It can be said that the need to band together in groups is intrinsic to what makes us human beings. Long before the dawn of civilization, humans gathered together in like-minded groups in order to offer one another protection, defend resources, and share the mental and physical challenges of survival. Forming a cooperative group, or herd, may have been one of the earliest human advancements that would one day lead to the complex societies we live in today. But like today, whenever groups gather, conflict is never far behind.
Warfare, it would seem, was the inevitable result of humans living in groups. When one group had something another needed (or wanted), they sought to take it by force. What started as small skirmishes between tribes eventually grew into major battles between city-states, religions, and eventually, nations. The drive to fight and win wars led to countless technological developments throughout human history, but new and advanced weapons have never been the only element necessary to secure victory in a tribal spat or global conflict. Instead, finding and training the most capable war-fighters has always been a key element influencing who would go home the victor and who wouldn’t make it home at all.
Although modern special operations are, as the phrase implies, very much modern, the roots of America’s most elite war-fighting institutions can be traced back as far as warfare itself. In the Marine Corps, we would often liken the lessons we learned in combat training to those first established by the Spartans. Though our modern lineage might be more comparable to that of the British Royal Marines, our ideological ancestors hailed from another time entirely. The mindset employed by Spartan warriors, perhaps as much as their tactical expertise, set them apart from other militaries of the day—something many could attribute to the Marine Corps of today as well. Similarly, one could draw historical parallels between SOCOM’s specialized units and some of the most impressive, capable, and downright frightening warriors throughout human history.
Viking berserkers, recounted in Norse legend as men who would fight with a fury that seemed inhuman, often chose to forgo the chain mail armor of their day, instead adorning themselves with the pelts of predators such as bears and wolves or, often, wearing nothing at all. The bloodlust demonstrated by berserkers in combat granted them a far-reaching reputation, allowing them to sometimes skip the battle completely and instead simply accept an opponent’s surrender based on nothing more than their presence.
The Immortals who fought for the Achaemenid Empire of Persia, depicted in the stylized movie “300,” were the special operations forces of Persia’s multinational military machine. The Immortals were designated as such, according to Herodotus, not only because they were the most fearsome and well-equipped soldiers in King Xerxes’ army, but also because their 10,000-strong unit would immediately field replacements for any Immortal who fell to battle or sickness, ensuring the mighty Immortals retained their 10,000-strong moniker at all times.
The Batavi were a warrior people who served with the Roman military (when not rebelling against Roman rule). Like modern American Navy SEALs, the Batavi gained a reputation not only for being fearsome and brutally barbaric warriors, but for possessing an incredible strength that allowed them to swim across rivers others saw as impassable, all while wearing their armor and carrying their weapons. This tactic enabled the Batavi to attack enemy armies that had used swift waterways as a natural barrier against attack, taking them utterly by surprise.
The classic cliché of black-adorned ninjas sprinting across rooftops may not have been accurate, but the ninja’s reputation for stealth, reconnaissance gathering, and guerrilla warfare tactics is well deserved. Often disguising themselves to blend in with the civilian populace, ninjas trained with a myriad of weapons and prized adaptability in their training regimens. Ninjas were most effectively employed in specialized missions, not unlike modern special operations units.
All of these elite warriors, and countless others, helped form a common fabric of tactics, strategy, and mindset that would one day be employed by America’s elite special operators. Considering that, to a large extent, one can truly credit the breadth of warfare throughout human history with planting the seeds that would later become our modern special operations infrastructure.