The Green Berets are a relatively small group of U.S. Army soldiers, distinguished by their distinctive headgear, who are trained to operate behind enemy lines for extended periods of time. They are trained for guerrilla warfare, reconnaissance, rescue, counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism and they often work with resistance fighters on the other side. The Green Berets are technically the only Special Forces in the U.S. Military, though Army Rangers, Navy SEALs, and Marine Force Recon are often referred to as such.

Special Operations
The popular image of Special Forces, typified by video games and crappy movies, tends to be wrong. They are usually portrayed as elite super-soldiers, which, in a sense, is correct. However, they are also usually used as shock troops, which is blatantly false. Special Forces are elite infantry, but they should not be used in large formations for normal operations. They will perform superbly if you do, but to do so wastes most of their potential. There are too few of them for one thing, and, because of all their specialized training and capabilities, they are entirely too valuable to waste in such a way. One way to describe them is as military spies, though the term spy implies a very different classification of combatant and is perhaps not the best word to describe them. When they are deployed to an area, they move among the locals, learning their language and culture, sometimes without helmets, body armor or visible weapons. They often live in houses with civilians, wear native clothing, eat local cuisine, and even participate in local sports (anyone up for a game of buzkashi?)

Green Berets are expected to carry out their missions with little or no supervision, improvising to suit their needs. Usually, their tasks are far from glamorous and, in fact, they rarely, if ever, see actual combat. Among their most important roles is that of teacher, advising and training local resistance forces. Other duties include the organization and distribution of food, water, and medicine among other similar tasks. They will fight if they must, but will generally avoid it if they can. Even when they do try to destroy something, they will most likely do so by calling in an air strike rather than the popular image of covertly sneaking in and placing explosives directly on the target. The latter method is more romantic, but also much more dangerous, and it also gives away the fact that they're in the area.

Special Forces soldiers typically spend at least six months of the year deployed in small groups (generally ranging from three to twelve soldiers). Their actions are largely kept secret (one Green Beret is quoted as saying: "If we had our way, we would go in and you wouldn't know until we got out") for obvious security concerns. "The Special Forces unit is built around the concept of 12-man teams resembling self-contained armies with weapons, engineering, communications and medical experts." The teams (referred to as A-Teams) are very close, both on and off the field, which is not suprising, given the nature of their work. They are said to bond regardless of age or rank. Their families even socialize together, and their kids often refer to team members as "uncle".

Inception and Early History
In the spring of 1942, British officials introduced the U.S. to a project for the development of special equipment to be used in snow-covered mountain terrain. The idea was to strike at the enemy's infrastructure in hard to reach places. American manufacturers worked on the equipment and it was decided that an elite military organization for conducting the raids would be recruited from Canada and the United States. Thus U.S.-Canadian 1st Special Service Force was born. They fought with considerable success under Allied command until their inactivation near the end of the war. This unit is generally considered to be the direct antecedent to the current U.S. Army Special Forces. Roninspoon has noted that "The 1st Special Service Force was splendidly displayed in the fantastic, and largely accurate, 1968 film The Devil Brigade starring William Holden and Harry Carey Jr." (I believe the "Devil's Brigade" nickname comes from a German officer's diary in which he refers to Airborne and Special Forces troops as "Devils in baggy pants".)

On June 20, 1952 the first of the Special Forces groups was activated at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The first appearance of the actual "green beret" was in 1953, and its use eventually spread throughout all of Special Forces, though it was not officially recognized as part of their uniform until 1961. It is often remarked that President Kennedy felt that "since they had a special mission, Special Forces should have something to set them apart from the rest." Kennedy was particularly enthusiastic about the Special Forces because they had potential as a counter-insurgency force that could be used effectively in Vietnam (and, in fact, Special Forces had been active in Vietnam since 1957). As the US became more and more concerned over the situation in Vietnam, the Special Forces role in the war grew.

The Special Forces record during Vietnam is fraught with controversy. Since they launched covert guerrilla missions behind enemy lines, they drew frequent accusations that they sometimes killed innocent civilians. They also had a large number of successes, such as the infamous Civilian Irregular Defense Group. Another example: Special Forces "soldiers captured North Vietnamese weapons, sabotaged them, and slipped them back. The guns exploded when fired, killing North Vietnamese troops." Still, their performance in Vietnam had labeled them as dangerous renegades, and their reputation prevented them from being used in combat during the coming years.

