The units that make up America’s Special Operations community are now spread across all four branches and include upwards of approximately 80,000 personnel. Many are support and staff positions, but when we talk about the “tribes” of Special Operations we are really just referencing actual SOF-qualified troops, those who have been through RASP, BUD/S, SFAS, A&S, the “Advanced Land Navigation course” and so forth. In other words, the ground guys who actually conduct operations.

Each unit has its own distinct culture, identity, and accoutrements such as insignia, berets, and badges, but also unofficial symbols and names which appear on team t-shirts, unofficial velcro patches, ballcaps, challenge coins, and the like. In the past, there was a common joke that each SOF unit had its own specific haircut – Rangers with their high-and-tights, Green Berets had mustaches, and SEALs, of course, had their Hollywood long hair. The members of each unit have common experiences from their combat and training deployments as well as their initial selection and training, all of which contribute to that unit’s individual identity.

This identity is further reinforced by the existence of the “other guy.” The other guy is the other Special Operations unit that yours feels it is in the most direct competition with. Common rivalries include SEALs vs. Rangers in America, or the SAS vs. Commandos in Australia. Usually, it seems like the main rivalries are between Army SOF and Naval SOF, even in countries like Italy and Denmark.  While this may seem silly to outsiders, SOF units compete with one another for missions, funding, credibility, and legitimacy.

When a young soldier shows up at their unit after completing the selection process, there is even more molding as the soldier is further indoctrinated. I want to point out that indoctrination is not necessarily a bad thing for a soldier. SOF members must work together as a cohesive unit that utilizes teamwork, speed, surprise, and violence of action under combat conditions where the cost of losing is the failure of operations vital to US national security, not to mention your life.

But this indoctrination not only takes place in the context of the appropriate use of military tactics or how to set up your combat gear the right way. It also includes emulating everything that your teammates do, including alcohol and tobacco use. Tattoos are almost standard issue at this point. Rangers get tattoos of the unit’s distinguished unit insignia in various levels of stylization. SEALs often get a tattoo of a frog skeleton, Marines get the Globe and Anchor, and Air Force Para-Rescuemen get the Jolly Green. Death imagery such as skulls are also commonplace, which fits the profession, of course.,h_675,q_75,strp/axe_tattoo_2_by_mucksoup.jpg?resize=900%2C675&ssl=1

There is nothing wrong with units developing a strong identity, in fact, it is desirable and enables the men of these units to work, train, and fight together as not just teammates, but as brothers, something required if they may also be expected to die together on the battlefield. These symbols and traditions are part of the high esprit de corps of elite units the world over.

While SOF is a sub-culture within the military, there are also sub-cultures within SOF. Individual teams may also have their own initiation rites, some of which involve interesting iconography and rituals. Other traditions are just funny and a way to build camaraderie, like when the author was flex cuffed, covered in shaving cream and shoe polish, before being thrown in the shower on his birthday.

However, issues arise when these unique unit identities transform from being tribes to being cults. Symptoms include an almost religious hatred for anyone not in your platoon/team, unwillingness to work with other SOF units (primadonna attitude), and a heavy amount of groupthink. We are all selected because we exhibit similar characteristics. We peer out those who don’t fit the mold. This isn’t a bad thing but does have negative side effects.