Over the years, I have learned to chill. Be a more laid-back kind of guy. Not take things too seriously. But one thing that still puts my blood pressure into rocket range and makes me want to throat-punch someone: whenever I hear someone mention Navy, Marine, or Air Force Special Forces.
People, there is only one Special Forces in the U.S military, and that is U.S. Army Special Forces. There are seven Special Forces groups—five active duty and two National Guard. They all fall under SOCOM and are part of the special operations community. SOCOM stands for Special Operations Command. It is the unified command that oversees and controls all U.S. special operations units of all branches, even the USMC (since 2006).
The misuse and misappropriation of the title “Special Forces” is not just a trivial matter. When I read it in an article, I immediately discount that writer as your average uninformed ding-a-ling with superficial knowledge of SOF. When I hear someone commit this flagrant foul while speaking, I immediately assume he is a dumbass wannabe with, again, a superficial understanding of the SOF community, and that he is also someone needing to shut the hell up and/or be throat-punched.
The United States military’s “Special Forces,” also known as Green Berets due to their distinctive headgear, refers to, as stated above, a distinct unit of the U.S. military—the U.S. Army Special Forces. “Special operations,” however, more broadly refers to a type of unit or a type of operation. Special Forces, SEALs, Rangers, MARSOC, etc.—essentially, all those units who trace their genesis back to commando units and still harbor certain commando skills, tactics, and culture—all fall under this title.
“Special Forces” is a proper name in that it names a specific military unit, in the same way that Bob or Jane are proper names. Thus, the S and F are always capitalized. You would never write “bob” in reference to a guy named Bob. The term “special forces” is used by some militaries other than the United States to refer to special operations units. It is a common noun that is often used to modify other nouns.
“Green Berets” refers to U.S. Army Special Forces, but it is not an official unit designation or name. It is merely in reference to our headgear, granted to Special Forces by President Kennedy in October of 1961. The beret thing all started in WWII with the OSS, which spent a lot of time with the French underground in German-occupied France. Many of the early SF operators were veterans of the OSS.
In Britain and most of Europe, “special forces” is used to refer to their special operations units. British SAS (Special Air Service) is one of the British special forces units, as are the SBS (Special Boats Squadrons, their SEALs) and the Royal Marine Commandos. France has their special forces units, most of whom have “Commando” somewhere in the unit name.
The Air Force has their SF, which has to led to some confusion for more than one Army SF guy in recent years. But their SF stands for “Security Force,” not “Special Forces.”
“Special Services” used to be a point of confusion. Back in the ’80s when I told an older person that I was in Special Forces, they would often say, “Oh, are you a chef?” or “Ah. You must be good at ping-pong.” Special Services was formed in 1942, during WWII, to provide recreation and entertainment for the troops overseas. But Special Services are no more. MWR—Morale, Welfare, and Recreation—has replaced the U.S. SS.
Spetsnaz is Russian for special forces or special operations, depending on who you talk to. American Special Forces in Russian is “Amerikanskiy Spetsnaz.”
“Special Forces” has been borrowed and used a lot by law enforcement in the past decade, in particular by special tactics units. Seems like every time we turn around there’s another SWAT truck with “Special Forces” emblazoned on the side. Often, they even use the Special Forces crest—our damn crest—with “De Oppresso Liber” along the bottom. Where do these people get off thinking that’s a good idea? That’s like a commercial airline that ships food around the country painting the 82nd Airborne Division patch on the sides of their aircraft with the slogan “Death From Above.”
So, now you know that grammar matters and can even piss off Special Forces guys. We just don’t like having or hearing our unit’s name misused, borrowed or stolen. We’re kind of funny that way. But, if anyone is interested in a start-up to get into the sock market, we think that calling such a company “MARsocks” would be a great idea, and we might even be able to help you find some funding.