Masters of Chaos: The Secret History of the Special Forces

Masters of Chaos: The Secret History of the Special Forces

by Linda Robinson


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781586483524
Publisher: PublicAffairs
Publication date: 09/05/2005
Pages: 424
Sales rank: 227,605
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Linda Robinson is a senior writer for U.S. News & World Report. She was a Nieman fellow at Harvard University in 2000-2001 and in 1999 she received the Maria Moors Cabot prize form Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She has covered numerous wars, guerrilla conflicts and special forces' operations, and currently lives in Washington, D.C.

Read an Excerpt


The Secret History of the Special Forces


Copyright © 2004 Linda Robinson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-58648-249-1

Chapter One


Humans are more important than hardware. -FIRST SOF THRUTH

The wind howled up through the limestone caves of western Tennessee to meet the icy blasts coursing through the Cumberland Valley and the Land between the Lakes. Fort Campbell was not a pleasant place in the wintertime. At least Fort Carson in Colorado had mountains right out the back door. Chief Warrant Officer 3 Randall Wurst clapped his hands to warm them, which was impossible because the doors of the vehicle bay stood wide open to the frigid gusts. Raised in the west, Randy would never get used to the dampness of the eastern United States. The rest of the company and battalion officers were in their offices packing up maps and personal equipment. Randy should have been inside with them, but he wanted to see how the rear gun mounts had turned out. He and the sergeants had spent hours tinkering to come up with the best way to rig an M240 machine gun on the back of a Humvee. In Afghanistan they had built a prototype, and an outfit down the road in Nashville was now turning out custom mounts to rig guns on every position of their trucks. The Taliban had called them "the boxes with thorns." The Afghans had learned to fear the "bearded ones" who drove the boxes and fought with such tenacity and ferocity.

One of the privileges of the Special Forces was the freedom to modify the army's standard-issue equipment or buy off-the-shelf products that would help get the job done. They were always seeking to improve their basic kit, whether gloves or guns or sights or vehicles. Randy gave thanks every time he saw a pair of German-made Hanwag boots. Perhaps their best find ever, those boots had carried him through long days of trekking in Afghanistan. Their rough-cut leather uppers had molded instantly to his feet with no painful breaking-in period and, best of all, their rubber soles had stuck like glue to the sheer mountains and screestrewn crevasses of Tora Bora where the Special Forces had searched for the caves of Al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden.

Randy climbed into the rear bed of the nearest Humvee and sat down on the bench by the M240 to check out the handiwork. The official army mount had been by the passenger side door, which limited the field of fire. So the team had soldered a new mount and put it on the rear corner. They had stripped the Humvees' rear gates and mounted racks for additional fuel and water cans. The M240 was the critical backup weapon for disengaging from a larger force or a tank. When the big .50-caliber gun in the turret (the one Randy manned) stopped to change ammunition cans, this one kept firing. Randy swung the gun toward him, crouching over it to aim in the same movement, swiveled with it in an arc, then snaked it back. It was much better, but it wasn't perfect-the mount could still stick in the stowed position. On the battlefield, that could make you a dead man. The square can that fed the belt of 7.62-mm rounds into the gun had to be placed at just the right angle or it would not feed properly. They would keep tinkering over in the desert. Humans are more important than hardware, as the special operations saying goes, but the humans need their hardware to fight.

Special Forces teams were heavily armed for their small size: they had either a .50-caliber gun or an Mk 19 grenade launcher in the Humvee turret and an M240 machine gun on the back. They had AT-4 anti-tank weapons strapped to the roof edges, and each man had his M4 rifle, 9-mm pistol, and grenades. At least one team member also had an M203 grenade launcher attached under the barrel of his M4. This was a formidable amount of weaponry for twelve men.

The ritual of preparing for war was a familiar one for Randy, but this time it had a special poignance. This was likely to be the last war he would fight, at least on the frontlines, and he was having a hard time assimilating that fact.

Being a Special Forces soldier was the pinnacle of his life, and it seemed that everything had led him inexorably down this path. The blood of warriors ran in his veins. His grandfather was a Blackfoot, born on a reservation, who had founded an outfitting business in. Randy grew up on a ranch, learning to ride his buckskin pony, Sugarfoot, at the age of three. He became a cowboy, adept at riding and breaking horses, and learned the arts of survival from his family of ranchers, trappers, hunters, and outfitters. His nickname, "Rawhide," would later become his call sign. When he left home, his beloved grandfather gave him his medicine bag containing the talismans of long-ago battles and places sacred to his people.

After some detours Randy joined the military, following his father and brother who had served in wartime. For him it became a career when he earned a coveted place in the Special Forces. Twenty years and five wars later, he knew that he would have to hang up his soldier's spurs soon.

Many of the senior Special Forces soldiers who would play a pivotal role in the war in Iraq had begun their SF careers in Desert Storm or a couple of years earlier in Just Cause in Panama-the first time Special Forces had seen combat since Vietnam, officially anyway. The soldiers now formed a seasoned group whose members had worn their green berets through numerous wars, backwater conflicts, and secret operations. They were not only the backbone and institutional memory of the Special Forces but often were the most experienced of any soldiers on the frontlines.

