Green Berets • Navy SEALS • Rangers •
Air Force Special Operations • PsyOps • Civil Affairs •
and other special-mission units
The first two Commanders books, Every Man a Tiger and Into the Storm, provided masterly blends of history, biography, you-are-there narrative, insight into the practice of leadership, and plain old-fashioned storytelling. Shadow Warriors is all of that and more, a book of uncommon timeliness, for, in the words of Lieutenant General Bill Yarborough, “there are itches that only Special Forces can scratch.”
Now, Carl Stiner—the second commander of SOCOM, the U.S. Special Operations Command—and Tom Clancy trace the transformation of the Special Forces from the small core of outsiders of the 1950s, through the cauldron of Vietnam, to the rebirth of the SF in the late 1980s and 1990s, and on into the new century as the bearer of the largest, most mixed, and most complex set of missions in the U.S. military.
These are the first-hand accounts of soldiers fighting outside the lines: counterterrorism, raids, hostage rescues, reconnaissance, counterinsurgency, and psychological operations—from Vietnam and Laos to Lebanon to Panama, to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iraq, to the new wars of today…
Related collections and offers
About the Author
Date of Birth:April 12, 1947
Date of Death:October 1, 2013
Place of Birth:Baltimore, Maryland
Education:Loyola High School in Towson, Maryland, 1965; B.A. in English, Loyola College, 1969
Read an Excerpt
MONDAY, OCTOBER 7, 1985
Brigadier General Carl Stiner, the commander of the Joint Special Operations Task Force, was returning from his morning run at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, when his J-2 intelligence officer, Colonel Mike Flynn, met him at the gate. “A cruise ship has been hijacked in the Mediterranean,” Flynn told him coolly, but with urgency, “and Americans are very likely on board.”
No other organization had the capability to recapture a ship on the high seas, and Stiner knew they would certainly be called in, and soon.
Stiner was a slender man of six feet, with a crisp but not rigid military bearing and a comfortable, easy look. At the same time, he had always been driven by an underlying intensity and a deep competitiveness. It wasn’t just that he wanted to be the best, or to lead his troops to be the best—all officers want that—but that he had time and again figured out ways to make it happen.
As he and Flynn hurried toward the headquarters building, Stiner was already processing the news. He knew that Flynn’s sparse information was all that was then available, or else Flynn would have told him more. Even so, he had to begin initial actions based on that slender thread. Through long hours of intense planning, training, and rehearsal, JSOTF had developed force packages for virtually any anticipated crisis situation; these were always ready to go within a few hours, as long as there were airplanes available to haul his men. Based on the planning and rehearsals, Stiner focused on what he had to work out right away: “It’s a tough target... got to get more detailed information,” he thought to himself. “We’ll have a long way to go and have to get on the road as soon as possible... must order up airlift now. And we must find out the location of the ship.”
As these thoughts went through his mind, he remained calm. When Special Forces have a job to do, the job must be done fast, accurately, and efficiently. It is likely to be extremely complex, with many lives at risk, and many unknown variables. Facing those conditions, people in these units do not waste their time and effort expressing feelings. They are businesslike, always focusing on the mission at hand—looking especially for vulnerabilities that can be exploited to solve the problem in the cleanest, most complete way possible.
Once he reached the headquarters, he went without pausing to the Joint Operations Center (JOC), a high-tech war room, complete with computer workstations and secure communications to all JSOTF units, the Pentagon, and major commands throughout the world. There he would review the latest intelligence and learn firsthand everything anyone knew about the incident in the Mediterranean. His staff principals had already assembled, waiting for his guidance.
The Task Force maintained its own twenty-four-hour intelligence center, complete with “watch officers”—military officers and civilians expert at picking out intelligence indicators of an impending crisis—analysts, and databases covering every known terrorist organization. Terminals connected the command with all major news networks, including Reuters and the BBC—the first indication of a developing incident often appeared as a news item. JSOTF also had its own people resident in all U.S. intelligence agencies—always looking for indicators of terrorist activities, as well as already existing information that had not seemed important to analysts in those agencies.