Recent Campaigns
Perhaps because of their reputation, the US was hesitant to use Special Forces in the years following Vietnam. Their performance during the Gulf War, however, seemed to dispel some of that stigma. Special Forces troops collected intelligence and performed combat missions behind Iraqi lines. After the war, Special Forces groups were sent to northern Iraq to "manage the flood of Kurdish refugees". About 50 troops organized and helped with the delivery of food, water, and medicine to 100,000 Kurds, also "setting up camps for the them to live in. The numbers of those dying of starvation dropped dramatically." They also performed well in Haiti and the Balkans (among other hotspots), living among the locals and performing regular reconnaissance.

More recently, Special Forces played an integral part of the campagn in Afghanistan, so much so that some are calling it the "Special Operations War". Special Forces soldiers fought the Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters by advising and training opposition forces and sometimes fighting alongside them. Now that the hostilities have slowed, they are performing typical military reconnaissance missions: "They survey old battlegrounds for unexploded munitions and weapons and they keep an eye out for signs of trouble. They search dusty valleys for Taliban or al-Qaida fighters and for discarded documents and other materials that might provide information on Osama bin Laden's terror network". Special Forces in Afghanistan also spend a lot of time "talking to residents and shopkeepers about food and water supplies, crime and the availability of schools, police stations and other services". Their influence on such subjects is said to help with the rebuilding effort. Special Forces are also busy in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, training their army to deal with terrorists (who are reportedly associated with the Al Qaeda network).

Given the Green Berets' aptitude for improvisation, they are often given the Army's new weapons first and they are expected to modify them to suit their needs. The latest development is called Land Warrior (featuring the OICW), and Special Forces will no doubt be among the first to be equiped with the system. It is designed for use in many situations, but where it really appears to shine is in city fighting or MOUT (Mission Operations in Urban Terrain), with its ability for soldiers to look around corners without exposing themselves. The system is not perfect, but it has been field tested and the results have been positive. Still, Green Berets are expected to display some adaptability and work with whatever they have. For instance, when helping Kurdish refugees after the Gulf War, a Special Forces soldier was pulled into a tent to deliver a baby. Using what he had at hand, he pinched the umbilical cord with a paper clip and cut it with a pocket knife.

Comparable Forces
As previously mentioned, many other U.S. military units are often referred to as Special Forces, though only the Green Berets technically are. This proves to be mostly a matter of semantics, however, as the other forces also have similar specialized goals. The British have some Specal Forces, including the SAS which performed "green ops" alongside the Green Berets during the recent Afghan campaign.

The Russians have (or had, I'm not sure if they still exist) a unit called Spetsnaz, though their operations tend to be more overt than covert. Working with undercover agents in enemy nations, Spetsnaz expected to take high losses but to strike a paralyzing blow to the enemy nations ability to resist. Such operations were mounted during World War II and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

In theory, small groups of well trained infantry should be more efficient than conventional forces. In practice, however, many nations try to have their cake and eat it too by using these troops in very large groups. However, under these conditions, they usually attract a lot of attention and enemy firepower. They are elite soldiers, but they are not bulletproof, which is why they operate best when they avoid calling attention to themselves. Calling in an air strike proves to be largely anonymous, as your enemy can't know whether they just got bombed because of aerial recon or because of special forces...

U.S. Special Forces Groups (Active)
  • 1st Special Forces Group (Ft. Lewis, Washington)
  • 3rd Special Forces Group (Ft. Bragg, North Carolina)
  • 5th Special Forces Group (Ft. Campbell, Kentucky)
  • 7th Special Forces Group (Ft. Bragg, North Carolina)
  • 10th Special Forces Group (Ft. Carson, Colorado)
  • 19th Special Forces Group (National Guard)
  • 20th Special Forces Group (National Guard)

How to Make War (third edition) by James F. Dunnigan
Special thanks to Roninspoon and wertperch for their comments and suggestions.