Randy had lost track of how many countries he'd been deployed to and how many Christmases and birthdays he'd spent away from home, but he did not lose count of the comrades he had lost over those years-their names and faces were etched in his heart. Some of them were remembered in a small grove of trees planted on the east side of their grassy parade ground at Fort Campbell. A plaque listed each man's name and unit.

The earth was still fresh around trees that had been planted for the men who had died in Afghanistan, the largest group of casualties since an entire team crashed in a Black Hawk helicopter during a training exercise in Yuma, Arizona, in 1989. There was a tree for J.D. Davis and those who had died with him. There was one for Nathan Chapman, who had pulled every string to get transferred from Asia to the fight in Afghanistan; Stanley Harriman, a chief warrant officer like himself, who had died trying to save his men; and, in the corner, Bobby Deeks, killed in Somalia in 1993. Randy said a quick prayer for them all as the sun lowered through the leafless branches of the slender trees, and then walked quickly from the bay toward the dun-colored three-story barracks.

He bounded up the cement steps and yanked hard on the barracks' door. Built in 1952, the buildings were as old as the Special Forces. The door vents were rusted through, the cinderblock was crumbling, hinges were rusted, and insulation hung out of the ceilings. The Special Forces' low-rise complex, clustered around the parade ground just off Bastogne Avenue, was the oldest on the entire base. One ground-floor office had a finger-sized crack that went through to the outside. The Special Forces were proud of their make-do philosophy, but they carped just the same about being the unloved stepchild at Fort Campbell, which was wholly and completely dominated by the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne Division. The largest tenant unit of any army base always ruled the roost, and the famous 101st did so with particular zeal. Additionally, its commanders did not like the fact that some of their best and brightest noncommissioned officers tried out for the Special Forces, attracted by the idea of roaming the world in twelve-man teams on secret missions. Special Forces had to become high-altitude parachutists, so soldiers with wings, like those in the 101st, had an advantage.

Cruising down the hallway, Randy saw Master Sergeant Alan Johnson disappear into the company commander's office. Alan was like a brother to him, but these days he also was a reminder of loss. Randy had left the twelve-man team that they together had led through Kosovo and Afghanistan, and Alan knew that Randy was bereft. Randy had served for fourteen years on Operational Detachments Alpha (ODAs), as the twelve-man teams are officially called. That was about as long as anyone had managed to stay in the ground-level units. He had been kicked upstairs to the company staff.

Alan was one of the most popular team sergeants around. He was a force of nature, as audacious and intelligent an operator as ever produced, with an irrepressible sense of humor. A handsome light-skinned African American, he had a thousand-megawatt smile and a deep rumbling laugh. Men loved serving with him. Randy and he had been on the same team, 563, for three years. They greeted their company commander, Jonathan Burns, a major who had just transferred that summer from Fort Bragg. He had the pale skin and red-brown hair of the Irish, a group well represented in Special Forces' ranks, and a subversive wit. He'd stenciled his call sign, Wildman, on the back of his armored Humvee. Alan went off to discuss his mission with the battalion commander, and Randy sat down to review his duties with Burns. Randy feared that he would not even get close to the frontlines now that his job was to oversee intelligence and operations for the whole company, but he vowed not to complain. He suspected Burns was a frustrated gunslinger too-it came with the seniority.

Alan headed to the end of the second building on the southern flank of the complex to see the battalion commander. The unlucky bachelors slept on the third floor of the dilapidated barracks. He was spared that fate. He had a wife, and if all went well, they would have a baby soon. He knocked on the open door and Lt. Col. Conner's aide waved him in. Conner was bent over a canvas duel spread out on the floor, on top of a small Afghan carpet and a rug embroidered with the Special Forces' crossed-arrow insignia and motto "De Oppresso Liber" (to free the oppressed).

"Have a seat, Al," Conner said. "Let's talk while I get this last stuff stowed."

Alan squeezed his frame onto the small couch. Special Forces soldiers tended to fall into one of two categories: the big and burly or the compact and wiry. The big ones had to have the stamina to make it through the Special Forces' selection process. Willpower, not size, was the common denominator. Alan was a big man, pounds of solid muscle, but his geniality tended to soften his size into a less intimidating package, until he put on his game face.

Lieutenant Colonel Chris Conner was also a big fellow, six feet two and pounds, but his temperament was so placid that his size did not dominate the conversation. Conner had assumed command of the battalion over the summer, though he was no stranger to Fort Campbell. He had spent his early Special Forces career here and had returned from serving in Washington on the Joint Staff, where one of his colleagues called him the finest action officer he'd ever seen. It was a happy homecoming for a low-key, well-liked officer. He knew many of the older sergeants from his previous posting here, and he had known Randy from his first days in the Special Forces tryout. The sergeants tend to stay put in the same battalion, or at least the same group, for the bulk of their careers, which makes them the institutional memory of the organization. This is important for any organization, but it is especially valuable given the mandate of the Special Forces.