In most cases, the headquarters learned of terrorist incidents early, and they usually had the most complete information about them.
Stiner knew that all available intelligence information had already been transmitted by the staff to the units that would be involved. This also meant that all his units would have begun to ready their forces for deployment, while anticipating further guidance from him. They always made maximum use of the time available. In this business, time was a most precious asset.
BEFORE Stiner had taken this command, previous tours in the Middle East had taught him a lot about terrorists and how they operated. For instance, while he had been the chief of training for the modernization of the Saudi Arabian National Guard from 1975 to 1977, he had had a chance to take the measure of Yasir Arafat and his chief lieutenants. Along with other dignitaries from the region, the Palestinians had been invited to a graduation dinner for an officer candidate class by King Khalid and Prince Abdullah, the commander of the National Guard.
Arafat’s lieutenants were impressive, no doubt about it. Most of them had advanced degrees from American universities. They were all well-dressed, very sharp, well-spoken, and knowledgeable about world affairs. Arafat was obviously the leader—and clearly an intelligent and remarkable man—but the lieutenants who made things work struck Stiner as truly formidable. In years to come, that impression proved terribly accurate.
Later, in 1983, Stiner was assigned to Lebanon. There he got a firsthand experience of terrorism and its effects—a U.S. ambassador had been assassinated; while he was there, more than sixty people at the American Embassy. and later more than two hundred U.S. Marines, were killed by bombs.
In those days, Beirut was not only an armed camp with many hostile factions, but a place where fighting might break out anywhere at any time. No one was safe, and death was an ever-present risk—from snipers, crossfires between factions, ambushes, and indiscriminate shelling by heavy artillery and rocket fire. The shelling sometimes involved thousands of rounds, which reduced entire sections of the city to rubble in half an hour.
It was not an casy assignment. Yet, for Stiner, it proved to be rewarding. It offered a chance to learn lessons he could get nowhere else.
You learned how to survive. Or you didn’t.
You learned whom to trust in a life-or-death situation—and whom, by faction or religious motivation, you could not trust.
You learned to think like a terrorist.
THE EVOLUTION OF JSOTF
The traditional function of wars is to change an existing state of affairs. In the early 1970s, a new form of warfare, or maybe a new way of practicing a very old form of warfare, emerged—state-supported terrorism. Nations that were not militarily powerful learned to use terrorist tactics to obtain objectives and concessions they could never win through diplomatic or military means.
When this new form of warfare broke out, the United States quickly showed itself unprepared to cope with it. It had neither a national policy nor intelligence capabilities aimed at terrorism, nor any military forces adequately trained and prepared to respond to terrorist provocations. Although the United States was the most powerful nation in the world, its military capabilities were focused on the Soviet Union and not on something like this.
In 1972, Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics were massacred by Black September terrorists. This outrage might have been avoided if German snipers had had the ability to hit the terrorists as they led the hostages across the airport runway to their getaway plane.
The Israelis took this lesson to heart, and on July 4, 1976, eighty-six Israeli paratroopers landed at Entebbe Airport in Uganda. Their mission was to rescue the passengers from an Air France airliner hijacked eight days earlier. In a matter of minutes, the paratroopers had rescued ninety-five hostages and killed four terrorists—though at the cost of the lives of two hostages and the paratroop commander. News of the raid flashed all over the world—and pointed out even more sharply America’s inadequacies in fighting terrorism.
This truth had already been brought out in May 1975: Forty-one American Marines were killed in an attempt to rescue the thirty-nine crewmen of the American merchant ship Mayaguez after it had been seized by the Cambodian government. The rescue attempt had failed.
These incidents clearly indicated that the United States was unprepared to deal with terrorist-created hostage situations.
