The Tet Offensive and the Media
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Green Berets: Vietnam War

The Green Berets, or Special Forces, are an elite unit of the modern U.S. Army. The concept of special forces, units that operate outside the mainstream of the military organization, is not new in American history. From Roger's Rangers in the French and Indian War through John S. Mosby's Rangers in the Civil War, small guerrilla-type groups have been used to disrupt enemy operations away from a war's main battlefields.

Foundations for the Special Forces were laid during World War II. William Donovan's Office of Strategic Services (OSS) operated commando and intelligence-gathering units that penetrated occupied Europe, as well as organized Southeast Asian tribes into guerrilla units to fight the Japanese. These two functions, guerrilla operations and intelligence gathering, split into two separate organizations after the war. President Harry Truman disbanded the OSS but created out of it the Central Intelligence Agency. The Special Forces took up guerrilla operations training, starting in June 1952.

Two men, Colonel Aaron Bank and Colonel Russell Volckman, OSS operatives from World War II, were the driving force in getting army approval for the creation of the Special Forces. With the advent of the cold war, secret operations behind enemy lines became an attractive option. Bank was given facilities at Fort Bragg, North Carolina for establishing the Special Forces training center. He chose a location on base called Smoke Bomb Hill and proceeded to fill the 2,300 personnel slots the army had authorized him.

Bank refused recruits, preferring veterans who had OSS, Ranger, or paratrooper experience, and took only volunteers looking for tough training and a challenge. All had to speak at least two languages and have parachute training, as well as hold at least sergeant's rank. They were also advised that their operations would usually take place behind enemy lines and sometimes in civilian clothes. Because this violated the rules of war, it would leave captured operatives to be tried and executed as spies, not soldiers. The training that Banks initiated was more rigorous than even these men had experienced. Paratroopers and Rangers had been used to acting quickly in advance of major attacks. The Special Forces, however, could be used for long operations in which they would have to sustain themselves in a hostile country with little to no outside support.

After a year and a half in training, the first overseas deployment took place when half the force, designated 10th Special Forces Group, was sent to West Germany in November 1953. The half that stayed in Fort Bragg retained their original unit designation, but the forces in Germany were now assigned the title 77th Special Forces Group. Special Forces from this point forward were incorporated into army strategic planning. In April 1956, the first Special Forces troops were sent to Southeast Asia. These were not the first Special Forces in Asia, however, for a small group had operated secretly behind enemy lines in the Korean War, an operation that remained classified until the 1980s.

The coming of age of the Special Forces had a political aspect, for it was after recognition by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 that the organization really began to grow. With increasing tensions between the United States and communist regimes, Kennedy saw the potential for elite guerrilla-style units, and he ordered the army to expand the Special Forces. He also directed that the army allow the men to wear the green beret as a symbol of their separation from the regular army. This, he knew, would promote esprit de corps, and the term "Green Berets" came to be interchangeable with "Special Forces."

In Southeast Asia, the Special Forces reached the height of their fame, acting as advisers to the South Vietnamese Army in the 1950s and early 1960s. A Special Forces soldier, Captain Harry Cramer Jr. was the first American killed in the conflict. During that time, the Special Forces trained local soldiers and native tribes in guerrilla operations and counterinsurgency. In 1964, the Special Forces established their headquarters at Nha Trang, where they remained until their redeployment to Fort Bragg in 1971. By the end of their service in Vietnam, Special Forces personnel had received a total of 28,311 medals, including 16 Medals of Honor and 2,658 Purple Hearts.

After the American involvement in Vietnam ended, the role of the Special Forces diminished rapidly as the army focussed on potential major-force conflict in Europe. The Special Forces commanders convinced the army that the other, less combat-oriented tasks of the organization could be harnessed. Under the program called Special Proficiency at Rugged Training and Nation-building (SPARTAN), the men worked on engineering and medical projects in the United States on Indian reservations and in impoverished Appalachian areas, much as they had done with isolated Vietnamese populations. SPARTAN was temporary, however, as the main goal of Special Forces was combat, and under President Ronald Reagan they got their chance to fight again. Like Kennedy, Reagan saw the need for counterinsurgency operations in hot spots around the world where large forces could not operate. In the early 1980s, Special Forces became an entirely separate branch within the army, and the training and entrance qualifications were toughened.

Special Forces troops saw action in Panama during Operation JUST CAUSE, where they engaged the Panamanian Defense Forces attempting to capture a bridge leading to Ranger units. The Green Berets not only defeated the attackers but suffered no casualties in the action. Such actions brought the Special Forces back into favor, and by 1990, five Special Forces groups were on active duty status. After the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks of 2001, Special Forces were the first American military units on the ground in Afghanistan. The units continue to train for combat while aiding local populations, in the United States and around the world.

Paul K. Davis and Allen Lee

Further Reading
Kelly, Ross. Special Operations and National Purpose. N.p.: N.p., 1989.; Simmons, Anna. The Company They Keep. N.p.: N.p., 1997.; Sullivan, George. Elite Warriors. N.p.: N.p., 1995.

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