I idly watched a two hour television production last night entitled "Two weeks in Hell." It was about the two week pre-selection period at Ft. Bragg in which the Army now decides if volunteers have what it takes to even start training to be a Special Forces soldier.
The first week seems to be intended to separate the boys from the men and the second week to see if the men who are left can work together under extreme stress. There is no doubt that it is a very tough process. The "candidates" as they are called carry around immense rucksacks all the time. They are systematically deprived of sleep and other rest, are placed in a seemingly unending series of unexpected and nearly insoluble problem situations and run through some of the nastiest obstacle courses I have ever seen, and I have seen some beauties.
I have some doubts about what results.
I went through the SF Officer Course in 1964. the Army Special Forces Regiment was 11 years old by my calculation from the date of establishment of the 77th SF Group. The enlisted guys were trained in what was then called the SF Training Group. I never saw what happened over there. I know they received what was called "branch training," and then occupational specialty training somewhere else before they went to a unit. The specialties were; weapons, (light and heavy) demolitions, commmunications and medical. The medical course was a year long and had a long practicum in a hospital. The officer course was four or five months long. SF was a "branch immaterial" assignment in those days. So, the officers were of any Army branch except JAG. We were organized in student detachments like an "ODA." There were a lot of foreign officers; Vietnamese, French, British, Greek, Italian, Canadian are the ones I remember from my course. There was a PT test at the beginning and then a lot of forced marches and running, but it was simply assumed that you could do whatever was expected of you. There was a tremendous amount of work out in the woods; patrols ususally parachute delivered at night and into an obstacle like a swamp, major exercizes in which you linked up with local mountaineers in western North Carolina who "played" guerrillas for you to train and guide. There was a lot of specific technical training on all the things the enlisted guys were learning as career specialties. There was a lot of "weeding out." The wash-out rate was high. For officers that is a career killer.
There was no harassment. None at all. "The Quiet Professionals." You were told over and over again that if you have to yell at someone, then you have lost that man, probably forever. Guerrillas are civilians. They will kill you for shaming them. Persuasion, charm, understanding of where HE is coming from, courage in adversity. Those were the things that were taught. You have to have a certain grade of material as students to be able to teach lessons like that.
When I got to my first SF unit, I found that the men were better soldiers than the officers. They really did not need us, but, the army has to have officers. This need is in the bloodstream. Our soldiers were an interesting collection; old paratroop sergeants from the 82nd and the 101st, some of them still around from WW2 and Korea. Some of these guys had been sergeants before there had been such a thing as SF. There were many New Americans; Wehrmacht veterans, French and Spanish Foreign Legion, Finnish Ski Hunt Commandos, former Royal Marines. You name it, we had it. These men were something out of the Iliad. To say that a 25 year old kid like me was their leader was a bit comic, but they didn't seem to feel that way. They simply took charge of the "college boy" officer replacements continuing training and looked pleased when you did something right.
Needless to say, they had not been selected in anything like the brutal, searing way that I watched last night. They had selected themselves. There was nothing that they did not know about soldiering. After a while, when you saw that they accepted you, there was no greater privilege than to be their "boss."
SF work is a thinking soldier's work. You have to be tough physically, but, it is equally important that you be smart. I wonder how many thinking soldiers are excluded from the regiment by what I saw last night, by an insistence on physicality before all else. I wonder how many of the old timers could have passed that test. pl
I still remember the evening in 1962 when the bus with us 5 or 6 guys pulled into Smoke Bomb Hill to drop us off for Training Group.
We kind of huddled together like lost lambs wondering what the Hell we had gotten ourselves into.
We had volunteered to join up with these “Snake Eaters”?
To our surprise, we were greeted with hand shakes all around.
Then someone said “Aw Hell, it’s getting late. Let’s find you guys some bunks and a place to throw your stuff and we’ll head down to the club for a few beers”.
By the time we got to Training Group it was figured we’d all seen enough BS and knew what it was all about.
Perhaps the coarsening of the screening by one parameter reflects the current system’s inability to apprehend, appreciate and incorporate finer qualities. It strikes me in this fabulously technical military era there may be a perverse dialectic at work.The more complex the system and gadgets the less able it is to adequately process the human capital intake, tending to a simplified screen for the minimum human requirements to wield the most brutal of brute forces that technology and the taxpayer’s lenders can dish out.
