A former history professor, Tom Miller
is a novelist and essayist. His most recent
novel is Full
Court Press (2000). His reviews
and essays have appeared in numerous books,
journals, and newspapers, including The
Encyclopedia of Southern History, American
History Illustrated, the Chicago
Tribune, and the Des Moines Register.
He also is a former Army officer and Vietnam
The news hit the wires in late January 2005: The Pentagon is budgeting over $100 million for incentive pay in an effort to retain the elite troops of the Special Operations Forces. (Full story) It seems that the special operators were in such demand that they commanded six-figure contracts from private security firms and other agencies. If you're wondering what makes these men worth six figures, just pick up a copy of Linda Robinson's Masters of Chaos.
The Pentagon's Special Operations Forces are made up of elite units from the Army, Navy, and Air Force. In Masters of Chaos, Robinson, a writer for U.S. News & World Report, focuses on the Army's Special Forces - perhaps better known for their signature head gear, the Green Beret. Given unprecedented access by the Army, Robinson spent three years studying and traveling with the Green Berets. She also was one of a handful of journalists embedded with Special Forces units during Operation Iraqi Freedom. The result is a detailed, compelling, and sympathetic account of these uncommon soldiers.
The author, who recorded lengthy interviews with many of the troops, begins with a brief history of the Special Forces and a look at the physically grueling and mentally challenging training they undergo. The training, which can last up to two years, includes a demanding Q (Qualification) Course, SERE training (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape), language and cultural training. The goal is to produce warrior diplomats who can operate independently in harsh, and often dangerous, environments and under extreme stress. Hence, the "masters of chaos" of the title. Considering the training and experience of these elite troops, it's no wonder that they're in great demand both within the service and without.
The Global War on Terror has put a premium on the kinds of unconventional warfare that is the Special Forces' specialty. Despite their small numbers - 9500 - they have been called on to play an outsized role in the war's separate theaters. In Afghanistan, for example, fewer than 100 Special Forces, directing indigenous forces and U.S. airpower, took down the Taliban regime in less than a month. The Special Forces' missions in Operation Iraqi Freedom was less dramatic but no less impressive. As Robinson reports, some 300 Green Berets were responsible for an entire theater in the Western desert. And in the North, where Turkey prevented the 4th Infantry Division from invading, a Special Forces Task Force linked up with Kurdish militias to route the Ansar al Islam terrorist group, protect the Northern oil fields, and capture the key cities of Kirkuk and Mosul.
Despite the book's subtitle, The Secret History of the Special Forces, much of this information has been covered before by the likes of Tom Clancy (Shadow Warriors) and others. Much of it is new, though, and hitherto unknown, if not secret. Robinson also puts a human face on the nuts and bolts of Special Forces training and real-world missions by weaving her analysis around the experiences of individual soldiers. Thus, the reader meets colorful characters like CW3 Randall "Rawhide" Wurst and SGM James "Killer" Kilcoyne and gets to experience Special Forces training and missions through their eyes and experiences. Moreover, the story of the Special Forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom is not as well known, and as an embed, Robinson brings a unique perspective to the story. Iraqi Freedom takes up almost half of the book and is the most crisply written part of the account. Despite the significance of the Special Forces' role in Operation Enduring Freedom, Robinson devotes only a chapter to it.
Robinson says that her "goal is to give the reader a realistic appreciation of the career of a Special Forces soldier during the past twenty years." Not a romantic view, but a realistic view that includes the drama, excitement, fear, exhilaration, satisfaction, boredom, and sadness. Sadness, especially, because of the personal toll: the losses of their brothers in arms; the family milestones missed as the most deployed soldiers in the Army; and the marriages that can not survive the frequent separations. Some critics will complain that Robinson is too quick to praise and too slow to criticize her subjects, but this reviewer would respectfully disagree. I think she got it just about right.