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To Dare and to Conquer: Special Operations and the Destiny of Nations, from Achilles to Al Qaeda

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In the tradition of "Guns, Germs, and Steel," Leebaert tells the stories of small forces that have triumphed over vastly larger ones and changed the course of history—from the Trojan Horse to Al Qaeda. Maps & charts.

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To Dare and to Conquer: Special Operations and the Destiny of Nations, from Achilles to Al Qaeda

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Overview

In the tradition of "Guns, Germs, and Steel," Leebaert tells the stories of small forces that have triumphed over vastly larger ones and changed the course of history—from the Trojan Horse to Al Qaeda. Maps & charts.

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Editorial Reviews

Wesley K. Clark
Leebaert scores some solid hits here. What actually was achieved by U.S. special ops in Eastern Europe, Korea and Vietnam? Very little, he argues. For years during the Cold War, the United States dispatched teams (including not just fighters but also ammunition and communication tools) behind the Iron Curtain to assist East European freedom fighters; without exception, the teams seem to have been compromised, whereupon they were captured and eliminated. Washington got no better results against North Vietnam, either.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
In this monumental critical analysis of the 3,000-year history of special operations, Leebaert proves that "[a]n opponent's strength does not consist of numbers only or plain superiority of weapons." Since the Trojan horse felled Troy-the "fountainhead," Leebaert says, "for all special operations"-armies have known that small groups of elite warriors (commandos, rangers, special forces, guerrillas, etc.) can swiftly change the course of conflict. Leebaert, a professor of government at Georgetown and author of The Fifty-Year Wound, provides in-depth and insightful rundowns on scores of special operations around the globe, concentrating on the United States and other Western nations. From Gideon's terrifying assault on the Midianites in ancient Israel to the American Delta Force's special ops in the mountains of Afghanistan, he analyzes the operations in lively, if sometimes over-the-top, prose that aims "to give life and vitality to the deadly beings who most concern our story." The last chapters of this mammoth book, however, are drier, as Leebaert focuses on the relationship between politics and the use of special forces. (Mar. 23) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Leebaert (government, Georgetown Univ.; The Fifty-Year Wound: The Price of America's Cold War Victory) sheds a bright light on the covert operations that have played a significant role in the long history of human armed conflict. Beginning around 1200 B.C.E. with the Trojan Horse and continuing through the U.S. Army's Delta (or Special Operations) Force and the current war in Iraq, he successfully illuminates the special role of elite soldiers, suicide squads, rangers, guerrillas, Green Berets, and special forces from all nations. The author shows these units' successes-e.g., the storming of Chapultepec in the Mexican-American War-and failures, such as Mosby's Rangers, Confederate partisans in 1864, and the attempted rescue of the Iranian hostages in April 1980. Although the text runs to over 600 pages, the story is narrated in a lively, modern parlance, which makes it that much more relevant and keeps the pages turning. Leebaert's last book (see above) was a best seller-this book should be as well. Highly recommended for all collections.-David Lee Poremba, Detroit P.L. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A literate, adventure-filled history of "special warfare" fought by small bands of hunters of men whose services, it appears, will be ever more in demand. That history, writes Leebaert (Government/Georgetown Univ.; The Fifty-Year Wound, 2002), is "to be found among the interstices of day-to-day friction and counterblows of tribes rising into city-states, into robust nations and then perhaps into empires and superpowers." WWII buffs know all about the epic battles between Nazis and Russians on the eastern front and Nazis and the other Allies in the west, whereas even the best-informed student of modern military history may not know much about the activities of the Lurps in Vietnam or the Delta Force in Afghanistan-for special-operations soldiers from the Myrmidons to the Gray Ghosts to the modern SAS aim to keep their activities secret. Leebaert offers a sweeping, quite fascinating look at these soldiers through history, remarking on the astonishing abilities of a few well-trained fighters who put "a premium on knowledge" to disrupt whole nations. He braves controversy by including in the mix the 9/11 hijackers, the Viet Cong, the minions of Somali warlords and assorted other bad guys, but the point is well taken; it is because so many battles are now being fought on "unfixed terrain" against stateless and irregular forces that fighters such as the Green Berets and Russia's Spetsnaz are becoming central, and invaluable, less an adjunct in need than "a systematic arm of war." Leebaert courts more controversy with his harsh assessment of the conduct of the Iraq war and the larger war on terrorism and about the capabilities of the current ("inept") Secretary of Defense. He seems to stand onincontestable ground, however, when he prophesies that more terrorist mayhem is to come. Smart and well-argued-and sure to anger at least some in the Pentagon.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780316014236
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • Publication date: 3/2/2007
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 688
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 1.37 (d)

