You know the trope found in secret agent films and novels alike: the Special Operator that is fluent in four languages, can track phones, build homemade explosives, is a parkour fanatic, a highly trained driver, is an expert tracker, better hacker, a master of like four variations of martial arts, and of course, is an unparalleled gunfighter. He knows both the art of deductive reasoning in both a tactical sense and an intra-personal sense, and he can somehow smell a bad guy from a mile away. He can defuse complex bombs as he can talk down assailants with his master understanding of the criminal mind.
These are the main characters in the Bourne movies, the Transporter saga, the Mission Impossible franchise, each iteration of the “Hitman” video game adaptations — countless action films depict characters who are a jack of all trades, and a master of every single one of them. Don’t get me wrong, I love these movies.
I was never very fond of the term “operator” to apply to people outside of Delta, but many now use it as people in regards to any shooter in the SOF community. I suppose it is nice to have a name that encompasses that group of people. Regardless, the operators in MARSOC or Ranger Battalion or the Green Berets are not Jason Bournes. That’s not to say they are not deadly and extremely proficient in their given tasks. They might be as adaptable in general, and may even be more formidable in a gunfight, but that doesn’t mean they possess all the same qualities.
There is only so much time in a day. There is also only so much time in a week, month or a year. Combat training is extremely time intensive, and the skills are also perishable. So to learn ONE of those skills, like the fundamental skill of gunfighting, you have to devote an ungodly amount of time to it. These super-hero operator types in movies and television somehow manage to reach a level of proficiency that is impossible with the regular schedules of any SOF unit out there — there just isn’t enough time in a year to become a master hacker and a Ranger-level gunfighter (that’s why we have multiple jobs in the military). At least, not if you want some sort of livable life to have, and the SOF lifestyle is already outrageously fast-paced as it is.
The amount of skills packed into SOF training cycles is already pretty crazy.
To the movies’ credit, they accept that Jason Bourne doesn’t have a life — like, I’m not sure if the guy even has his own house somewhere. In the films he is completely cut off from society, which probably enables him to conduct the amount of training he has to accomplish yearly to be that proficient at so many tasks. It’s also worth recognizing that many of these characters also have a background in SOF, but have left it and continued their training elsewhere, like the CIA or some super-secret program that swipes you off the face of the earth. On top of all that, most of the actors are in their late 30s or early 40s, which would insinuate a lifetime of training and experience.
That’s a lot more work and a lot more time spent training than 4 years in a SOF unit and a couple of years of contracting. It takes a lot more variety than all that time in one unit, doing one job.
That’s not to invalidate those skills learned by any means. There is probably no one better in the world at gunfighting than the guys in SOF units. There is no one better at taking an airfield than a Ranger Battalion, no one better at underwater demolition than Navy SEALs. Urban combat, fighting a war, detaining high-level terrorists, maneuvering in large or small elements in enemy territory — talk to SOF.
What generally happens in reality is that those super-hero-operators are made up of several people, all working together to accomplish a mission. You have a whole intelligence apparatus behind the SOF folks that wind up kicking down the door and taking a Taliban commander down. You have a whole host of people who will interrogate that guy later, and the interpreter might be a different guy than the man asking the questions, who might report directly to someone else. Even on the ground, you’ve got an FO and a medic, who are separate from the shooters and the command element, who are separate from the gun teams or the mortar teams.
In the same spirit, SOF members aren’t all of a sudden qualified to be police officers, or to manage American civilians outside a war zone, nor would they necessarily be any good at operating outside the law in the US as some kind of vigilante. They are adaptable and will likely be able to learn quicker than most, but it will indeed take some learning. That audacity to think that their service makes them Jason Bourne has gotten SOF members in trouble more than once.
I say all this with the deepest respect and understanding of the absolute lethality and proficiency of all of our SOF units and everyone in them. No doubt, if they decide to pursue the life of something like a police officer, they will excel as they learn the new job with a more solid foundation than they could have gotten from anywhere else.
In “Jurassic World” there is one particular moment that I loved that speaks to this: Chris Pratt’s character, Owen, and Bryce Dallas Howard’s Claire are on the move in the jungle. Claire asks Owen, a former Navy man, if he can track down the missing children they’re looking for.
“So, you can pick up their scent can’t you? Track their foot prints,” she asks.
“I was with the Navy, not the Navajo,” he snaps back. And that’s a little closer to the truth.
Featured image: U.S. Army photo by Spc. Christopher Stevenson