 270 to 275 days a year.” And the guardsmen also “are gone a great deal of the time,” sometimes “as much or more than their active-duty brothers.”

As I’ve written previously, in today’s war in the Middle East, the Green Berets are a critical element. In light of their particular significance in this point of history, Dick Couch has written Chosen Soldier: The Making of a Special Forces Warrior, the subject of my book-blogging this summer. Actually, it may likely go into the fall. While the Green Berets’ time is well-structured, mine has been pulled in numerous directions. Hence, the three-plus weeks between my last post on Couch’s book and this one!

So I have been reading more about the structure of SF (that term, by the way, designates only the Army Special Forces, not that of all the branches), and the issues of time and prudence are what currently stand out.

First, the issue of time. As I mentioned above, one side of that issue is that SF soldiers, or Green Berets, give a lot of their time to the service. That time given puts a lot of stress on their lives; it’s a sacrifice. In fact, recently, the Washington Post ran a cover story about the strain of multiple deployments on the children of service members.

The other side, the main focus of Couch’s book, is that it takes a lot of time to make a Green Beret. And so the process is streamlined, and constantly changing—since Couch’s writing, as he acknowledges, that process has become even more efficient. The stickler is that we need more of these particular “warriors” sooner than later (at the time of the book’s writing, there were 4,500 Green Berets). And so we’re caught in a hurry up and make more SF soldiers, but take a lot of time to do so, type of situation—to put it roughly. And so there is prudence, or very particular screening processes for selecting soldiers to go through the training, and training in such a rigorous way that the ones who finish truly “pass muster” to be Green Berets.

Only one in five men who enter SF training ever wears the Green Beret. So finding men, through the selection process, is critical. But while “aptitude and intelligence tests help,” they are not complete indicators of a quality Green Beret-to-be. After all, writes Couch, “there has yet to be a reliable test for heart and determination. Cast the net too narrowly, and we miss out on some good men. Cast the net too widely, and the attrition rates drive up the cost of this already expensive training.”

While there are specific skills necessary for the job, much of what an SF soldier does “comes under the heading of ‘getting the job done.’” That is, the standard is rigorous—but also ambiguous.

What does it take?

  1. Innovation. The men need to be able to improvise and make quick decisions on the job. They need to be self-managers, a true “Army of one,” to use the slogan that has been much maligned, but in this application makes a great deal of sense. After all they need to “teach, lead, and operate independently from any other U.S. military presence.” There is a reason, I believe, SF is labeled Alpha, with all of that term’s connotations outside the military. They also must have a “firm, moral foundation,” because they’re often acting “alone and in remote areas, they often are the United States of America.” Thus, they have to “abide by the Rules of Land Warfare, theater-specific rules of engagement and the code of the American fighting man.”
  2. Adaptability/Flexibility. While they must be tough and “play well with others,” they need to know assess risk and think creatively in an unexpected situation—entrepreneurs, actually, work well as Green Berets. And regarding flexibility, they need to be able to work well with foreigners. “More crudely put,” writes Couch, “it may come down to whether a man is more comfortable in shooting people or trying to make friends with them. . . . A Special Forces soldier has to be good behind the gun and be able to deal effectively with other cultures.” Two predictors of success are how they do in the Ranger tab, which not only provides tactical skills but also builds confidence and leadership, and language school, which reveals how well they can adapt to other cultures, besides the practicality of becoming bi- or multilingual.
  3. Diversity. “There’s the inherent diversity found in a Special Forces detachment that comes from men with different cultural, economic, and educational backgrounds, all of which make the team stronger than the sum of the individual parts,” writes Couch. “And there’s racial diversity.”

I’ll write more about the aspect of diversity in a separate post. Meanwhile, you can see how every minute spent by and every decision and assessment made of and by SF soldiers matters.

Read past posts on Chosen Soldier here, here, and here.

(Image © Random House)

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