Read an Excerpt

To Dare and to Conquer


By Derek Leebaert

Little, Brown

Copyright © 2006 Derek Lee
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-316-14384-7


Chapter One

Who Dares Wins Special Operations, Special Forces, Special Targets

Less than six weeks after a band of kamikaze air pirates destroyed the World Trade Center towers and blasted in the Pentagon's northeast face, 199 U.S. Army Rangers parachuted into the night upon an isolated landing strip sixty miles from Kandahar deep in the southern Afghan desert. A still undisclosed but truly small number of "black" special operators (who serve in units unacknowledged by the Pentagon but going by such names as Delta Force and Gray Fox) landed by silenced helicopter to hit the compound of the head of the regime at the edge of the city itself, while SAS elements struck buildings believed to house other Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders. A key purpose was to demonstrate to the enemy and to the world that soldiers of the democracies could reach at will deep inside the most forbidding of enemy territory. It was akin to Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle's squadron raining few but utterly unanticipated bombs on Tokyo just months after Pearl Harbor. All were out by dawn from a land for centuries a byword for consuming its invaders, and whose intransigent resistance had done so much to ruin the Soviet colossus just ten years earlier.

"When can we get our teams in?" the secretary of defense had demanded in aSeptember 25 strategy meeting. "When CIA tells us they are ready," unhelpfully replied the air force general at the head of U.S. Special Operations Command-not until, that is to say, the agency had some notion of what was going on inside Afghanistan. "I want targets worldwide," continued the secretary. "But we don't have actionable intelligence," the general countered. There might have been much to discuss, but not enough to jump on.

The very day following, the first seven-man CIA insertion of paramilitary experts, as well as a former station chief in Pakistan, were flown by agency pilots over the Hindu Kush from Uzbekistan into the Afghan northeast. They had been gathered swiftly at Langley headquarters and dispatched to convince the Northern Alliance, a loose confederation of mutually predatory warlords aligned against the Taliban, to cooperate with America's imminent retaliation. They were also to lay the groundwork for the arrival of twelve-man Green Beret teams, or operational detachments.

Those Special Forces soldiers, as the Green Berets prefer to be called, were not intended to execute a decisive move, let alone to slice through northern Afghanistan under close air support to overthrow the Taliban. They were to follow their calling of living and working with all sorts of fighting men whose countries (or in this case, factions) enjoy more or less friendly ties to the United States. In their current mission, they were to join with the Northern Alliance in a holding action until U.S. divisions could be prepped and lifted to embark on a campaign that the military chiefs expected to take at least two years.

In none of the record of sporadic outrage during the preceding decade had U.S. commandos been deployed against terrorists, let alone to unravel a terrorist state. Nor had the obscure workings of CIA specialists, responsible under law for covert action, drawn any visible blood from an increasingly aggressive enemy. As the defense secretary impatiently judged, the agency had devoted the two weeks since the atrocity to pleading with the military for medics, more pilots, and logistical capacities to get a handful of its own people on the ground merely to discover what might ultimately be possible. "They've neglected to do what they should have been doing all along," he snapped, taking in the enormous gap in the "sensor-to-shooter loop," the time required between identifying and bringing down these menacing objectives.

The former agency station chief who had gone in on the twentysixth with what the Operations Directorate unadmiringly calls its "knuckle draggers" would soon make his own complaints public at the "delays in getting army Special Forces teams into Afghanistan," and "infighting among the various Special Operations components." To him, plans put forward by Delta operators were "impossible and lame," and "the U.S. military community" would not permit its commandos to accompany him because his fly-in was said to be "too dangerous." "We have begged and pleaded," he exclaimed, but the nation's special operations forces were reluctant to cooperate. "This situation is broken!" On all counts, there would be much to answer for in the arrangement of U.S. commando and intelligence operations, certainly by an intelligence service whose parking lot at Langley had been merely half full on 9/12, when the federal workforce in Washington was told that only essential employees need show up at the office.

