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.
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.
SOF even has its own Cargo Cults. The indigenous people were so shocked by Allied re-supply drops over the Pacific Islands during WWII that, after the war ended and the airdrops stopped, they constructed airplanes out of sticks in hopes that more supplies would be magically parachuted from the sky. In SOF, Cargo Cults take the form of Senior NCOs, usually Sergeant Majors who go around telling all of their disgruntled men that, “the good days are coming back!” Of course, this is a false promise made in hopes of getting soldiers to re-enlist. Like America and many other countries, SOF looks back on the past fondly and remembers a golden era when everything was great. This golden era was about six months prior to you showing up in the unit.
The cultish behavior is something that really hurts Special Operations. By forming cults we close our minds off to new ideas, making the bureaucracy more bureaucratic. We become rigid and inflexible, a trait that our enemies use to their advantage. We force out risk-takers and innovators, exchanging them for our own unique brand of groupthink which states, “that is the way it has always been done here” or “that is how I learned to do it when I first got here.” There is also an appeal to a higher authority with, “That is how Delta does it.” The military has greatly benefited from the innovations that have come out of Delta Force, but just because one unit does something doesn’t automatically mean it is right for all of the others. Even worse, many defer to JSOC units and will not adopt new kits or tactics until JSOC does. Only then does it become safe and acceptable to try “new” things.
One of the great successes of the War on Terror is inter-unit cooperation. We worked together in combat like never before, and no country conducts joint operations better than America. However, the specter of inter-unit rivalry, the rivalry between competing cults, still raises its ugly head. It exists between competing SOF units but also between SOF and the conventional military. It has been remarked that we took all the Task Force colors, put them in a bowl, and mixed them up during this war. We’ve come a long way, but we also have a long way to go. The animosity between Rangers and Special Forces with SEALs is still pretty bad at times.
Perhaps the most disturbing is the cults within cults, or sub-sub-cultures that exist within SOF. These are likely to be highly controversial and vigorously denied by the military. These cults exist within certain circles in the Special Operations community. One is the Templar Knights. This group sees itself as fighting a modern-day crusade against the Muslim world. What is frightening is that these are very high-ranking individuals who have great influence within Special Operations. High-ranking individuals with a completely false interpretation of reality in which Christianity is at war with Islam. We’re not talking about the Private who gets a Templar cross tattooed on his forearm folks. However, some Operators do just that.
Not only does this demonstrate that some of the leaders in Special Operations command have a completely backward worldview, but it also displays an inherent problem with the War on Terror. The war itself is not a good enough justification for our soldiers to go to war, they need more, they need a deeper reason to fight. So they form a cult. The Templar cult seeks to legitimize the war through a silly East vs. West idealization of reality.
Templars believe that certain programs should be funded because God wants it to be so. They get glassy-eyed talking about killing Muslims. They believe that JSOC is a blessed command.
If that sounds immature and childish, that is because it is.
Special Operations has a propensity towards forming cults, the natural extension of any closed group or sub-culture. Tribal mentalities help soldiers fight, and if need by die, together. However, when they become cults they result in a type of immaturity that is detrimental to the mission and to national security in general.
Cultures don’t change easily and there is no expectation that this culture will change any time in the near future.