Got to be point of diminishing returns in there somewhere. We’ve whinged on quite a bit here about the quality of the high command and civilian leadership.
In a any event, you guys were all fighting for something, theses wars are counterproductive.
The SF Officer Course in 1981 sounds very similar to Colonel Lang’s 1961 experience. There was no harassment. The training still emphasized the UW mission and how to deal with guerrillas. I had two Malaysians, a Spaniard, a Tunisian and an Egyptian on my team. Officer training was totally segregated from enlisted training. I understand that officers and enlisted now come together for Robin Sage and form teams with all the normal SF specialties.
The physical training was tough, but not punishingly so. I was recovering from a total of 12 fractured bones and assorted other injuries just prior to preparing for SFOC. I passed the PT test on the first day, but always had a hard time running. The instructors stuck with me and encouraged me as long as I never quit. As it turned out, I could still out hump the youngsters with a rucksack.
I vividly remember our team advisor’s parting words just prior to graduation. “If there’s one thing you take from this course, it’s that there ain’t shit laid on. There’s no hot coffee on the DZ. There’s no fire support and the extraction plan they give ain’t worth a damn. You have to be self contained and rely on yourselves.”
I totally agree with Colonel Lang about an officer’s place on an ODA. When I arrived in 10th Group, several members of ODA 334 informally “interviewed” me while I was in the Battalion HQ. I subsequently learned that was how I ended up in ODA 334. On my first day with the team, we did a 12 mile ruck march in MOPP 4 and some range firing. I knew this was another test for me… and the men knew I knew. It wasn’t to see if I could physically do it. It was to see if I was going to try to start giving orders on day one or be willing to respect and learn from these quiet professionals. As the Colonel said, “After a while, when you saw that they accepted you, there was no greater privilege than to be their “boss.””
You are quite correct in your analysis of the difference between the new methods of training and the former schemes. The new methods are a reflection of our current culture: sculpted body/limited mind compared to a well conditioned thinking soldier. Too many computer games and little or no study of history. The official military has fallen into the same trap with its worn-out “warrior” terminology. Bush/Cheney did not help with their constant threats to beat the crap out of anyone who disagreed with them. So far, that mindset has not scared anyone in the Middle East.
Your website often mentions Bernard Fall as a prime COIN source. To me, Bernard Fall is one of the great story tellers about ordinary soldiers and the trials they face while under physical and psychological stress. The tales he tells in his book – Hell in a Very Small Place (siege of Dien Bien Phu) – are priceless and they make current training regimes as described in the television program seem farcical. The French forces at Dien Bien Phu were not shaved-headed robots; they survived against great odds through guile and nimble minds I re-read that book for the fourth of fifth time just a couple of months ago. Everyone should read it.
Keep up the good work and Merry Christmas.
1964. DOL. pl
Sir, i have kept up to date with your blog and have enjoyed it since my Thesis Advisor sent me your link. That being said i am a new Team Leader on an ODA, and the way it sounds to me, some things never change. Yes, selection was tough, and we are not the same Regiment that you were privileged to serve in; I would like to say that the soldiers are still more than capable and smart. We are younger and slightly less foreign; though my team has a Canadian (me) and a Ukrainian, and my sister team has a Russian and an Italian. My E-7s still carry out assignments with great political consequence in foreign countries, reporting directly to the Ambassador. My Team Sergeant has a commanding presence and intellect that surprises the hell out of me. Like you said, they do not need me, and they still look pleased when i get something right. I smile to think of the similarities in the description that you gave. I guess that i am writing this to somehow assure you that the brains of SF are still intact, and though the physical demands are high, the schooling portion of the course is getting harder every year (at least according to other ‘old timers’ that are still around.)
Thank you for your time.
When I was up in Alaska, I knew quite a few paratroopers that went to SF. The main consensus seemed to be that if you could fog up a mirror if it was held under your nose for a minute, you were in.
On the other hand, the SF soldiers I worked with in Afghanistan were along the lines you described. Friendly and courteous and always willing to talk to a Joe man to man.