In time, the 9/11 commission would commend the use of joint CIA-military teams in Afghanistan. But without even knowing decades of well-concealed CIA paramilitary blunders, it came to conclude that responsibility for covert commando actions should henceforth shift to the Pentagon, a recommendation that cut to the core of the agency's storied Directorate of Operations, renamed the National Clandestine Service. The quarrel distills thirty centuries' failure to come fully to terms with this deadly arm of war-its possibilities, its moral standing, its effects on the larger sphere of violence. Is it dirty work, or the apotheosis of the warrior's craft? (It has been both.) With whom to trust it? Where to apply it next?

Nonetheless, within weeks of the Rangers' descent, U.S. improvisation combined with the Special Forces' speed and agility to marshal the tribes and impart the momentum for the drive on Kabul, center of Taliban authority. That capital fell on November 13 to a mode of war that had taken form overnight largely under Green Beret sergeants and air force Special Tactics combat controllers. Commandos urged horses through hostile valleys to pinpoint air strikes with satellitelinked laser markers-a step back into Kipling's day to recoil in a blow out of science fiction. Though it was only one move in crushing a preindustrial foe, it was a crucial one, accomplished on the ground by just 315 special operators.

By this time, the Joint Chiefs of Staff's original concept, showing its claws as Operation Enduring Freedom, was being pared way back. The brass's initial reaction to press photos of the Green Berets who surfaced among the warlords was to order that the soldiers' beards come off, right now, an order wisely rescinded. Instead, the Green Berets' finest hour was welcomed as reason not to plunk down big conventional forces, as had the Russians. The number of armed Americans in the country would thereby essentially be capped.

A problem lay in ignoring the fact that the first thing one needs to know about a weapon is what cannot be done with it. Should it be perfect for this or that tight spot, one may fatally be tempted to bring it into a different type of fight. The next move against the Taliban and Al Qaeda showed that there was little understanding among the war planners about what special operations forces could not do, as an irresistible entity seemed suddenly to be at hand.

In December, the same formula used to take Kabul was applied against bin Laden himself and fifteen hundred to two thousand wellarmed fighters holed up in the miles of reinforced granite caves and deeply dug tunnels of Tora Bora, a fortress complex buried amid the thirteen thousand-foot peaks along the Pakistani border. During the 1980s, the CIA-financed mujahideen (Children of God) had constructed the nearly impenetrable labyrinth as a refuge from Red Army tanks and helicopter gun ships. Now the agency discovered that the maps it had received from the mujahideen were missing in its files at Langley. Despite such inconvenience, some three dozen U.S. special operators were ordered to choreograph an assault against this bastion by roughly twenty-five hundred motley Afghan allies, backed by ground-busting saturation airstrikes. At Tora Bora, senior commanders decided not to commit more American ground forces, not even any of the two thousand Marines who were ready at their just-built Camp Rhino to patrol the border crossings through which bin Laden and perhaps eight hundred of his followers would slip away.

Nor did the Pentagon's civilian leadership know much about the use of special operations forces. Before 9/11, the eight-month-old administration had no serious interest in the subject. The White House had not even gotten around by late summer to appointing a credible person to fill the office of assistant secretary for special operations and low intensity conflict. Besides offering guidance about the limits of the discipline, true experts on special warfare would spend months acquainting the secretary and his deputy with the facts of how much deeper and more devastatingly than commonly believed U.S. commandos could go in the first war of the twenty-first century.

When does an operation break out of the pack, pass from remarkable conventional performance to the truly special? When must such an undertaking be singled out as uniquely the province of special forces? What are they anyhow, and who are these people?

The special operation keeps testing the limits of familiar procedure- its own side's and the other's. That is why it is called "special." It is not only distinct from the standard military practices of its times but runs contrary to many of the principles on which commanders-especially field commanders properly concerned with mass, administration, unit cooperation-place prime importance. "Conventional" wars between armies, navies, and air forces must rely on a body of tried-and-true approaches. Those approaches steadily change, but at any given time generals and admirals are able to draw on a repertoire of carefully tested formulas for dispensing firepower, deploying fighting men, mobilizing reinforcements, managing supply lines (the true mark of the strategist), and for pulling back to regroup. Commanders apply sound practical principles to the terrifying irrationalities of violence, attempting to establish some degree of predictability amid the chaos of the battlefield. All these measures draw on experience, hard-earned wisdom, and sternly refined techniques.

