We here at SpecialOperations.com gear most of our writing to the younger people of our subscribers who are looking to embark on one of the great careers that Special Ops has to offer. We get tons of questions about how to prepare for this particular training event or that one…but one email asked what, in my opinion, was the most important task you should learn in becoming a Special Forces soldier. Great question and the answer was easy, and it is MOS immaterial. Building rapport with the locals that you’ll train with, by and through is, among the most important tasks you will encounter.
The ability to build rapport both with their foreign partners and with their team members is essentially the difference between Special Forces and all of the others. Alone, an SF team is just 12 men, but working with their foreign partners, they become what we called back in the day, force multipliers.
The biggest misconception used to be that an SF Captain was commander of just 12 men. At home station that may be true, but in a UW situation, that captain may now command up to a brigade of fighters, guerrillas, underground and auxiliary. SF candidates learn in their training about working in a UW environment during Robin Sage. Once the prospective Special Forces troops arrive in the area and effect a link up with the resident guerrilla force, the underground and auxiliary members in the area report every move that the OPFOR troops (usually portrayed by members of the 82nd Airborne Division) make in the area.
The increased “eyes and ears” of the countryside isn’t just given away, it has to be earned. The French Underground of WWII was instrumental in tying down large amounts of German troop concentrations that kept them away from Normandy. The American OSS and British SOE men and women had to be exceptional rapport builders in the denied areas.
But back to the SF candidates, Troops will quickly learn that learning to communicate and respect the ways of the target audience, obeying their social graces, as it were, as it is imperative. There have been many SF candidates that made it through the physical parts of selection and the land navigation course as well as the MOS portions of the course only to be deemed unsuitable as SF soldiers for a few big reasons. One is not acting as a team player. While Johnny Rambo was a badass with nuclear-tipped arrows, if you are not a team player, you’ll be gone.
And acting like an arrogant asshat to their partner forces, which could jeopardize an entire SF A-Team is a quick ticket to the duffel bag drag out the door. The locals are your lifeline. If they like you and trust you, you’ll know everything that goes on in the operational area. And that 12-man A-Team now has eyes and ears over a wide swath of terrain that an enemy Brigade couldn’t cover. That’s where the force multiplier term comes in.
One guy asked us, what was the short-version (read easy way) of learning it. There isn’t. That is the difficult part. Learning to make rapport with the local forces isn’t easy to teach and it is even harder to learn. Some guys are naturals at it and should always be out front, especially during the early “feeling out” process. We had guys in the 7th SFG that could have run for office in some places and won.
For others, it takes more time and that is what makes Special Forces so different. The ability to build a solid base of trust is one of the key skills learned by Special Forces troops in complex, austere environments. It can’t be massed produced or pushed thru a shake and bake course. Others who are attempting to do so will learn how difficult that job is. One doesn’t just show up on the doorstep in the middle of a third world country and have them fall at your feet.
Rapport building begins with checking your ego at the door and operating instinctively. Many times there won’t be a right or wrong answer and frequently you’ll be forced to make difficult and complex decisions. The hallmarks of a successful Special Forces soldier is a mature, versatile and flexible operator in any environment. Being able to adapt to cultures other than our own isn’t “going native”, but the true mark of building trust and reliability that our by, with and through the local forces that will mark a successful operation.
The interaction with host nation troops, both soldiers and leaders requires a need for tact and diplomacy. Hammering home the message to Joe Snuffy will be vastly different than that to a Colonel or politician/tribal elder that you’ll encounter. A career diplomat once told me the art of diplomacy is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in a way that they’ll enjoy the trip.
Area Studies- SF troops do detailed studies of the areas that they’ll be working in and become intimately knowledgeable about everything that makes that area tick. The operational environment is more than just geography facts from an Atlas. Know not only the power players but how the small fry in the hinterland interact with the bigwigs and the people. The interaction between the big picture and the smaller players that the teams will deal with is especially true in many parts of the Middle East. There, weaving thru the complex minefield of different tribal alliances make the SF troops’ job extremely difficult.
The SF troops not only train and advise the host nation troops but develop relationships with many of the host nation soldiers. It builds strong bonds and makes for lasting friendships. In Latin America back in the day, Sunday afternoons were family days at the bases. The troops’ families would visit, spend the day relaxing with music and food. During this time, the SF guys would stay in the background to allow them their time off. But there would always be several troops, banging on the door wanting to introduce their parents and families to the SF guys. We’d frequently hear from the families how the troops would write home about the Americans and the impression we were making on them. (Remember that part about how you’re always being assessed? That goes for the host nation as well)
One of the best team sergeants I ever knew and a man I’ll consider a tremendous mentor said, the best way to make rapport sometimes is to just shut up and listen.
That is some of the best advice you can get. If you’re constantly flapping your gums to them, you’re not hearing anything they’re saying. And it can be dangerous. There’s a time for talking and a time for listening. And when it is time to listen, do so as if your life depends on it. Because it does.
So the next time someone asks you, “What’s the difference between Special Forces and …. Anyone else?” You know now the biggest one. DOL.