Washington Monthly - September/October 2015 - 115

on political books The Sharpest Spear The extraordinary rise of America's special operations forces. By Shawn Brimley S ometime in March or April 2011, as a colleague and I walked through the Situation Room complex in the White House basement, we observed an odd combination of people leaving the main briefing room: President Barack Obama, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, CIA Director Leon Panetta, and Vice Admiral William McRaven, then the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the secretive operational component of the U.S. Special Operations Command that employs units like the Army's Delta Force and the Navy's SEAL Team 6 to perform the hardest counterterrorism missions. There was something about that combination of people-particularly McRaven-that caused my colleague to whisper, "Something's up." I nodded my head and promptly forgot about it. A few weeks later, on May 2, I woke up in the morning to hear that SEAL Team 6 commandos had, in the dead of night, flown into Pakistan in helicopters flown by the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, raided a compound just a few miles away from Pakistan's elite military academy, and killed Osama bin Laden. The meeting my colleague and I saw was very likely one of the final planning meetings for the bin Laden operation, code-named Operation Neptune's Spear. Without question, it was the most spectacular and consequential special operations mission in American history. But as amazing as that operation was, it didn't seem all that unexpected: the idea that America's elite commandos could find the world's most wanted man and deliver longawaited justice didn't seem all that extraordinary. Maybe that shouldn't surprise us. After all, America has been very publicly at war for fourteen years-from the cities and deserts of Iraq to the mountains of Afghanistan. We have become accustomed to daring tales of brave men and women in uniform performing extraordinary military operations. There is an industry of sorts that, in print and film, tells the stories of units like the SEALs, Delta Force, and the Green Berets. What was once the realm of the so-called "quiet professionals"-those tough commandos who warred in the shadows-isn't so quiet anymore. These days we hear about aggressive special operations missions inside Syria, Somalia, and Yemen, and hints of activity elsewhere in the world. The top-secret operation in June 2014 to rescue three American hostages in ISIS-controlled eastern Syria was described in detail by the Washington Post-with White House officials commenting on the record-just a few months later. This reflects the modern media environment, but it also reflects the fact that while America's overall "boots on the ground" presence may be declining, our special operations forces have become the dominant way to engage our enemies around the world. While any number of "tell all" books by former special operators (or Hollywood adaptations) can give some flavor to this shadowy world, Sean Naylor's Relentless Strike: The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command comes the closest to providing the complete Relentless Strike: The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command by Sean Naylor St. Martin's Press, 560 pp. Washington Monthly 115

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