The special operation, however, embraces an utterly different arithmetic as well as ethos. There may be no battlefield, no supply lines. What a special operation sets out to achieve is often said to be impossible. So its warriors repeatedly find themselves improvising. Their stealth cannot be matched by a division or fleet, and the operators rely on a continuously renewed novelty to attain the absurdly high leverage that characterizes such ventures.

In conventional combat, the main offensive is likely to be directed, where possible, against the enemy's weaker points, such as thinly held terrain or an exposed flank. The special operation often finds its peculiar advantage in targeting the enemy's most heavily defended positions-striking directly at his confident strength and dignity. It is more like a needle that pierces to vital organs through chinks in the armor than an axe blade hacking at metal-plated torsos. It eschews the bulkier goals of taking ground, killing as many enemy soldiers as possible, asserting mastery of the seas. Since a special operation is likely to be reaching deeper and faster into hostile environments, whether by infiltrating a citadel, "clearing a room" in a hostage rescue, or appearing suddenly on the other side of the world, there may be no possibility of retreat or even of assistance. Extreme missions, like extreme sports, rarely offer second chances.

The special operation is not defined by its size. To achieve as much as possible with as little as possible (or at least with the little that may be available) pretty much dictates that it be conducted by fewer warriors than are mustered in its main forces, let alone than in those of the enemy. However, that does not restrict the special operation to inserting tiny parties of grease-faced men onto rocky coasts. What prevails is the "Commando idea," as Churchill called it-of guile unified with fortitude and imagination. In the deadliest of all wars, he backed every initiative, from a two-man team parachuting into occupied Europe to hunt down a single Nazi beast to the nine thousand men of the only outfit in that war known as the "Special Force," whose wholesaling of top-end guerrilla techniques disordered an entire Japanese army in Burma. But at their best, all such operations are masterpieces of economy and of a level of performance that cannot be expected from the steadiest of regular fighting men and women.

As with Churchill's hit teams and the Special Force, these undertakings can be carried out either independently or in tandem with one's own big guns. They can be tactical (say, far-in reconnaissance of an enemy missile site) or they can upend a country, as the world saw in Afghanistan. The spectrum of special operations extends from rather rare army-sized ventures of supreme risk to a haze of minute, but often decisive, killer-bee actions. Mystique has conditioned us to think of the special operation as a single dramatic blow, assuming that if it is special, it is brilliant, and if brilliant, accomplished in the twinkling of an eye. But the methods of the hunter can be applied unrelentingly for months, or indeed years. Over this longer duration, the term special warfare can mean full-scale campaigns of unconventional combat that entail astounding arrays of startling little commando assaults on the way to final victory.

The damage that the special operation can inflict is much greater than the hurt to be endured by the attackers' side should the effort fail and its warriors perish short of their target. When successful, the payoffs can be huge compared to the lives, money, and materiel committed. Because a special operation is undertaken by the comparatively few in an unusually constricted period of time, it is also more subject to chance, or to the Law of Small Numbers, best summarized in the baseball wisdom that "anything can happen in a short series." Time and again a single detail-a helicopter's hydraulic system failing in the desert, the Gestapo picking out the way an American rather than a Frenchman holds a cigarette-has brought disaster on excellent planning.

To better its chances, the special operation may have to work extremely fast, lunging straight at the heart of power; or it may require mind-numbing patience as its warriors embed themselves in a hostile city for months. Deception and disguise offer it further dimensions of leverage. Unable to employ supply lines, it may have to rely on newfound local allies for transport, food, even weapons-or take them from the enemy dead. Initial success must serve as the finest of recruiting offices in the field, as was the case in Afghanistan and for Hannibal as well as the Conquistadors. Success requires more than ruse or trickery. Cleverness alone can only go so far; eventually the successful special operation must call on a bank of hard-tested skills. The access and confusion that tricks can provide are inevitably eclipsed by the need for consistently effective follow-through. Twentythree men descending a rope ladder at night from the belly of a wooden horse must then be tough and smart enough to make their way through the city, signal the awaiting fleet from its walls, and very silently (a skill in itself) open the gates.