Each Special Forces group is organized into three battalions: 1st, 2nd, and 3rd. Each battalion has three companies, called Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie. Each company, in turn, is composed of six teams, the twelveman Operational Detachments Alpha which are known by number. The group, battalion, and company echelons all have headquarters and support staffs. Some groups only field five teams per company because there are not enough Special Forces to fill all the authorized slots. The deep cuts in army personnel in the mid-1990s made it even more difficult to find qualified personnel.

Alan had gone to talk to Colonel Conner because the battalion commander was intimately familiar with the area in Iraq to which his team had been assigned. To prepare for their mission, Alan and his team had read the after-action reports of the earlier war. "Hey, the old man was here!" one of them exclaimed upon seeing that the report was signed by (then Captain) Chris Conner. Conner had been on a secret reconnaissance mission in exactly the same spot twelve years before, in Operation Desert Storm, when a handful of U.S. and British special operations forces were inserted clandestinely deep within Iraqi territory.

The team plied the "old man" with questions as they planned their operation. Not many Americans had set foot in Iraq, and nothing could prepare them better than the firsthand "ground truth" of one who had. Conner and his team had learned that lesson the hard way.

Conner and his fellow commanders had carefully chosen which teams would be assigned to which missions in Iraq. Many of his senior sergeants were veterans of Desert Storm. One of them, Master Sergeant Steve Rainey, had helped train and fight with the Saudis, working side by side with Conner's team until Conner was tapped for the reconnaissance mission. Rainey was a perfectionist, cynical and hard-bitten. He drove his men hard but drove himself harder. Few could outshoot him, even though he had a few fingers missing on his right hand. The Saudi army had not been much of a fighting machine, but in a few short weeks Rainey's team had managed to drill soldier skills into it.

Rainey had since become the team sergeant of ODA 544; he and two other senior NCOs brought more than a half-century of Special Forces' experience to their team. That experience was the real secret of the Army Special Forces. No other ground-level unit anywhere in the U.S. military could claim such a store of military knowledge and capability. The captains, who command the teams, come straight from the schoolhouse to an eighteen-month stint in charge of the twelve-man operational detachments. After that, the captains move to higher echelons while the ten sergeants and the chief warrant officers continue to serve on teams for years. Colonel Conner knew what he was doing when he and the company commander, Major Andy Lohman, decided to make ODA 544 the "pilot team" that would enter the critical southern city of Najaf first.

The Special Forces are not a rapid deployment force; the secret of their success is intensive preparation. The men studied the area they were assigned as thoroughly as any Ph.D. student.


Excerpted from MASTERS OF CHAOS by LINDA ROBINSON Copyright © 2004 by Linda Robinson. 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.

Table of Contents

Cast of CharactersVI
1Leaving Home1
2Earning the Green Beret14
3Just Cause37
4Desert Storm57
7The Balkans136
9Western Iraq: The Battle of the War Pigs191
10Southern Iraq: Sneak and Peek224
11Central Iraq: Masters of Chaos245
12Nasiriya: Warriors, Spies, and Diplomats274
13Viking Hammer (and the Ugly Baby)296
14The Green Line324
15Coming Home342
16The Future of the Special Forces355

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Masters of Chaos: The Secret History of the Special Forces 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this book and the stories told, but I must say that I did feel that the title is misleading. The term ¿Special Forces¿ specifically refers to the US Army Special Forces (aka Green Berets). This is not a book about Delta, SEAL¿s, Rangers, etc. The author does a very good job in telling what it is like to be a Green Beret experiencing all aspects of ¿unconventional warfare¿. It is also not a Black Hawk Down type of book filled with combat actions. I thought the combat stories were more summaries rather than a detailed after-action report. Don¿t get me wrong, some of the stories are truly amazing in scope and very little were accurately reported in the main stream press. It really goes in-depth as to what these shadow warriors do. She also does a good job at showing the reader what the future may hold in store for all special forces. Again, I did enjoy the book, but it may be different than what you think.
tyroeternal on LibraryThing 7 months ago
My thoughts about special forces have changed in reading this book. The many stories of how special forces are deployed gave me a new perspective on all of the work that they do.Reactions to this book were mixed oddly for me. In one hand I enjoyed learning all the details, and the writing is solid. On the other hand I was never drawn into the story in an exciting way. I desperately wanted to read further, but felt like things just dragged on and on. It was a good book, but unfortunately it did not take hold of me.
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DesperateLands More than 1 year ago
An incredible historical true story of U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers known as the "Green Berets" fighting wars in Somalia, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan, Desert Storm, El Salvador, Post-Vietnam. Linda Robinson does an excellent interview of these secret soldiers and of their mission on fighting the golbal war on terrorism. I recommend this book to reader to better understand what these secret warriors really do behind the scenes.
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