To correct this shortfall, in the mid-70s, three farseeing people began lobbying for the creation of a special “elite” unit to deal with this unconventional threat: Lieutenant General Edward C. “Shy” Meyer, Director of Operations for the Army; Major General Robert “Bob” Kingston, Commander of the Army’s Special Forces; and Robert Kupperman, Chief Scientist for the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, who was managing the government’s studies on terrorism.
The three initially made little headway. Scant support for the “elite” unit could be found among the services, and even within the Army, even though it was devastatingly clear that the technology in which the Army was investing so heavily—tanks, helicopters, air defense missiles, armored personnel carriers, and all the other machinery of the modern-day battlefield—was of little use against terrorists. The opposition stemmed primarily from two sources: a bias against elite units as such—elites have never been popular in the U.S. Army—and the perception that the unit would rob resources and available funds from the existing force structure.
On June 2, 1977, Lieutenant General Meyer presented the concept of this special mission unit to Army Chief of Staff General Bernard Rogers.
This unit was to be the premier counterterrorist force. Because it was expected to deal with the most complex crisis situations, it would have capabilities like no other military unit. It would be organized with three operational squadrons and a support squadron; and it was to be composed of handpicked men with demonstrated special maturity, courage, inner strength, and the physical and mental ability to react appropriately to resolve every kind of crisis situation—including imminent danger to themselves.
On November 19, 1977, the Army officially activated the unit, but it took another two years to develop the tactics and procedures required for the unit’s projected mission.
The unit’s final exam and validation exercise was held at Hunter Army Airfield at Fort Stewart, Georgia, and ended in the early-morning hours of Sunday, November 4. It was now certified for its special mission requirements.
IRONICALLY, just as the exercise was taking place, a mob was invading the American Embassy in Tehran. Moments later everyone inside—fifty-three people—became hostages to the new religious-led Iranian revolutionary government.
The crisis of the next 444 days challenged the United States as it had never been challenged before, and proved a horribly painful lesson in effective response to terrorist incidents. The nation was faced with risks, quandaries, contradictions, legal issues, other nations’ involvement, and sovereignty issues; and there were no easy solutions. We were presented with what was in fact an act of war, yet this “war” was on a scale that made the use of heavy weapons either impractical or overkill. And besides, there were hostages. We wanted to do something to turn the situation to our advantage.
In terms of shooters and operators, the unit was probably the most capable unit of its kind in the world, but it did not yet have the necessary infrastructure to go with it—no command organization, no staff, no combat support units. To make matters more frustratingly complex, the intelligence infrastructure necessary for support of rescue operations did not exist in Iran, either.
Meanwhile, President Jimmy Carter—sitting very uncomfortably between a rock and a hard place—decided that an operation to rescue the fifty-three hostages had to be attempted. Army Special Forces had to be the centerpiece of any rescue in Iran.
The obvious model was the Israeli raid on Entebbe. A brilliantly planned, led, and executed operation... yet only a marginally useful model. The difficulties of a raid into Tehran were incomparably larger. The Entebbe raid was made against an airfield. The raiders could land there quickly, and make their move against the terrorists almost before they themselves had been detected. Tehran was a major metropolis, with a population in the millions, and it was hundreds of miles inside a vast and hostile country. Getting inside Tehran and into the embassy undetected and with sufficient force to do any good presented many problems.
Major General James Vaught was picked to head the rescue operation. He had a capable Special Forces Unit, but that was all he had. He literally had to begin from scratch to create an effective headquarters for command, control, and intelligence support functions—to select and train a competent staff, develop a plan, select the support units, and train the force for the mission.
If Special Forces could get to the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, they were certainly capable of conducting the rescue operation, but getting them there and back was the challenge. It meant the establishment of staging bases in countries willing to support American efforts and of a support infrastructure within Iran itself. This required, first, an airfield for transloading the rescue force from C-130s to helicopters, which would then take the force on to a landing site near Tehran and back; and second, trucks in waiting near the landing site.
Also required were C-130s and crews that were capable of flying “blacked-out missions” into sites in the desert at night, and a reliable helicopter unit that could take the rescue force from the transload site to Tehran and back.
