The Army’s elite Delta Force – or whatever label it carries that corresponds to the one applied in media parlance – prides itself on obscuring the nature of its covert duties and even the nature of the unit itself.
But what we’ve learned over time is that it’s an incredibly potent fighting team comprised of pentathlete special operators capable of outsized impact in operations most units wouldn’t dare undertake. Operations lacking the sort of lead time, logistical support, and intelligence clarity required for ordinary organizations to responsibly assume the attendant risks.
But this is part of what makes special operations special. Strict selection, grueling training, elevated states of training, tailored, high-tech equipment, and most importantly, a level of cohesiveness that makes operating in dynamic and hazardous conditions second nature.
Recent video released by Kurdish media purports to partially document a reported Delta raid on a prison complex in northern Iraq that spared the lives 70 hostages who were about to be mass slaughtered by their Islamic State captors. The video, reportedly captured via Peshmerga helmet-cam, is a rare look inside the tightly choreographed conduct of a close quarters raid.
The audio background of the video’s first minute is particularly remarkable, with the din of an ordinary firefight replaced by controlled, methodical force application, even as prisoners frantically evacuate through a danger area. A later sequence shows them in a a control area where operators stand guard as they are searched.
In the 1960s and 1970s, American military institutions were forced to adapt away from a paradigm of total war and develop (or more accurately, re-develop) the capacity for a range of low-intensity mission sets to support a strategy of graduated response. The idea embraced by policymakers at the time, most notably President John F. Kennedy, was that great power states needed a way to quarrel with one another without recourse to disastrous nuclear conflict.
From this philosophy grew what has today become a fearsome special operations capability comprised of organizations that specialize in rapid, mobile, discriminate warfare with self-contained logistics, high secrecy, and unconventional tactics often employed distant from means of support. Surprise, ingenuity, and freedom from doctrinal tethers make such units flexible yet lethal tools capable of punching well above their weight. At least from what we can tell.
But each element of the special operations community is a little different from the next. At least one – the one popularized as Delta – was created for the express purpose of hostage rescue operations, though admittedly this mission implies a range of supporting tactical capabilities. Fashioned from whole cloth within a resistant Army by Col. Charles Beckwith and baptized in the fire of Operation Eagle Claw, it’s a unit whose contributions have been occasionally glimpsed but never fully appreciated. And it’s likely, given the nature of the unit, that they never will be.
But as we mark the passing of Master Sergeant Josh Wheeler, an operator with 14 deployments under his belt who gave his life in the Kirkuk rescue, we also commemorate 22 years since Master Sergeant Gary Gordon and Sergeant First Class Randall Shughart earned posthumous Medals of Honor for their gallant rescue of a downed teammate in Mogadishu. It seems a fitting moment to register what appreciation we can muster from the scant facts of this band of modern-day samurai.
If recent operations in Hawija are any indication, we continue to get more than we deserve from these shadow warriors, and they continue to take professional enjoyment in striking fear into the hearts of our adversaries.
If you’ve never digested Col. James Kyle’s excellent chronicle “The Guts to Try,” do yourself a favor and give it a read. Not only does it tell us how we came to possess this incredible unit, but how it had to stand itself up into a sprinting start, eventually attempting a daring rescue that wasn’t successful but still gave it a reputation that has stood the test of time. You’ll also find yourself realizing how complex and insanely risky these missions are, and how easy these operators make them look.
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