Surprise is one of the central ingredients of all warfare, but a special operation is all surprise in its explosive combination of ingenuity and economy. The commandos then swell the impact of that initial shock. Their attack magnifies itself in the enemy's mind: terror soaks through a battle line or through an entire nation stampeded into a quest for perfect, and therefore exhausting and paralyzing, security. A sharp, focused strike can consume the energies of millions of people who never witnessed the act: if it is televised, all the better for the attackers.

The most promising special operation at any given moment is likely to be that which moves the frontier of surprise the next bound forward. (If a special operation's form could be entirely anticipated, its relatively modest size would make it easy to smash.) To that end, the modes of special warfare keep changing, only to become familiar as time passes. Combat within buildings, for instance, is reborn with each iteration of urban civilization; amphibious techniques change with the materials of ships and forts; jungle fighting moves from reliance on machetes to "smart-dust" sensors scattered among the tendrils. The uniqueness of the most original missions-such as gliders descending on a fortress roof-burns down with the speed of a fuse as the enemy comes up with simple but reliable responses.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from To Dare and to Conquer by Derek Leebaert Copyright © 2006 by Derek Lee. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 Who dares wins : special operations, special forces, special targets 17
2 Even Troy must fall : hidden ways, from the wooden horse to the rise of Macedon, ca. 1200 to ca. 400 B.C. 40
3 Birth of world power : a longer reach, from Alexander to the Barbarian invasions of Rome, ca. 356 B.C. to fifth century A.D. 65
4 A terrible few : cracks in the edifice, from the fall of Rome to the fading of the feudal order, 476-1300 97
5 The great wheel turns : when nothing else works in a time of gunpowder, learning, and engineering, 1300-1500 129
6 War of the worlds : where only a few could go : Aztecs and Incas meet the Conquistadors, 1500-1600 147
7 No peace beyond the line : naval special warfare : pirates, buccaneers, and the imperialists : they preyed on, 1522-1689 184
8 A hazard of new fortunes : specialization and enterprise : Europe from the westward discovery to the zenith of the Sun King, 1492-1701 213
9 The old world and the new : point of the lance in Europe, India, and North America, 1700-1775 235
10 To try men's souls : a continent to make and few to do it : the American revolution and its enemies, 1775-1807 273
11 The fate of glory : special operations in the biggest war yet : the French revolution and its aftermaths, 1789-1830 308
12 New frontiers : where special talents apply : national revolt and global ambition, 1830-1861 339
13 Strange fulfillments : newer tasks for the daring few as steam and machinery transform the struggle, 1861-1902 358
14 From spark to flame : alternative means : Kitty Hawk to the end of all wars, 1903-1918 385
15 Sinister twilight : dangerous young men : the unreal peace, 1919-1939 419
16 So far, the main event : anything goes : the stakes of totalitarian conquest, 1939-1945 442
17 Dawn like thunder : here to stay : new strengths, new dangers, 1945-1961 498
18 Invasion from the future : from both sides now, 1961-2010 532
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 11, 2013

    Who dares read this book wins

    This book took me nearly a year to complete. Tis not a light read but the most thorough examination of the development of special operations I have found. The Cortez expedition is a profound example of the devastation such operators can achieve on their adversaries.

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  • Posted November 17, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    If you would glimpse the future, you must study the past.

    This is one of the best history books I've read in a while. Leebaert approaches Western history from a completely original perspective, through the lens of special operations. His book proves through exhaustive research that the special operation, and thereby the special operator, has always existed and always will exist. As long as there is war there will be a need for imaginative and unconventional operators. This book also does a tremendous job showing the cyclical nature of history. Techniques such as the recruitment of local tribes as combatants for a prolonged campaign were used by Cortez in the 16th century and by Green Berets in Afghanistan just a few years ago. History repeats itself. If you would glimpse the future, you must study the past.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 22, 2014

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    Posted August 24, 2009

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    Posted July 11, 2010

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    Posted January 31, 2011

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