Maybe in the year or so of training something gets picked up along the way? Or maybe the new Blackwater style SF just had not arrived yet.
When I went to Ranger Scool in 1967, the SF Sargents all washed out in the first week of running and walks. There was a 49 year old SEAL who didn’t breath hard the entire course.
I watched the program until a young man vomited and was covering it up when a voice said that maybe he should pick it up and carry it with him. That was enough for me!
Oops! Sorry for sending you through SFOC three years earlier.
I watched some clips of “Two Weeks in Hell” on the discovery Channel web site. It definitely looked a lot more like Ranger School than SFOC.
I believe this pre-selection period has a curriculum of physical training and extreme stress because it’s easier to set metrics that way. Pass/fail criteria based on running a set distance in a set time or carrying a certain weight rucksack are easy. Judging a candidate’s suitability to become a Special Forces soldier is a more intellectual endeavor that’s hard to put into simple declarative sentences.
My Ranger School class saw the introduction of go/no go criteria to replace the formerly more subjective evaluations of the Ranger instructors. The instructors knew the new system was bogus, but that the way the Army was heading. And Ranger School is openly focused on producing conditions of physical and mental stress through exhaustion, hunger, sleep deprivation and moderate harrassment.
I’ve seen this emphasis on over simplified metrics in other DOD organizations. (I apologize for not providing details.) I guess it’s easier for management to deal with numbers on a Power Point slide than with subjective, insightful evaluations based on years of experience.
I am reassured by your note, but I still wonder who gets washed out that should not be.
I talked to one of my SOG friends about this. He walked a lot of recon in Laos and does not think he could have qualified.
Also, how does a Canadian become a US SF officer?
Congratulations on your command. pl
I think part of it may be that many of these guys are not even infantrymen. SFAS is a weeding out process for those who cannot physically hack basic light infantry skills, thus why it looks so much like Ranger School.
Then there is also the 18X program, which allows direct accession to SF out of basic + AIT, with Airborne School in between.
Basically the pool of candidates is much less qualified out of the gate nowadays, I think.
To say todays Special Forces soldier is “less qualified out of the gate” than at some other time is BS.
I was accepted into the old SF Training Group back when it was decided to build up the manpower of the existing groups and allow us young “low Rank” kids into the school to see if we were worth the trouble and maybe be smart enough to become worth while members of a group.
A good friend of mine who was recalled to AD after 9/11 and has been since then, has told me the SF soldiers of today are an impressive group of people.
The many days long SF battery of tests we took before acceptance to training group was the hardest testing I ever took while I was in the service, but these new people are subjected to higher requirements and qualifications than we ever were.
These new guys are as good as the best of us ever were, and in a lot of ways probably better.
This reminds me of that Nat Geo channel special “Inside The Green Berets” – from a little while back. From what I recall of it, it seemed to me what was portrayed on the special didn’t line up with what I understand to be the traditional SF mission sets. There was a lot of stuff going on that I thought was the province of Rangers, etc. I recall them showing the gym at their FOB in Afghanistan – and I thought that was somewhat odd..
This “Hell Week” approach seems to be symptomatic of a broader trend you’ve pointed out several times.
“To say that a 25 year old kid like me was their leader was a bit comic, but they didn’t seem to feel that way.”
There is a slightly darker side to that first command that is rarely spoken of. I was warned, as a newly commissioned Infantry Officer, by our old Regimental Sergeant Major, that, if my Sergeant suggested that I consider an immediate transfer, to take his advice. The CO would have already been briefed by the RSM to arrange it.
The alternative, given your troops total lack of faith in your abilities, was becoming a casualty in your first action.
Obviously I come at the significance of Colonel Lang’s observations from a different perspective from many of the other commenters here, since I spent two years in federal penitentiary during the Vietnam War for refusing the draft.
That said, however, I would like to insert the suggestion that the United States has long maintained an Empire by force, and the consequences, the society-wide social consequences, of that imperial mission have included the development of a militarism at all levels.
Militarism is usually seen as the glorification of military phenomena, to the point of non-functionality.
The reason, that is, that the Special Forces Officers are being forced more than ever before to physical exertion is at bottom an increase in militarist attitudes.