No units capable of performing this mission existed in any of the services. Jim Vaught had to form, equip, and train them.
It was a daunting challenge to develop in very little time the individual-and unit-level proficiency required to accomplish the job—for example, flying with night-vision goggles had never been done before—and Jim Vaught was the right man for the mission, but the units, equipment, and crews available were at best only marginally capable of taking it on.
Even more difficult was the establishment of an intelligence and support mechanism inside Iran. Vaught did this partly with CIA support, but primarily by using his own assets, sending his own people into Iran to prepare the way. His plan called for establishing an intelligence support infrastructure in Tehran whose function was to verify that the hostages were being held in the Chancery, a ninety-room structure on the Embassy compound, and to arrange for trucks to be waiting near the helicopter landing site for transporting the unit, and later the hostages, back and forth between the landing site and the Embassy compound. This mission was accomplished by Major Dick Meadows, three Special Forces NCOs, and two agents provided by the CIA.
On April 1, 1980, a one-legged CIA pilot in a small two-engine plane flew Major John Carney into Iran at night. Carney’s mission was to locate and lay out a 3,000-foot landing strip on a remote desert site in Iran called Desert One. This was to serve as the transload site for the shooters, as well as the refueling site for the helicopter force that would join them after they had been launched from the aircraft carrier Nimitz. The force was composed of eight Navy Sea Stallion helicopters—not the right aircraft for the job, but the best available in terms of range and payload.
Carney laid out the strip with the help of a small Honda dirt bike he brought on the plane. Once the field was established, he installed an airfield lighting system that could be turned on remotely from the cockpit of the lead C-130 (a duty he himself performed on the night of the landing).
On April 24, 1980, 132 members of the rescue force arrived at a forward staging base on Masirah Island near Oman. There they transloaded to C- 130s for the low-level flight to Desert One.
That night, the C-130s made it to the Desert One area with no unusual problems, but the helicopters did not arrive as scheduled. Of the eight Sea Stallions, six operational helicopters finally arrived at the desert landing strip an hour and a half late, after an encounter with a severe unforecasted sandstorm. The other two had had mechanical problems before reaching the sandstorm and had returned to the Nimitz. Six Sea Stallions were enough to carry out the mission—but only barely. If another was lost, then some part of the rescue force would have to be left behind, which was not a good idea. All of the force was essential.
Meanwhile, that hour-and-a-half delay made everybody nervous. The helicopters had to leave in time to reach the secluded landing site near Tehran before daylight.
The mission’s luck did not improve. During refueling, one of the six remaining helicopters burned out a hydraulic pump. And now there were five—not enough to complete the mission—and it was too late to reach the hide site.
At that point, the decision was made to abort the mission. It was a choice no one wanted to make, but no other choice was possible.
And then came tragedy.
After refueling, one of the helicopters was maneuvering in a hover in a cloud of desert dust, following a flashlight to a touchdown location. The helicopter pilot thought the man with the flashlight was a combat ground controller, when in fact he was not. He was simply a man with a flashlight—possibly a C-130 crew member checking out his aircraft. Meanwhile, the helicopter pilot expected the man with the flashlight to be holding still. In fact, he was moving, trying to get away from the dust storm thrown up by the helicopter’s blades. This combination of mistakes resulted in the helicopter veering so close to a C-130 that its blades clipped the C- 130’s wingtip and ignited the fuel stored there, instantly setting off a flaming inferno. In moments, five men on the C-130 and three men on the helicopter were killed.
The commander of the helicopters then elected to abandon all the helicopters rather than risk further disasters. Everyone who wasn’t then on a 130 scrambled aboard, and the best America could muster abandoned the Iranian desert site in shocked disarray.
What People are Saying About This
“Some action vignettes from [Special Forces] roots in WWII and Vietnam rival Clancy fiction.”—Kirkus Reviews
“The plethora of insider history and firsthand operation specifics…will please the historically minded.”—Publishers Weekly