A chill went up my spine during the Presidential debate Thursday night when John Kerry said “We need to be smarter about now we wage a war on terror. We need to deny them the recruits. We need to deny them the safe havens. We need to rebuild our alliances. I believe that Ronald Reagan, John Kennedy, and the others did that more effectively, and I’m going to try to follow in their footsteps.” Anyone with a basic knowledge of the history knows that following in the footsteps of Ronald Reagan and John Kennedy in the course of waging a global campaign against a vast, invisible, abstract enemy that launches guerilla attacks against U.S. interests means using massacres, assassinations, and torture to route out suspected enemy sympathizers, supporters, and collaborators. As if to prove that he wasn’t simply paying empty homage to the most popular figure’s in America’s political pantheon, Kerry went on to pledge that, if elected, he will “double the number of special forces so that we can do the job we need to do with respect fighting the terrorists around the world.” Kerry’s words indicate that he is prepared to launch an expanded, global counter-insurgency war against “terrorists,” modeled on the covert wars the U.S. waged in Latin America, Southeast Asia, Indonesia, and Afghanistan during the Cold War.
Michael McClintock lays out the history, purpose, and doctrine of the U.S. Special Forces in his seminal work, Instruments of Statecraft: U.S. Guerilla Warfare, Counterinsurgency, and Counterterrorism, 1940-1990 (New York: Pantheon, 1992. The book is now out of print but is posted online at http://www.statecraft.org.) In the introduction, he writes
“Secret warfare introduced a unique new element into foreign affairs and into the domestic arrangements of nations friendly to the United States. Its influence was most significant in the lesser theaters of the Cold War–including much of the Third World–where military answers to new global challenges were removed from public scrutiny. Through the efforts of the armed forces’ special warfare establishment and the Central Intelligence Agency, the military thread of the new warfare wound around and through the formalities of above-board international relations.”
Starting in the early 1960’s, the U.S. began using Special Forces to train foreign militaries and paramilitary organizations to carry out “dirty” operations ñ military actions like torture and assassination that the U.S. military didn’t want to be directly implicated in. This strategy also served as a force multiplier, allowing the U.S. to train foreign armies to defend its interests, eliminating the need to deploy large numbers of U.S. troops on the ground (as exemplified by Richard Nixon’s strategy in Vietnam, Ronald Reagan’s strategy in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, and John Kerry’s proposed strategy in Iraq.)
Central to the doctrine of Special Warfare is the concept that in fighting a barbaric enemy, it was necessary to “fight fire with fire” by adopting tactics as extreme as those of the enemy. In a paragraph with chilling implications for the contemporary application of this doctrine, McClintock notes that, during the Cold War
“As terror was seen as integral to guerrilla tactics, the counterguerrilla would apply counterterror; guerilla organization (e.g., recruitment surveillance) would be mimicked by counterorganization. Counterorganization, taken to its [conclusion], could (and often did) entail placing hundreds of thousands of people under virtual totalitarian control. Which combined with the psychological warfare technique of ideological indoctrination, totalitarian potential could become reality. The consequences were most dramatic in countries where friendly governments uncritically adopted the American model on a massive scale.”
A quick survey of current and recent U.S. Special Forces missions indicates that this doctrine is alive and well:
— In Colombia, U.S. Special Forces based in the cities of Saravena and Arauca are training a special battalion of the Eighteenth Brigade of the Colombian Army to protect an oil pipeline jointly operated by Colombia’s state oil company, ECOPETROL, and California based Occidental Petroleum by “terrorist attacks” carried out by the Marxist guerillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Army of National Liberation (ELN.) The Eighteenth Brigade has close links to brutal right-wing death squads, originally formed by the Colombian Army on the advice of Gen. William Yarborough, Commander of the U.S. Army’s Special Forces, in the early 1960’s. In the spring of 2003, soldiers from the Navas Pardo Battalion of the Eighteenth Brigade, wearing the armbands of the dreaded “AUC” death squad, raped, murdered, and mutilated a pregnant sixteen year old girl because she was supposedly carrying the child of a young man the death squad had killed. The Navas Pardo Battalion is based in Saravena at the same base where U.S. Special Forces are training Colombian soldiers.
— In Bolivia, U.S. Special Forces trained counternarcotics troops based in Chimore in the Chapare region, where soldiers have reportedly burned houses, looted farms, and beaten and shot at campesinos. (See http://www.narconews.com/Issue34/article1024.html, http://www.narconews.com/Issue34/article1075.html.)
— U.S. Special Forces are carrying out military training in Uzbekistan in thanks for that country’s support of the war in Afghanistan. According to the U.S. State Department’s 2004 Human Rights Report, Uzbekistan is an authoritarian state with limited civil rights,” where “Police and [Military] forces tortured, beat, and harassed persons. Prison conditions remained poor. Serious abuses occurred in pretrial detention. Those responsible for documented abuses rarely were punished.”
Special Forces operate on the principle of “plausible deniability.” Because they serve primarily as “trainers” and “advisors,” U.S. soldiers avoid being directly involved in committing human rights abuses, delegating the dirty work to the foreign soldiers they train. The blame for any atrocities committed by these soldiers is easily shifted from their trainers to their commanding officers.
The public image of U.S. Special Forces as elite fighting units separate from the rest of the military also reinforces their impunity. Hollywood routinely portrays Green Berets and Navy SEALS as tough, dedicated soldiers willing to defy the authority of stodgy bureaucrats who don’t understand what it takes to fight a war. International law and civilian oversight of the military are subtly dismissed as niceties that have no place on the battlefield, and Special Forces soldiers who commit atrocities are portrayed as honest men who get a bit too rough sometimes when they get overwhelmed with righteous anger. There is a disturbing resonance between this myth and the myth that Vietnam was a war that U.S. soldiers weren’t allowed to win — a resonance the Kerry camp is clearly cultivating as it portrays the Bush administration as a bunch of civilians who won’t give the military what it really needs to win the war on terror.
John Kerry is not talking about finding ways to get the U.S. out of the war in Iraq or of shifting away from the military focus of the “war on terror” ñ he is talking about finding ways to increase the capacity the U.S. has to violently defend its economic and political interests while decreasing our troop deployments, our financial investment, and our legal exposure. Expanding the U.S. Special Forces is a cornerstone of that tragedy.
SEAN DONAHUE is a poet and freelance journalist based in Lawrence, MA. He wrote the chapter on Rand Beers, Kerry’s top foreign policy advisor, for CounterPunch’s new book on the 2004 elections, Dime’s Worth of Difference. He can be reached at: email@example.com