I certainly agree with TG’s second post. You could extend this to most of the US education system today, too. “… it’s easier to set metrics that way. Pass/fail criteria based on …easy. Judging a candidate’s suitability to become …is a more intellectual endeavor that’s hard to put into simple declarative sentences…” Nothing like a standardized test to relieve one of the responsibility of thinking – or of the hard work of leading in any field.
This description prompts me to wonder: if the fighters in the Iliad been subject to this modern selection criteria, would the clever, inventive Odysseus would have been admitted?
And if Odysseus had not made the cut, then who else among the Greeks could have devised the strategy of the Trojan Horse? Or found a way to weaken the Trojans through dread (by stealing the Palladium)?
I have very little experience working with SF (the experiences I do have over the last couple of years left me with mixed impressions), so I’m not sure how seriously I should approach the numbers below, but they appear offical enough, and are supposably Army Research Institute produced. I’m not minimizing the importance of physical fitness/toughness, but that the correlation was so direct always surprised me.
“You need to be in top
physical condition and you should do well in the SFAS Course.” (recruiting boilerplate I’m sure, but, really?)
I dunno – it’s SFAS, not the Q-course, and I suppose the supporters would tell you it’s a proxy for motivation in addition to a physical evaluation. I have no idea whether the numbers predate the 18X program (“SF Babies” – direct enlistment into the SF pipeline).
d. The Army Research Institute (ARI) has been able to closely correlate performance on the
APFT and a 4-mile rucksack march with success in the SFAS Course. ARI evaluated the cumulative
APFT score (17 to 21 age group standard) with the percent of candidates who started the
SFAS Course and who passed the course. The average PT score for the SFAS Course graduates
USAREC Pam 601-25
is 250. The average APFT results are depicted below:
APFT Score Percent Passing Course
276 or higher 78
The higher the APFT score, the better the percent that passed the course. You need to be in top
physical condition and you should do well in the SFAS Course.
e. ARI evaluated the ability of SFAS students to perform a 4-mile ruckmarch in BDU, boots,
M-16, load bearing equipment, and a 45-pound rucksack. The overall average 4-mile ruckmarch
time for graduates is 61 minutes. The average results are depicted below:
Ruckmarch Time (Minutes) Percent Passing Course
54 and less 81
The less time to complete a 4-mile ruckmarch, the better the percent who passed the course. The
soldiers who prepare for SFAS through PT should succeed at the SFAS Course.
http://www.stewsmith.com/sfguidelines.pdf (the link is to an official pubication)
Colonel and guests:
Marry Christmas, may God bless you all, and hope that 2010 will be a better day for the whole world – we can not stand another 2008-09 fiasco [be it in war, in economy, or in international non-agreements].
Colonel, Sir, I thank you for running a most interesting blog, and your work in posting many of your previous lectures, articles – many more of which I still have to read/listen to.
Goodl luck all!
Great post. FYI it was the same in military intel back then. Enlisted cadre in the field (intel and counterintel agents) had an average educational level of two years of graduate school and linguistic training with many diverse backgrounds (no foreign though – security clearance at the levels we required would have been impossible). Smarter officers basically kept out of our way and supported. Same deal – the military needs to have officers but our work really was self-contained and required little input from command. Can’t imagine that MI is anything like that today….
Merry Christmas to all at SST!
As the average western citizen is treated and pressed into a mindless consumer role, the more difficult it will be to find people who dare to think and at the same time are willing to fight. Espeically when it is not about noble causes, but for pure greediness.
I went to the Q-course in 1981 as a 91B. The enlisted course did include a certain level of BT/AIT instructor harassment, but remember that at the time the SF was experimenting with allowing junior EMs into the SFQC. I recall that the stress levels (both physical and mental) were not so great as to no-go candidates in job lots. More medics failed the SF Aidman course at Ft. Sam Houston or the final phase of the medical training (what was called “goat lab” by the troops) at FBNC.
But based on my understanding of what has happened to the SF since my junior enlisted days it seems that the direct action crowd has taken over a lot of the SOF community, and many SF teams seem to be performing more Ranger-type door-kicking missions. This might be reflected in the Ranger-like selection process…